My 3rd grade teacher, Miss Maloney, decided to introduce a philosophical puzzle
to our class. She said, "I'd like everyone to try not to think about a pink
elephant on the wall." She took a pause and then said, "See you can't
do it, can you?" Miss Maloney was right. I was thinking of a pink elephant
on the wall. Later that day, I was still thinking of a pink elephant, then at
dinner the following week, and at school for the rest of the month.
the years that followed, that pink elephant was replaced with a variety of other
perplexing thoughts or "obsessive-compulsive fixations." I worried about
contracting diseases - especially symptomless diseases - where my lack of physical
complaints simply confirmed the severity of my case. I worried the draft would
be reinstated, expanded to include women, and I would be sent to the front. I
worried I would go blind, go deaf, lose my hair, be burned by acid and people
would hate me. I worried a girl who looked identical to me would commit a crime
for which I would go to prison where my cell mate would hate me and I would go
blind and lose my hair.
At some point the fear - let's say of blindness
- would fold in upon itself and I would stop worrying about blindness and begin
to worry about my lack of ability to stop worrying about blindness - each thought
confirming my lack of control and producing more thoughts.
I went to see a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with obsessive personality disorder
and recommended weekly sessions. I said, "Are you sure once a week will be
enough? Because I really really want to attack my problem." He suggested
twice a week. I frowned. Well, he said, they did have an intensive group program
for obsessive thinkers that ran Monday through Friday 9 to 5, but that it was
really to be used when all other avenues had been exhausted. I said, "You're
right - that'd be too much. That's insane. I'm insane. That's totally insane
Three hours later, I was in.
The following Monday I was introduced to
Dr. Schwarzen or, as she asked to be called, Penny - penny penny penny on a
wall pink elephant - here we go. The first week, Penny guided me and four
other members of my group in sharing experiences.
I learned that housewife
Karen suffered from fears she might accidentally do something vastly inappropriate
- like go up to people at her grandmother's funeral and say "got your nose"
or inadvertently tell the baker to write on her friend's baby shower cake - "have
an abnormal baby. " The more Karen had these thoughts, the more she felt
certain one day she would do something awful, which produced more thoughts. I
I learned that Jeremy and Joseph, the red-haired teenage
twins, were both plagued by images of having sex with their mother. The more they
tried to push these images out of their head, the more their mother appeared before
them, lustily demanding they finish eating her pussy or no TV.
And I met
dark reclusive Chip who was scared he might be a serial killer and not know it.
Penny assured him that since he had no history of violence, his fears were completely
unfounded. Chip would vehemently protest and say that it was possible. It was
possible. I thought it was possible too. Chip was the least popular member of
By the end of the week, I really did feel a little better -
like I wasn't alone - I was with people equally as nutty as me - more nutty than
me - but none less nutty.
The following week Penny taught us about the
nature of obsessive thoughts - how trying to get rid of a troublesome thought
only makes it worse. She encouraged us to confront our fear by looking at images
of what we were most afraid of - I brought in pictures of a female inmate sitting
by herself at a prison lunch table and one of a blind woman with no teeth trying
to eat a hoagie.
The twins brought in pictures of their mother that disturbed
them - mother in tight Christmas sweater - mother on honeymoon playfully covering
her naked body with a sheet - mother bathing both twins at a questionable age
- 11. Chip brought in pictures of serial killers being regular guys like him -
Charles Manson at a picnic - David Berkowitz making flapjacks - Jeffrey Daumer
in a Davy Crocket hat.
Karen brought in pictures of women who looked
very much like her doing socially inappropriate things - there was a Karen look-alike
peeing on third base at a little league game and a Karen look-alike standing naked
at a train station holding a lamp.
At the end of the fourth week, my
insurance was about to run out and I began thinking, "What if this intensive
doesn't work? This is the last resort. I should've saved the last resort. The
next step after this is being locked up in a mental hospital - where I'll be mistreated
and given outdated shock therapy - where they won't have good eye-care and I'll
go blind - where I'll be given a lobotomy and then gang-raped by soldiers - for
two dollars a throw."
The more I tried to not think about my upcoming
lobotomy and gang raping, the more the thoughts kept marching through my head
- soldier soldier soldier soldier soldier lobotomy lobotomy lobotomylobotomy
- I thought, "I'm going insane." This is exactly like the pink elephant.
now I'm thinking of a pink elephant again. Then it occurred to me
that the pink elephant had always been there - that it had just changed forms
- and for the first time I began to understand the futility of my attempts to
get rid of it - how I could no more calm my mind with effort than I could still
water with the palm of my hand.
When I left the intensive two weeks later,
Chip, the serial killer, gave me a copy of G. Gordon Liddy's autobiography. Chip
highlighted the part where Liddy was asked how he was able to hold his hand above
a flame without it burning, and Liddy responded, "It's always going to burn.
The trick is not to mind it." That phrase became my motto. Whenever I started
obsessing I would say to myself, "the trick is not to mind it." Of course
then I would fixate on that and start saying, "the trick is not to mind
it - the trick is not to mind it - the trick is not to mind it." And
then I'd have to try to not mind that
But that's what I learned
- the trick is not to mind the pink elephant. And lastly I would like to say to
my third grade teacher Miss Maloney - thanks for the journey. Thanks a
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