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Posts Tagged ‘compulsions’

Rainbow (c) Lynda BernhardtOn my blog entry entitled Masturbation as a Form of Self-Injury after Sexual Child Abuse, a reader posted the following comment:

… however much I accept they [self-injury compulsions] are a byproduct it doesn’t make them easier to cope with them and eventually the MUST be eliminated…….for my survival………and I only know one way to do that. How do I change this? What do people do to stop themselves? I hate myself for being so weak. ~ Sam

Compulsions are normal aftereffects of child abuse, and masturbation through self-injury is a normal aftereffect for people who have been severely sexually abused. Many people find my blog believing that they are the only one who struggles with masturbation through self-injury, but that one blog entry has over 150 comments, all of them related to trying to heal from this. You are not alone.

While I do not have personal experience with healing from this form of compulsion, I do have experience with self-injury (head-banging) and binge eating. My compulsion to binge eat was my most deeply-ingrained compulsion, which is why I am going to use it as my example in this blog entry. Don’t get caught up in the form of the compulsion. What worked for me with binge eating can also work for you, no matter what form of compulsion you are dealing with.

Step one is to stop feeding the shame. This was my cycle, which applies to any type of compulsion. I would binge eat. I would then feel guilty and shameful about binge eating, telling myself I was a fat cow and a terrible person for eating so much food. This would heap new shame on top of the old shame, and the only way I knew to get some relief from the shame was to binge eat again, which I would do, which fueled more shame, which led to more bingeing. It was a never-ending cycle that I repeated just about daily since I was age 11.

Step two was to give myself permission to binge eat. Let’s face it – I was going to do it, anyhow, so I was only acknowledging my reality. I would binge eat with no guilt. This took a little wind out of my sails because I was no longer heaping new levels of shame onto the “old” shame.

Step three was to explore other avenues to deal with the shame. I tried things like yoga, meditation, exercise, watching a comedy on TV, calling a friend, and writing in a journal. What works for me might not work for you, but explore other ways to manage the shame. Do this parallel with the compulsion.

Step four is to give yourself a cooling off period. When you feel the compulsion, give yourself permission to do it in 15 minutes. During those 15 minutes, try the other strategies you have explored. If you still feel the compulsion after 15 minutes, do it with no guilt. I found that I only gave in to binge eating about half the time after a 15-minute cooling off period, and I built confidence that binge eating was not the only way to self-soothe.

Step five is the most important – focus on healing the pain that is driving the shame that is driving the compulsion. Get into therapy if you aren’t already. Work through the Survivor to Thriver Manual or another healing book. Talk or write about your history. As you heal the pain, you will feel less compulsion to engage in the activity you want to break.

This isn’t going to happen overnight. My healing from binge eating has been so gradual that I only recently recognized that I haven’t had a true “binge” in months! I will still emotionally overeat sometimes, but my weight has dropped by 15 lbs without dieting over the last couple of years, and it otherwise stays stable. I used to go up and down by 30 lbs a year. Healing a compulsion is possible. I know because I am doing it!

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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On my blog entry entitled Masturbation as a Form of Self-Injury after Sexual Child Abuse, a reader asked the following question:

Faith, thank you so much for this blog. It is so nice to hear that I am not the only one who does this. That in itself brings a huge weight off my shoulders. My biggest question is though, how do I go about stopping an…for lack of a better word…addiction that has been going on for years? ~ Gia

Although some people might fear that self-injury through masturbation is a more extreme form of an addiction/compulsion, it really is just an addiction or compulsion just like any other. Whether you struggle with an eating disorder, self-injury, or an addiction to porn, drugs, or alcohol, your addiction or compulsion is being fueled by your avoidance of facing your painful emotions.

The first step in stopping an addiction or compulsion is understanding what emotional need it is meeting. The bottom line is that all addictions and compulsions work for you on some level. My most troublesome addiction/compulsion is my battle with binge eating. As much as I complain about battling my weight and my lack of control at times with food, binge eating has always worked for me. When I was in a lot of pain as an abused child, food offered me comfort. As I “stuffed down” food, I was really “stuffing down” all of the emotions that I was not yet ready to face.

Once you understand why you are drawn to this particular addiction or compulsion, the second step is to find other ways to meet the same need. For me, learning that it is okay to feel the emotions has been instrumental in weaning off the binge eating. Now, when I get angry, I yell or punch pillows instead of eat. If I feel sad, I cry instead of eat. Since I am no longer trying to “stuff down” my emotions, the pull to binge eat is much less strong.

