I wanted to put some notes down about my ongoing CBT sessions, primarily for my own benefit. While sometimes the content may sound fairly negative, these words do not represent my mood for the majority of the time when I am my usual (sort of) cheery self. I hope that some of these observations could prove useful for others who have ever used food or any other substances in a slightly unhealthy way. I am not a medical professional and so if anything here is ringing lots and lots of bells then I would suggest you go and speak to your GP in the first instance. CBT, as well as many other counselling services, are available on the NHS albeit with a waiting list.
For those of you who follow this blog for somewhat lighter ramblings about dieting and dining then do feel free to skip.
Cognitive behavioural therapy involves far less talking about the death of your first pet hamster (RIP Pythagorus) and far more trying to identify patterns of thought and emotion and the attendant behaviours that these provoke. So, before you deal with the negative behaviours – in my case that potent combination of panic attacks and self medicating with cheese on toast and cheap wine – you have to pinpoint the moment when the urge to enact it arises. And then, once you have done that, you can start to identify positive behaviours with which to replace them. Otherwise you are left with gaping voids and black holes and they are never good, except as science fiction plot devices.
For me, one of the hardest things about the past year has been all the empty time. It’s the fact that I can go home from work at five, get back to work at nine the next morning and not have spoken to a soul in between. And I’m not talking about meaningful conversation, just the type of mundane chat with which anyone fills their evening – those thin, glistening threads that connect you to the rest of the world. I start to feel disjointed, faraway. I’m not someone who finds it easy to pick up the phone to a friend so I sit and eventually find myself retreating into the places in my head that are deeper in shadow.
Weekends are the worst for this. Especially those weekends when there is nothing arranged. But, having said that, even some weekends where I have had distractions lined up in the diary I have ended up cancelling them because, buried deep within my lair of duvet, the outside world seems a very distant and frightening place indeed.
And when it comes to filling the emptiness and the silence that is when my old friends and comfort blankets reappear. Some people take succour in music, others in exercise, for me it is the familiar foods and a few glasses of wine to soften the edges of the vast, quiet space.
And so firstly I must learn to sit with the emotions that being in the deep, deep quiet invokes. I must learn to be present with the sense of fear and loneliness, the nagging anxiety that I am unloved and unlovable. We talked about how these emotions could be visualised; as clouds perhaps, or leaves in a stream, or people leaving and entering a room – the point being, of course, that they are transient, that they pass and when they have passed rationality re-emerges and with it an end to the automatic groping for something, anything to help. And then, when the immediacy of the emotions has gone and the urge to act has waned, then you find something else.
One immediate concern of mine was that these behaviours are so deep entrenched as to become almost instinctive reactions – I’m alone, I’m sad, I’m angry – I eat. How can I find the impetus to use these techniques when the first time I’m really aware of what I’m doing is when I’m halfway through a family size bar of Dairy Milk? It’s not easy. We discussed visual stimuli – if using the cloud visualisation, for example, having a picture or a prompt to hand or even just going outside (although the neighbours may wonder what I’m doing standing in the middle of the yard staring up at the sky…) And breathe, breathe, breathe. The most immediate thing you can do to ground yourself is close your eyes and just focus on the process of breathing.
Finally, and I think that this is important; I need to remember that negative emotion isn’t a bad thing in itself. Sometimes, it is a fundamental evolutionary tool – fear, for example, fear can keep us safe. Sadness or anger can highlight for us areas of our life that need work and change. Or they can remind us of how much we love and are loved. They are part of the human condition, and a necessary part at that.