Life on Autopilot
Sometimes when I consider what I do every day for a living, I laugh, because of how much a far cry it is from the life I used to live, filled with predominantly pleasure-seeking behavior and an almost complete lack of awareness of my own emotions and experiences. I saw a psychologist for a while in my early 20's and for the first time in my life, started to learn how to label my emotions. It was a weird thing for me, and remember often my response when asked what I was feeling was "I don't know" or "I'm not feeling anything." I realized later that even "I don't know" was a good start to figuring my emotions out. My poor psychologist - he had to ask me that a billion times. But I'm glad he was persistent.
I was in such a mode of either rushing towards food/booze/music/sleeping, or in anxious anticipation of those things, that I really had no clue what was happening under my skin. I was Pac-Man, running around, consuming whatever was in sight. And perhaps more notably, running away from my own negative, repetitive thoughts and difficult emotions. The pace of my life was hurried, frustrated, exhausting.
In those days, everything outside of consumption seemed like a chore. It's amazing how a constant need for reward will not only destroy those things that you once enjoyed, but also seemingly increase the response effort required to do basic daily tasks, like the laundry. Or just making your bed. I once slept on a foam mattress pad for 6 months because I couldn't be bothered to move my actual bed from my old place. I was the ultimate procrastinator. If I wasn't getting drunk, eating whatever I wanted, playing music, or sleeping, what was the point? And have things really changed that much? Or is my avoidance simply more functional?
I still have a tendency to numb myself in the presence of stress. Instead of getting drunk, I eat sugary crap. Instead of sleeping, I do random household chores. Instead of playing music, I sit and stare at the computer or read random articles. But what has helped me significantly is using elements of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) in my own life. I am still learning how to be kind to myself when I find myself off track, avoiding feelings of sadness, anger, frustration, guilt, failure. And I will say, it helps a great deal. Kindness works better for me than trying to be more "disciplined".
A regular mindfulness practice - simply sitting, breathing, and noticing my own thoughts - is something I do daily. I love it because I don't need any extras to do it. I have since formed a habit of prayer also, which has helped me be a more grateful person and has been an important mindfulness practice for me. Music is still there too, and that's something I would like to spend more time in, because it is not only a mindfulness practice for me, but it's my passion outside of family and work.
I feel lucky that I get to sit with other people in their moments of deep pain. That they are willing to let me in on what really, really hurts and what really, really matters. And I try my best to be still, to not steamroll over their experiences and to just be in that room with them. And even though there are times when I unwittingly mess up, I can give myself space by acknowledging my error - bringing it up in the room - and be a human across from another human. I don't have to be perfect, and that is freeing.
I'm Tommy, a behavior analyst. I'm very passionate about mental health.