Somewhere in a Dream /Available for purchase here
I’ve decided to write this post about a sensitive subject matter that is both confusing and often misunderstood. While I’m not a doctor, I do have my degree in Behavioral Sciences (yea! I can say that now!) and have spent a great deal of time studying OCD and other psychological and emotional disorders. I’m not merely spouting theoretical book noise, however, I’ve been an OCD sufferer from the time I was a young girl. These days, my symptoms are almost always dormant, due to aggressive home therapy (and homeopathic medicine which is somewhat controversial) but it works for me, and that’s what’s most important at the end of the day. I do what works for me.
Ten years ago, I couldn’t find any posts about tongue or cheek biting. Nor could I find any five years ago. Only recently, I’ve seen more and more posts about people who bite their tongues until they bleed, etc., most are asking questions and wonder if it’s a form of OCD or other psychological disorder. I can answer that.
Yes. It is.
When I was a young girl, maybe 7 or so, I developed a horrific habit of chewing the flesh on the insides of my cheeks- ripping off the cheek flesh and spitting it out. It’s really quite a disgusting habit! My habit was still in its infancy, unfortunately, and gradually, I began to chew on the sides of my tongue- often not satisfied until it bled and my tongue would swell. I didn’t dare speak to a therapist about it. I knew she would think of it as a psychological disorder and the next step would be medicine from a shrink. No thanks! I don’t think the solution for every problem that manifests is pharmaceutical medicine. There must be other ways.
Taking medicine for an uncontrollable habit is merely putting a band aid on an amputated limb. It does nothing to get to the root of the problem. Oftentimes, a psychiatrist will prescribe a medicine for OCD or other tricky disorders all too quickly, without really breaking down the matter and getting to the roots of what is really going on. It should be understood that tongue-biting isn’t a “cause” but a result of a cause. It’s the effect.
I needed to get to the root of why I was ripping at my tongue, and why I was causing my own muscle to bleed. When the pain would begin to set in, I’d gently scrape my teeth over my tongue, causing a “sweet” kind of pain. It was like pain on pain, and it brought about a euphoric feeling. It was only when I began studying Substance Abuse at my university that I realized what was really going on.
Children spin around as toddlers to get dizzy. The child is literally trying to get high! It’s a human curiosity and it’s in every one of us. Do we all act upon it? No. But we all have the built-in curiosity and capability to settle that curiosity by trial and error. I experienced heightened trauma and abuse as a child. I never really made a connection between the trauma that was inflicted upon me involuntarily, and the trauma that I voluntarily inflicted upon myself thereafter.
Somehow, in my mind, I felt that I needed to punish myself. I’m not talking about consciously, but subconsciously. And also, the physical pain distracted me from the emotional pain. Again, much of this was taking place on a subconscious level, which is why I would find myself doing it over and over, absentmindedly.
Eventually, after much introspection, I came to realize that biting my tongue in such a way, put me in the same category of self-mutilators. I didn’t want to accept it for many years, but it is the exact same thing. Cutting one’s arm with a razor or cutting one’s tongue (or cheek) with the teeth is still cutting just the same.
I used to think it was self pity. And then I believed it was guilt. From there, I made connections psychologically. Over the years I’ve discovered that it’s a multi-tiered disorder. It’s not just one thing that is causing a person to self-mutilate, but a combination of physiological, socioeconomical, biochemical, psychosocial (the list goes on) factors that when combined- cause an explosive reaction that results in pain, and the desire for pain.
To better understand the depth of this disorder, one should consider what’s going on in the brain every time a biter rips off the flesh, or, a cutter cuts him or herself. Our brain releases neurotransmitters called endorphins. These are the feely-good chemicals that act as natural painkillers. They actually mimic opiates such as morphine and codeine. Stress and pain are the two most common reasons that these endorphins are released into the bloodstream. Once the endorphins are kicked out, a series of natural biological responses occur immediately following: feelings of euphoria, a regularity in appetite, enhanced immune responses, and a release of sex hormones. Who would have thought pain could do all of that?
Upon learning this, I have a new theory as to why cutters cut and biters rip off their tongue and cheek flesh: it’s not simply OCD, or self pity, or guilt (or anger, etc.), it’s much deeper than those things: It’s a drug addiction. Inflicting pain triggers the exact same endorphins that morphine, codeine, and other narcotics/opiates do! Once these chemicals learn their neural pathways repetitiously, they take on a life of their own and without the consent of the host, they begin to call the shots.
There is a difference, however in degrees of this “drug abuse”, between cutters and biters.
