Just having a little brainstorming session today, as I contend with the fact that I just ate half a jar of peanut butter again without realizing it.
My thought (after rightfully scorning myself) is… how and why does this happen?
Yeah, I know, we have emotional responses that go awry sometimes. We get all triggered and our stress hormones start flying. Our bodies interpret stimuli as danger signals and our bodies react by preparing for the worst. In this way, your interest in delicious, fatty, sugary foods is dialed way up and your sense of satiation is cranked all the way down. Next thing you know, binging has taken place and you’re feeling like a greasy slob.
I get it. We got it. We know enough of it.
But my question is, how does this happen time after time after time without my brain realizing that it’s even going through the motions of raising those knife-fulls of nut butter to my mouth? Why is it that I suddenly awake, as if from a dream, to realize that the jar is 50% lighter and my stomach is 100% more distended? How does my logical brain come roaring back into the picture all of a sudden, full of reasonable disappointment in myself and disbelief in my ongoing battle year after year after year? Where was that higher level, human thinking organ when I needed it half an hour ago, before my keyboard was coated with a fine layer of hydrogenated oils?
This got me thanking. It can’t be a coincidence that a lot of the deleterious behaviors we don’t want to engage in still take place in correlation with this dissociation-like experience.
Similar to my peanut butter massacre, lots of Motherfuckers struggle with impulsive, obsessive, almost involuntary behaviors that aren’t even observable until after they’ve been enacted. Our brains go out fishing for a few hours and we regain awareness in time for the subsequent reckoning. This means when we come back to our physical environments and bodies, we’re plagued with shame, anger, and disappointment that we love to lay on ourselves.
Why? What’s going on with our heads when these patterns emerge over and over again?
Why does it feel like I’m operating on two different systems - the secret, sneaky, irrational brain that takes over when I’m feeling overwhelmed or upset and the fucked up humanistic mind that can punish me for all the actions the traitor-brain conspires to perform?
Welp, as always, that old animal biologist in me started guessing that this double-brain effect all goes back to survival. When it comes to understanding Trauma… doesn’t it always?
So, here’s the little theory that I settled on. No, I’m not basing this on published research. I’m drawing conclusions from my own experiences and the baseline physiological responses that tend to control everything in our lives, for better or for worse. In other words, I think it’s something interesting to think about to understand your trauma responses, not something to tell other people with any confidence in your source. But if someone wants to steal and study this... please, verify or destroy the following ramble.
Like I said, everything in Trauma comes back to your brain and body trying to keep you alive in the face of potential threats. The problem is, we build overly developed risk-detection equipment in our heads after a lifetime of threatening shittery. This is where our Trauma responses go wild and take over our lives.
In the same way, I’m thinking that this is similar to what happens when our logical brains take a break and we forfeit ourselves to detrimental behaviors during the absence.
Let’s say, for instance, that you’re feeling overwhelmed and overstimulated, unsure of your future, and a bit distraught about how to effectively spend your limited time to make the biggest impact in the Trauma Life you’re trying to rehabilitate. In other words, I’m describing my state of existence most days of the week.
With some degree of danger detected and too many thoughts whipping around in the ole thinker box, your brain makes a bold move. It diverts energy away from your reasonable, egoic, primate brain and engages your survival brain, instead. There’s too much going on, you’re overloaded, and your brain wants to make sure you’re not getting too bogged down in the details to make the right choices for the most fundamental driver of them all - staying alive.
For instance, if you were out in the wild contending with all the ways you could spend a day - building a shelter, collecting firewood, finding food, searching for a mate - it wouldn’t be all that helpful for your human brain to run through the options on repeat. Unless there’s a pressing issue at hand, like a massive storm moving in, a sweet little honey walking past your cave with her tail hiked up, or a seasonal change that traditionally comes with famine, it’s hard to say what is the most immediately beneficial move.
You could easily sit around all day considering the pros and cons of each option. But in doing so, you’re really fucking yourself.
You’ll get nothing done if you think about getting too much done. It’s better not to get too logical and strategic if there’s no way to determine the best course of action before it’s too late… so your wisely-encoded brain chooses another course of action; turn off the part that’s known for overthinking everything and let the lizard brain take the wheel for a while.
Maybe you won’t make the best decision for your day out of the potential survival activities, but you also won’t be sitting around the campfire uselessly pontificating while a fucking lion creeps up and eats your idiot ass, either.
i.e. Letting the primitive survival brain direct you towards collecting firewood OR hunting OR creating a new shelter structure is still better than ruminating over all the choices and accomplishing none of them. Annnnd this is still what I think we do in the present day.
It makes sense, when my analytical and plans-oriented brain can’t make heads or tails of the situation at hand, when I’m bogged down by too many stimulants in my environment, or when I’m triggered for one reason or another… my upper-level logical brain decides it’s reached the point of a time-out. Done with this garbage. Pass the buck to the survival brain, let it decide what’s best.
Unfortunately, as we already know, our survival brains can kindof be assholes in the context of living in 2020. They’re well meaning, but finely-tuned for the processes that were in effect when they were being developed… you know, tens of thousands of years ago. What was helpful then obviously isn’t very relevant to our lives now. Plus, we CPTSD folks have the added difficulty of our brains regularly assigning dangerous labels to inert experiences.
