We aren’t as helpless as we believe we are
hen our freedom is removed — when we can no longer make choices — we lose our very selves. And yet, we ourselves often relinquish our ability to choose.
“I can’t help it — when my husband says mean things, I cry.”
“I can’t help it — when my kids don’t listen, I start screaming.”
“I can’t help it — when I feel stressed, I eat/drink/watch/binge/sleep (or engage in some other addictive behavior).”
But our claims of “I can’t help it” fall, for the most part, outside of the realm of fact.
Shmuel had a short fuse. When the kids irritated him, he’d raise his voice in anger. At times, he’d bang his fist on a table, punch a wall, or throw something across a room. And many times, he’d slap an offender across the face.
His wife, Tamara, begged him to stop, explaining again and again how unhealthy, destructive, and dangerous his behavior was. Shmuel didn’t disagree. But he’d shrug his shoulders and say, “Listen, I just can’t help it. They get under my skin.”
One day, Shmuel received a call from Family Services. “We need to meet to discuss an incident that was reported about your son Eli.”
Apparently, someone had been concerned about a bruise on Eli’s face and had called the authorities. There was a meeting. And then there was a meeting with Shmuel’s wife. And then there were meetings with each of Shmuel’s six children.
During the three months of “investigation,” Shmuel’s temper disappeared. No matter what the kids did or didn’t do during this period, Shmuel somehow found a way to control his temper.
Fortunately, he didn’t lose his kids or end up in prison — he just had to take a nine-month parenting course. And, whether it was the course, or the fear of losing his kids or going to prison, somehow, he managed to raise his children non-violently from that time on. It turns out that he could help it after all.
Many times, our helplessness is an illusion. We feel helpless only as long as we can afford to. But when push comes to shove, then we are somehow able to discover resources we didn’t know we had.
Obsessions, Compulsions, and Addictions
No one wakes up one day unable to overcome an obsession, compulsion, or addiction. Rather, there’s a long period prior to submitting to a disease process in which choice still exists. It’s important to keep this in mind because with diseases of the brain and nervous system (such as those inflicted by untreated chronic OCD or drug addiction) there can come a time where choice is removed. The sufferer’s brain is so ill that “I can’t help it” actually becomes true.
Fortunately, it takes quite a while to get to that point, and during this intervening period, sufferers can take advantage of their still present free will.
Nine-year-old Nili had many rituals. In truth many of them had started before she was five, but her parents didn’t realize at first that they were anything more than the oddities of childhood.
As time went on and her oddities worsened, they began to get concerned. They took her for an assessment and learned she had obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). They started Nili’s treatment immediately.
A few weeks into treatment, the therapist asked Nili to refrain from engaging in a particular ritual (Nili “needed” to arrange her pillow on her bed in a complicated series of moves before she was “allowed” to sleep on it; the therapist asked her to leave off the last move). This “exposure and ritual prevention” is a standard intervention for the treatment of OCD.
The problem was that Nili wouldn’t cooperate. “I have to do it,” she explained. “I can’t help it.” Nili believed her own story. She cried. She threw a tantrum. She begged. “I really can’t help it!” she repeated again and again, refusing to agree to the minute change in her routine.
Eventually, the skilled therapist found a way to help Nili make the change, and then many more changes, until after some months of therapy, Nili was free at last — free from the abusive master her OCD had become. Nili had truly felt helpless, but discovered she wasn’t helpless after all.
We all have our wars to fight. We all feel helpless in some way or other. But feeling helpless isn’t the same as being helpless. We need to remember that.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 791)
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