Are You Crazy?!

It’s such a common experience that I can’t really claim to be surprised, but I’ve always found it noteworthy how many of us mourners think we’re going insane. Not without reason. All your landmarks and sustaining pleasures have evaporated. Suddenly, working in the garden has become a chore, not the habitual refuge it once was. You’ve worn the same slacks now for six days running, but don’t really care because you never leave the house anyway. Last week a presumed friend suggested in thinly veiled terms she considered you a threat to her marriage, and you find yourself railing at God even though you don’t believe She exists. And you’re still reticent to donate your deceased husband’s shoes because he may need them. You know very well he’s not coming back, but better to hold onto them just in case.

What is wrong with you?! Apart from the fact there are good reasons to delay making significant decisions when your mind is in a fog and your energy is in absentia, the bad news is yes, you have lost your mind. But the good news is that it’s a temporary insanity, it’s completely normal and not a crime, and even if it were criminal no jury of your peers (those who “get it”) would convict you.
But most of your acquaintances don’t in fact get it. The support and sympathy so evident in the first months gradually gives way to “you really should be over this by now,” accompanied by impatient implications that there must be something wrong with you. And of course there is. You are suffering, body and mind. “ But remember, your grief is your own, and no one can tell you when it’s time to “move on” or “get over it.” You may have been told “Bob would want you to move on and be happy.” Of course he would, but that has nothing to do with the raw pain you feel now that Bob has been torn from your life. Another well intentioned myth, “You’ve got to be strong!” No you don’t, not now, not yet. What you’ve got to be is yourself. And even if you are by nature emotionally strong, don’t be surprised to find yourself weeping at unexpected times in unexpected places. Grief has rightly been described as a roller coaster ride, not a neat progression of stages.

What about visual hallucinations or hearing voices? Surely that can’t be normal, can it? Actually, they happen with surprising frequency. In his new book “Hallucinations,” New York University neurologist and author of “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” writes that such visions often have “a positive and comforting role” and they may play “an important part in the mourning process.” Especially in the first year or two after a loss when they are most frequent. A friend of Sacks named Ray tells the author of his experience just days after the death of his father, when he awoke in the middle of the night and saw a vision of him sitting on the corner of his bed, wearing his khaki slacks and a tan polo shirt. Ray continued: “He sat there for a moment and then said — did he speak or just convey the thought? — ‘Everything is all right.'” The vision never recurred, but Ray had no doubt of what he had seen. “I do not know whether this was a hallucination or something else,” he told Sacks, “but since I provisionally do not believe in the paranormal, it must have been.” [a hallucination} Less anecdotally, a study at the University of Goteborg found that 82% of elderly subjects experienced hallucinations within the first month of losing their spouse, 71% after 3 months, and 52% after one year, which were generally experienced as pleasant and helpful.
So, hold on tight during that rollercoaster ride. You’ll have your share of high points, but you’ll also be exposed to a range of frightening emotions before you disembark—shock, numbness, despair, isolation, anger, depression, anxiety, sleeplessness, guilt, increased or decreased appetite, and questioning your faith—to name a few. At times you may not recognize yourself and act in uncharacteristic ways. But try not to worry…it’s a temporary insanity.
. “No man is sane who does not know how to be insane on the proper occasions.”
–Henry Ward Beecher

Getting in touch with your inner elephant

personal life coachOscar Wilde famously could resist everything except temptation. He has a lot of company. Why do we do things that are obviously not in our best interest? Why are those well intention-ed New Year Resolutions so irresolute? And consider those undeniable guilty pleasures that offer the comfort of immediate gratification over the objections of our more “rational” self. Jonathan Haidt offers some interesting answers in his book “The Happiness Hypothesis.”
In one of the most widely referenced metaphors of recent years, he likens himself (and fellow bipeds) to a rider on the back of an elephant, holding the reigns resolutely, directing the elephant where he wills. Unless of course the elephant disagrees and has desires of his own. And where does a 6 ton elephant go? The answer of course is any where he wants!

Haidt explains that the mind has multiple divisions, “a loose confederation of parts,” the most important being conscious reasoning contrasted with unconscious (automatic) emotions. We reach our decisions less as autonomous individuals as members of a committee who often work at cross purposes. And the emotional elephant reigns as Chairman of the Board. Our elephant evolved quite successfully long before language and rational thought created the mind’s “I,” and most of our mental processes continue to happen “automatically” without the need for conscious attention or control (how many times have you jumped in the car, preoccupied, and arrived at your destination twenty minutes later without thinking?) We confabulate our judgements in the same way. “Feelings come first, and their reasons are invented on the fly…”

The rider can’t simply just decide to change and order the elephant accordingly. We might be able to keep those elusive New Year’s Even resolutions for a month or two, perhaps even longer, but soon enough we find ourselves dining on pizza rather than protein shakes. Change is hard! So if our rider is destined to lose a tug of war with our willful elephant, how do we make lasting, beneficial changes? If not by sheer force, how do we get the elephant to cooperate?

Goal Setting:

I confess, I’ve never been a strong advocate of having “S.M.A.R.T.” goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-Limited). I’ve found what I understood to be the Zen practice of “non-attainment” more appealing and the words attributed to the Taoist Lao Tzu more compelling; “A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.” But true enough, people who set goals are more likely to succeed than those who do not. An explicit commitment focuses our attention and helps to keep us on track despite the obstacles. But S.M.A.R.T goals may not be that smart if they confine us to what is “sensible” rather than “energizing.” They may actually get in the way if limited to what we think we can have rather than what we really want. A goal should liberate us to enjoy the here and be personally meaningful, not simply something we feel forced or pressured to pursue. Goals must be chosen not imposed. “ Wanting to” rather than “should or have to” makes a world of difference.

Elephant Motivating Goals:
The powerful pachyderm can thwart the best laid plans unless motivated to cooperate with the rider. Reason and emotion working together are responsible for emotional intelligence, but emotion does most of the work and supplies most of the energy. You can’t move the elephant with facts, so a skilled rider must learn to coax rather than engage in a contest of wills. To use the author’s terminology the rider must “find the feeling” and “shrink the change.”

Finding the feeling means listening to that “still, small voice within” and turning up the volume. It means answering the question, “What would I love to do right now?” It means recognizing there is something more to life than getting out of bed and doing the same thing day after day. It is realizing our most important choice is what we choose to make important and that having a goal may be more important that attaining it. Goals are means after all, not just ends. In fact, after a short lived rush, reaching the destination often results in an anti-climactic “Is that all there is?” We need to enjoy the journey where most of our time is spent.

Shrinking the change means making an intimidating long term goal more approachable by giving the elephant smaller goals and smaller successes. (to offer a cannibalistic slant on the metaphor, “how do you eat an elephant? One bit at a time”) We are most engaged with activities that command our attention and challenge us without exceeding our ability. I’m not much of a chess player, but over time have climbed to a “6” on my computer opponent’s “10” skill levels. When I consistently win at one level, I graduate up to the next. Had I started at the top, I very possibly would have stayed at the bottom. As Professor Haidt reminds us, “The elephant works the same way; It feels pleasure whenever it takes a step in the right direction.”

There are abundant tools and techniques designed to help people get more out of their lives.
Meditation, cognitive therapy, random acts of kindness, gratitude journaling, ritualizing habits, self-exploration guides, methods to identify blocks and overcome obstacles, time management and my personal favorite, dealing with procrastination. I’ll get around to discussing all of them and more…maybe tomorrow.