Read an Excerpt
Keep It Simple & Sane
Freeing Yourself from Addictive Thinking
By Barb Rogers
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC Copyright © 2008 Barb Rogers
All rights reserved.
Keep It Mentally Simple
A ring of the bell, A knock at the door, and life can change forever.
What Were You Thinking?
We are the great thinkers of the world. By that, I don't mean that what we think is necessarily great, but that we think a great deal of the time. No matter what we are doing, the mind continues to ponder, imagine, ruminate, cogitate, consider, and contemplate. It is one busy little organ. Where do all these thoughts come from?
As far as anyone knows for certain, you enter this world with a clean slate. However, more recently, I understand there are people experimenting with influencing the mind of a baby while it's still in the womb. They talk to the fetus, play specific music, even try to teach it ... as if this little person isn't going to have enough to think about once he or she gets here! I wonder if these people consider the fact that if the fetus can hear and learn, then it is hearing and learning all the time, not just when the researcher is speaking to it. There I go thinking again.
When we first start out, how we think and what we think about the world, ourselves, and others, is formed by those who are significant in our lives. They bring with them what they were taught, their life experiences, and their specific beliefs. To fit into the community of family, we tend to accept these truths as fact. Why wouldn't we believe them, even when they tell us negative things about ourselves, others, the world around us? These are the people who are supposed to love us, protect us, nurture us, and prepare us for life as adults.
School begins, and we enter a community of peers, teachers, and discover that not everyone thinks like we do, like our family. It can be a time when confusion, frustration, and conflict begin.
Having spent a great deal of my pre-school years as a river rat, barefoot and free, frolicking in the sunshine, splashing in the cold water of central Illinois's Kaskaskia River, playing on the old covered bridge, it was devastating when I began school. I was not prepared. There were rules, so many rules, and so many strangers. It was the early 1950s, and girls were required to wear dresses and act ladylike. I had no idea what that meant. However, they stuffed me into a secondhand dress, white socks, and shoes. Accustomed to bib overalls, shorts, and pants, I ended up tearing every one of the high-waisted dresses at the waist by continually pulling on them. My white socks were always black because I took my shoes off every chance I got. I was more comfortable with boys because they didn't mind exploring, defying, or getting dirty.
By the time I entered the third grade, I believed I was a poor, black child. I didn't know we were poor until we lived in town, on the wrong side of the tracks. If I hadn't been so dark-complected, if my mother hadn't attempted a home permanent that turned into an afro, if we hadn't lived in an all-black neighborhood, I could have been white trash. Back then, that was a step up. But no, I joined my ethnic community. The problem was, I didn't belong to the African American community, and they let me know it. I was a girl, but I didn't think like other girls. I was white, but I didn't look white. The conflict between what I thought and the reality that was my life grew.
As important as it is to find your place in your family, it is just as important to have a sense of belonging to your peer community and your ethnic community. When you don't have that, you begin to think something is wrong with you, that you are not worthy. From that point on, life becomes very complicated.
At some point we got a television. That was a big deal in the 1950s. Little did I know the impact it would have on my life. I sat mesmerized by the small black-and-white shows and the commercials. Fascinated by the products and ideas on the commercials, I began to think. Who got to have those things? Why weren't we like the families at the table eating a special breakfast cereal together? Television families didn't treat their kids like I was treated. They taught them lessons in a nice way. There was no screaming, no hitting, no being shunned or locked away. They didn't tell them they were lazy, stupid, or ugly, that if they had a brain they would take it out and play with it.
My mind told me that if we could just return to the river, to the simplicity of our lives, away from strangers with their different ideas, away from televisions, electricity, running water, flush toilets, I could stop worrying, stop thinking, stop trying to be something or someone that I wasn't. It was my earliest real thought of escape.
I simply wanted to put on my baggy bibs, feel the sun on my face, the sand between my toes, and watch the river flow. I wanted to go back to that place where I knew I was safe, where I no longer had to think about how I looked, how I acted, what I should be learning, and where I didn't have to care about what we had and didn't have compared to others.
I blamed my parents. It wasn't my idea to change our life. I didn't have a choice. They dragged me along with them, and my misery was all their fault. I would never forgive them.
It's amazing how you can hold on to a thought or idea for years, and let it continue to affect your life, keeping you from the very things you thought you desired most. If the thought or idea stays in your brain long enough, it begins to atrophy, becoming a degenerative disease that keeps you sick.
