Wednesday, May 8, 2013

#454: Fixing The Plumbing

Original image at Dreamstime
An old college wag used to charm homely freshmen with the line, "Oh, hunny... you're just as pretty as you can be." I was reminded of this when a dear friend at the Y counseled me to stop thinking about "getting well" all the time. "You just keep hammering yourself with that, and you'll never be able to move on." "Wow," I thought to myself. "I'm just as sane as I can be."

I once took a course called Education for Ministry. One of the most important parts of the class was the TR: Theological Reflection. It was a way of analyzing any issue within the biblical framework of Creation, Sin, Judgement, and Redemption. You start by looking at an event or story or scripture and ask, "what is that like?" You develop a metaphor, then through the lens of the paradigm, you find insights into the source material.

So, here is the story:
While driving today, I thought, "I'm having such a hard time isolating why I feel so badly. So, when was the last time I felt really well? Mentally?" My imagination began the long, slow rewind, and came to rest at the most shocking, absurd place imaginable. It is a sunny afternoon. The breeze dances with the curtains in the open windows. Outside, kids are screeching. Dogs barking. Birds singing. Inside, I lie on my bed, looking out into the bright, July air. I am shivering. Thinking of Mrs P. Of Shakespeare. Of running. I am dying of cancer.
I have often wondered why I didn't get depressed during my cancer. It wasn't until my treatment was finished that I felt the wait of loneliness and shadow closing itself around my irradiated heart. Suddenly my day was no longer about this treatment or this bag of drugs or this feeding. It was about waiting for October when the scan would show if I was going to get well, or have to fight another round. When the news of my clear scan finally came... that's when the real funk began. I felt hollow and empty. The battle that had been my life's purpose for so long was over. What the hell was I supposed to do now? After a few weeks of apparently grieving because I was not going to die of cancer, I did two things: I made a date with a therapist, and I joined a gym. 
And in many ways, this current episode feels like the last chapter of a story that started on that day back in July of 2010: the last time I felt really sane.
Now, to find a metaphor. I bounced a lot of ideas around as I drove. What was it like to have something not work, to know that it once did, and to have to figure out how to make it work again? My mind zeroed in on our old house on the North End of Lexington. The previous owners had been big on Do It Yourself, but not so much on Know What You're Doing. The plumbing in the house was a disastrous combination of materials and Jerry-rigged solutions to simple problems. Consequently, it would fail pretty frequently on two particular occasions: when we had guests coming over; or when we were preparing to celebrate a major holiday. Mrs P once rinsed and prepared the Thanksgiving turkey in a stationary tub in the basement, because my midnight efforts to fix the kitchen sink had resulted in a broken pipe and a flooded cellar.

When the plumbing would go wonky, it was always tempting to try a short-cut. Pour something toxic into it. Shove a straightened hanger down the drain. Grab a rubber mallet and bang the pipes in frustration. In the end though, only two solutions ever worked. You could either call Roto-rooter, or you could carefully take the whole mess apart, snake out the gunk, bathe yourself in whatever black ooze gushed out of it, and then put it all back together again. After three or four tries at that, if you were lucky, it all worked good as new again.

And there we have it. A psychotic break is gunked up mental plumbing.

As they were originally designed, the pipes carried water and waste flawlessly, smoothly, silently. The pipes were clean and balanced. They hung straight and true at just the right grade. Lots of fluid  moved easily with only gravity pulling it along toward the treatment plant and ultimately back to the ocean. You just didn't give them a second thought.

And that's the way a healthy mind works, too. Ideas and intuitions flow smoothly through the mind. Waste is carried away. Thoughts and perceptions are clear and move with quiet efficiency as the mind carries them along, learning, gleaning, observing, and then releasing them into the great, universal ocean of thought. When it isn't broken, you don't even think about your mind.

But sometimes, even well-designed plumbing can go south on you. Maybe you pour some bacon grease into the sink, or you accidentally flush a wash cloth or a toothbrush down the toilet. A block forms. Crud gathers. Hair. Cat food. Vegetable peels. Gunk. The space inside the pipe gets smaller. Less water can flow through, and because of the smaller opening, more pressure is created when it does flow. Joints are strained. Long runs are thrown out of balance. Eventually, the pinch point closes completely. Nothing can get through.

Crud can accumulate on the passageways of your mind, too. Memories of failures past. The dread of repeating painful losses. Shame for falling short and letting down the people you love. These little blobs start to cluster together inside your mind like balls of grease and hair in the trap under your kitchen sink. Ideas get stuck. Obsessive thoughts begin to grow. You begin to look for quick, easy fixes - toxic thoughts to pour into your brain and blow the clogs out. And finally, like the clogged pipe, your mind can have so much fear stuck inside that no healthy idea can pass through.

