Asleep at the Wheel & Out of Focus

(1533 words – 7 1/2 minute read)

This therapy thing is not a complicated deal once you get the hang of it. It’s probably because over the years most of the ‘technique’ has become internalized, a natural thing – like knowing your name.

A client was referred to me by Dr. Thompson, our prescribing psychologist at the Behavioral Health Center at our local hospital.

He was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). I forget if he was taking meds for it or had refused the drugs. Clients who had refused medication therapy were often referred to me. I like to know what the real situation is. I have enough confidence in my ability to help them not to want what is going on with them obscured by dulling medications. Otherwise I’m only as skilled as the social workers in the clinic: checking on how the ‘meds’ are working, and dispensing encouraging advice.

I once had a client who had to hold onto the walls to stay upright and couldn’t form words easily. Time to ease up on the meds!

Anyway, let’s call our client John, in his 30’s and single. He couldn’t leave his house in the morning to go to work without checking the locks so many times he was frequently late for work and worried all day that the house was open or his dog would get out of the yard.

In the first session I addressed his situation as a memory problem. I figured that if John had a way of knowing he had locked his door, then he would be relieved of one aspect of his anxiety.

We easily confuse actions repeated on a daily basis. “Am I remembering the time I did it yesterday or today?”

I had that with an outdoor shower we have. You turn on a pump that draws the hot springs mineral water from a well in our garden. The pump switch is a short distance from the shower, and, a few times over the years, one of us has forgotten to turn off the pump when leaving the shower and hours later the shower is till running.

Not the end of the world, but annoying. I got into the habit of telling myself out loud “It is now Wednesday evening and I am turning off the shower”. My memory of turning off the shower had gotten mixed up with all the other times I had turned it off. Raising my awareness of what I was doing by saying it out loud was enough for me to know I had turned off the shower. Asleep at the wheel. Out of focus. Join the club.

 Things we do frequently are put on automatic and not remembered, even a few seconds later. Did I just turn off the gas? Is the front door locked? Memory is a weird thing; fragile and frequently inaccurate, and yet without it we don’t know who we are.

I have worked with dementia patients. As memory fades so does their sense of who they are. At some point a tipping point is reached and they slip over the edge and are no longer aware THAT they are.

All that is left are automatic behaviors, masquerading as a person.

Aware of Being Aware

Parents, teachers, gurus they all tell us to “Wake Up!”

G.I. Gurdjieff was an early guru of mine and I did an exercise of his in which I tried to remain constantly aware of what I was doing for one day.

I started first thing in the morning and had with me a little notebook in which I made a mark whenever I realized I had forgotten that I was supposed to be remembering what I was doing.

“Aware of being aware” is what it’s all about. After an hour or so I had pages of ticks in my notebook, at least fifty. It was rather discouraging. I resigned myself to a life of somnolence with occasional stabs at the Awakened State.


So I had John get a small notebook in which to write the day, date and time he locked his door.

I told John to mark his locking the door in his notebook with the date and to tell himself out loud he had locked it on that day and to stop and look at the locked door and fix the picture of having locked it that day, there and then, in his mind. It took just an extra moment or so for him to do this new awareness routine.

The next session he said it had worked, and for the most part he was certain that he had locked his door and no longer had to go home in the middle of the day to check it.

This is a good trick/technique to use when an uncertain memory is involved; and, now that he knew it, John could use it in other situations.


But, like many things, it can be overdone. I’ve been keeping a journal for the past fifteen years. Every morning I start off by writing the day and date and how I slept, if it’s raining (hardly ever in New Mexico) or sunny. Who cares how I slept or if it’s raining? I made a stab at stopping doing that, but I couldn’t; and it’s not such a big deal anyway. It’s a way to start the day. After that I write more interesting stuff. It has become important to write down the major events of the day. It gives them a certain validity, a sense of having happened. Otherwise my life feels like a daily evaporation. Some day I’ll go through this box of journals or else I’ll get up one day and burn them all. The past is dead, long live the moment!


Swallows gone – so soon
I thought it was forever
My endless Summer


Back To John

So far so good. We had solved the memory problem. The next session I asked him when this anxiety started. It was several years ago. “What happened around that time?” I asked. John told me a friend of his had burgled his home and taken some things of value. Wow! Easy. It was sitting right there. I wonder why John didn’t see the connection? it’s so obvious. Never mind. Easy to handle.

We ran the incident of the burglary and desensitized it. By “running the incident” I mean that I had John return to the incident in his mind and experience every part of it clearly, bringing all the unconscious memory into consciousness so that it no longer affected him adversely


Doing this requires some skill. When done right a traumatic incident can be completely neutralized. If you get it wrong you’ve just triggered the trauma all over again.

The trick is to identify the “Oh Shit!” moments. The moments when your nervous system twitches and maybe frizzles a fuse: When a near miss could have killed you, when you hear that someone close to you died. Those are the big ones.

But every day has moments when the smooth flow of our expected reality is disjointed, disrupted or disturbed.

“Old age, sickness and death. Change and impermanence.” said the Buddha. He was onto something. For good reason we resist this downward slide and try to better our condition. But sometimes the shit hits the fan and it disrupts our nervous system so much that whenever we are reminded of it we freeze all over again.

And the hooks that hold it in place are the “Oh Shit!” moments in the incident. The freak-outs, large and small. They stick with us.

The only way not to experience trauma in a life is to be in a coma – and that’s a trauma in itself.

To do a thorough handling of your life you list every unwanted sensation, emotion feeling and incident you’ve ever experienced. Everything that stands between you and happiness.

Then you run out the charge on each item so that it no longer has an adverse effect on you. That’s the plan. It’s not always as easy as it sounds. The mind can be intricate and tricky. That’s what makes this all so much fun.


Anyway, back to John. It probably took a few sessions to clear the trauma of that incident. With that handled I felt we had just gotten started; but sometimes just to get off the ledge you are on – hovering over the void – is all someone wants.

The Next Step

Once you have stopped the demons from chasing you it is time to chase the demons. But that’s not everybody’s choice and it was not John’s. He was satisfied with the results he had gotten clearing the trauma of the robbery. He ended the therapy and got on with his life. Fair enough.

Dr. Thompson thought there was more to do, and he was right. Was there something that predisposed him to react in this way?

But I am there for the client and not for myself. I might be curious to see what else is going on, but if John is not interested in going there, then it’s none of my business. I don’t pry unless invited. That’s it folks!