compulsive fixing

Saving Laury

7:50 AM

A wise friend of mine once asked me, "You know you aren't Jesus, right?" It is, of course, telling that he even felt he had to ask the question.

There's nothing dysfunctional about comforting a friend, grieving with another human being over a terrible loss, or checking in with a loved one who is encountering challenges or stressors. That's what love looks like.

But compulsion and love aren't the same thing, and when there is an unreasonable amount of anxiety attached to the need to help, I might need to recognize a familiar pattern, and the potential fallout.

I'm pretty empathetic by nature, but I also I tend to get tangled up in compulsive "fixing," a dysfunctional, misplaced sense of responsibility to over-manage the lives of people I care about. It isn't that helpful.

Why do I throw words at situations I have no idea how to repair? And why on earth would I entertain the illusion that I have the power to save people from their personal struggles? It's hard to explain.

My compulsion can come from the general direction of compassion, but it can also be an unconscious attempt to alleviate my own anxiety by grabbing the wheel of someone else's car: save Laury by saving others. It's codependent and unintentionally insulting; this harmless little idea that I have the power to help presumes that the person engaged in the struggle is, in some way, helpless. It also negates the presence of a power greater than ourselves, God in us, enabled by our awareness, acceptance and surrender.

Being compulsive about trying to "help" or "fix" has been difficult for this girl to surrender. Lately, I have been reflecting on "Baby Jessica" McClure, a miracle story, and a cautionary tale for "fixers," like me.

In 1987, in Midland, Texas, an 18 month-old girl named Jessica McClure, later known as "Baby Jessica," fell down an 8-inch wide, 22-foot deep well in her aunt's backyard. While reporters and the local rescue community along with friends and family camped in the area, the entire nation sat glued to the story on CNN for 58 hours as rescue professionals did what they had to do to access the injured toddler. I remember being initially elated when Baby Jessica was heard from deep inside the hole, even if it tormented me to hear her rescuers describe her moaning and intermittently singing Winnie the Pooh.

The depth of the well, the rocky soil surrounding the well, and the width of the hole created a challenge for the rescuers. As observers, we couldn't bear to imagine what might become of this helpless little girl while the team of brave and intelligent men and women problem-solved, risking potential failure.

"Because she had fallen so deep into the earth -- beneath layers of rock harder than granite -- and because the diameter of the well was so narrow, the rescue mission was extraordinarily difficult. Using a large rat-hole rig, a machine normally used to plant telephone poles in the ground, rescue teams drilled a 30-inch wide, 29-foot deep hole parallel to the well. They then began the difficult process of drilling a horizontal tunnel between the two wells about two feet below where Baby Jessica was trapped." Biography, Baby Jessica

And America wept when Baby Jessica's exhausted and heroic team emerged with her, swaddled in white with her teeny arms caked in dirt.

Why am I telling this story?

For me, this is the dramatic and true image that serves me best when I have an impulse to "rescue."

No matter how empathetic I can be, and no matter how much I want to help someone who is struggling, there is always a possibility that my rescue attempts or suggestions might do more harm than good. I am not in that person's shoes, and I am not God; there's too much I don't know. I can make the mistake of projecting my experience onto someone else, guesstimating a diagnosis and prescription that entirely misses the location of the well into which that person has fallen. Or, worse than that, in my attempts to help, I could put undue pressure on the situation, compromising the existing structure of his or her "well."

Of course, I don't believe I should just walk away, any more than anyone would have suggested that those paramedics should have walked away from a crying toddler. So, what to do?

Clearly, there isn't an action plan that covers every situation, and I'm not an expert on trauma and suffering, but using the Baby Jessica story as a model, there are a couple of ideas I'm working with at the moment.

  • The whole nation was watching and praying for that little girl, and that's not a bad idea. I pray I can be a carrier of comfort, peace and healing, and that I won't trip over too many assumptions. I am also trying to remember that I want to be a vessel through which love can flow, not the captain of someone else's ship. 
  • McClure's family didn't try to pull the baby out on their own. They called for help. They built a team, and although family and friends remained present and alert, and they offered support, they didn't drive the rescue. 
  • Later, when an action plan was in place, and potential dangers to Jessica were considered and accounted for, the team dug a parallel hole; it enabled them to get as close as possible without causing more harm in order to observe her, to communicate with her, and to comfort her. 
I have neurotically reached for the wheel from the passenger seat, many times, nurturing the illusion that I can help, mostly because I can't stand it when someone I love is hurting. So I keep giving advise, benign comfort, and mostly, words.

Lots of words.

Our family members and dear friends who have found themselves in the throes of suffering won't always tell you the truth here, but listening to all of the words thrown at them in an attempt to make the visitor more comfortable in the presence of pain is exhausting and most of the time, it isn't the words that help. It's the listening. It's connection. It's love.

Author and teacher Parker J. Palmer, who has shared generously about suffering from debilitating depression more than once, offers this image of compassion in the presence of suffering.

"In the midst of my depression, I had a friend who took a different tack. Every afternoon at around four o'clock, he came to me, sat me in a chair, removed my shoes, and massaged my feet. He hardly said a word, but he was there, he was with me. He was a lifeline for me, a link to the human community and thus to my own humanity. He had no need to fix me. He knew the meaning of compassion."

