Sunday, May 8, 2011

On Emotions and Purging...

The following is a response to a question asked today on the forum I frequent.

Does anybody else, the poster wanted to know, experience "extreme emotions" after purging? She described them as both crazy and scary, and I really, really knew what she meant.

I know that any conversation about the details of an eating disorder can be rattling for people. Please, if you choose to read this post, remember that recovery MUST be your orientation, and hopefully this post can be a tool in your recovery if you apply its suggestions. If you have an urge, this post has some ideas what to do with them... rather than just being a collection of words, some of which are pretty ugly.

I also know that not everyone struggles with purging, but it has been the most pervasive part of my eating disorder so viewing it this way has been very helpful to me. I hope that this little rant about my ideas about emotions might be helpful to others and please please comment if you have anything to add.

Finally, I'd like to apologise for some profanity. I can't seem to talk in detail about eating disorders without it. I hope it is not too offensive.


The last time I purged which thankfully was awhile ago and isolated at that, I totally had this experience. It's been kind of illuminating to observe how this plays out, how it really affects me, how I really am in relation to it, now that it is not a part of my normal life. Anyway, yes: while in retrospect my emotions were rising beforehand, after purging everything seemed to go to shit. I was having horrifying thoughts and the emotions were hellish. I couldn't even tell you what I was feeling - Shame? No. Guilt? No. Sadness? No. Terror? No. Grief? No. Anger? No. What the hell? All of these things and none. A scary, crazy experience of emotions, just like you said. Here's what I make of it:

Taking an action like purging comes when you can't deal with something emotionally overwhelming. I would argue with myself on this point so you don't need to: er, it's not about emotions, it's about the desire to get the food out! it's about physical relief! it's not about emotions, i don't even know what i was feeling before purging, just that i needed to purge, it was after purging that emotionally the whole bloody universe fell on top of me! right?

Right. Ok, well possibly it only takes that [very] slight caricature of the thoughts to see that in fact, of course it's got to do with emotions. Nobody throws up their food unless they've got some weird emotional shit going on. Don't fall for that. If it feels like it's not about the emotions, it's not because it really is 'just about physical relief' or whatever, it's because you're not in touch with your emotions, because somewhere, mechanistically, you are shutting them down, you are choosing, though probably not consciously, not to deal with them. Maybe you feel like you can't. Speaking for myself, I often, even most of the time, really truly wouldn't find myself to be feeling overwhelming emotions before having and acting on an urge to purge. This isn't because it wasn't about emotions. It's because it was.

The thing is, I'm coming at all of this with the idea that we want to be not purging at all, right? So that's how I'm kind of approaching this response - it's useful to note this experience of a hellish emotional state post-purging, and it's only useful if the end idea is to not BE purging. But it's hardly enough to say "don't purge". What I mean is, embedded in this discussion topic IS what I believe can be one of the most helpful possible tools to get you to stop purging. To not have purging be a part of your life. To bring you to life as a person who does not purge. I don't purge. It's bloody awesome. Here's how:

When I have an urge to purge, which at this point is probably once every day to varying degrees, on average, it usually presents itself as the offer of relief. No emotional attachment.

So I am training myself to NOTICE that. To wheel around and STARE at it. Not ignore it - not say "no urge, fuck you I so did not just have that urge." No - to look at it squarely: Oh, hello urge. You are a reminder that I need to check in on my emotions.

The idea is to then figure out what I am (or what you are) feeling. Most often it's stress, or anxiety. At this point in my recovery that usually isn't about food, it's about moving or school or relationships or something. Or it could be shame or guilt about something i did or something someone said. Or it could be anger. Or a feeling of helplessness and despair. All of these emotions - any or all or some - are what I might find if I go looking for them, "triggered", by my urge, to stop and pay attention to what I'm actually feeling.
I'll admit, that tends to be the last thing I want to do during an urge to purge. But that urgency I feel, that "don't stop and think about your emotions, you gotta ACT! NOW!" - I really don't trust that. Do you? It sounds awfully deceitful and I do not like to be deceived. It is worth it to me to figure out what is actually true about the situation.
I want to know what I am really feeling. Especially if that is what it takes to get at the truth.

