Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Ulysses Contract and the Straitjacket

Do you know what I like?

Metaphors.  I am BIG on metaphors and symbolism.  Yeah, that is what this blog is about, absolutely.

The metaphor of my straitjacket and how it relates to my health journey.

Yes, you read that correctly, MY STRAITJACKET.  Call me crazy, you wouldn't be the first.

Let me explain.

So there are times in my health journey, and maybe you can relate and maybe you can't, where I choose to give up my power to choose.  What that means is that there are times where I feel powerless over the unhealthy decisions I am making on a daily basis.  When I act on those feelings, I fall back into my unhealthy habits of being sedentary and eating whatever is convenient, whatever I think I "want".

Now, my body is such that WHEN I DO THIS and when I PRACTICE these behaviors and make them my norm, however temporary, there are CONSEQUENCES.  Being a post-obese person, I will always have to be mindful of what I am putting into my body and how much I am moving on a regular basis, or I WILL gain my weight back.  That's simply science, genetics, and the human body.  My body.  If these "episodes" of falling back into my unhealthy habits last a day or two, I can recover quickly and continue on relatively unscathed.  If these "episodes" last a week or two, or three, or a month or two, or three, then the recovery is much more difficult and puts my entire health journey at risk of continuing on in a direction I know I do NOT want it to go.

In Dr. A's Habits of Health there is a chapter on creating a "micro-environment of health" around ourselves, because if there are unhealthy foods in the house we are more likely to get into them, thereby sabotaging our efforts to create or maintain health in our lives.

Yes.  I know the truth of this.  I have heard often, and have even heard myself saying at times that "it is SO hard" to stay on an eating program consistently.  I have heard, and have heard myself saying in my mind, something like this:

"I just don't understand!  I'm SO faithful to my program for half the day, but then 4:00 in the afternoon rolls around and it is like a flip is switched and I act like I don't care, when I KNOW I DO!"

Simply said, we feel at those times that we don't have a choice, that we don't have control, that we are powerless to exercise our self-discipline or "willpower" against the temptations.  This can be seasonal, this can be monthly, this can be every weekend, or even every DAY.  The mechanism is the same: we act in a manner which is inconsistent with where we SAID we wanted to go in our health.

So, what do we do?  Do we give up on our dream of attaining and maintaining a healthy weight?  Attaining and maintaining optimal health?  Some days it seems that giving up is the only solution.  We try to convince ourselves to DECREASE our expectations, to MINIMIZE our dreams, to say "let's be REALISTIC HERE".  We say "everybody fails at some point" or "I'm only human".

I say NO.  We don't have to give up our power to CHOOSE HEALTH.  Even when we feel like we already have.

So, back to the straightjacket.  I was joking around with someone who was expressing to me their concept that it is IMPOSSIBLE to get away from temptation.  Everywhere you go, unless you lock yourself in your house (in a room other than your kitchen) and strap yourself to a chair, there is temptation.  You can't stop living, right?  This gave me an idea.  The idea of the straitjacket.

I don't know how to word this to make it sound less crazy than it is going to sound, but again, remember that I am speaking metaphorically.  However, I DO happen to have a "prop" for my metaphor.  Yes, I purchased a straitjacket.  It is hanging in my mom-cave, and I'm thinking of taping some bubble-wrap to one of the walls in my mom-cave so I can call it "the padded room with the straitjacket" for fun.

The symbolism is similar to a "Ulysses Pact," or "Ulysses Contract".  Three millennia ago lived a man named "Ulysses" who was King of Ithaca and a hero of the Trojan War.  Legend has it that after the war, Ulysses was on his sea voyage back to his homeland when he realized he had a rare opportunity.  His ship would be passing near the island of Sirenum scopuli, where beautiful Sirens sang their alluring songs which would drive men mad.  The problem was, the ships crew would always turn their ships towards the sound, and their ships would be dashed to pieces on the rocks near the island, killing all aboard.  Ulysses wanted to hear the siren song, but he knew that he would not be immune to their charms.  After all, he possessed a human mind.  Wikipedia shares further the origin of the name, and the meaning of "the contract" or "the pact":

The term refers to the pact that Ulysses (Greek name "Ὀδυσσεύς", Odysseus) made with his men as they approached the Sirens. Ulysses wanted to hear the Sirens' song although he knew that doing so would render him incapable of rational thought. He put wax in his men's ears so that they could not hear, and had them tie him to the mast so that he could not jump into the sea. He ordered them not to change course under any circumstances, and to keep their swords upon him and to attack him if he should break free of his bonds.  Upon hearing the Sirens' song, Ulysses was driven temporarily insane and struggled with all of his might to break free so that he might join the Sirens, which would have meant his death."

Ulysses wisely knew that there was a circumstance that would arise where he would not feel capable of acting rationally, so in making the decision to "bind himself" voluntarily for a season he knew that he would be OK.  This was within his control, and he created a "micro-micro environment of health" by putting himself in a circumstance whereby he could continue to live the life he wanted to live.

Sometimes I feel like all the "bargains" I make with myself in the mornings crumble and fall to dust in the evenings.  Am I crazy?  No.  The book "Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain" by David Eagleman discusses the science behind the conversations, inconsistencies and battles that we do with ourselves in our brains.  These are rooted in neuroscience and in light of the science, contradictory thoughts and/or behaviors are actually perfectly normal.  They exist in every individual, to varying degrees, and it is important to understand there is nothing "wrong" with us when we come up against the manifestation of these contradictory thoughts or behaviors.  Knowing about them is power in and of itself, because it means that I can arm myself rationally for those times when I may be prone to acting irrationally, or outside of my long-term goals and dreams.  Eagle states in his book that Ulysses knew that the "future" Ulysses would be in no position to make good decisions.  Therefore, the Ulysses of sound mind structured things in such a way as to prevent himself from doing something foolish when they passed the upcoming island.  It was a deal struck between the present Ulysses and the future one.  Eagleman goes on to say that this myth highlights the way in which minds can develop a meta-knowledge about how the short- and long-term parties interact.  The amazing consequence is that minds can negotiate with different time points of themselves.  It is a proactive binding of a future self, a future opportunity or action that you may take but don't want to.

Hence, the symbolism of the straitjacket.  You see, I can CHOOSE to have my husband put me IN the straightjacket at 4pm if I feel I am headed for danger.  I haven't ACTUALLY done that (had him put me IN the straitjacket), but the sheer knowledge that I DO have a choice even when I don't feel I have a choice is powerful for me.

When that "4pm" rolls around, and I feel like I'm losing control, I can simply go into my Mom-cave, sit in my cushy arm chair, and look at the straitjacket that is hanging on a hangar in there.  Simply by doing that, simply by remembering the symbolism of the Ulysses Contract, I can buy myself a few minutes away from the temptation, and I can remind myself that I do, in fact, ALWAYS have a choice.  Even if that choice is installing myself in the straitjacket, and having my husband cinch up the buckles and feed my remaining on-plan Meal Replacement and water for the rest of the day.  The hilarity of that possibility is enough to make me laugh and snap be back to remembering my health goals and, more importantly, acting in a manner that is CONSISTENT with them for the rest of the evening.

I will never say that attaining and maintaining optimal health is easy-peasy lemon squeezey.  It isn't.  It has been an intense journey of self-discovery and personal growth, and I actually wouldn't change a thing.  It IS a choice.  It IS possible.  I have the tools, I have the will, I have the understanding, and to the degree which I can have my ACTIONS agree with my INTENTIONS I will continue to succeed in my quest to attain and maintain optimal health.

Oh, and if you need to borrow my straitjacket, just let me know.