When You Find Yourself in Times of Trouble!
Manage Your Wild Horses.
A man visited a doctor in my home town complaining of feeling run down, worn out and at the end of his tether.
‘I’ve just the cure for you,’ replied the doctor, an affable and caring man.
‘I prescribe that you spend one full hour in the company of Bozo the Clown at the local circus. It’ll take your mind of your troubles, make you laugh like a baby and you’ll depart feeling uplifted, energised and with a pep in your step. You wouldn’t believe the number of my patients who swear by the restorative properties of Bozo the Clown. I rate him as the best ‘shrink’ in town. But hurry now; the matinee begins in half an hour.’
‘I am Bozo the Clown,’ replied the patient.
* * * * * * * * * * *
This blog is dedicated to Bozo the Clowns the world over. To ordinary people who are expected to perform at their peak, even in the face of crippling fear, worry and despair.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Manage Your Wild Horses.
‘Pádraic, I need you to call me’, was all it said on the voice message.
A fairly innocuous message if it had come from your mother or a client or even your bank manager.
Ominous in the extreme however, if it was from your cardiologist.
I replayed the message hoping I might have got it wrong.
‘Pádraic, I need you to call me.’
It’s amazing how powerfully and speedily the mind works to protect you from confrontation and conflict. It forcibly reminded me that I was driving to Thurles where I was presenting to sixty business people in two hours. I needed to be utterly focused on the job at hand and I should ring my cardiologist after lunch.
I dithered and decided to listen to the message again.
There was no doubting the tonality, cadence and timbre in that voice. There was kindness there, and caring too. There was also a distinct ‘don’t mess me about’ intonation.
From another recess of my mind whispered an affirmation called ‘DIN’.
‘DIN’ is an acronym for ‘Do It Now’ and over the years I’d helped thousands of people to confront their procrastination by getting them to affirm ‘Do It Now’ when they felt like putting something off. It’s probably the first thing I say to myself each morning when the alarm rings and one voice seductively suggests I press the snooze button. I’ve programmed myself to counter by declaring ‘DIN’ and, once a champion snoozer, I now rarely have a problem getting up first thing in the mornings, whether I feel like it or not.
I mentally muttered ‘DIN’, pulled off the road, dialled the number and willed for all I was worth that she was anywhere but at the end of the phone.
Same voice. Same tonality. Different words.
‘Pádraic, you didn’t score an ‘A’ in your Cardiac MRI.’
On a different day, in a different context, I’d have loved that headline.
David Ogilvy, the undisputed guru of the advertising industry, counselled his designers to ‘Spend 80% of the client’s money on the headline!’ More specifically, he believed a headline needed to fulfil four criteria: 1. Grab Attention. 2. Create Interest. 3. Stimulate Desire. 4. Get the client to take Action.
I don’t know if they teach ‘AIDA’ in medical school but my cardiologist had hit the bull’s-eye on all four.
In those few moments it had taken her to utter those words, my life seemed to stutter and stall and dangle in suspense. It appeared as if I had unlimited time to assimilate those words and their implications.
I recalled earlier that month her prognosis on the angiogram she had just performed on me.
‘Beautiful arteries, Pádraic.’
‘What does that mean?’ I asked ignorantly.
‘It means Pádraic, that your coronary arteries that supply blood to your heart are working perfectly and you have no evidence of Cardiac Artery Disease.’
I got the message. She could use more words than were necessary but it was neither her style nor preference.
Now she was scoring me ‘Less than an ‘A’ in my Cardiac MRI. It was subtle as a brick – saying nothing yet saying everything. I knew it could be 84% or 4%. It did provoke me to take action however, and ask the first of what would be dozens of hard and uncomfortable questions.
‘What’s the story? What’s not perfect?’
‘The MRI has detected that you may have Left Ventricular Non-Compaction.’
I scribbled it down on the unopened front page of ‘The Irish Times’ on the passenger seat. It meant nothing to me. I’d check it out later online and deal with it then.
‘It’s also detected a nodule or a masse on your right atrium.’