Cutters are ritualistic. They prepare for their cutting and even just the very thought of their utensils and other preparatory goods will trigger the release of those euphoria-inducing endorphins. The adrenaline kicks off a bit, and the sympathetic nervous system goes into fight-or-flight mode. The heart beat speeds up, breathing becomes quicker, the pupils can either dilate or shrink, depending on the level of adrenaline, the palms may get sweaty- there are very physical changes that take place in cutters. Secrecy is a large part of their preparatory ritual. Contrary to what many people think about cutters trying to “get attention”, it’s quite the opposite. It’s not a “cry for help”; they’re often very secretive about their cutting.
Biters (of the tongue and cheeks) however are not ritualistic in their behaviors. I am a biter. (I would know.) Cutters have times throughout the day and night that they prefer to cut. Sometimes, it’s because of environmental factors, such as people being home or not, etc. Usually, they’re more systematic and methodical though. Biters don’t have to “plan” for biting. If the stress level rises, the tool is right there! The teeth get to work at once, nibbling first- scoping out the territory to find a good soft, painful, “raw” area to traumatize. And so it begins. The teeth start to dance in a bit of a frenzy, darting here and there, finding more flesh to attack- taste buds are mercilessly ripped off in pieces, or in whole- and then the host realizes what’s happening and the guilt comes in. The biter stops, and swears to try and stop for good. But by now, the endorphins have already been sent out and the mission has (temporarily) been accomplished. The “drug” has been partaken and the person has gotten his or her “fix”. Literally. Just like a junkie.
And so it must be treated like a substance abuse issue also. It’s not merely a “psychological disorder”, like OCD. It’s very much a biological/physiological disorder and should be handled as such. There absolutely will be withdrawals if a person tries to stop “cold turkey”. Perhaps not seizures or other dramatic withdrawal symptoms, but changes in appetite, sleep, stress levels, hormone levels, attention and focus, irritability, and other areas will absolutely be affected.
I wouldn’t recommend prescription medication in treating this type of disorder. Why treat a “neurochemical drug disorder” with drugs? I would recommend replacing the cutting/biting activity with other activities that release the same endorphins: laughter, sex, exercise, ginseng, vanilla scented aromatics, dark chocolate, a firm massage, and music- to name a few.
What’s helped me tremendously is pausing for a moment, when I realize my thoughts are going in that direction, and cleaning out my mind- immediately- taking a few deep breaths- calming myself, and I’ll “regroup” my thought processes. Usually, the # 1 trigger of biting/cutting is stress. I can’t really speak for cutters, as I’ve never really been a “cutter”, but the cutting/biting process is the same, so I would assume that cutters are triggered by stress as well. Even if it’s not an overt and obvious stress, stress is most likely the culprit.
There’s truth in the adage “mind over matter”. I was able to give birth to four children calmly through my determination and solid mindset. I had very little pain medication (I chose to have my 3 girls “all natural” so that I could be bonded with them in the pain process) and didn’t scream at all. I controlled my mind and told myself that the pain was “nothing at all”. And, through deep meditation and control, I was able to give birth without screaming and wailing. So, I do believe the same can be achieved by simply taking a moment, pausing- and telling myself that “biting isn’t the answer”.
At that moment, I can redirect my “biting thoughts” to the source of my stress. After locating the source of my stress, I can then reroute my energy to do what I can to eliminate the stress, rather than cut my flesh with my teeth. In this way, I’m laying the axe to the root and over time and with practice, will become more successful and efficient at eliminating the biting(/cutting) altogether.
It has to be a conscious effort. And it has to be a cold, hard choice.
But these simple “mental exercises” shine the light on the problem area, allowing the person to see what is truly going on (and where), so that he or she does not continue to drone on in the same methodical disease-driven behavior, and to proactively and consciously choose a healthier path- one step at a time.
Footnote: Just as there are various degrees and types of substance abuse, there are various degrees and types of cutting/biting. One person’s combining factors may not be another’s. Each person must identify his or her own stressor/s and work to eliminate the source or sources of those stressors. If the person feels that he or she is the source of his or her own stress, then rather than eliminate the source- try and peacefully merge to coexist harmoniously with oneself.
I hope this was of some help to some of you biters and cutters out there. Your mind is a very powerful machine. You absolutely have the goods to turn this thing around, and I wish you all the best. x
There are two words that bother me greatly when I see, hear, or read them. They are: “Mental Illness”. Why does this wildly popular and acceptable term bother me so much? I’ll elaborate.
Quite a few of my friends are “mentally ill” at their own admittance, and those that aren’t, continue to use the phrase easily and without conviction. It’s just what people are known to be that have “mental problems”, right?
But who doesn’t have “mental problems”? Who hasn’t at some point broken down and cried? Who hasn’t felt afflicted spiritually, emotionally, psychologically, financially, health-wise or otherwise? How did it affect you as person? Did you feel defeated? Did you feel like giving up? Did you fret? Worry? Call people? Overeat? Not leave your house for the day? The week? Pace your floors? Cuss? Scream? Throw something? Drink? Drink more? (See where this is going?)
