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!) as well as my bachelor’s degree in Psychology, and, I’m currently working on my Masters’s in Psychology of Addiction and Counseling 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
“I’m swearing off all sugar,” I said, to Josh.
“Good! You can do it.”
“Yep. Starting tomorrow. ‘Cause I start my fast tomorrow, so…that would be a good time to start. Besides, there’s a strawberry cake on the stove.”
“Well good, Birgy. I know you can do it,” says Josh again with a hint of boredom.
“Oh crap! I just found a whole bag of Blow Pops!”
I can’t explain this sugar craze I’ve been on lately. I’ve been eating so many Lifesaver Gummies- it’s sick. Whole packages. Generally, I fast 5 days per week. I do this because it brings me closer to God. I intentionally suffer. On the week ends, I eat whatever I want, but really, I usually eat in moderation- never a second plate and I don’t eat until I’m stuffed. Why blow your levels all out of whack?
Besides, I eat to sustain life- not to cram stuff in my face. I respect that my body belongs to God- and it’s His “house”. So I keep that in mind when I’m preparing food and cooking. Usually, I’ll have a small (healthy) breakfast, oatmeal, etc. and take my daily regimen of pills which consist of:
Evening Primrose Oil
Super B Complex
Milk Thistle (cleanses and detoxes the liver)
Colon Cleanser (psyllium husk/herbal)
Multi-vitamin + Iron
After this, I won’t eat until 6:00 p.m. After breaking my fast at 6, I’ll eat a healthy meal: veggies cooked in either 100% canola oil or imported cold pressed olive oil, + meats (beef/chicken/pork, usually) + multi-grain baguettes toasted in olive oil or something along those lines- but always pretty healthily. I allow myself to snack on fruit and cheese usually, and ice cream and chips- I don’t limit myself to ounces and stuff. I don’t count calories. I don’t “diet” as it were, not in the traditional sense. I don’t fast for aesthetic purposes. I fast for spiritual discipline and cleansing- I’m a big believer in fasting.
Five days per week- Monday-Friday.
What this does is teaches me inner strength and control. When you have the ability to control what you do and do not eat most every day and aren’t “governed” by it, then you’re able to control your thoughts, behaviors, willpower, and many other areas that we often battle and give up control to.
And generally, I don’t go around telling people that I fast often- many people don’t understand. They don’t see why it matters. But it brings me closer to God and His will rather than my own. Also, when you take food out of the equation and “pleasing the self” for 8 hours of the day- it teaches you to “lay down”. It teaches you to be still and be very quiet. At least for that time. And over time, you learn to appreciate these low places in the spirit and soul. Good comes from it. Growth.
So usually, I don’t go hog-wild on whole bags of Lifesavers. I justified it by my fasting I suppose, but then, it does little good to fast like I do, if I give up complete control and eat whole bags of candy after my fast ends. It defeats the purpose of the whole thing.
So, no more wheelbarrows of sugar!
I thought it was about time for an update on my relentless jaw and tongue chewing habit. “Habit” is a mild way of looking at it, actually. When you spend 10 hours a day doing something, it’s no longer a habit, but an obsession and addiction. I was biting the sides of my tongue and jaws on the inside so much that it often bled and was sore much of the time. This exacerbated my TMJ tremendously. What I was doing daily went against all of my beliefs and norms and everything I knew to do. I simply couldn’t stop. I researched it and made a remarkable discovery: this is an area in psychology that is rarely focused on and discussed! I couldn’t even find the scientific name for it and barely was able to find forums where it was openly discussed. Not many cries for help- not many confessions. This confirmed my suspicions that this disease is still done in secret mostly, and so well hidden that it’s rarely discussed. There’s a tremendous amount of shame that accompanies this disorder because it doesn’t make sense to begin with. To confess would be an open acknowledgement that “something is wrong with me”. It’s so much easier to keep it in a locked closet and pretend that it doesn’t exist.
It’s no different than cutting or any other form of self- mutilation. It’s the same processes in the brain that sanction gashing open the flesh and feeling the pain. Not only feeling it, but welcoming it. In my case, it was my teeth doing the cutting instead of a knife. I guess I had to get so sick and tired of being sick and tired of the disease controlling me rather than me controlling it, but finally, I was able to get to the place and recognize that “jaw-biting” was like an abusive partner that I swore to love and commit myself to and even protect. I needed to view it differently if I expected real change. I needed to break up with it.
After “breaking up with” my sick disease, it’s been three months. I haven’t done it once even! A life-time addiction- gone in once second. And I have been through some serious ^&%$ since then. At first, my thoughts were overwhelming. My anxiety was through the ceiling. I didn’t know what to do with my hands. My thoughts were working overtime and very much in an OCD-related way. So much chatter. It wasn’t easy- I just knew I needed to stick it out. After many uncomfortable weeks, the chatter dissipated and all was quiet. Finally, there was peace.
Recapping the letter:
[Originally posted February 12, 2013]
Dear bad habit,
I don’t know how to tell you this, but
I just want to be friends I want to break up with you. You know I love you! And it’s not you- I swear- it’s me. I just can’t do this anymore. I don’t like the way you’re constantly attacking me, and it’s like I have no time to myself. What you’re doing to me seems harmless, but it’s abuse, and I will not stay with somebody that abuses me. We’ve been together for 35 years. I know I’ll never see you again after today. I can’t say that I’m sorry about that. Goodbye. And thanks for everything.