By age 10, the seeds of my degenerative disease of the mind were planted. I thought all the time, and all I thought about was myself. What was I thinking? That because I was poor, I would never have those things that made other people happy. That because my parents didn't seem to like me, I was unworthy of love. That because of how I looked, I would never fit in with others. That because I was stupid, I would never succeed. Any attention I hoped to get would be because I did something bad.
The only hope I had was to escape. The problem was that no matter how far I went, where I ended up, or who I was with, I took my diseased mind right along with me into every situation, and every relationship. Each time I failed, every time I gave in to fear of trying, when I did bad things to get the attention I craved so badly, I nurtured the seeds and allowed them to take root.
Like the old, dirty, dusty clutter that can accumulate in a house, the stuff you don't need but are afraid to get rid of in case you might need it someday, those old thoughts can pile up. Why do we keep them? The only use they have is an excuse not to be responsible, not to move forward, not to risk facing the unknown. When fear strikes, it's comforting to know that we can go wallow in that old stuff, surround ourselves with memories, even bad ones, and justify our fear. After all, if we can hold on to the past, those old ideas, we can't be blamed for anything we've done, or are going to do. We can become the great thinking martyr.
What were you thinking about yourself, others, the world around you, at age 10? How about age 16 ... 20 ... 25? What old thoughts are you holding on to? Do you suffer from the mind clutter disease? It is a symptomatic disease that shows itself through poor self-esteem, irrational insecurities and fears, and low self-worth. Untreated, the results of the disease may be a discontented, frustrated, unhappy human being, who is stuck in outdated, unhealthy ideas.
The brain is a miraculous organ when it is not clogged up. However, like every other amazing machine, when there is a problem, you must identify it, figure out a way to fix it so it doesn't reoccur, and then remedy the problem. The next step is to keep it running by consistent use ... never letting it get clogged up again.
I was well into my thirties when I stopped numbing my brain with mind-altering substances to escape my thoughts, and decided there had to be a better way to live, to think, to function. It was time to delve into those nooks and crannies of my mind, to discover what was there, and to clean out the old, useless rubbish from my past. It had been piling up for a long time. Some of it was really stuck. It would take some time and effort to accomplish a clean sweep.
It can take anything from self-examination to therapy to arrest the disease, depending on how far along it is and how embedded the old thoughts are in your mind. Before you run off and pay thousands of dollars for extensive therapy, there are some simple exercises you can try yourself that may work for you.
Imagine yourself as an explorer. What you will be exploring throughout this book are the caves in your brain. You will be shining a light on all those dark corners to see what you can discover. Those old ideas can only affect you as long as they can hide in the shadows; when they are brought out into the light of day, they lose their power.
Are you ready to clear out the clutter? Grab your flashlight, take a deep breath, and prepare yourself to delve into those areas of your mind where you've been storing old thoughts and ideas that are holding you back.
Don't "Should" on Yourself
Images! They are everywhere. If you enjoy browsing magazines and catalogues, watching television, listening to the radio, and scanning the Internet, you know what I mean. Even a Sunday drive is filled with signs and billboards. Every day, in every way, you are shown what you "should" look like, what you "should" strive to obtain, what you "should" think and believe, how you "should" act, to be a successful member of society.
The use of images in this way is called, "social engineering," which is essentially calculating a scheme and manipulating or directing an enterprise through skillful or artful contrivance. That's quite a mouthful. Put simply, it means to take a person, product, or idea, and figure out a way to make it acceptable, even desirable, to as many people as possible.
You might be wondering why social engineering is something for concern. How does it affect you? The effect may be greater than you think. People want to fit in with the society in which they are living. What happens if they don't believe they are a part of it all, or are treated like they are not?
The fallout can be as simple as an unhappy, unfulfilled life, or so severe that it results in mental illness, crime, suicide, addictions, and other obsessive behavior. If you think I exaggerate, perhaps you haven't shared my experiences. Allow me to take you along, not only on my personal journey, but into the hospitals, jails and prisons, and treatment facilities that are filled to overflowing with those who figured out what life "should" be, but couldn't figure out how to accomplish it.
One definition of a victim in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary is "one that is acted on and usually adversely affected by a force or agent." I began life as a victim. I was a victim of poverty, of angry parents in an unhappy alliance that resulted in neglect and abuse, of not believing I had any worth. When I got to school, the idea that I was not worthy was further pounded home by other children, even teachers, through thoughtless words and actions. I did not belong ... not at home, not at school, not anywhere.