How do we differentiate between a person who is exhibiting (fatigue, duress, insomnia, depression and other) physiological manifestations; very natural responses to his or her sexual abuse or other traumas- combined with their chaotic environments, and a person who is exhibiting these signs when everything is hunky-dory?
One would be classified as appropriate behaviors given the circumstances, and the other would be classified as exhibiting psychological disorders. Both examples describe the same behaviors! But the environmental norms surrounding them separate the two.
If a person has been sexually abused and placed in a normal environment with siblings and other happy folks who have a swell life, there is no way the sexually abused person is going to behave in an expected manner. Who would behave at optimal performance in school, church, family gatherings, etc. after being sexually abused and having to “guard it” like Fort Knox gold? A person who tries to keep it together year after year will eventually break down while trying to process massive amounts of: guilt, anxiety, shame, anger, rage, confusion, blame, self-loathing, envy- the list is very long.
Given the circumstances, it’s actually very normal behavior to exhibit signs of distress, anxiety, anger, OCD-like tendencies, insomnia, night terrors, and other maladaptive behaviors that are associated with trauma. People who have not suffered these traumas do not understand and it is extremely unsettling for them that they do not have answers that they can file away, shelve, and dress things up with a tidy bow so that it’s sorted out in their heads.
But there needs to be an understanding in this area that these odd behaviors are very normal for sexual abuse survivors. What wouldn’t be normal is having suffered sexual abuse (especially as a child) and then sailing through life with little or no behavioral quirks. I dislike the word disorder because I challenge anybody to say that surviving sexual abuse is a disorder.
It is a triumph. Sexual abuse is a violation like no other and people give medals to those in wars who have been violated less and call them heroes. Sexual abuse survivors fight in the battlefields of life, and there’s no hero’s welcome. There’s no parade. No medals. We have to be our own heroes and rescue ourselves from the collective trenches of societal stigma and hate bombs that others throw at us and that we throw at ourselves.
Being a sexual abuse survivor is like being locked in a dark, dirty cell and given 5,000 keys: only one will unlock the door, and you have one hour to find the right one, or you could die! Doom. Doom doom doom! And lots of crying, worry, and fears that you will never find the right key in time.
But again, I reiterate that these horrible feelings are absolutely normal “given the circumstances”. We need to carefully select the words and labels we assign to people who have suffered such traumas. What if they believe you?!
God forbid I ever believe any labels that have been placed upon me in life. I would be the biggest mess in the world. But I have assigned healthier labels for myself: loving, compassionate, real, honest, valuable, happy. After all, I am the one who has to live with myself and why would I want to live with a pessimist?
The term “mental illness” came about in the 1800’s after various psychological perspectives disagreed on what actually defined a person to be mentally ill. Some believed that it was evil spirits. Some believed it was “psychogenic”, or psychologically induced, and others believed that it was somatogenic, or “of a biophysiological nature” (that’s a fancy way of saying “relating to your body” rather than your mental processes).
They locked “mentally ill” people up on psych wards and in chains where they were beaten and starved, or placed in a metal contraption that rendered them motionless for hours and days at a time. When the patients in these asylums exhibited paranoia, fear, depression, sleeplessness, excessive anxiety and other abuse-related behaviors (as a direct result of the abuse), their friends and families sadly accepted what the doctor had prescribed them all: mental illness.
Many of these patients were exhibiting very normal responses to being held against their wills and physically and psychologically abused. People were quick to swallow the ideology of “mental illness” because it satisfied their need to classify and understand what was happening to their family member.
In other words, people created the term “mental illness” to be able to better control individuals, societies, groups, and religious wars were often the fuel that kept this controversial fire burning. With the classification of mental illness: the acts of physical and emotional abuse on those who “broke society’s norms” were not only unpunishable, but sanctioned, approved, and rewarded!
Just as toxic as any sexual abuse is the belief by the victim that he or she is mentally ill, because somebody said so. This is such a powerful weapon of self-destruction, and only the act of sexual abuse itself is stronger.
We need to start tossing out terms like “mental illness”: those two words alone are TOXIC.
I will never accept terms like “mental illness” and “disorder”. Those are conceptual words made up by people who do not understand what it is like to live in a world with wild, technicolor vision. How about that?
How about, “I have a family member or friend who
is mentally ill has really been through it, but they have still been able to [insert accomplishments here] despite their obstacles.”
It’s all about perception and presentation, and I think we owe one another a sum of decency in how we present each other.
I wrote this post so that other sexual abuse survivors might gather strength and comfort; know that there are others who have suffered the same things in life, but refuse to be labeled! You are what you believe you are.
You have to believe yourself into something positive, constructive, hopeful, and be fearless in your conquests! Be bold in who you are, and acknowledge that you are a survivor rather than a victim. And when you learn that, teach others that too. Choose positivity rather than negativity.
Those 5,000 keys?
They all open the door.