Why am I like this? - Why do we eat, drink or smoke too much?

Sometimes I feel like two completely different versions of myself are competing to exist in my already overcrowded brain. There is the version of myself that is thoughtful and healthy, who makes good decisions and practices yoga every morning and eats lots of broccoli. Then there’s my alter ego (dressed all in black for dramatic effect) who seems determined to sabotage and derail the healthy version at every turn. This manifests in lots of ways and I’m sure we are all familiar with self-destruction to some degree. Who hasn’t gone to bed at 3am knowing they have an important piece of work to finish the next morning? Who hasn’t sent that text to their ex? But right now I’m most interested in why I put things into my body that I know categorically are going to make me feel worse. Usually when I already feel bad.

I’ve been asking myself this question a lot lately, as I’ve just gone through a spell of depression and anxiety that left me feeling pretty crappy, physically as well as in my brain box. One recent Tuesday evening I got home from work and was shocked by my strong impulse to do something self-damaging – intentionally, with no excuse. I was home alone, feeling fidgety and wired, wondering what sort of an evening I was about to have (it didn’t look promising) and I thought, “I’m going to open a bottle of wine. And maybe I’ll finish it.” I briefly considered food (something that I struggle with when I’m feeling anxious) and remembered that I had a packet of super noodles in the cupboard. Evening sorted.

Then healthy rational me found a teeny tiny voice: “This is going to make me feel so much worse” I thought. I cracked open the wine bottle. “Drinking exacerbates my anxiety, and I’ll feel terrible tomorrow.” I started pouring a glass. “If I just made a light, healthy dinner, drank some water, went for a walk, I’m sure I’d feel much more solid and human”. I took my first mouthful.

I had enough presence of mind at that point to stop what I was doing. I picked up a pen and paper and started writing, as that often helps me make sense of things when my thoughts are all over the place. After a couple of minutes I read back my scribblings and one line really jumped out at me. “I don’t want to feel good.” I stared at that for a while. It didn’t make sense, obviously I wanted to feel better, anxiety is the worst. So why would I intentionally make myself feel shitty?

I have a few theories about this, and they’re not hugely original. One is the psych A level classic that actually, I don’t think I deserve to feel good. Maybe that has legs, but it doesn’t feel like the answer I’m looking for. Another is more pragmatic, that drinking and indulgence generally is distracting. Booze ‘numbs the pain’ to a point; you forget things, you care less, and that’s nice. I still don’t think this explains my compulsion to chug wine or eat super noodles or not drink any water. Because it’s not just about the part when I’m drunk, or eating, or whatever. It’s about feeling bad afterwards. It’s the badness that I crave almost more than the relief.

After I wrote those notes and thought about ‘not feeling good’ I did a bit of a thought experiment. I imagined feeling exactly as I did, in my head. Anxious, sad, guilty, etc. Then I imagined feeling ‘well’ physically – well rested, well fed, hydrated, all the rest of it. My instant reaction was fear. It’s hard enough experiencing mental illness as this invisible, senseless presence. Maybe I want to feel equally bad on the outside because that’s something I have some control over. People might see it. The physical and the emotional pain sort of amalgamate into something that is tangible, easier to articulate – REAL. That’s not to say anxiety or depression aren’t real but, let’s face it, it is all in our heads.

Maybe practicing yoga for so long has intensified the connection between my physical body and all the parts that aren’t physical – mind, spirit, intuition, if you believe in those things. I now realise that when I experience mental pain I want it to be mirrored by my body, naturally as physical pain. I want all of me to experience the same state of being, for there to be continuity between what’s going on in my emotions and what’s going on in my belly and back and head. I wondered for a while if this constitutes self-harm, and maybe to some extent it does, but again it is less about distraction or release and more about feeling like one, whole, in-tact being that isn’t going to break up into pieces and fly away. It feels much less like I’m ‘losing my mind’ when my body is coming along for the ride.

So now that I think I understand why I feel and behave this way, what can I do about it? In truth I’m not completely sure yet. But some things are clear: 1) meditation is wonderful for fostering connection between body and mind, so even if I do drink a few special brews and avoid the veg it is essential that I maintain this part of my routine. 2) Guilt DOES NOT HELP. If I go off the rails for a few days, that’s OK, I’ll get back on them. Feeling like a failed yogi and punishing myself is dumb. 3) Writing stuff down is always a good idea and helps give thoughts and feelings a physical presence that can be very comforting. 4) The more I move the more I feel like I have some control over my life. Feeling anxious and going for a run isn’t so different to feeling anxious and reaching for a wine bottle. I can still channel my emotions into that activity, I can even struggle physically, but in a much healthier way.