This is why we end up with our fight/flight/freeze/fawn responses. This is how we get stuck in agoraphobic tendencies. This is why we isolate and pick up stereotypic behaviors. This is how our avoidance responses, in general, work to shrink our lives and create circumstances that aren’t conducive to living functionally. Our primitive survival brains do their best, but it’s not always good enough for the situation at hand.
I started thinking that this energy-diverting response from my intellectual “Jess” brain to my lower level organism brain is probably the process responsible for my peanut butter blackouts, for starters. In a time of distress the thinker goes out for a break and the doomsday prepper portion takes over by screaming, “calories, energy, eat, eat, eat.” No one is around to tell my brain stem to calm its shit, so we go with that approach instead of talking myself off a ledge (or, in this case, talking the jar back into the cabinet).
Why does it feel like my crazy consumption happened unbeknownst to myself? Because I essentially have an out-of-body experience while this is all happening. I wasn't really the "me" that directs the show for a while there. Amoeba Jess was in charge. But don’t worry, the two brains will eventually come together to form one complete picture of what’s been happening.
When I start getting juice pumping back to the reasonable prefrontal cortex where my sense of self and standards live, there’s a dramatic coming to Jesus moment where I have to settle up with all the stupid things I did while my authority figure was out of the house.
A switch is flipped, and I can see my surroundings and circumstances clearly. I notice my bodily sensations, I start thinking through the damages I’ve done, and I come to the logical conclusion that I done fucked up… AGAIN. Also, when did that even happen? Also, don’t forget that you’re a fucking failure and you’ll never learn your lesson. Get some fucking self-control already.
Don’t get me wrong, peanut butter is just the beginning of this repetitive pattern in my life. I’ve obviously noticed that this brain diversion takes place when it comes to bingable snacks as a way to soften the edges on a shitty day. I’m tired of thinking about what’s upsetting me, I can’t stand to feel the empty void of emotions or overabundance of them (it’s always one or the other), or I’m upset about something that has no solution… and so my reptile brain steers me towards the pantry rather than my logical brain running in circles some more.
However, I also think this takes place during a variety of triggering circumstances or states of overwhelm.
For sure, I’ve noticed this effect in the aftermath of poorly handled social situations quite often. When I try to think back to all the times I’ve royally fucked things up in my personal relationships, it’s pretty difficult. Not only because of the shame and regret, but also because it feels like my recorder box wasn’t really working or I wasn’t exactly present at the time. Something else was holding the wheel. My logical mind only rejoined the party after I made a total ass of myself, in time to look around with wide eyes and accusatorily ask, “what the fuck did you do now?”
The same can be said for potentially stressful situations like driving, going into crowded public places, and attending important work meetings. The period leading up to the action is so full of emotion, strain, questions, and tension that something seemingly just quits participating - the part of my head that should be commanding the controls now more than ever, to be exact. Instead, my human brain goes blank and my scaly thoughts take over. Fight, flight, freeze… eat, rest, protect yourself.
Have you ever experienced this yourself?
Arrived home after a difficult drive and realized you don’t remember any of it? Walked out of a doctor’s appointment and had trouble recollecting any of the information you exchanged? Opened your eyes after taking a mental time out and came to terms with the fact that your fingers typed some heinous shit to your significant other during a fight? Attempted to go out for a night on the town with friends after ditching them 12 times in a row, only to realize that you’ve dissociated enough all day to make this intended meetup an impossibility once again?
It feels a lot like someone else comes in, hijacks your body, and takes you on a wild ride that you were avidly trying not to stand in line for. Hell, you don’t even remember buying tickets to the amusement park, and yet you’re suddenly feeling your body give out as you disembark from the least popular roller coaster. And now, in the aftermath, you get to deal with the nausea, confusion, and self-shame that comes with making decisions you hate.
In my life, this is how I wound up spending years with my exercise, eating, substance abuse, and relationship drama running the whole fucking show.
Did I know I shouldn’t engage in any of these self-fucking feats? Absolutely. Did I promise that I wasn’t going to do them ever again, and really mean it when I made the pact? Totally. Did I wake up, as if from a nightmare, time and time again to discover that I had, in fact, failed to keep myself away from all the self-defeating behaviors, anyways? Youbetcha. Was it even more baffling and terror-inspiring to feel like I wasn’t actually in control, standing at the helm of the ship, when everything went down? Fucking, YES.
Possibly nothing was more morale-destroying than putting my best intentions forward, and realizing time and time again that I hadn’t followed through… without ever making the decision that I was going to fall off the wagon.
I never get up in the morning thinking, “I’m not going to leave the house today, hell I’m not even leaving bed today. Feed me a constant stream of snacks with a side of straight booze and leave me here to stare at walls while I drown my furiously moving thoughts. I look forward to being puffy, hungover, and disgusted with myself tomorrow and every day after. Can’t wait to feel like shit and treat myself like eaten-and-regurgitated shit in the aftermath of my daily decisions.”