Third, you need to develop alternative coping strategies. For example, if I drink a glass of wine (I have no alcoholic tendencies) or take a Xanax, I am much less likely to binge eat. Both substances give me the same relief without the calories. Other more positive strategies for me include doing a Sudoku puzzle, talking with a friend, or exercising.

Fourth, build up your confidence in the alternative strategies. I give myself a 15-minute “cooling off” period. I tell myself to try other options for 15 minutes. If, after 15 minutes, I still feel the need to binge eat, I give myself permission to binge with no guilt. Then, I start fresh the next day. I have found that, most of the time, my other strategies will meet my emotional needs, and I don’t need to binge eat after all.

Finally, if you do succumb to the addiction/compulsion, let go of the guilt. You are not going to be free of a lifelong addiction or compulsion overnight, and you will always be vulnerable to it. Recognize that it is okay to lean on your addiction or compulsion from time to time, but keep trying to find other ways to meet your needs.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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On Wednesday, I kicked off a series on obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). I have struggled with OCD symptoms for most of my life. Each day, I am focusing on another symptom of OCD.

Yesterday, I talked about repetitive thoughts. Today, I will focus upon repetitive actions, which are also known as rituals.

Repetitive actions are anything you feel a compulsion to do repeatedly to avoid feeling anxious. They can be simple or complex. The level to which repetitive actions interfere with your day-to-day living is what determines how severe your OCD symptoms are.

For example, I must check my alarm clock exactly three times before I go to bed. If I only check it once or twice, then I cannot fall asleep. I will obsess about whether the time is correct, even though I rarely change the time on my alarm clock. So, to get it over with, I check it exactly three times in quick succession and then go to bed without any concerns about the setting on the alarm.

Because this process only takes a couple of seconds, my symptom serves more as a quirk than a serious OCD issue. However, other people are not so lucky. There are people who must check the locks on the door exactly 17 times. If anything interferes with the process, they must start all over again. They wind up being late frequently because they must complete the ritual of checking the locks in a particular way. This is a problem that needs to be addressed.

I know a woman who must clean her bathroom every day in a particular order and a particular way. If anything gets out of order or she gets interrupted, she experiences an enormous amount of anxiety and must start over. While some people might find it admirable that she keeps such a clean bathroom, the ritual is taxing on her emotionally and physically.

Unlike my alarm clock checks, which I do every day that I need to use the alarm clock, I have other rituals that come and go. One is blowing on my hands. I used to do this a lot as a child (I have no idea why), and it used to drive my parents crazy (that part amuses me!). If I am feeling triggered, I will sometimes catch myself blowing on my hands. I have no idea why I do it, only that it relieves some of the anxiety.

Even though I know that checking the alarm clock three times is unnecessary, doing it meets a need inside of myself. This is true for anyone with OCD. The ritual serves some purpose – it serves as a valve that releases some of the anxiety for a little while.

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Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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Yesterday, I kicked off a series on obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). I have struggled with OCD symptoms for most of my life. Each day, I am focusing on another symptom of OCD.

The OCD symptom that I found most troubling was repetitive thoughts. I am happy to report that I was able to (eventually) end the need to engage in repetitive thoughts. Repetitive thoughts are exhausting, and they interfere with your ability to stay focused on what is going on around you.

I started experiencing repetitive thoughts after my father died suddenly while I was a senior in high school. My mother started sexually abusing me again, so I (obviously) was experiencing an enormous amount of anxiety.

One day, it hit me that I could drop dead just like my father did, and I would burn in h@#$ if I had committed a sin that I had not yet asked for forgiveness for. (See my posts on spiritual abuse to understand my warped thinking about religion at the time.) So, I came up with a “mantra” (for lack of a better word) that I would repeat in my head throughout the day: “Please forgive me for all of my sins. In J****’s name I pray. Amen.”

I would say this phrase hundreds of times a day. If I was not engaging my brain in something else (like a conversation), I was reciting this phrase in my head. I would sometimes even interject it during a conversation!

I found a cadence in the phrase that had eight beats to it. I needed to “feel” those eight beats repeatedly throughout the day. The cadence would relieve my anxiety but not for long, so I would do it again … and again … and again.

