I used to jokingly describe myself as a hedonist. I wasn't really joking, actually, as I passionately loved good food, good wine, dance, travel, and life itself. These days, however, I don't see myself as a hedonist. I see myself, much more clearly, as an escape artist.
I wouldn't say that I've had a dramatically difficult life, give or take some depression and anxiety and a few hard knocks over the years. Nonetheless, it appears that I've gone through enough difficulty and loss that by my late 20s, like so many other people, I'd developed a chronic level of existential pain and wounding. I wasn't really aware of it, but what I was aware of was a constant drive to stimulate my senses, whether through sugar, fat, wine, TV, travel, whatever.
Even though I first identified my issues with food (particularly sugar) as an addictive behavior quite early on, I failed to see the myriad of ways I sought to escape the depths of my self and the associated pain. Can you relate?
I've worked on self-awareness, healing, and personal growth for many years now. This year, though, through a powerful program offered through my church, I realized that I am still running from unacknowledged pain (and the pain comes from both old and new sources). I hadn't seen some of my favorite pastimes as being compulsive routes of escape, but they have been and often still are.
It's easy to see that eating an entire cake, or drinking wine when stressed or anxious, could be an addictive form of behavior. But watching hours of Netflix? Living for the next vacation? Check, check.
It is so very marvelous to wake up.
One of the basics that this program suggested was to intentionally sit with your pain. Connect with it and acknowledge it instead of numbing it, and see if you can identify the source of it. Pray for help in facing it and healing it, particularly if you have no idea where it's coming from.
I started noticing that during certain stressful moments, often while having a conversation with someone, I would get a "pop-up" in my brain that urged me to stop at a bakery on the way home and buy some cake. Rather than just knee-jerkedly responding to the call for cake, I learned to understand that this was a sign that stress or pain was being triggered in me, even if it wasn't obvious.
It actually had nothing to do with cake, though cake and other sweet treats had been a way of numbing my discomfort and loss since I was a girl. Instead of obediently marching to the store, I have learned that the proper response to the "pop-up" is to go home, sit on my sofa, and try to connect with what I'm truly concerned or grieved about. And pray about it. Or journal about it.
It's not about entirely avoiding food or wine or entertainment, but rather to notice when you're using it as a means to numb out or escape. If you're honest with yourself, you'll start to notice this. In the last couple of years I've been going through a particularly stressful situation, and without realizing it had pushed me into habitually using various behaviors as means of escape. Other than when I was working or actively engaged with key people in my life, it had recently gotten to the point where most of my free time was spent escaping reality in some form or another.
This month, one of my closest friends suggested that we "fast." She is fasting social media. I am fasting Netflix, which had become my favorite way of relaxing and escaping reality.
I feel so awake, so free. Not always comfortable, though. When a difficult day's events bring up that familiar ache in my chest, I long to boot up a great movie and escape. Accountability is a powerful tool, as knowing that I'd let down my friend by caving in is usually what stops me from giving in. I also really don't want to lose the fresh awareness, and the feeling of participating in real life that I've recovered. I'm quite sure that my escapist patterns have progressively been shutting down my creativity and other gifts, and now that I've woken up I refuse to let that happen again.
In addition, I am doing my best to only use food as nourishment, not as a form of distraction or numbing out. If I suddenly crave a glass of wine, I ask myself why.
It feels weird, and it's hard, but it's so exciting.
I am reading lots of books again. I am eating sustaining, healthy meals and focusing just on the food itself, not zoning out in front of the screen. I'm enjoying the cooking, not just the eating. You see a lot more when your head is lifted up instead of focused down or inward, transported away from life and blinded to it by some numbing pleasure.
As I write this I am on a plane going on vacation. I am intentionally planning a very quiet break, not one filled with lots of distracting escapist plans or busy-ness. I am going to read books, relax, reflect, think, and be with people I love. No screen time, no Netflix, except the bare minimum of social media, texts and email to stay in touch with people at home. I am very excited about what I might realize about myself and my life, given enough space to think and feel.
What about you? Do you numb yourself and escape things you don't want to feel or face by hiding behind food, or social media, or other chronic distractions? Do you have any time in your life where you can just be and feel, even if those feelings are uncomfortable?
I heard someone speak the other day about how we no longer have gaps of quiet in our life where life has the opportunity to speak to us, where we have the chance to just be. If we're sitting in a waiting room or at a transit stop, we pick up our phones and start scrolling through stuff. We don't see and feel our surroundings, we don't have a chance to feel ourselves and our lives.
I invite you to join me in becoming more present. In facing your demons and discovering the healing and presence that is on the other side of detaching from escapist distractions. I am so thrilled to slowly be reawakening to life, this is the best thing I've done in years.
This is something you can decide, something you can control. Become aware, notice why you do things. Life is too precious to lose yourself in all manner of distractions and escapes. I challenge you to be present and feel what you need to feel.
Dr. Susan Biali, M.D., is a medical doctor, health and wellness expert, life and health coach, professional speaker, flamenco dancer, and author. Visit www.susanbiali.com for more information or connect on Facebook and Twitter.
Copyright Dr. Susan Biali, M.D., 2015.