Have you ever had a night when you couldn’t sleep? You tossed and turned, read and watched tv, but your eyes wouldn’t close. Nothing you tried allowed you the bliss associated with closing everything down and drifting off into a deep sleep. Your thoughts kept going round and round in your head, and no matter how many times you pressed the off button, they didn’t stop.
For people with obsessive-compulsive disorder, that occurs all the time, even during the day. They can’t stop worrying about whether they locked the door, or shut off the coffee pot. They’re constantly concerned about a trip they have to take, what they should pack, and what negative events might occur. So much so that they often cancel the trip. To imagine the amount of stress they experience, multiply the one night you couldn’t turn the motor off ten or twenty-fold, and you might approach an understanding of what they experience on a daily basis.
I tell you this so you can understand the plight of Ruth, a patient of mine who went through life running from and denying childhood experiences that were so emotionally disturbing, she couldn’t let herself face them. Nevertheless, over the years they would periodically surface, and when they did, her only escape was to obsess over other things in order to create a smokescreen between herself and her thoughts about the past. You’ve probably heard the story about how to cure a headache - take a hammer and swing it as hard as you can on your big toe and the headache goes away. That’s the way obsessions work. They often serve as a coping technique, a way of avoiding a reality you can neither face nor accept. In Ruth’s case, her obsessions were so painful, they figuratively became her hammer and toe. The obsessions were also a form of control that enabled her to avoid contact with any feelings of helplessness similar to those she experienced in childhood. The pain they caused her was the price she paid for that relief.
Ruth was too frightened to let go of the control that her obsessive behavior afforded her. During one of our sessions, she stated that she knew that her inner feelings of helplessness were being mitigated by the control she derived from obsessing. But, she said, “That’s intellectual. Unconsciously I can’t stop the motor. My off switch doesn’t work, so what can I do?”
I’d like to share my response to Ruth’s question with each of you, because everyone, at one time or another, engages in this type of coping technique. It aids you to avoid facing your own realities, the problems you have, or the decisions you’re afraid to make. Fortunately, you don’t experience them to the degree that Ruth does. You see, having psychological problems, thoughts, or compulsions doesn’t mean you’re crazy. It’s the degree that determines if you’re emotionally disturbed. Let me give you an example. Do you like pancakes? Your answer might be, “I love pancakes.” My reply to you would be “Come over to my house. I have suitcases filled with them.” You can suddenly see that although liking pancakes is acceptable, having suitcases filled with them is pathological.
Having said that, let’s focus on my response to Ruth. It was: “Ruth, look at your life. You’ve experienced many good things. Not because you were lucky, but because you’re talented, bright and have a great deal going for you. But those good things don’t stick. The bad ones do, because you reinforce them by thinking and worrying about them to excess. You then use your obsessive thoughts to create a state of upset that serves as a smokescreen that is so painful you can’t focus on your past. My suggestion is, if you’re going to obsess, force yourself to look at the good things. I could go on at length regarding the positives, there are so many of them in your life. But you don’t focus on them, Instead, you stress your mistakes, misfortunes, fears and anxieties. You live life protecting yourself from hurt, instead of searching for happiness. If you want to control your life, try looking at the good things, instead of the bad. There’s a story I heard which is a wonderful example about what I’m trying to tell you. It’s about a little American Indian child who was getting in all kinds of trouble. He was stealing things from everybody's teepee, he was a nuisance around camp, he let the horses loose and the tribe had to go out searching for them. Because his parents were unable to control him, they sent him to live with his grandfather, a wise man in another village. When he went there, his grandfather said, "Do you know why you're here?" "Yes. I've done bad things. I told my parents I was sorry, but they didn't believe me. They think I'm bad. I guess I am." The wise man said, 'No, you're not bad. Let me tell you something that we wise men know that helps us to understand human behavior. Every person, is born with two wolves inside them. One is a good wolf who uses his strength and power to protect you from harm, to defend you and enable you to achieve good things. The other is a bad wolf. He will always nip at your bottom. He will cause you anxiety, pain and stress. But, fortunately, he is counterbalanced by the good wolf. What you have to realize is that these two wolves will be in you until the day you die."
The boy's eyes opened up like silver dollars and he asked, "What do they do inside you?" The wise man said, "They constantly fight with each other to see which one can control you.” The boy thought a moment and said, “Which one wins?" The wise man said, “The one you feed.”
Ruth, you’ve been feeding the bad wolf throughout most of your life. What you don’t realize is that when you don’t feed him, he goes away and looks for food somewhere else.
What Ruth has to do is learn to heed the wise man’s words. But then again, it would be well if all of us were to look at ourselves and our lives, count our blessings, concentrate on how fortunate we are, and think of the good that’s there. We don’t pay attention to those people in our lives who love, care for, and value us. Sometimes we’re even blind to them. I’d have us thank God for the problems we have because, in most instances, they’re probably miniscule in comparison with the problems of others. I know how large Ruth’s problems appear to her, but she needs keep them in perspective. We all need to do the same. Even more, I’d have us recognize which wolf we feed, and ask that, in the future, we only feed the good wolf in each of us.