One of the interesting things about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is that you can’t think about it too much. You have to do it. Hence the acronym ACT, to be spoken as the word. If you try to understand it with your mind alone, you’ll get stuck because the mind has too many blinders.
I recall my encounter with a pit bull a few years ago because the incident seems like a good metaphor for my long struggles with depression. After the surprise attack when my wife and I were out walking our dogs, I managed to pin the intruding pit bull to the ground. The danger was under control, and my wife could take our dogs to safety.
But then I was stuck. With arms and knees pinning down the beast, I had to stay right there. I couldn’t move or relax my grip. It’s a good ACT analogy.
Controlled by the Dog
If you think of the dog as depression (no, it was not black but a rather pleasant yellow-brown), I had succeeded in controlling it completely. But you could also say that the dog was controlling me. I couldn’t move from that position without releasing him and setting the danger free. My life at that moment was dominated by the struggle to control and suppress.
In ACT you try to change your life not by controlling symptoms but by increasing psychological well-being and flexibility. And what does that mean? This is the tricky part. You focus on what’s most important in your life, what you value most, and take steps to live those values. Do things. The more you dwell on definitions and explanations, the more firmly your depressive mind has you.
The mind wraps me in verbal and intellectual ropes that help me pin down the beast I am trying to control. Instead of focusing on what I want out of life, I’m learning new methods to get rid of symptoms. The problem is those methods don’t work when I’m measuring wellness in terms of avoiding what I don’t want my life to be.
So it’s better to go to analogies and metaphors instead of labels and explanations. The point is that I don’t want to spend my life sitting on the dog. I want to have the freedom to lead the sort of life I want.
Mind in Command
My problem is like the trouble I always had when I tried to ski. I don’t like sliding at high speed down icy trails because I’m afraid I will lose control and fall, or just slam into a tree. I like one step at a time, pick the direction, set my feet on steady ground, and off I go, one foot in front of the other.
That gives me a certain kind of control. My mind relaxes because it has plenty of time to identify each thing it encounters. It has time to inventory, react and tell my body when to go around obstacles. It enjoys the top-down command.
Skiing needs a different kind of control. It’s less in your mind and more in your body. Your body needs to crouch, bend, shift its weight a little this way, a little that. It finds a different rhythm and trusts itself to adapt even before your mind has time to catch up.
But I always tried to control skiing the way I controlled walking. One step at a time. Can’t be done. You can’t break down the flow of skiing into separate steps. That’s why I’d fall and generally limp downhill far behind everyone else. Not much fun.
Moving Like Music
I had the same problem trying to learn to play the clarinet or the saxophone. I thought of it as learning a series of notes, each with its special fingering, and then playing them in rapid succession to get music. But one note at a time won’t do it.
The music is a single sound flowing out of the horn that you modulate with vibrating reed and variations of air flow responding to your fingertips.
Smooth, flowing movements at a good speed, not one note or one step at a time. The mind has to give up its control over reviewing and packaging each moment. It has to stop evaluating, and I have to stop believing that I must do things one way and avoid the risks of trying something different.
Using up my energy and mental focus controlling depression isn’t what I want. Doing things that have meaning in my life is what I’m really after.
My mind restrains with single steps and isolated words. My life wants the flowing sound and the sliding motion.
Fear of Change
I’ve been working fairly well with ACT and other approaches that emphasize mindful acceptance, but this week I’ve gotten stuck again. Every now and then I get to a point where I seem to have done all the homework, mastered a lot of new ideas and started putting them into practice, only to find my mind pushing back and going on strike.
I have to stop holding on to crutches, close the books, shut down the computer and let myself relax my need to control what I do. It’s time to take action, to do something different, start sliding down an unfamiliar hillside instead of marching along well-mapped streets.
My mind wants to hold on and explain, define, categorize and finally declare that the path is safe for travel. The rest of me that includes this busy mind is saying we can do this differently if you’d stop holding back. Sometimes, the need for control wins out, sometimes I can move into a freer zone. But there are times when I’m caught right between the two, and I shut down.
It reminds me of the Hitchcock film, Vertigo. It’s about a man who falls into dizzying vertigo when he tries to possess the dream woman of his life. He persuades a woman to change every detail of her appearance until she fits the image of his obsession, but ultimately he loses her as his mind briefly spins away and the stable structure of reality seems to collapse beneath him.
I get to these moments where my mind literally starts shutting down. Consciousness dims, and sleep starts to take over. There’s a dizzying step my mind won’t take, and everything goes gray. I lose my bearings and blank out.
It’s a crisis of weakening control of the measured one-step-at-a-time way of living. I go through a lot of backsliding like this, and I have to keep reminding myself that this doesn’t mean I’m failing or not doing recovery right. It’s simply part of the process. Not so much fun, but there it is.
What do you do when progress seems to stop and you start to feel lost again? Do you have a way of reminding yourself that this is just what changing for the better is like? Sometimes the fear of change seems more real than the prospect of living well again.