And here's my theory. This is just me talking, I don't actually know if other people have this experience, but over the last 8 months or so I am starting to think I am making some sense of this all. I think that if you face those emotions, before purging - and/or just on a regular basis, period - I think you don't get quite the same experience as that chaotic hell you feel post-purging.
I think you get the "true emotions", and those, you can deal with. They won't kill you. They might be painful, but they are your emotions, and you can feel them and ride them out.

Purging is a release, physiologically and emotionally. And to me, it seems to unlock the blockage that is keeping ALL the emotions at bay, and so it does feel like a relief, only it's totally chaotic and also you've just "messed up" by purging so there's all this guilt or shame or fear or confusion from THAT thrown in to the flood of pre-existing emotions you've just unleashed by purging. It's an avoidant way of dealing with emotions, I think: something that we turn to when we kind of think it's a "given" that we can't handle whatever we're being faced with in our actual lives. Instead we turn to this crazy and damaging act that consumes us, distracts us, and deeply, deeply affects us. The emotions that buffet you around when you purge are hard to make sense of because you haven't gone looking for them with compassion and care. They're unwieldy and unmanageable, they're emotions you have already communicated to yourself that you can't handle - that's why you turned to a self-destructive act instead. This is a quality of emotion that, I believe, is different from the emotions themselves, if only they didn't get messed up by the behaviours we engage in, in order to "cope". Those behaviours make it an unintelligible, confusing chaos of emotion. And I don't know about you, but that's so overwhelming it totally feeds itself, and I become more convinced of despair, and I really do think, wow, I can't live like this. And that's not a pleasant avenue of thought.

But I don't have to live like that. Neither do you.

I agree with you that after purging there is an emotional shitshow. I think the "high" happens if you are still managing to be emotionally avoidant. Because um, let's face it, you're leaving something out of the account if you just forced yourself to vomit and you don't feel a little upset about that.

What I suggest is that if you try to make the urge to purge a bright flashing indicator, "I NEED TO CHECK IN ON MY EMOTIONS", you can avoid that hell and you can manage the urge.
You end up "validating" yourself, if you go in search of your emotions. If you do it compassionately, you can find that you might be feeling any of fear, shame, guilt, sorrow, anger or whatever, and even though it's awful, it's kind of ... manageable. Understandable.

After you figure out what you're feeling, you have to deal with it compassionately - write about it, express it somehow. If it's too massive for that, go ahead and use methods like putting ice on your face or something. I've done that and been grateful I did.

And I think that if you do this, consistently, you won't have a big evil emotion spiral that demolishes you, and urges will be more and more manageable, too.

Long bloody answer!

But that's what I got.

P.S. Sometimes it's really easy to find the emotions because they're not even that shut down. For instance, I felt fear and revulsion after the results of the Canadian election, as well as anger and guilt and grief, and I totally had an urge to throw up. I realised I just needed to deal with all those emotions, and it was quite easy. Same with one day recently where something triggered one of my core beliefs and I felt overwhelming shame, and an urge to purge. I realised I just had to deal with the shame in an accepting way and it would pass.

I hope this doesn't seem tangential. It really is my response to the issue of that crazy emotional experience post-purging, and I hope maybe it helps you/somebody get saved from that experience in future.

As for dealing with that experience itself, I think that it is still useful to try and seek out the 'true emotions' you are feeling, and express them and honour them, so that you are better equipped to deal with future challenges in recovery.

1 comment:

  1. A little addendum:
    I'm going to add that I have lived most of my life hardly ever experiencing "true emotions", because I was restricting, purging, and otherwise self-destructing, and a slew of other means of avoidance, too. And I didn't even know that the "crazy", "scary" experience I had could ever be any different. I was like a fish in water. i just knew I had a hellish emotional experience. (so why would I ever want to seek out, much less legitimise my emotions?) (and why would I ever want to let go of my behaviours, given what I felt I was keeping at bay?)
    In case it is not clear already from my other Sunday posts, I am now a pretty big advocate for the fundamental legitimacy and importance of your emotions.
    Recovery has a lot of pieces - concrete changing of behaviours, learning nutrition, seeking/accepting support. All are totally necessary. This is the piece that, for me, has actually changed my experience the most. So... I really hope I can successfully share some of that.
    with love,


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