When you’re a hypnotist, it’s your job to have a deep understanding of how the human mind works and why it does the things it does. When you work with clients all day, you begin to see how the mind can really mess people up and keep them stuck in their own trouble. A few months ago, I started challenging my mind to do new things. It didn’t start out as life altering stuff, rather it started out as “what would happen if…” kind of things. My hair was thinning and I decided to shave my head for 30 days to see how it would look. I figured 30 days would give me (and my extraordinarily patient wife) enough time to assess whether the bald thing was a good look for me. It stuck. She liked the look and so did I. So, I’m going on about a year of shaved head. I’ve also tried 30 days of not shaving my face, which wasn’t as well received. Then there was the month of not drinking beer - which lead to about five months - so far - of not really enjoying drinking because the side effects now outweigh the benefits. It wasn’t that I had a drinking problem, it’s just that the beer or two after work began to feel like an easy habit and, over time, they dragged me down the next morning.
I should have known that I was headed for trouble with these little mind games that I started playing. I’m old enough to know that I always take things a little too far. Eventually, knowing my own personality and my own brain curiosity, I should have known that I would do something stupid. And that was the last 30 days. It all started with a client who was struggling with his drinking. He’d been drinking for many, many years and it had reached the point of near-daily blackouts, drunken damage to the house, and a growing strain on his marriage. As we talked about the reasons for his drinking he said something important. “Randy, I’ve been drinking for my whole life,” he said. He told me the story of his first beer - provided by an angry, distant father to a young teen boy desperate for a connection with dad. It was only an act of kindness from an unkind father but it gave a 14-year-old kid a spark of something that felt better than what he felt most of the time. It was easy to see why drinking was such an easy habit for him. His mind believed the beer was the source of that good emotion that day, not the action of his father in giving him the beer. But, it was what he said next that created the problem in my life.
“Drinking is part of me,” he told me. “As much as everyone wants me to change. As much as I want to change. Drinking’s part of who I am. Sometimes stopping drinking feels like trying to be left handed or something.” And there it was. A client explaining his challenge of changing something that was such a core part of him - a lifelong habit of being right handed.
Fast-forward to March 1, 2019, there I was standing in the mirror that morning with an oven mitt on my right hand trying to shave that bald head with an uncooperative left hand. I could have walked away right then. I could have justified it as a safety thing. But I felt like I owed it to every client I’ve ever had or ever will have to understand the challenge of real, deep change.
I spent the entire month of March using my left hand. The oven mitt lasted a few days as a reminder, then the watch on my right hand was enough of a reminder. Throughout the month, I learned some interesting things.
First, any expectation that being left handed was going to open up some creative or magical, unused part of my brain was quickly dismissed. This was just hard. There was no super, untapped new benefit, at least not one that was big enough to counter the daily struggle of signing a check or wiping my ass with my left hand. This is true as we tackle our addictions too. We think that not drinking or stopping smoking will suddenly give us the superpower of sobriety or health. Yet sobriety and health are not instant gifts. The instant gift of change is a day of shaving nicks, unreadable handwriting, and trouble doing the most routine things. The instant gift of not drinking, not smoking, or not drugging is having to deal with a crappy world and the crappy people in it without our number one, go-to, lifelong, mostly functional, and highly effective, coping mechanism. And that just sucks.
Now, I should point out that benefits do come in time. The benefits we seek do exist. They just don’t exist right away. That’s another place where our brain is tuned precisely to screw us up. Because our mind seeks comfort and safety - right now - not next week, it will be preoccupied with pushing toward the coping mechanism and pushing toward the familiar. The first day of March was a constant battle of my right hand trying to do things and my brain telling me that any attempt to change would only end in failure.
The second thing I learned was that having a network of support is important. The patient wife wasn’t sold on my left-handed scheme but she understood why I needed to do it. She put forward her rules - not while driving and not while using a big knife to chop things (I have a habit of slicing parts of myself off on a normal day, so she couldn’t imagine the kitchen looking like a daily crime scene if I was left-handed there). Once she was on board with the concept and the reasons that I was doing it, she became an ally and a second reminder of my choice if I accidentally picked up something with my right hand.
My clients became another source of motivation for the work. When a new client arrived, I would either have to explain the oven mitt or explain the absolutely ridiculous writing on their file or the white board in my office. “Sorry, I’m doing this thing…” became the start of other conversations where clients wondered what my outcome would be on this mission. As those clients returned for follow up sessions, I noticed that they were watching to see if I was still on track. They wouldn’t say anything at first, but as soon as I started writing down notes with my left hand or writing on the white board, they would say something like, “wow, you’re still doing it.” I realized that when we try to make changes in our lives, other people will watch us. Our mind’s own drive to not disappoint others became the second lesson and the reason that I couldn’t quit on March 12 - when two things happened that made me want to quit.
The third thing I learned was that change is really, really hard and really surprising. March 12 was the first day that it happened and it hurt. Sitting on the couch, I spilled coffee on myself. It was really hot. But the thing I noticed was that the coffee cup was in my left hand. Every other time I had done something that month it had stared with the right hand and a conscious reminder that I should be doing it with my left hand. Then I would use my left hand. That morning was different because my left hand was holding the cup - poorly and unsteadily - without me having to think about it. Change was occurring and the only result was hot coffee spilled on my arm. Ouch.
March 12 was also the day that I failed miserably as a lefty. About three-quarters of the way through lunch at our favorite pho restaurant I realized that my chopsticks had started in my right hand and stayed there. I hadn’t even thought about it. If I had caught it, I would have switched. After a morning of hot coffee discovery, I had sat down and done what I always did - eat with my right hand. Isn’t this just like it is when we’re trying to stop an addiction? We want to not drink but we end up half way through our third vodka cranberry before we even really realize that we’ve gone wrong. “Too late now,” we think and so we keep going. A “failure,” we resign ourselves to the failure.
