Healing addiction – de-conditioning the hungry ghosts


I listened to a podcast by one of my favourite Buddhist teachers, Tara Brach, called ‘Healing additions – de-conditioning the hungry ghosts.’ She talks a lot about food so I decided to take notes!

In Buddhism, there’s an image of ‘hungry ghosts’ – creatures with thin necks and large bellies – symbolising desire that can never be satisfied, the feeling of never having enough or being content. That’s something I can relate to.

Tara explains that when basic needs aren’t met, e.g. safety, love, security, desire gets riveted to something else that is available – in my case food. Whilst meditation won’t get rid of desire it can help us to see it as a habit. It can help us to de-laminate from the desire and meet ourselves with kindness and compassion.

She talks about the three layers of suffering from addiction:

  1. The first is that the fix is temporary and never cures the real, deep need. I get caught in a cycle of craving, reaching for sugar to satisfy the craving, getting a temporary feeling of pleasure which then feeds the cue to binge again and get the reward again.
  2. The second level of suffering is SHAME and SELF-AVERSION which feeds the cycle. This addiction turns me against myself. I hate that it goes against my healthy values and is so visual. It’s obvious when I put weight on. I see myself as fat, lazy and weak-willed and think that everyone else can see that too.
  3. The third layer is not being present and missing out on so much of life being preoccupied with the addiction. It makes me sad when I think of how many moments I waste obsessing about food and thinking that I need it to feel better. All the moments spent feeling like something is missing.

Tara gives the following advice for working with the three layers of suffering:

  • What is the message the shame most needs?
  • How can you work with the shame?
  • Watch the looping and identify the cues. For me it’s loneliness, not feeling seen, not feeling valued or good enough and finding it hard to tolerate difficult feelings at times.
  • When you are wanting a fix, what is it you are really wanting? For me it’s intimacy, closeness, someone to hug, hold my hand or stroke my hair. It’s relief and soothing.
  • Plan ahead -what activity might turn me towards what I really desire? For example before eating the food, read something, send a loving message or email, eat some fresh fruit and yoghurt. If this strategy was to work 50% of the time it would be a big improvement. I think I have the idea in my head that I will just stop one day and that will be it. However if it was that simple, I think I would have done it by now. Instead I think I need to see each day that I don’t binge as an accomplishment.
  • Believing that it’s possible to change and overcome the habit makes it more possible. That belief comes from others – knowing others have walked this path and taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. I’ve been really touched recently by a dharma friend who has opened up so honestly to me about her battle with food. She’s been reminding me that it is possible to overcome on the days that I haven’t been able to hold that belief myself.
  • Whatever we practice is strengthened. Notice the craving, choose to pause and bring tenderness to the parts that are feeling shamed and make fresh choices.

I’ll end with a quote from the Buddha that gives me hope it’s possible to change:

“whatever we frequently think of and ponder, that will become the inclination of our minds.”


Today I’m feeling crap.

Mary Oliver

Today I’m feeling crap. Work is really busy and I worry that I can’t cope. That I can’t do the job that I have or whether I want to.  I regularly worry about whether I’m good enough which triggers my depression. I’ve been imagining today that other people can do my job better than me and that really they just want to get rid of me. I don’t want the pressure of having to manage someone either and being responsible for their work.

I can see I’m in an unhealthy cycling of worrying, then comfort eating, not exercising, feeling bad about putting on weight, feeling unattractive and that it’s no wonder that no one is interested in me.  I want someone to want me, and that hurts so badly, especially as I’m feeling rejected by someone that I’d been looking forward to going on a date with since they cancelled it.

I’m worrying that I won’t be able to see my psychiatrist if I get unwell again as my insurance company won’t cover it anymore and I can’t afford her private rates. My latest NHS psychiatrist is also leaving – I haven’t seen the same NHS doctor more than once! I guess that leaves me feeling a bit unsteady too as I don’t have that support either.

I am seeing my therapist tomorrow after four weeks as we’ve been winding down, but whatever she says, I have to do things for myself. She can’t stop me binge eating to get me to the gym! I only have myself to blame.

The work stress has been keeping me awake at night. I either can’t sleep because I’m worrying or I wake-up and can’t get back to sleep because of it. This morning I had some thoughts about self-harm when  I work up for the first time in ages which is a sign that the pressure is becoming too much. This evening I’ve also gone back to fantasizing about suicide. Another sign.

I don’t feel I can talk to anyone as it will be ‘oh no, not this again’ and I just want to avoid being around people. I have a busy couple of weeks ahead and am already thinking that I can’t face it and want to cancel arrangements. Work have been so accommodating but it’s been a year now and I can’t react like this and let them down every time things get stressful.

But if I don’t do this job, that what else do I do? Most jobs are stressful, and if I had an easy job I’d get bored from not being stimulated. I wish I knew what do with my life.

