Love and compulsion cannot peacefully coexist. Compulsion leaves no space for love; compulsive behavior crowds out loving behavior. The object of our compulsion becomes the object of our affection. The people and things we love or value fall away and we are left with this compulsion upon which we depend. We deny that the compulsion is harmful, wrong, or damaging. We convince ourselves we have control because admitting that the compulsion controls us means we must change our behavior and abandon what has given our lives meaning or brought us comfort. In the face of our need we make poor decisions that impact not only us but those around us. Sometimes the impact is negligible; sometimes it is profound. We end up alienated from the people we love. This has the effect of forcing us deeper into our compulsive behavior and feeding our dependency. In our twisted thinking, we have been abandoned by our loved ones. We do not see that we have pushed them away. We do not acknowledge that we chose the compulsion over the people we love. So we lose our friends and our family, but the compulsion is still there bringing us comfort. We wonder why anyone would ask us to give up this thing on which we rely. It is our only constant! Why would we want to give it up?
Drug and alcohol use, disordered eating, gambling, overspending, hobbies, hoarding, and sex can all become compulsions. There are others but these are probably the most recognizable. Until we can see the detrimental effects our compulsions have on us and others, we will be unable to make healthy choices for ourselves. We will continue to put compulsions between us and the people we love – we build a wall with our behaviors to protect us from the vulnerability inherent in giving and receiving love. Slowing or stopping the compulsive behaviors is not enough. The root of the impulse must be exposed and explored; otherwise, the compulsion surfaces whenever the pain is triggered, and those of us who suffer from compulsive behaviors know how easily that can happen in the course of living.
I have suffered with compulsive eating for much of my life. Though it has been a long time since I actually binged, the compulsion is still there. I often struggle with the desire to binge. There are times when I feel that my consumption of food is out of control, even when it is reasonable. My thinking around this compulsion is so warped that it is difficult for me to know what is appropriate. In the same way that a person with anorexia can look in the mirror and see a bloated, distorted body, I can look at my food consumption for the day and distort a normal amount of food into a binge, which makes me feel guilty, ashamed, and out of control. I have labored for so long under the belief that I can’t make good choices about food that I don’t trust my body to tell me when it is hungry, or to know what kind of nourishment it wants. I have been working for the last month to relearn my body’s cues related to hunger with help from my therapist and several books by Geneen Roth. This mindful approach to living inside my own skin is working well; Ms. Roth’s guidelines are reasonable: eat what you like, eat only when you are actually hungry, and stop eating when you are no longer hungry. Pay attention to your food and don’t eat while distracted. Note how hungry you are before you eat and after you eat. There are some other directives, but these are the core.
Now that I take time to think about the emotions behind the compulsion before I engage in it, I find that sometimes I am not hungry when I think I am. Instead, I’m angry or lonely, sad or anxious. Sometimes I'm simply tired. There are better ways of dealing with emotions than burying them in food. I am learning that my emotions won’t kill me. The pain behind most of these feelings is pain that has already happened. I can acknowledge it for a few moments and then move forward without engaging in compulsive behavior as a way to cope.
As my compulsion fades, I find more room for love. My particular brand of compulsive behavior came between me and loving myself rather than me and other people in my life, so the love that is increasing is self-love. I trashed my own body with my compulsion. I made myself unhealthy. Perhaps I was trying to make myself as unlovable as I felt. My body was like a hoarder’s house – cluttered with the detritus of my compulsion. It has been three years since I lost over 130 pounds – I have kept almost all that weight off, but without addressing the root of my compulsive eating, that won’t remain true. In the same way an alcoholic can stop drinking for a while, I can stop bingeing for long periods of time. But the urge is there – the unhealthy attitude is there – the desire is there. The causes of my behavior are deeply rooted in the past. The pain is valid. The fault is not mine. But the responsibility to find help and to heal does belong to me. It is in understanding and remaking the beliefs that drive the compulsions that I will find healing.