Maintaining compassion and being present when someone is hurting may be the best medicine for our friends and loved ones who have to walk through tragedy, reconcile painful losses or bear the burden of looking for solutions to seemingly unsolvable situations. I'm hoping that I can make this transition, and that I will find the grace I need to help me to disengage from the compulsive need to fix.

Parker J. Palmer, The Active Life: A Spirituality of Work, Creativity and Caring, 1990, HarperCollins
Image: Baby Jessica, Newseum

on appetite and conscious contact

Conduit, not Vessel

4:53 PM


art by Rachael Ibanez
Back in the 80s when I was offering music in churches, I used to sing a sweet devotional song called, “Make Me a Vessel,” written by David Baroni and D. Goins.

The chorus, below, repeats a request for transformation:

"Make me a vessel
Emptied of my selfish pride
Make me a vessel
Then pour your spirit inside"

The song's cry to be filled up resonated with my intuitive sense that I was so very empty. From an old journal, and a poem called,"Of Men and Boys," 1996:

"The depth and the weight of being near me
is like living with a bull in a barn full of feed
Hungry, hungry, I know what I need
especially when I see it, or feel it, or touch it."

My relationship to the space I refer to as the Empty has evolved, but in my twenties I experienced it as terrifying. With mental imagery that depicted a vase-like clay pot that was dry and useless, it seemed that this soulish container must have been created to be filled, right? Clearly, I felt something was missing, but I had no idea of the inherent selfishness that is conveyed in the vessel metaphor.

Fill me, Spirit of God , that I may...feel full?                                                                                           

In my mind, I have always been defined by my appetite(s).With an eating disorder, addictions, and debilitating anxiety issues, I grew up spinning the baton in the “not-enough-stuff" parade, evidenced in “Ghostlands,” an angsty but honest piece I wrote in DeSoto, TX, around 1997:

"I'm searching the Ghostlands - life without living
Touch with no sensation - food, without filling
Comb the dry sands for an honest feeling
For the cold slap of life against my skin, I'm coming in."

Aware of my own deficiencies both in giving and receiving, I spent decades just refining my definition of what I perceived to be the problem. Yep...I’m stuck, empty and depressed. The first step, as they say, is admitting you have a problem.

The truth is, I didn’t know what to do, so I kept filling the empty any way I could. Of course, some of those choices were temporarily satisfying, but destructive. Whether it was Froot Loops or eventually, Norco, there was never enough, and I am, by nature, a hoarder. I would instinctively try to bury myself in a treasure trove of Nestle’s Crunch (or whatever) to ensure never-to-be-depleted back-up supplies, but every step toward “more” led me deeper into the ghostlands.

After a frustratingly circular-yet-finally-effective decade of therapy, I jumped off of the merry-go-round, admitting myself into a pain treatment center to assess whether my perpetual pain, and daily use of prescribed pain medication, was due to a serious physical condition (which I feared more than anything), or whether the pain was more somatic, echoing psychic damage from years in a traumatic relationship. Of course, either way, I had decided: the Norco was out.

My retreat literally changed my life trajectory by magically, spiritually, shifting my focus. I came back to my beautiful home town and found a program to learn how to behave like a grownup. I also quit stuffing Lucky Charms (a metaphor) into the void. Most significantly, I engaged in a seedling meditation practice that teaches me to be where I am, and to be content. On the road, but I still had a long way to go.

Continually uncomfortable, I began to gradually become aware of, and address, my attachments and unhealthy behaviors. Months after my new game plan was in play, I wrote "Twist the Leaky Valve."

Twist the Leaky Valve
July 2013

Consider the distance in time
between longing and satisfaction

Time is tubing, or transport,
influenced by atmosphere, 
pressure, position
volume and mass, and

if we knew the right combination
to initiate release...
wouldn't we climb, run, dive, lift
and hold our attention as long as it takes?

And what price wouldn't I pay
to twist the leaky valve,
throw back my head,
and open my mouth?

It was yet another look at the Empty. In my mind's eye, the creative inspiration was that of a leaky old rusty kitchen faucet with a slow, steady drip that promises the existence of water, but is so far, frustratingly stuck. Eventually, it occurred to me that pipes with valves don’t really contain a thing, like a vessel would; pipes are more like channels. Conduit. How had this escaped my attention before?

I had been struggling with meditation and prayer, distracted by the aftermath of past relationships and damage that I had participated in, and couldn't...undo. After writing about the leaky valve, sitting on that pillow in front of my fireplace, I allowed myself to just sit with regret and sadness, profoundly and permanently aware that there would be always be scars, scrapes and scratches. A moment of acceptance...and the valve opened up a little. I sobbed, grieving my losses and pouring out stuffed emotion that had been blocked while I was still trying to "crack the code," to solve the puzzle of the past like it was a Rubric's Cube. Watered, and surprisingly at peace, I felt more free, and in the days following, I even think I was able to be more present. The channel had had widened just a bit.

I remember writing my friend Dave Brisbin, rattled and excited, as if I was the first person to see this. I told him that it seemed to me that conscious contact, or true spiritual connection, must flow very much like water. It isn’t about containing the flow; it’s about surrendering to it, letting it move through us. He was kind enough not to refer to the canon of spiritual literature that already exists on this topic.

And what price wouldn’t I pay to twist the leaky valve, throw my head back, and open my mouth? 

Well, it isn’t exactly a transaction, and now, the target is to try and stay as open as possible. That presence isn't mine to control or contain.

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