That meant a lot to me. It sounded exactly like cancer and I hadn’t a clue how to deal with that.
‘I’ve contacted an outstanding cardiac surgeon. He’ll see you at 8pm on Friday in the Blackrock Clinic.’
‘Hang on a second,’ I said with some assertiveness, ‘I’ve a gig on Friday.’
She’d have been forgiven for telling me in her best Mrs Browne Dublin accent that ‘Denial isn’t a river in Egypt’ but she desisted. She paused for what seemed an eternity.
I said, ‘I’ll be there.’
* * * * * * * * * * *
Gurtymadden, on the road to Thurles, is not the most salubrious of settings to receive life changing news. On that damp Tuesday morning there were no restaurants open to purloin a sugary latte. There were no counselling clinics to sequester advice on how best to respond to potentially fatal news. There was no bookshop to acquire a book on what to do when you find yourself in times of trouble.
The only thing moving in Gurtymadden that bleak Tuesday morning were about twelve wild and untrained Connemara ponies frolicking in a paddock beside the roadside. Although it had been thirty odd years since I’d seen her compete with the Irish Equestrian team in the RDS there was no mistaking their trainer. Not even a sodden Barbour jacket and mucky green wellies could subdue the beauty and vitality of Lucille Smyth. Although still only a slip of a thing, she was in complete control of the madness and mayhem that prevailed all about her.
The ponies were exuberant, skittish and unpredictable. They pranced around the confined space of the paddock without apparent purpose or reason. Some were frantically charging the robust fences in an effort to escape and dander in different fields with sweeter and more tender grass. Others continued to gallop around in the same circle over and over again. Already you could see deep ruts and grooves appearing in the green meadow as the ponies aimlessly and heedlessly acted out on impulse. Others again were listless and apathetic and simply lay listlessly on scraws of worn bedding missing the ruggedness and bleakness of Connemara where they’d spent the first three formative years of their life.
Not for long. Lucille, at all of eight stone, is the consummate horse trainer. To her, each wild pony is a champion in disguise waiting to be developed and unleashed. Over the coming minutes she succeeded in transforming the behaviour and performance of many of those ponies.
She had neither whip nor spur – her only concession to technology was a narrow gap in a wall that separated her and a bale of sweet hay from the ponies. Addressing each pony individually she allowed some enter the gap to indulge in the hay. Others were given further ‘feedback’ before being allowed access. Others again were not permitted entry at all.
I marvelled at how this doyenne of the species would, with time and Smácht, have each of those ponies jumping gracefully and happily through hoops and over fences. Many will go on to travel the world and be feted and lauded for the unique and disciplined creatures that they will become.
My mind was no different to that paddock.
It had become one massive uncontrolled riot of panic.
Wild horses were running amok and right now there was no trainer to calm them, to control them, to tame them, to harness them or to develop them.
All my life I’d been a worrier.
As a kid I was terrorised by the boogie man lurking beneath my bed. As a teenager I despaired that girls would ever talk to me. As a student I’d stressed about failing every exam I ever took. As a business person I’d agonised about business drying up and going broke.
With the passing of time, and the development of specific strategies, I’d succeeded in overcoming many of those worries, and had progressed to achieving a modicum of success in certain circles.
One bitch persisted however in stalking me. From as far back as I can remember I’ve been terrified of dying.
I had some justification. My own father had died two months before I was born. A cousin of mine had been killed at eleven and at fifteen, a close friend of mine had died of a brain haemorrhage.
I’d pictured in vivid detail being assailed by every conceivable disease from A to Z and each year would present in front of my GP with a new imagined ailment.
And now, it seemed, the self-fulfilling prophesy had come to pass. I recalled a line from the bible ‘And the thing I feared greatly has come upon me.’
I now had an industrial strength health problem to worry about.
My thoughts, like those wild ponies, began to charge out of control.
I’d heard it said that about 60,000 thoughts or impulses cross our minds each day. These are exactly like Lucille’s ponies. Some are thoroughbreds and perfectly formed – abundant with possibility and capable of being trained to within an inch of their lives. Others, however, lack the breeding, the physique and the temperament to ever achieve greatness. More again are destructive, dysfunctional and delusionary.