All the bright places

All the bright places

I’ve just finished reading ‘All The Bright Places’ by Jennifer Niven, described as “The story of a girl who learns to live from a boy who wants to die.”

I’m drawn to books about or by people suffering from mental illness – partly because when I’m suffering myself, they are the only books that speak to me. They make me feel less alone.

The boy in this book is called Finch. He suffers from the intense highs and despairing lows of bipolar disorder. There are so many things he said that I identify with and want to share here.

  • Each day he wakes up and asks himself “Is today a good day to die? If not now, then when”
  • Standing on top of the bell tower at his school he thinks “I could just step off.It would be over in seconds. No more hurt. No more anything.” I often have this thought walking along the cliff tops, the roof of a multistory car park but the top floor of the office at work.
  • How for the millionth time in his life he wishes he has an illness that people could see.
  • The suicide ideation – researching various methods like hanging, drowning, over-dosing, shooting himself, stepping in front of a train.Finch also struggles with images of seeing himself dead which is something that also really affects me when I’m not well – I see myself hanging – it’s not just the thoughts but these images that appear in front of my eyes.

Violet, the female character in this book who meets Finch at the top of the bell tower describes her experience as:

When I went to the tower, I wasn’t really thinking. It was more like my legs were walking up the stairs and I just went where they took me. I’ve never done anything like that before. I mean, that’s not me. But then it’s like I woke up and was standing on that ledge.

This sounds very similar to my own experience of attempting to end my life on December 2nd last year. I hadn’t slept for a few days and laying in bed at 4am in the morning, decided I need to know how to tie a noose if I was going to hang myself and looking it up on You Tube. I was in a bedroom at the same psychiatric hospital I’d been in 5 months before. During that first admission I’d fantasized about hanging myself in the shower. This time I was going to do it. I had a scarf with me and also my laptop cable.  I took them with me to the bathroom and I remember looking in the mirror and seeing someone staring back at me. It didn’t feel like me.  It’s like it was my evil twin who was trying to kill me.  Obviously it didn’t go as planned as I’m here writing this, however that feeling of not recognizing the ‘me’ that was doing this and the image staring back at me from the mirror is haunting.

Finch and Violet quote Virginia Wolf poetry to each other. I’ve imagined that this could be my suicide note too and wonder whether it would be any comfort to my mother.

I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel that we can’t go through another of these terrible times…So I am doing what seems to be the best thing to do….You have been in every way all that anyone can be…If anybody could have saved me, it would have been you.

Finch writes a list of things that help keep him ‘awake’ which reminded me of own list of Things that (sometimes) make me better. His list also including running, writing, being around water, planning and organizing. I’m understanding more and more that it’s the everyday things that make life more bearable and enjoyable – the little things.

“I need the sea because it teaches me”

I love this quote by Pablo Neruda and I’m posting it as reminder to myself to go to the beach this weekend. I’ve been running around the lake and harbour recently, but it’s not the same as walking along the sand and listening the waves lap against the shore. I’ve always found it a very comforting thought that however turbulent things feel within me, the sea is always there and the tide continues to come in and out. I guess it reminds me of my connection to something larger than whatever is going on in my heart, mind and body.

Sea 2

Habits of happiness

I was telling my therapist a couple of weeks ago how some of my healthy habits are slipping. I’ve been watching too much TV, spending too much time on my phone, eating badly and not exercising enough. It’s worth reminding myself though that I’ve been sleeping really badly which makes everything feel harder and taking prescription sleeping tablets which slow me down.

We had a really interesting conversation about habits, and why they are so important for people who struggle with their mental health.

Three reasons why habits are important to me:


First of all, getting up at the same time every morning.  I’ve adjusting my work hours which means I get up at 8am and leave for work at 9am. However when I don’t get up at 8am and keep pressing snooze until 8.30am my day starts off on the wrong foot. It’s only 8.30am and I already feel like I have failed. Things I’ve found help with this are putting my alarm clock on the other side of the room so I have to get out of bed to turn it off, preparing as much as I can the night before e.g. breakfast and lunch, having a shower before bed and giving myself permission to have a nap later in the day if I’m tired.


Having a routine and sticking to it, because if my routine starts to slip I start to worry about that means – am I getting ill again, is this the beginning of a downward spiral? However, I also need to allow myself some flexibility as I have a tendency towards all or nothing thinking, and some days some days things will feel harder than others or I’ll lack motivation. That’s not necessarily a symptom of depression – it’s like that for everyone sometimes.


The memory of how difficult things were a few months ago will fade over time and won’t be such a strong motivator. Therefore I need to establish healthy habits to fall back on, so things don’t require any decision making or deliberation – they are just part of my day. This quote sums that up perfectly:

There is no more miserable human being  but one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every piece of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation. Full half the time of such a man goes to the deciding, or the regretting, of matter which ought to be so ingrained in him as practically not to exist for his consciousness at all.

William James, Psychology: Briefer Course