Saturday, October 3, 2009

Irresistible Urges

The Emergency Room
I was sitting in the coffee shop the other day when my phone rang. I answered and Iris said, "You'll never guess where I am!"

I said, "Where?"

She said, "At the hospital..."

Turns out that our friend Paul, who is visiting from the Netherlands, had mistakenly taken part of his index finger for a frozen breakfast roll that he was trying to cut in half. So, Iris and he were at the hospital getting him a stitch or two.

A couple of hours later, Paul and Iris showed up at the coffee shop, Paul proudly displaying his expertly wrapped finger. They told me the whole story including the part where, seeing his finger bleeding, Paul began to swoon.

Iris, sizing Paul up at about 6'3" and being the ever practical one decided that it would be much easier to get Paul to the hospital if he were to pass out in the car rather than on the kitchen floor. Further, since the cut didn't actually appear to be that bad, she figured that he could just kind of pull it together and get to the car.

Paul mentioned that when these types of things happen, there's really nothing you can do about it. If you're going to pass out, it's just going to happen.

That got me thinking...

OCD and Me
When I was a kid, I would obsess about everything from diseases and death to phantom itches and pains to giants trampling down our house and comets destroying the earth. I can remember talking to my dad one day when I was five. I sat on my parents bed as he hung up his jacket and took off his tie after coming home from work. He asked me how my day was and I said, "I've been worrying."

He looked at me curiously asking, "Worrying? What have you got to worry about?"

I said, "Death."

I went on to explain that I'd been thinking about infinity and eternity and how they seemed to go on and on and on. I had also heard people in church talking about hell. So, putting two and two together, it didn't seem like the prospects were very good.

Every night I would lie in bed trying to imagine infinity and eternity, thinking that if I just pushed a bit harder, I would somehow get a grasp of it and everything would be better. I would run through the litany of "bad" thoughts that I had had during the day, considering whether or not they were damnable. I'm pretty sure that the whole period pretty much freaked out my parents.

When it comes to OCD, I did all the popular ones and then some. I'd wash my hands so often that my hands were continually raw. I would start thinking about peeing and then end up going to the bathroom every five minutes. I would scratch itches until my skin bled. I couldn't watch a hospital drama without being convinced that I had the mortal disease du jour.

Ahh... my poor parents...

Many years later, I was working on a house that we had just purchased after moving from Illinois to New Jersey. I was working by myself cleaning, painting, tearing up old carpeting, etc.

As I ran the razor knife through a particular dirty section of carpeting, I felt the blade slice through my thumb. Seeing blood everywhere and being aware of how filthy the carpeting was, my OCD went into overdrive. I started feeling dizzy and lightheaded, ready to pass out.

It then occurred to me that, "Hey, I'm all alone here. Lying unconscious on a floor while bleeding profusely may not be such a great idea."

I just decided not to pass out. And it worked!

I wrapped my finger up, using a rubber band to cut off the flow of blood to the wound, hopped into the car and drove to the hospital where I got stitches and a tetanus shot.

Prior to that, it had never occurred to me that you could just decide not to panic or obsess or pass out. Now it never occurs to me that all these things aren't simply decisions.

OCD is a Choice
Sometimes, when I talk to people about things like OCD or panic attacks or fainting being choices, they get offended and annoyed. They'll say things like, "These are things that happen to people, they're not things that people do. They're psychological disorders with real physical parameters! Who would choose to have panic attacks? Who would choose to have OCD?"

I always see this as an invitation to expand the scope of the discussion to include things like alcoholism and addiction. If you ever want to see fireworks...

Timing is Everything
One of the reasons that people have a hard time seeing these kinds of challenges as decisions is that they're not always aware of when the decision takes place.

For example, if you're an alcoholic, the point of decision doesn't occur as you contemplate the glass of vodka sitting on the bar in front of you. At that point, you've pretty much already decided.

You decided as you walked into the bar rather than passing by it. You decided as you chose to walk down the street that passed the bar, rather than one that didn't. You decided when the idea of a drink entered your mind and you gave it a second thought rather than dismissing it.

In many ways, the decision is a series of events rather than a single event. As the series progresses, the decision becomes more and more difficult to make.

In other ways, the series of decisions is really just a lie; we've already decided, but we go through this elaborately choreographed dance of faux decisions pretending that we're still considering what to do.

Resisting the Irresistible
I think the key to transforming disorders, addictions and irresistible urges in to decisions is a two part process. First, decide that you do have a choice; if you continue to believe that you don't have a choice, then this whole thing ain't gonna work.

Second, you want to really analyze your decision process, unraveling it until you get to that first decision that set all the others in motion. The midnight overindulgence in ice cream probably was decided earlier in the day as you walked down the freezer aisle at the market. The panic attack as you enter the subway car is the result of all sorts of choices you've made regarding fears and fearful beliefs that you're hanging on to.

If we openly engage and deeply explore our decision processes that lead to panic or obsession or fear or addiction, I believe we can find the keys that allow us to disarm them before they become irresistible.

1 comment:

  1. So, i have decided that it was practical to stay at the sink and keep my head cool with cold water. When you feel that you're passing out, the blood is leaving your head. So i was thinking, if i make my head cold, my body automatically responds to pump more blood to those area's in my body where it's below body temperature. I think i decided being logical in these case, because i did not want that Iris had to drag me to the car AND miss this this whole new experience... i don't think so! ;)


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