Help! I'm avoiding and hiding again!

I get into these states where I just can't do anything and stuff starts to fall apart.

Cary Tennis
April 7, 2006 1:39PM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

I have a strange problem. I'm living in denial. I'm not sure exactly how I mean this; let me try to explain.

Logically, I know what I should do and how I should do it. My problem is, I can't get myself to behave in the way I need to in order to move ahead in my life. In fact, I'll specifically do things that I know are wrong or that I shouldn't do but I can't stop myself. I'm not talking about criminal acts, but things that jeopardize my relationships, professional and personal.


It's sort of a weird all or nothing thinking that I can't break away from. I've done this sort of thing now for the past 15 years and I can't seem to stop or change much. For instance, it extends from cases like the following -- a friend calls me, I forget to call them back immediately, the gap widens and widens, but yet the longer I leave it, the more embarrassed I am to call them back, until this friend thinks I'm mad at them and they don't know why, but still I can't acknowledge them. It's as though I feel that I'm not deserving as a friend or something. And thus the friendship ends. Nowadays I do the exact same thing with e-mail. In fact, people will send me second and third e-mails, and I'll be so certain that these people must be mad at me, that I don't even read their notes, I just ignore them. Until the friendship ends.

Or the following -- right now, my apartment is an unbelievable mess. I can't bring myself to do laundry, dishes, regular chores. I work a lot, so I'm very busy. But the fact that I can't even do my dishes means that I'm a total loser who should just go to bed and hide from the world because I can't even manage a simple thing like dishes.

Or the following -- at work right now, I'm working on a project that, unless I take control of it right away, is headed for total disaster. I know it is, I know what I could do to save it. But I'm unable to act in the way I need to.


It's almost like I have a split personality in some ways. Some of my relationships and friendships are just fine. I hold down jobs, I get things done. Until something goes wrong like this, then they are in danger of falling into this zone. And some people have this perception of me as being highly organized and efficient, because they have never seen this side of me. But when I've written something off in this way, I push the problem so far off my radar that I forget about it, or it ceases to be a problem. For instance, my last apartment -- I got to hate it so much I stopped cleaning my kitchen. Finally I just moved. This sounds ridiculous (and it wasn't quite that extreme, but close), but it's pretty close to accurate.

I really want to change, but I don't know what to do. And the stress that my inaction causes me is unbelievable and makes everything seem even more insurmountable. The fact that I logically know what's going on only makes this more torturous. If I lived in ignorant bliss of my dysfunction I could understand why I'm unable to make any significant changes.

I'm a decent person, I mean the world no harm. Why can't I get my life together?


All or Nothing

Dear All Or Nothing,

Your problem is really, really interesting, and sort of classic. I mean, you are the paralyzed man in denial. I definitely relate. I too have been the paralyzed man in denial. So what can I do to help? I certainly cannot cure you. There are people who can, though, I think. In fact, the thing to do is present yourself to the Psychological Establishment, Behavioral Branch -- Cognitive Therapy Division. Offer yourself up as a subject; trust them to fix you. I think they probably can, if you're willing to do some work.


What else can I do? Not much, I'm afraid, except urge you, browbeat you, serenade you, whatever it takes to get you to avail yourself of help. The technology is available is what I'm saying.

But the main thing is getting around to it, right? If you're like me, just reading about the possibility that one day if you really wanted to you could actually take some concrete steps to fix the problem sort of makes you feel better for a while so you can forget about actually doing anything for, like, 20 years or so at which point you're still like, Gee, it's great to know there are behavioral psych techniques that can fix me, so one day when things get really bad I'll get around to checking out some of that therapy. By which time you can't get out your front door because there are three pianos and the engine from a Model T Ford in the hallway of your modest-size Brooklyn flat. Because what started as mild avoidance behavior has now evolved into some full-blown mania of avoidance and hoarding of musical instruments and internal combustion engines.

So you want to take advantage of behavioral therapy while you can still get out your door.


Would it help to tell a personal anecdote?

OK. It was my first job. I was the chief of the mailroom. It was my job to pay the bills and answer inquiries about why certain bills had not been paid, and to reconcile creditors' claims of what we owed them with our claims of what we had paid and make appropriate noises of protest or accommodation.

The fact that after grad school in creative writing my first job was in the mailroom of a manufacturer of telephone equipment says something about my lack of good sense and direction. But I did not want to join the creative writing establishment and become another pallid aesthete on the dole; I wanted real-world experience!


My first job-related insight: Wow, man, work is hella tiring! Maybe this is why more people don't read Proust!

Work was so tiring, in fact, and my outside activities took place at such a late hour and in such euphoric conditions that even with my meager job duties I was before long utterly overwhelmed. I went into that zone you talk about. I put a big cardboard box under my desk and any piece of mail that I could not deal with went into the box.

After a few months the box was full. Then I resigned.

Then they found the box. They wanted to know Wha? They were all big-mouthed Wha? And I was like Dunno. Really. Just couldn't, you know, deal with it.


You know? You know, I'm sure of it.

So what eventually happened? In my case, I did not seek therapy for that particular behavioral problem. I went on to scale much greater heights of denial and procrastination until, well, familiar story, the booze did me in. Behavioral adjustment came much, much later, after the basic life on life's terms crap, and all the Oh hell, I really did act like a complete schmuck and here is your money back and the records I took and all the books of yours that I sold for drug money I'll try to find them for you though many remain out of print and just generally hard to find so you may be just shit out of luck, in addition to all the millions of generic yet heartfelt I'm really really sorrys ...

Nothing new there. All these fears and methods of avoidance do tend to work together somehow and, yes, drinking is indeed one of many ways to deal with what you don't want to deal with. So if you have other such behavioral tics as that, well, all the more reason to get a crew of head mechanics to scour your undercarriage for signs of excessive wear. Get yourself looked at is what I'm saying. They have good medicine for this. There are people out there who can fix it.

And let me know how it turns out -- when you can get around to it.


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