Pattern Interruption

Over the past weekend my partner and I went on a brief vacation to a bed and breakfast up in Traverse City. It made for a lovely, simple break–we made some tentative plans, but for the most part we played each day by ear, cruising around and stopping whenever something novel caught our eye. For her it was a needful respite from work, which can become stressful during the summer months, and for me it was an effective jolt, as I’d fallen into an existential rut.

Late in April, just as exam week was starting, a headache settled in. It was mild, all things considered, but distracting enough to make my days more complicated. After I muddled through exams I took a week off (another valuable break) to dial in my plans for the summer, but once again I fell into a rut by mid-June. It’s been a pretty productive rut, but it was clouded over by the headache and the daily pattern it yielded. My early morning workouts tended to clear my head, so they usually set the stage for some good writing time before lunch. But on more than a few days I opted to tackle stray errands before most folks were out and about instead, which was often A Bad Idea. I’d use my mornings kindasorta well, but I’d wind up frittering away my afternoons instead of dealing with whatever was on my existential checklist, which is for me generally bad policy. The headache, the malaise, and my tendency to dwell on bits and bobs over which I have precious little control (an impending promotion, the prospect of student loan forgiveness, enrollments in my fall classes, my exasperation with local medical care providers, and the like) bogged me down, mostly because I allowed it to.

So the trip to the upper yonder was valuable in a couple of ways. The route we took involved driving along roads I used to take to visit a former partner, an absolutely lovely woman who brought out some of the very best bits of me. There was a bit of reminiscing and existential recollection, which helped me to think differently and more critically about the progress of my current pattern. Additionally, and more importantly, some cranial tumblers apparently fell into place. On our return I started to fall back into an old, positive pattern, a tendency to focus on what I can do rather than what wasn’t happening for me.

In hypnosis, pattern interruption tends to be a transparent mechanism: a hypnotist will help a subject to shift their perspective, to examine patterns they inhabit, and then intervene at the point where a break and change might do some good. The persistent headache makes for a decent example. Heading into the summer I did my due diligence. I started out with an eye exam based on my limited observations at the time (the headache, a bit of double vision, moments of feeling slightly off balance), then went to my primary care physician, then went to a neurologist. After imaging and blood tests ruled out a bunch of potential issues, I figured I was pretty much done–it was simply pain I was going to have to live with. That felt like a settled fact by mid-June. When we went up to Traverse City, in fact, my sole focus was on keeping mum about the headache, making sure I didn’t do anything to prevent my partner from having a merry, relaxing time.

The break itself, however, prompted me to think a little differently about the world when we returned. On Wednesday I focused on doings–taking care of the laundry from the trip, tackling a couple of tasks I’d tabled, and emptying out my many inboxes, which consisted primarily of messages I could easily address but had deferred answering. Along the way I also called an older optometrist for a new eye exam. I figured a bit of fresh perspective wouldn’t hurt, and attempting something I could do rather than fretting about all the stuff that’s out of my control did my noggin some good. It would cost me a little time and money, but (since I had more info about the way my headaches, double vision, and vertigo behave after three months of living with them) the visit would help me lay to rest a few doubts about the sufficiency of that first eye exam. The doing, in the abstract, promised to relieve a little lingering stress and tension, but as it turns out it also identified a probable cause the first eye exam missed.

Pattern interruption doesn’t always work that way, of course, but the headache example makes for a fine illustration of the essential mechanism. We all get caught up in ways of thinking about things and doing things, and over time–assuming that the habits are essentially successful in helping us to get by–those patterns can become fixed, rigid, stagnant. To shake ourselves free we often need only a little time and distance to conceive of matters differently. And from that point of reconceptualization, it’s often possible to make change step by step, to climb out of those old ruts, to move somewhere new.

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