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Crazy As a Jaybird – Sane Reasons for Some Crazy Behaviour

If I am violently sick whenever I eat rice pudding, does it mean I’ve got a screw loose? Does it mean I’m crazy if as soon as I have fallen in love I immediately start to destroy the relationship? Am I on the verge of madness if I get an uncontrollable panic attack every time I hear the tune Lonely Ballerina?

Most of us have some really crazy behaviour or feelings. But it doesn’t mean we have anything wrong with our mental health. This may seem like a contradiction, but weird behaviour may mean our mind is working efficiently and according to plan. All it means is that at some time in our life connections have been made that produce behaviour that in the present circumstances seems completely irrational.

If we experience apparently crazy responses to events, then we may even think of ourselves as neurotic. But what does that mean?

One summer I was standing on a beach with my children. Our family dog, Merlin, was relaxed happily nearby watching us. The sun was getting lower and to catch some of the waning heat I moved to a large rock nearby and leaned back on it. Immediately Merlin looked anxious. He got up and looked at me, obviously disturbed. Then unable to take the panic he was feeling any longer, he bolted from the beach. Despite urgent and forceful shouts for Merlin to stop, sit, come back, he disappeared at top speed, with me after him, worried about roads he would run into. I eventually caught him a mile further along, heading home.

Why would my leaning on a rock spook Merlin? Was he crazy? No he was completely sane, and fortunately I fully understood what he was doing. As soon as he bolted I remembered a similar time two years earlier when he had rushed from the same beach like he was running from hell. It was winter and two of my young sons and I had cleaned up the rubbish deposited on the beach by winter storms. We had piled it together and made a bonfire. To add to the fun I had shown my sons how, if you put empty aerosols on the fire, they exploded with a thunderous explosion. To avoid danger we had used the large rock as cover, and at the time I had leaned on it in much the same way as I had that summer afternoon. After three such explosions Merlin could take it no longer and fled. So my once more leaning on it had triggered the old fear that explosions were about to start again. That was too much.

Pavlov pointed all this out to us long ago, but somehow we have failed to connect it to our own neurotic behaviour. Nevertheless, most of our own strange feelings and actions have the same sort of basis as Merlin’s panic – namely, past experience that is frightening or painful, and that caused us either to link something like a smell, colour, place or person with fear or pain, or that evoked a powerful feeling decision.

For instance when I left my first wife and was living with my present wife, we shared a lovely country cottage in a small hamlet. Although beautiful, the few months I lived there were an emotional hell because I was away from my children, and because of the pain of the divorce. I then moved to be nearer my children. But we had left some beehives at the cottage, and so six months later we started driving back to collect them. On the way I started experiencing severe stomach pains. The suddenness of this, and the fact I couldn’t find any physical cause for the pain made me investigate my feelings. As soon as I did this it was obvious that a part of my nature that was usually unconscious, was just like Merlin. The cottage was a place of torment – why were we going back? More to the point, how could it stop us going back? How could my inner Merlin avoid that pain again?

As soon as I understood the cause, I spoke to myself just as I might have spoken to my dog, or a disturbed horse – ‘Look, it’s okay. We aren’t going to stay at the cottage. We are going to collect the bee-hives and leave. You will not be pushed into that pain. As I did this the pain slowly melted and did not come back’.

Unfortunately many of the events that have caused us to link a place or smell with pain have been forgotten. They occurred in our infancy, perhaps even at birth, and are pre-verbal. Bernard, a manwho during a therapy session was sure he had relived the moments following his birth, told me that as he felt what it was like to be a new born baby, he experienced what he called an instinctive expectation of being greeted by warmth and welcome. This wasn’t provided by his parents. The greeting seemed harsh, as his birth had complications for his mother. The absence of warmth and welcome led to a feeling of not wanting to emerge, of wanting to ‘stay in the egg’, as he put it. This feeling response – conditioned reflex – of not wanting to get involved in the new environment of life outside the womb had persisted unconsciously all his life, causing him to be an introvert who did not want to be involved with other people except as necessity dictated.

Bernard had always explained his tendency to withdrawal as his natural character. He had never thought of it as neurotic behaviour. This is often the case. We rationalise what pushes from unconscious sources. It is only when such behaviour becomes very disturbed, or continually thwarts our attempt to love, or create, or lead a life free of depression or panic, that we might begin to re-label our behaviour. An important point to remember is that at the time of it original occurrence, the links or decisions we make are rational and perhaps a very important part of surviving. For instance Merlin’s flight from what may have felt like a real danger was rational. But his running from me leaning on a rock wasn’t rational any longer. It was now conditioned-reflexive behaviour. This is also true of my stomach pains and Bernard’s tendency to withdraw.

Unfortunately it isn’t easy to recall the experiences of our infancy. Without such memory we might not be able to re-evaluate our behaviour with real insight. But a quicker and more direct route of change is to walk in the direction the neurotic feelings forbid. Conditioning places a hidden barrier between our will and certain actions. Fish kept in a tank with a glass divider placed half way at first bump into the invisible glass. Then to avoid the pain they no longer approach the divider. It becomes a habit, a conditioned reflex. If the glass is removed, they still avoid the area. To live a life beyond the ‘removed divider’ we must move through the barrier, even though our habits will shout out danger, fear, pain!

The first time we do this will be difficult. The second time a fraction easier. And each time after will become less potent until we have created a new habit. A woman, Polly, who had the habit of turning to chocolate every time she needed her mother’s affection, turned this around in a few days. Her mother had never been affectionate, and so Polly had found a substitute in chocolate. This was not something she was conscious of as an adult. To change, when she felt the immense desire for chocolate, she had allowed herself to experience the longing without acting on it. Within hours the longing for her mother emerged from it’s unconscious hiding place. She was able to see the connection, and also realise that the hope for affection from her mother was not likely ever to be fulfilled. So the longing could be directed elsewhere from chocolate or her mother.

Try it. Move across the boundary!

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