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Thursday, December 6, 2012

My Mind is a Rat

John Deyo is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in San Dimas, California.  He is a regular contributor to Wings Like Eagles, bringing wisdom and insight that has been gained through his professional work, as well as personal experience.

John has a heart for helping people find themselves through their pain, and he works hard to see Life restored to an individual, couple, or family who come to him from a place of hopelessness and despair.

John writes a blog called Metaphoria that is linked to his professional Website.

For more information on John's private practice, and to see other Metaphoria blog entries,click here.

No, not as in a "dirty rat," or a sewer rat, or a rug-rat.  I am thinking of a lab rat--specifically a maze rat.  You know, those tame white rats that scientists put in a maze to see how quickly they can find the cheese before and after receiving a lobotomy or, say, after playing Angry Birds for three hours.  The first time through the maze the clever, adaptable rodent quickly negotiates his course to the reward.  The next time, after the exposure to the variable, the poor little fella zips around all willy-nilly, exhausting himself, unable to get either his bearings or the Gouda.

Anyway, the point is not really about rats or cheese, is it?  Of course it’s not.  I remember some years ago going to "Mike's Maze" with some friends in Rockford Illinois.  It was a big converted retail store that someone (apparently Mike) bought and filled with a huge maze created using plastic tarp walls suspended from lightweight cables.  To beat the maze you had to bumble your way through the undulating plastic labyrinth, collecting tokens from a set number of stations throughout the course, finally making your way out.  It was surprisingly challenging and frustrating--really kind of freaky especially for the anxious and claustrophobic.  I kept ending up at the same dead ends and token stations I had already visited.  I was immersed in the halls of polyethylene for a long time before capturing all the tokens and finding the exit.  (If you really got panicky or claustrophobic you could duck under the 3/4 length suspended tarp walls and make your way to the edge and freedom.)   Some mazers eventually panicked or gave up and headed for the edge and sanity.

Sometimes we find ourselves in life situations or unavoidable transitions that can make us feel like a befuddled and increasingly agitated rat in a maze.  I am not talking so much about chronic busyness, hectic schedules, or the normal frustrations of life.  What I am referring to is a broader, escalating sense of being trapped or lost somewhere in our life course, a feeling that begins to rise toward and sometimes beyond the threshold of panic.  We need to know which direction to go, to find the way out, to arrive at a conclusion and find some kind of solution that seems to deliberately and deftly elude us; it is up to us.  We begin to run--to scramble--first this direction, then that direction; dead end...backtrack...another dead end...first dead end again.  Time is running out, panic swells.

And all this is taking place in your mind; racing thoughts that begin to whirl in an obsessive blurr that greets you in the morning and climbs into bed with you at night.  You feel desperate and responsible to find and implement the solution but you are becoming more exhausted and less clear-headed.  Hope slips away as misery rises.  

I have been in this place--and I am not referring to Mike's Maze.  I have felt like a very hungry, weary, and increasingly desperate rat lost in an impossible maze, unable to find the cheese or the exit.  Exhausted.  Maybe this is where you are today.

So, is there a solution to the problem you are facing? Is there a path to freedom?  No, (well, that's comforting) and...yes.  What I mean is, there is not always a linear, cause and effect type solution to certain problems.  You can't un-get laid off or request a do-over for deciding to go ahead and have the affair.  Traumatic events can't be undone either and we can't go back and be born into a more nurturing family.  We have to live with some problems.  That's the "no" part. (I'll get to the "yes" part.)

Often, what we are experiencing in the maze is coming to grips with our grandiose illusions about control.  The older we get the more we realize that what we can actually control is only a percentage at best, and not a large one at that.  If you believe that you can (and should) control your way into everything you want and out of everything you don't want, you are deluding yourself.  You are also setting yourself up to become a self-recriminating maze-runner when faced with trouble you can't manipulate away. 

The "yes" part--the good news--is that we do not have to remain trapped in the crazy maze of obsessive rumination and breathless panic.  We can learn to find peace in the midst of life's unsolvables.  But this usually involves the dread injunction "let go."

It seems almost paradoxical to many of us that the First Step in Alcoholics Anonymous famous Twelve-Step recovery program is an admission that we are not in control: "We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable." The "First Tenet" for controllers has always been: "I must remain in control at all times and at all costs--and if I lose control it is because I am not trying hard enough."

Besides releasing our sweaty grip on the controls, escaping maze-induced panic will usually require faith and trust in something bigger than ourselves (no, not the IRS).  AA's second step is: We "Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity." Ouch!  A blow to our very Western ideal of self-sufficiency, yes.  And here we'd been led to believe the tenet "I am the master of my fate and can do all things by myself if I learn how to be strong and perfect the art of using things and people to my advantage."

Finding relief from the panic of the maze sometimes comes as a clear solution to a solvable problem and it's great when that happens.  Sometimes, though, it's about learning to find peace despite imperfect and painful circumstances.  

While this is usually a process, we do not have to be doomed to run until we drop, exhausted, like some poor lab rat chasing cheese and escape.

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