With disappointment in myself for not noticing sooner, I pushed the chopsticks to my left hand and realized that it was hard again. It felt unnatural. I couldn’t eat this way. I couldn’t do life this way. The messages of failure and the simplicity of life in our natural, usual way made quitting an option. After all, hadn’t a coffee burn been enough?
Failure is going to come. That’s lesson four. What we must realize is that falling down is different from starting over. When we fall down, we’ve got to stand back up. If we fall down during the race we’re running, we don’t end up magically back at the starting line. Even when it’s hard to stand up, we have to find a way. Even when we fail ourselves and the others around us, we must keep going if we’re going to truly change. As much as I felt like a failed left hander that day, I also had to realize that failure gave no credit to the fact that my mind had automatically used my left hand to pick up the mug. I was changing. I could be proud of the small victory of learning or I could be defeated by the burn and the chopsticks. This is a choice - that’s the fifth thing I learned along the way. Changing is a choice that we must make over and over and over.
If you want to change - really change - you’ve got to want to do it at all costs. You’ve got to want to do it for you. Everybody else can motivate and provide accountability but the most important time will be the moments when your own personal integrity and motivation are all that is there. Standing in the mirror facing another left-handed shaving massacre on March 3 will teach you lesson six really quickly. It’s easy to quit when nobody is watching. Beverly was downstairs. I was shaving. All I had to do was use my damn right hand. No one would know - at least no one but me. If I truly wanted to change the way I was going about things, I was going to have to do it even when no one was watching. Even if it was a simple experiment or a small thing, I was going to have to do it even better when no one was watching.
Beyond no one watching, you’re going to have to do it when someone else doesn’t want you to do it. The seventh thing I learned was that sticking to a goal is really inconvenient sometimes. I was lucky in March since the people I would play golf or racquetball with were all busy or off island. I know that none of my friends wanted to watch me try to play golf left handed because of a silly whim to see if I could. I’m a slightly below average golfer on a good right handed day and I can’t imagine the train wreck I would be on any left handed day. Without the golf or racquetball invites, I’m only left to imagine their concerns had something like that come up - “It’s only one day,” or a frustrated, “Just do it right!” The lesson here translates really well to the world of addiction, especially because as addicts we are surrounded by the people who have enabled our addictions along the way. It is often those friends who tell us that we can quit tomorrow or that one more pill won’t change anything.
Lesson eight came later in the month, maybe around the 23rd. It was getting easy. I had become fairly adept at shaving with my left hand. My writing was legible and my client notes were getting longer as I was able to pen more words. I was in no way as good with my left hand as my right hand but I was getting better. Change comes slowly but it does come and I felt a sense of accomplishment when I wrote something down.
There were still real challenges. A client asked me to sign a copy of our first book. I explained that I would have to do it with my left hand and that it would look nothing like my actual signature. Fortunately, he laughed, and since the book is about making big changes, he figured the crazy signature would make the book even more unique for his goals and desire to change.
Signing for credit card purchases and writing checks was troublesome. I feared the bank would reject something along the way. I learned that the bank doesn’t really notice or care. As long as the money moves, nothing gets rejected or sent back - even if it looks like a nine year old kid stole my checkbook. Had I purchased a home and had to sign the mountain of mortgage documents, it might have mattered. But would it have mattered enough that I couldn’t do it left handed. See, I still had the choice to go back. That was the eighth lesson: As much as I wanted to believe that I was learning a hard, important lesson about something like addiction, I was still acting on a disposable whim. Does my commitment then mean less than someone who had to change a heroin addiction because they were one syringe push from death or one binge away from divorce? And if I was one left-handed signature away from something truly bad, I could just switch back and be easily rescued. My brain challenge was interesting but maybe it wasn’t the same. After all, April was coming and I’d be right handed again. There was an end to the tunnel… a light and I was going to reach it. For most of my change and addiction clients, these changes must last forever and that’s just harder than what I was doing as a brain game.
The ninth and final lesson didn’t come during the left handed month of March. The last lesson came on April 1st. The thing I learned that morning was that my left hand wanted to do the usual things. My left hand still wanted to shave. My left hand wanted to brush my teeth. Sure, I was happy to be able to do it with the easier and more natural right hand but there was a part of my brain deep inside that had made a new habit and it was working to continue the habit. Lesson nine, maybe there is hope for all of us after all.
All the things I learned along the way in my month of being left handed add up to this: our brain can learn and when it does, it will keep going. In the same way that we become addicts, we become free - day by day. If we can create a habit of being left handed, it will become easier and easier as it becomes a reinforced pattern of who we are. One day it will be who we are. If I had chosen to continue as a lefty, I know that I would have reached a place where it would feel just like my daily routine as a righty feels. It might take years but every day it builds. If you’re trying to change, keep going. Commit. Tell everybody you meet that you’re going to do something different. Become accountable to yourself and others. When it gets hard, keep going.
April 2019 brings a new 30 day challenge. It is a month without the internet or apps. Is it possible in today’s world to stop looking at the phone? Is it possible in this world to not see the latest misstep of a president, the instant updates of a shooting in some far away place, or the pitch-by-pitch tracking of our favorite baseball team? Is it possible for a news junkie (and former reporter) like me to just not know? Before March’s experience being left-handed for a month, I would have told you that I didn’t think I could go a month without the internet. Now, I think I can do anything - even if it’s just for 30 days. So, someone else will have to post this blog update… because I can’t go on the internet for 29.8 more days (and it’s hard).