Clearly, none of these choices were exactly - well, choices. They were pre-programmed responses that had been coded in my brain throughout my years of failed coping attempts… not to mention my ancestral history of bipedal primates learning how to “human” the right way. Left to their own devices, the drives to be mischievous monkeys don’t do us any favors in our goal of higher echelon existence.
Plus, it serves to mention that this constant rise and fall pattern of setting solid plans only to blow them all apart with horrible out-of-body actions really didn’t do my mental health any favors. In fact, I would say it’s almost akin to self-gaslighting.
You truly start to feel like you’re losing your fucking mind when you set one intention and emerge from a daze to find out that you performed the exact opposite. All those trials in finding a healthy dietary or exercise routine, all the effort you put into preparing for a presentation, all the work you did building up to that testy conversation… are out the window, because you went on auto-pilot and ruined it anyways.
How’s that for a reason to question your capabilities as a functional adult and sanity, in general? Pretty good, I’d say.
During my most traumatized years, the times when I was constantly triggered and dealing with emotions I couldn’t begin to name, let alone understand, I was continually feeling like I had dashed my last semblance of sanity somewhere along the line. How else do you explain inviting the torment and brutalization that doubles down from your inner critic after seeming to purposely do the worst job possible caring for yourself?
Did I just finish a pound of cheese again, along with an entire pack of cold tortillas, so I can beat the shit out of myself when my body is gross, my skin is greasy, and my intestines are pissed off? Didn’t I just go through this two days ago and meaningfully vow that it was the last time I ever went down that lactose-shaming path again? And yet… I find myself surrounded by American cheese wrappers and holding my bulging FUPA as I wipe crumbs out of my sheets? Oh, will I cry tomorrow as I furiously attempt to find an outfit that hides my shame-pooch and tell myself no one will ever love me again?
Uh, yeah, I mean, that sounds like the actions of a lunatic to me. Or, at least someone who really wants extra ammo to hate themselves… and I don’t think many of us Traumatized Motherfuckers are looking for extra bullets.
Those years I spent crawling on my hands and knees up steep hills, only to turn around and fling myself back down to the bottom of the incline? I wasn’t actively trying to screw myself. I wasn’t looking for more reasons to be disappointed and resentful in the mirror. I didn’t gain a single thing from my strict precedents, rubber banding back the other direction into total shit-serving free for alls.
My survival brain and reasoning brain were having a bit of a power trade-off throughout my 20’s. Trying, like always, to keep me safe and healthy enough for species’ advancement. Failing, like usual, to find the right balance or choose helpful survival behaviors.
Handing the wheel over to my lizard brain was my exhausted human brain’s attempt at preserving energy and making sure that something was happening instead of letting theoretical models and unpredictable developments delay any action at all. However, looking around and realizing that this ship has been fucking grounded during a misguided attempt to outrun some potentially-threatening dark spot in the ocean, while my logical brain failed to point out the obvious fact that I was looking at my own shadow... was not a fun discovery. Especially not when I was beached day after day, week after week, year after year.
So, Fuckers, as I definitively put the lid back on this jar and suck the last of the PB out of my teeth, I’m not happy with myself. But I’m also aware that what just happened wasn’t exactly carried out by myself.
In the midst of all the things I need to get done in a day, I do honestly mistake my assorted computer tasks as life-or-death-level obligations. My brain gets overloaded, my thoughts get disorganized, and I can’t make heads or tails of what I should do to ensure my safety or survival. And that’s when the ancient brainstem takes over as my belabored adult brain decides to step out for a few.
And… that’s when I drown my sorrows in salty, sugary, texturally-pleasing substances without the supervision that I need to stay healthy in the long-term. Give it an hour or two, mom will be back from the grocery store to ground your fat ass. Don’t worry, the lecture on how you’re continually fucking yourself never really gets old. There’s always a new way to sell yourself up the creek when your lizard brain intends to paddle, but goes off on an avoidant adventure instead.
And so, Fuckers, those are my musings on this reasonable thinking blackout experience that never ends. When you’re actually on the right path, doing the right things, it feels like a cruel practical joke at best and a disempowering nightmare at worst to lose yourself during a triggering response and undo your most difficult work.
Short of being continually mindful, using grounding techniques left and right, and programming yourself to turn to more adaptive behaviors in a time of need, I don’t know how to advise improvement. So, uh, start there… which is a longshot. I admit it.
But I hope that realizing your brain is just attempting to protect you, like always, gives you some ground to stand on when you want to bludgeon yourself for another recovery-failure.
What were you thinking when you took that drink, lit that cigarette, ordered that pizza, engaged in that fight, slept with that stranger, or cancelled those plans? Well, nothing, really. YOU weren’t in the conference room when the task force was deciding the best course of action. But your survival brain was there, and it was sure to push you towards taking action, anyways.
It’s not your fault, Motherfucker. Just blame our misguided skills developed through evolution. Hate human history, but not yourself. Maybe stop buying peanut butter though.
Relate to it? Hate it? Love it? Appreciate knowing that you aren't the only PB fiend with their ass in the fire? I'd love to hear from ya.
Reach out anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org
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