When I started this, I had never heard of OCD. I knew that I had quirks, some of which were amusing, but this form of OCD was exhausting. I even wound up adding a finger gesture that matched the cadence. I will still sometimes catch myself doing the finger gesture when I am feeling anxious.

For me, the best way to stop this symptom was to engage in meditation. My mind was always racing, thanks to the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Meditation taught me how to allow my mind to be still. Once I learned how to silence my mind, I no longer had a reason to “fill” it with the cadence.

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Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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I just realized that I have not written very much about obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) on this blog. That surprises me because I have struggled with OCD throughout my life. As I have healed a lot of the anxiety, my symptoms have decreased. However, when I get triggered, some of them return with a vengeance. Fortunately, I have been successful in ending some of the more troubling OCD symptoms.

My OCD symptoms have run the gamut. The most amusing symptom to my friends is my compulsion to hoard pens. I used to have to have five pens in my purse plus a spare at all times. No, I do not mean that I needed six pens. I needed at least five pens plus a spare to be okay. The spare was to fill in if one of the five pens got lost or broke. The spare would ensure that I never dropped below five pens in my purse.

Of course, insurance pens were very comforting to me, so I would add additional pens to my purse, just to be on the safe side. I believe my record was carrying around over 30 pens at one time. Typical was more in the 20-pen range.

After adopting a baby and having to switch over to carrying around a diaper bag, I got to where I was okay with two or three pens. I typically carry more on me (around 10), but I am okay as long as I have a couple of pens on me.

One of my friends recently asked if she could take all of my pens (I think I had four on me) and return them in one hour, just to see what my reaction would be. I became very anxious. My heart rate increased, and my breathing got shallow. If she had taken them, I would have driven straight to Target to buy more pens because I could not handle not having any pens in my purse. I only got myself to calm down by reminding myself that I had spare pens in the car. My friend gave me my pens back and was shocked at the severity of my reaction to the thought of being without my pens.

My sister has the same reaction, only in her case, she hoards pencils. We talked about why we thought we both had the same compulsion to hoard writing instruments. She thinks it has to do with having a voice. We had no voices as children, but, as long as we had a writing utensil, we still had a way to communicate, even when we were silenced. If we lose our writing utensils, then we no longer have a way to be “heard.”

I honestly don’t know why I am this freaky about needing to have so many pens around. The pens in the picture are just a few that I keep in my office. I chose those for the picture because they are my favorite brand. (In case you have a pen fetish, the best brand is the one in the picture, which is the SRX Stix Grip 1.0 mm ball point pen. Rose Art used to make them, but they sold them to SRX. You can find them at Target.) I have many more in my office, my purse, in the kitchen, by the phone downstairs, and in the car. I also have three unopened packs of the SRX pens in my office. Yes, I clearly have an issue with hoarding pens.

This is only one of my OCD symptoms. I will discuss more tomorrow.

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Photo credit: Faith Allen

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Fish by Reef (c) Lynda Bernhardt

Many abuse survivors struggle with some form of dependence or compulsion. The following is a list of types of dependencies and compulsions. The list is by no means exhaustive:

Many people see these symptoms as the problem and try to treat them as such, but trying to heal a symptom without addressing the underlying problem is doomed to failure. While you might succeed in stopping a particular symptom (such as ceasing to drink alcohol), if you have not dealt with the underlying problem that is driving the symptom, you will develop another dependency or compulsion.

All of these symptoms are coping mechanisms that people use to avoid the underlying pain. Because childhood abuse is so incredibly painful, a high percentage of abuse survivors struggle with some form of dependence or compulsion. Many see the symptom as a problem but do not realize that the symptom is being driven by the underlying pain. Until you heal the pain, you are destined to return to some form of coping mechanism.

If you struggle with a dependence or compulsion, be sure to read through my series on Positive Coping Tools for Healing from Childhood Abuse. The more you can use those positive tools to manage your pain, the less reliant you will be on your dependence or compulsion.

Why do abuse survivors turn to these dependencies and compulsions? Because they work! Even though dependencies and compulsions are damaging in the long run, they effectively curb the emotional pain in the short run. When a person is in a lot of pain, he is generally not thinking about the long term consequences – He just wants the pain to end now!

You do not have to stay enslaved to a dependence or compulsion, even if you have leaned on it for most of your life. You can find freedom by healing the underlying pain that is driving the dependence or compulsion. If you no longer have pain to avoid, you will not need to use harmful ways to avoid pain.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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