Before I hit puberty, I'd figured some things out in my little victimized brain. I would never look the way I "should," the way others looked. I didn't think like others. My life was not like my peers, not like the families I saw on television, in magazines. The only power I had, the only time I felt an inkling of love, was through sex. Power came because I was the great keeper of secrets. Because I was such a victim, feeling powerless most of the time, I grabbed on to anything, many times bad things, that made me feel like I had some control.
If you think sex is not a powerful tool, pay attention to the movies and commercials on television for one day. I'm amazed at the number and variety of products, from mustard to brakes, that are still sold by using sex. Apparently sex sells or advertisers wouldn't be using it.
I didn't like sex, but it was the tool I could use to get my needs, no matter how skewed, met. As I've worked with others over the years who have also prostituted themselves, I hear the same story. They used sex for power, and substituted it for love. For most of them, including myself, love is either not real or too frightening to consider. To truly care about another human being is to lose power and invite pain.
As if you think I couldn't sink any lower, because I hated what I believed I had to do, I sought mind-numbing substances. There was a time when I would put anything in my mouth that would shut out the truth. Thank God I was afraid of needles, or you would have found me in some alley shooting up.
I had a baby before I had a driver's license. It seems odd now. I didn't know how to drive a car, but I thought I could mother a child. Talk about not thinking right. But for the first time in my life, when I looked into the face of my child, I knew love. Babies don't know any better. They love unconditionally. Tears are welling in my eyes just thinking about the day I gave birth, that moment, and what was to follow.
Addicts in recovery will tell you that it was that first high that got them hooked, and that they spent years trying to recapture that feeling. For me, and many others, having a baby was just like that. I told myself it was okay to keep having babies because that's what women "should" do, but really I was chasing the feeling.
My poor babies failed to thrive and died in infancy, except for my eldest son, who would live to be my caretaker until his early death at age 15. What a horrible burden to put on such small shoulders.
Living in Your Head Can Be Dangerous
The older I got, the more "shoulds" there were. I failed at all of them. The conflict between what I "should" be and all the failures drove me to a mental hospital. I was 25 years old and had lost my mind. After my release, clean of alcohol and drugs, except the ones prescribed by a psychiatrist, I spent years in therapy. I was shocked, drugged, analyzed, hypnotized, and later educated.
It was when I chose to go off the prescription drugs that the crap hit the fan and blew right back into my face. I "should" have been a better person, daughter, wife, mother, friend, employee, even patient. My mind would scream, "I want to ... I want to be part of you, to understand how I'm supposed to live, to think, to be ... I want to, but I don't know how." It was time to face the mirror, and it wasn't a pretty picture. How in the world would I ever resolve my past, forgive myself, and learn to live the way I "should"?
Living from the neck up, in avoidance of feelings, is an old trick victims use for survival. Because I couldn't stand the truth, the memories, my thoughts, I returned to mind-numbing substances—and not the ones prescribed by a doctor. Although, if they were handy, I'd take them, too, whether they were prescribed for me or someone else. Believe me when I tell you, you wouldn't have wanted me near your medicine cabinet.
I knew, on some level, that if I ever allowed my emotions to invade my mind, they would overwhelm me, and I would lose my mind again. I lived on the edge of insanity for years.
So often, when I work with addicts or victims of abuse, I tell them they have to stop living in their head. It's a dangerous place to be. Thoughts are like a pressure valve. If pushed down and held in long enough, eventually they will explode in unhealthy ways. This reminds me of a man I've known for many years, both during the time we were using and when we got clean and sober. A victim of childhood abuse, who became a raging alcoholic and drug addict, in and out of this institution and that, he finally sought help.
He has been clean and sober for many years now, but he still lives in his head, afraid that if he ever reveals his secrets, his feelings, it will kill him. For years he's tried to be what a person in recovery "should" be. However, there is conflict between his thoughts and his actions. Even though, as far as I know, he has never used again, his life is one disaster after another.
He has pushed away everyone who cares for him, is not able to have a long-lasting relationship, or even friendship, and others avoid him at every opportunity. There is a hurt, frustrated, angry little boy living in his mind, in charge of his grown-up body. If he continues to live like this, who only knows what will happen. One thing I do know is that it won't be good.
An obsession of the mind can be as destructive as a cancer eating away at your body. It will clutter up every dream you have, every goal you've set for yourself, every relationship you've wished for, and any hope for peace and happiness.
Excerpted from Keep It Simple & Sane by Barb Rogers. Copyright © 2008 Barb Rogers. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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