And what does this sin filled world of plumbing look like? Wet. Dirty. Stinky. Cold, soapy water in the kitchen sink that won't drain. Black ooze dripping out at elbows and joints. Sewage floating in the bathtub. These are the consequences of allowing your plumbing to fill with sticky goo.

The mind also springs leaks. Good ideas trickle away unnoticed under the strain of keeping something flowing around the clogs. Soon, the smell of fear is so overpowering that nothing else can cut through. The focus is no longer on moving ideas, learning, observing, growing. Now all energy is focused on the blockage. Emotions explode outward, or are crammed inward in an attempt to force the negativity away. But as time passes, the clog becomes all that there is. The ball of fear not only stops healthy thought, it actually transforms it into fear. Unchecked, this once tiny clot of fear will consume the entire vessel. The mind grows sick and dies.

How then, can the holiday dinner be saved? There is only one way, really. First, stop. Don't panic. Look. Listen. Touch. Smell. Where do you think the problem is? Now, get the tools you need. The wrench. The saw. The glue. The bucket. Rags. Lots of rags. Then, carefully, one step at a time, start taking things apart until you find the blockage. Assume that it won't be in the first place you look. Keep trying. Eventually, you'll get to something that you can reach in with a glove or a screwdriver or a snake and shove out into your bucket. Cold nasty gunk will gush out onto your glasses and up your sleeve. That's OK. That's part of it, too. Now, put everything back together. Careful. Don't hurry. Don't over tighten and break anything. Have Mrs P turn on the water upstairs. It will leak. You knew it would. That's OK. That's part of it. Gently start tightening things until the drips stop. Turn the water on hard, again. Of course it will leak again. Move the bucket and sit down on the step for a while. When you are calm, snug up the wet joints one more time. Keep it up, carefully, calmly, until the pipes run the way they were designed to run. Flawlessly. Smoothly. Without a second thought.

And wouldn't it be great if you could fix your sick mind with a screwdriver and a greasy scrub bucket? There are many more parts here. Stuff you don't want to lose. If you're smart, you'll learn the difference between a Do It Yourself project that you can knock out in a weekend, and a serious problem that you will make a hundred times worse if you try to fix it without help. And sooner or later, you will need help. You can't just ram a snake through your mind and shove damaging thoughts out the other end into a dirty pail. You need to go carefully. There's a lot of pieces, remember? Things you don't want to lose. Things you love. Things you're proud of. Things you can teach to someone who needs them. Getting rid of a clog of fear means identifying the thing. What is it made of? Loneliness? Failure? Humiliation? Judgement? You can't just close your eyes when you clean our your mind. You have to look at the stuff, like a surgeon snipping out cancer around an artery. You're going to have to see things for what they are. Phantoms. Ghosts. Booger Men that you made up in your mind so your fears would make sense. The Things That Might Happen that overshadow the things that actually ARE.

Sometimes it takes more than just cleaning out the junk thoughts. Sometimes you have to change the kind of stuff you're putting into your mind in the first place. Look for physical comfort in exercise instead of substances. Find stimulation from carefully crafted ideas instead of cynical sound bites. Embrace the creature God made you to be, instead of struggling to become the fictional character you think will please someone else. Will yourself to ask for help instead of insisting on going it alone. Replace self-loathing with self-respect.

And that's how a greasy clog taught me the way back to sanity. It isn't going to be easy. Pipes are going to crack and leak. My shirt is going to get ruined. Dinner is going to be late. But if I am careful... and humble... and gentle... and loving with myself, I will be able to clean away the phantoms and ghosts that are blocking my mind. I'm going to make mistakes. I'll probably lose some things that I treasure along the way. I may even feel like I'm going backwards, sometimes.

But I believe in that dying man on his bed who dreamed of running a marathon. I remember him. He was barely awake, but his mind was clear. He knew why God had created him, and he didn't let anything else pull his attention away from that purpose... not even death.

Here on my bed, when I look out my window, I see men and women with cancer. Some of them are dying. Some will beat it. Some are already gone. They are alone and afraid that life is never going to feel good again, that their bodies will never feel like their own again. They are out there, outside my curtains, waiting patiently for me to heal so I can help them find their own way. That's why God saved me. That's why I'm not going to let a sick mind kill me any more than some sick cells could.

Because I need them as much as they need me.

And one day soon, I'll have another tee-shirt in my wardrobe.

One leaky pipe at a time.


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