I’ve given myself the challenge of losing 35 lbs. in 6 weeks: my deadline is Valentines Day. Can I do it? That will put me right at 130 lbs. at 5’6- a healthy, practical, obtainable, goal to not only reach, but maintain, which is the most important part.
I’m going to call on my former cross country and trak training. I ran for three years from ages 9-11, so I know about healthy body mechanics and warming up. I’m also an x- med student (3.9 GPA/Phi Theta Kappa) so I know about the anatomy from the inside out.
I don’t want to lose weight to “be skinny”. Although I have the average dose of vanity I suppose (although I don’t “do makeup”) but still, I want to look good. That’s not my overall reason, however. I want to kick up my cardio and feed my heart the necessary oxygen it needs to fuel my organs. I want to strengthen my body from the inside out on a cellular level. Education is very important to me. This is why I studied Nutrition last semester in college, so that I could gather the foundation I need to build a good workout on. I’m going to pair the nutritional components with the physical ones so that I can lose weight and be healthy– not just “thinner”.
I know some people who practically starve themselves- they drop the pounds- but they end up depriving their brains of the vital oxygen it needs to maintain homeostasis. Electrolyte balance as well as sodium and potassium exchanges need to be interchangeable regarding a healthy PH balance. Starving your body for prolonged periods is seriously just asking for a psychological breakdown- I would know a thing or two about that.
So tomorrow is my first day of the “lose 10 lbs. in 7 days” week. I realize that it’s neither healthy nor practical to do this weekly, but it’s necessary to give myself that push and confidence to keep going. It will also instill the discipline I need to follow through. As an X-trainer and runner, I learned strict discipline.
I was as skinny as a noodle as a child. We didn’t always have food (or running water for that matter) and I was exceedingly poor. Nobody in my family had ever joined any extra curricular activities after school, but I was naturally hyper and loved to run. I don’t remember how it started, but I signed up for cross country when I was 9. We learned all about stretching and body mechanics, and we ran for miles every day after school.
I didn’t have a ride home, so after running miles at practice- I would wait until everybody left, and then I would run home. My house was about 6 miles from the school. This went on for many months until one day, my coach spotted me halfway home. He couldn’t believe that I was running home after running for miles already. I gratefully excepted a ride. He became my regular ride then.
Although it was 34 years ago, I still have the fighting spirit that was carved into me- race by race- and implement what I’ve learned into my daily life. Tomorrow, on day 1 of “lose weight week”, I’m only allowed to eat fruit (no bananas allowed), and must drink at least 10 glasses of water. (I have a cup of grapefruit, 6 apples, and 6 tangerines ready to go.)
Today I fasted from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. (after breakfast- which consisted of 1 cup of cherry vanilla yogurt and a cup of grapefruit, followed by my usual dose of “dragon’s blood” as I call it- 1/2 teaspoon of cayenne pepper mixed with 3 oz. of water). For supper, I made fried chicken, dinner rolls, and a salad made up of avocados, fresh lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, yellow onions and sharp cheddar cheese. “The last supper”. 🙂
After supper, I hit the Gazelle Stryder for 10 minutes- hard- and have forbidden myself to eat after 10:00 p.m. This is a real sacrifice for me as I’m a midnight muncher. I’m prone to getting migraine headaches so this will be a challenge to lose weight while not triggering a migraine. It’s a bit of a tightrope walk.
I really am tired of feeling like I have a spare tire (as the saying goes), but at the same time, I want to be good to my body- not just “lose weight”.
I would usually be munching on something at this time while watching the Food Network show (Alex Guarnaschelli is an Iron Chef now- go Alex! 🙂 but now I’m headed to the cabinet for my second dose of Dragon’s Blood, then headed to the shower. I even have a smile on my face. I’m pumped! (Talk to me in 7 days after a brutal week of rabbit food.)
I’m a firm believer in drinking cayenne water. It burns like raw hell but MAN does it do wonders for the body! Here’s a small list of the glorious things cayenne does:
1.) kicks up the metabolism- bigtime
2.) cleanses the blood
3.) Increases and optimizes the body’s cirrculation
4.) equalizes blood pressure, so that many people no longer have to take blood pressure medicine after taking cayenne over time.
5.) Opens up the blood vessels in your head in such a way as to decrease migraines, if not eliminating them altogether.
I know I haven’t done a lot today to shape up, but the small steps I’ve taken have put me on the right track mentally, so that I can lose weight safely.
I’ve also apologized to my tongue.
You heard me.
See, I’ve had this lifelong habit of biting my tongue and jaws until they bleed. I’ll rip off skin mercilessly, and right as it’s starting to heal, I’ll rip it off again. It’s a sick addiction and a vicious cycle. It’s no different than cutters, alcoholics, or a junkie who shoves a needle in his or her arm. I know that it’s a chemical thing within the brain. Somehow, I’ve confused pain for pleasure and so the wires are tripped in my “reward center”, kicking up the endorphins every time I rip off new flesh. Very nasty habit.
I figured that “getting healthy” means not ripping my bleeding flesh out of my mouth also, right? So, I apologized to my tongue.
I want to make a real effort to stop abusing my body in that way.
Nobody is “helpless”- that’s total crap. We just get lost sometimes. And then, to make matters worse, we’ll pity ourselves, then get good and pissed off when others won’t.
Then bitterness sets in. And hatred. And envy. (And on and on and on.)
I’m taking a personal inventory- I simply have to change a few things about myself that I don’t like.