I went on a run a few summers ago while in Alabama for a family reunion. The town was tiny so I was running out in the country on winding, back roads. I passed a trailer park, hit my halfway point, then turned around to head back to the house. My second time passing this trailer park I was greeted by two large dogs. If you know me at all, you know I have a slight obsession with dogs. My dog is my heart and soul. I actually think dogs are so much better than most humans. But these dogs were not trained or ready for a cuddle session. I stood completely still and turned slightly a few times to avoid their nipping. I became distracted by the owner who had come out to call them and one of the dogs took a big bite into the back of my thigh. The owner corralled them back and I took off running again, a little faster this time, making it home alive with a big blood stain on the side of my white running shorts.
A little over a week later, back home, I was on a run around Lake Fayetteville. In the first couple minutes, a girl and her dog were about ten feet away, coming towards me in the opposite direction. I felt my heart rate pick up and my stomach drop. I felt fear. I had the urge to stop and stand completely still or to turn around, avoiding the dog. And it genuinely surprised me. I love all dogs, big or small. I love them more than most humans. I can’t believe I just got scared of a DOG.
But my brain remembered the week prior when I was on a run and saw a dog, causing pain and fear. My brain sent messages to my body this day at the lake because it wanted to protect me from a similar outcome, from similar pain. It was telling me to prepare for danger. It made sense of the previous situation in which dogs = pain. My brain was telling me, “Get the heck out of here or you’re going to be bitten by a dog again!”
I was able to distinguish the irrational reaction I had that day from a reaction that my true self would have. Luckily the rational side of my brain was able to reappraise the situation. I could plainly see that I was being irrational. And I was able to remind myself that almost every other dog I will encounter is a perfectly perfect wiggly fluffy snuggle angel baby and I have nothing to worry about. I smiled at the owner of the dog and kept running. My behaviors reflected my true beliefs and values and love for dogs and running, even though my brain tried to tell me otherwise.
Though it surprised me at the time, I understand it. Brain messages like this one are the reason we are all still alive. It takes one time to touch a hot surface for the brain to remember hot surface = burning pain. Our brains are constantly learning and working to keep us safe. If something has caused pain in the past, the brain will remember and it will send messages for the body to react accordingly. For me it is shaking hands, increased heart rate, a weight on my chest, and feeling hot and flushed. I get the urge to hide or run or freeze.
It feels so out of context sometimes. I start panicking when I’m alone with a male. I avoid eye contact and don’t speak. I start getting shaky and hot when there’s tons of food in front of me. I want to avoid eating all together so I don’t go overboard or have to eat in front of anyone. I get overwhelmed in loud situations with a lot of stimuli. I jump out of my skin at the slightest unexpected touch or greeting. These are normal things, but my brain reacts to them without logic or rationality. It’s frustrating. And I have to work really really hard sometimes to do normal things.
And the brain also remembers what works to keep us safe or the coping mechanism we may use. Avoiding running alone in a strange place in the middle of no where – definitely a rational defense mechanism thought up by my brain. And smart too. But making myself feel safe and grounded by eating tons of food and then decreasing feelings of guilt by purging the food – not quite rational. Did it always make me feel better in the moment? Yes. But did it ever actually make me any safer, happier, or help me in the long run? No. It really didn’t.
Since I was very little, my brain has reacted by freezing in danger, as little as five years old. Being completely quiet and silent and trying to take up as little space as possible kept me safe. At the time, it really did keep me out of harm’s way. Avoiding situations and throwing myself 100% into activities and dieting and running kept me feeling happy, distracted, and positive. Focusing on everyone else made it easier to focus less on myself and my issues. My brain remembers this and I have been reinforcing these avoidance strategies for as long as I can remember – because they worked.
So it is very difficult to undo these defense mechanisms. They are so deeply ingrained. The irrational side of my brain consistently reminds me to avoid, run, and distract as my first instinct.
It is incredibly frustrating. Because I am rational, logical, and intelligent. People often tell me that I give great advice, I am smart. But why can’t I listen to my own advice, follow my own rational thinking and good judgement?
There is this rational voice in my head telling me what a normal person would do, reminding me that I’m acting irrationally. A voice that tells me that I am safe and I have nothing to worry about, I am overreacting. However, it feels like this voice has continued to get quieter and quieter, while the traumatized, irrational voice gets louder. While my irrational, panicked thinking has continued to grow louder and is screaming at me. The rational thinking is overpowered by this terrified, panicked, and completely out of context voice that is coming from my eating disorder and post traumatic stress and my brain trying to remind me how I stayed safe for my entire life. You aren’t safe. Avoid. Run. Freeze. Distract. Numb. Hide. Take up as little space as possible. This voice is desperate for escape and has an obsession with “what if’s” and “But you trusted people before and look what happened.”
Hearing my own rational thinking is almost impossible when my body is shaking, I can’t breathe, my heart is beating out of my chest, and the room is closing in around me. It is overpowered by painful memories, flashbacks, and disconnection from others. It is so difficult to trust my rational, logical thinking when my body and brain are screaming affirmations to the irrational side.
I was really scared to leave treatment the few days before I discharged. Renfrew began as a horribly painful experience but transformed into one of the safest places I’ve known in a long time. And I was scared to leave and to keep myself accountable, leaving my daily support system of women who understood. The day I discharged, I woke up still thinking all of the same terrified, irrational, and intrusive thoughts I had in my mind when I was admitted. And this felt scary to me. How am I going to do this?
But honestly, it would be so unrealistic to completely mute the traumatized, eating disorder side of my brain in just seven weeks when their volume and intensity have been growing stronger for years and years. It will probably be a constant, every minute of every day battle for a long time. A battle to distinguish the rational from the irrational. And to act on the rationality and faith instead of the pain and fear. To act on behaviors that support my values and personality instead of my eating disorder, depression, and PTSD.
But I feel as though my time at Renfrew quieted the irrational thoughts in my head quite a bit, or at least helped my rational thinking grow louder. I lived through the panic attacks and the uncomfortable physical sensations that come with anxiety and stressful situations. I didn’t avoid. I didn’t distract. I didn’t run or hide. I faced all of it. All of the emotions and memories and fears. And realized that I’m strong. And I found out that riding out these things feels uncomfortable in the moment, but I’m able to live through it and continue to grow stronger, taking away their power over me.
I still hear the thoughts in my head saying, You ate too much. You need to stop eating. You need to lose weight right now. You need to earn this food by starving or purging or working out. You are not enough. You aren’t lovable or good or important. You’re going to get hurt again. Don’t trust anyone. Don’t let anyone know you aren’t perfect. This voice is still yelling at me constantly. Fighting this thinking for almost two months has taught me that I don’t have to compulsively obey these thoughts and that I am capable of coping in healthy ways.
I know that my life and my recovery will never be perfect. I did not leave Renfrew perfect and cured. That is okay. I’m in such a better place than when I went in and I have the power to be in a better place in a month, six months, and years down the line.
I recognize that the irrational side of my brain doesn’t have to control me or my actions. Yes, there have been functions for it in the past and it brought me safety, distractions, and comfort in the moment. But it does not bring happiness or love or connection. Avoiding, distracting, and numbing out the uncomfortable emotions and situations causes me to do the same things for the happiness and joy. I miss out on a lot. So I don’t want to listen to this reactive, illogical, irrational thinking. I have empathy and self-compassion for both ways of thinking and how they developed, but ultimately I have control over my behaviors. I can choose which train of thought to listen to and to act on.
I may not always choose the rational, logical voice in my head, but it will continue to get louder with time. And that gives me a lot of hope.