Sunday, April 27, 2014

Ice Cream And Distressing Narratives

I mentioned in my last entry that I have a tendency to let my brain run off quite a bit, particularly late at night if I'm not careful.

My brain will go down crazy paths sometimes, with little provocation. I'll come up with intricate trains of thought. Build narratives. Reframe them as a conversation with imaginary audiences: friends, coworkers, relatives, people who've pissed me off in the past, maybe some others who I'd imagine would approve of what I'm thinking of. Sometimes I argue with them. Sometimes I just monologue. Babble away until even I get sick of my own voice (if you've read even slightly into my blog, you'll realize that's some feat).

It's sort of a self-reinforcing cycle. It's on my mind because it's on my mind and because it's on my mind, it's on my mind. I wind up talking myself into problems which don't exist. Or talk myself into making existing problems even worse.

If I'm lucky, it stays in my head until the next shiny thing comes along. If not, it boils over in strange ways, usually for the worst.

A long time ago, back when I still thought diets were particularly useful, I used to go on these long death-march type diet-marathons. I'd spend six months getting down into single-digit body fat instead of being okay at staying at my usual 12-15% range. I learned a lot about myself during these periods.

Your body controls you quite a bit more than you think it does. There's nothing more humbling than stumbling into a brick wall built by hormones and blood sugar and about five million years worth of evolution.

Inevitably one thing would happen. About two or three months into the diet, with another two or three to go, I'd bump into something minor. Perhaps a throwaway mention of an ice cream maker on a morning news show. Maybe I'd walk through the appliance aisle in Target, see an ice cream maker there. Or maybe I'd drive past an ice cream shop on the way back from the gym, come home to my supper of greens and marinated chicken boobs and think "Self, I bet making my own ice cream would be pretty damn fun."

And then, the thought is now A Thing. I've thought it once. It's in my head now. I'd get that small adrenal surge, endorphins would trickle into my brain and that tiny kick that hit my frontal lobe is all the positive feedback my brain needed. I'd grow obsessed with making my own ice cream. As the diet ground on, the dropping calorie levels making me stupider by the week, I'd obsess about ice cream makers. Look up recipes online. Dream about them at night. Debate with myself which was the best model and method:

Dry ice? Pre-refrigerated bowl? A full-on countertop machine, self-refrigerated just like the machines you see in the store? Do I go old-school, load up a big wooden bucket with brine and ice cubes, then crank the ice cream out by hand over the course of a long summer afternoon? Or would I cheat and use a food processor?

Which recipes would I use? Would I start out vanilla or get fancy right away? Go right to the chocolate and nuts? Could I cut corners? Were there any special life-hacks? Weird scientific methodologies which would let me turn a small raft of strange ingredients into frosty deliciousness without all the tedium and grunt work?

And on and on and on. The more I thought about it, the better the idea got. The weaker my body became from the diet, the more hungry I became, the more I craved sweets as my body-fat dipped into single digits. And the more that fucking ice cream maker became more and more appealing, a worthy replacement for all the junk food I wasn't eating.

And then I'd finish the diet. Get myself a pint of Ben & Jerry's and...like a curtain falling after the show, I'd realize, holy shit. What a stupid thing to get obsessed with. The entire time, my brain kept spinning back and forth along the loop, propelled by nothing more than this obsessive narrative I'd built, with everything greased smooth and pushed along by the hormones released by my body as my chimpanzee-brain struggled to understand why I was starving all the time. Caught in the loop, I'd missed all the subtext as I obsessed over all the wrong things.

I wish I could say this level of crazy-brain only happens when I'm dieting, but it doesn't. All sorts of things set it off. Job stress, an unwillingness to pace myself in pursuit of life-goals, worry over friends and coworkers who are making bad life decisions. It happens all the time. I'll happily brood about anything going on in my life, no matter how trivial--brood until it gets big and I either forget it in favor of the next big shiny or it blows up.

I've discovered only a certain number of ways I can knock my brain out of these ruts.

I can remove the stress (i.e. stop the diet), for one. But there's only so many ways I can do that. Some stresses are simply a fact of life. Either you're working on them or you're not and that's that.

I can go for a walk. Change the scenery. That helps sometimes. Distractions are good.

The biggest, however, is "simply" train my brain not to do that. That's why I meditate every day. There is nothing better than meditation in learning to evaporate persistent annoying thoughts. If you can just sit down in a quiet place, smashing thoughts as they arise, one by one, endlessly, simply be still for fifteen minutes, then you can smash those thoughts anywhere.

And now I want ice cream again.

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