As I watched Lucille in that little gap she patrolled between the hay and the paddock, I was reminded of the iconic writer and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl. Frankl had lost his wife and daughter to the Nazi’s under the most heinous circumstances yet still succeeded in retaining his sanity and purpose for life. In his iconic book ‘Mans Search for Meaning’ he concludes that ‘Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.’ He continues to say that ‘Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.’
The lesson of Gurtymadden was clear.
We always have the power to choose our thoughts.
The process of choosing your thoughts is equally simple. Stupid as it sounds, create a mental space to acknowledge and listen to each of your thoughts. The mere fact of slowing your thoughts down creates order, calm and control. Then resolutely decide which thoughts you choose to enter your reality and similarly decide which thoughts you choose to ignore and dismiss.
The friskiest thought beating my door down then was, ‘You’ve got cancer. Get back to Galway quick and have six pints to calm your nerves.’
I paused, acknowledged and reassured that thought that it was indeed possible I had cancer; I would confirm that one way or the other on Friday. In the meantime however, I was going to usher it out of the ‘paddock of my mind’ and obstinately refuse to even think about it until Friday.
My next thought was equally as immediate and demanding. ‘You’re delivering a presentation on ‘Positive Thinking’ in Thurles in two hours where you’re expected to light up the room. How’re you going to pull yourself together for that when you’ll probably be dead in three months?’
I had to give that thought serious credit. I didn’t have an answer. I sensed however, the presence of another pony called Bozo the Clown nuzzling at my fingers and I thought I heard him whisper.
‘The show must go on. You’ll be fine. Let go of the trapeze and trust.’
And it does. And it will. And every step along the way Bozo the Clowns will emerge from the universal ether to help you, and guide you if you’re receptive and open to them.
When you find yourself in times of trouble be aware that your mind resembles a paddock of wild ponies – thoughts that are skitterish, frantic and out of control. Remember too that you can always erect a little space where you can vet these thoughts and discipline them and, ultimately develop them.
This simple process is the bedrock of modern psychotherapy.
My son Harry, an intrepid Liverpool fan, had given me a copy of Dr Steven Peters’ wonderful book ‘The Chimp Paradox’ early on in my ‘Troubles’. Dr Peters was widely acclaimed as the guru behind Liverpool’s excellent season in 2013.
Dr Peters has concluded that your mind has at least two thinking machines that independently interpret your experiences: the frontal and the limbic. The frontal region is your conscious mind – your logical, rational and evidence based centre. Your limbic, however, is your wild pony or chimp – that emotional component of your brain that is paranoid, catastrophic and irrational. It is constantly working and can simultaneously be both your best friend and your worst enemy.
It dates from prehistoric times when its core function was to activate the ‘Fight, flight or freeze’ impulse. Those impulses were wholly appropriate and oftentimes life-saving in that era. And while it can still serve to protect you, frequently it will cause you to experience unnecessary feelings of panic, overwhelm and despair.
And whilst it’s difficult to control your chimp, it is possible to manage him or nurture him. ‘Managing your impulsive, emotional chimp as an adult will be one of the biggest factors determining how successful you are in life,’ according to Dr Peters.
Acknowledging your wild pony or chimp is the first step. Communicating and listening to him is step two. Reassuring him with logical and rational facts is step three.
I always loved the story of the Indian chief who was explaining to his grandson that he had two birds fighting viciously in his head. One bird was the bird of worry, fear and despair. The other was the bird of calm, peace and happiness.
Visibly alarmed, the young boy asked the hard question. ‘Which one’s going to win Grandpa?’
‘Whichever one I feed,’ answered the wise old chieftain.
Your mind works best when it’s calm, peaceful and quiet. When you find yourself in times of trouble manage carefully the wild ponies you feed.
In terms of my own feedback, I’d welcome very much your feedback to this blog. Specifically, what did you like about it? What did you not like about it? What could I do to help you perform at your peak, even when you’re run down, worn out and at the end of your tether?
All you need is Smácht.