He said he didn’t care what happened to him so he didn’t seem to be bothered that he was still in the custody of the court and confined to the hospital. His indifference was part of his depression and his depression had invaded the very core of his identity.
If he had his way, he would end his life and pass on to the next world or to no world at all. Anything was better than living with the loss of the dream that he was so close to achieving before it all crashed. The man was stuck.
Despite the privations of living in a hospital, he made the best of it. He kept busy, attended the same groups and did the same work according to a regular routine.
Occasionally he took a risk to try something new but never without first reminding us that novelty was a challenge or, as he put it, he was stubborn. Although the details of his story are unique, his predicament is as common as the human impulse to choose familiarity over freedom, routine over choice itself.
There are many ways that we can become stuck in life. We can become stuck in a bad situation when the benefits of staying there outweigh the distress of leaving. We hear stories every day of people who are stuck in dead end jobs because they need the money and lack the skills or the opportunity to find something better.
In a similar way, people get stuck in bad neighborhoods or without the education they need to improve their circumstances. Without sufficient personal and financial resources, we fall into slots from which it seems impossible to escape and the longer we remain, the more our growing feelings of helplessness and hopelessness strengthen the walls of our prisons.
There are many kinds of prisons that limit our freedom from brick and mortar jails to the habits, routines and outmoded ways of living that we cling to without realizing how they keep us stuck in never ending cycles of discontent.
As the old joke has it, mental illness can be defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
Freud called this the repetition compulsion and psychotherapy has been described as an exercise in helping people become aware of these self-defeating patterns, understanding how and why they emerged, and learning to replace them with more satisfying behaviors.
As therapists, we are experts in helping people become unstuck with an ever increasing repertoire of techniques to facilitate change. In my career, I have been fortunate to have learned these strategies from the best teachers, to pass them on to promising students, to help patients become unstuck and to have had all the help I needed from many people to unstick myself.
As my own experience teaches me every day, it is especially easy to get stuck in earlier ways of thinking about life and work when we are transitioning from one phase of life to the next.
Without the demands of a full time hospital practice, I am faced with the challenge of realigning my priorities and striking a new balance between psychological work, other interests and simply spending time with family, friends, and acquaintances in ways that bring new expectations and opportunities that I am still discovering.
The other day, I received a note in the mail from an old friend who retired from his high school teaching career several years ago. It said simply that he had re-defined his current status from “retired” to “guru” to “pilgrim.” Embarked as I am on a pilgrimage of my own, I needed no further explanation to understand my friend’s message or his challenge.
We do not have to be hospitalized, imprisoned, destitute, neurotic or in the midst of a major life transition to know what it’s like to be stuck. We can also become stuck in our everyday routines and habits simply because they have become so automatic that we don’t realize what they are or that we have the power to change them.
Sometimes, all it takes is the first spring day after a long and dreary winter to lure us away from our desks or conference rooms and out into the sunshine for a minute or an hour. That can be enough to make our day.
Becoming unstuck is not easy. As Erich Fromm explained in his 1941 book, “Escape from Freedom,” when we achieve freedom from the oppressive forces that limit us, we realize we also have the freedom to choose what we will make of our lives. Freedom to, is as important as freedom from. We can escape from the demands of freedom by taking refuge in authoritarian ways of thinking, destructive acts, or blind conformity.
Alternatively we can embrace the challenge of employing our best selves in creative acts for the good of society. I would like to help my stubborn patient become free from the hospital and the restrictions of the court but first he has to imagine a life worth living and how it would feel to have the freedom to achieve it. I would like to live in a world where Franklin Roosevelt’s ideals of freedom from want and freedom from fear guarantee economic and personal security for all. It all starts by realizing how I remain stuck in the big and little things of life and beginning, one day at a time, to try something new.
Alan Bodnar, Ph.D. is a psychologist formerly at the Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital.