Life on Auto-Pilot
On my first day of graduate school, I learned quickly I was going to be a unique figure in graduate program. In my first class, I was asked “Where I was from?” I think much to the professor’s dismay, I responded with the name of the Midwest town I grew up in. The class laughed noticing the expression of confusion on her face. “So you’re not an exchange student from France?” she asked almost disappointed. “No,” I shrugged.
It was not the first time and it certainly would not be the last, where I was confused for something more exotic than just a kid from the Great Lakes states. It was the first time I looked around and realized I was unique in my graduate school class. I was one of a handful of guys in a female dominated program. I also came with no psychological background. In fact, I hated psychology class as an undergraduate. I was probably a unique selection on behalf of the graduate admissions committee. Years of community service, maybe? A good essay? I have no idea what they saw in an English/Creative Writing major.
I knew quickly things were different. I had lived in this community of artists as an undergraduate. Creativity mattered. I then lived for two years volunteering across the country with AmeriCorps NCCC. Again, the individuals I was surrounded with might have excelled at math or sciences in undergrad, but in NCCC, we were just a bunch of young people wanting to better the world. Even the greatest mathematical or scientific mind, was put aside surrounded by over a hundred free-spirited young people, eager to see the United States, make it more beautiful, drift, and create a community of like minded young adults.
Graduate school was fascinating because it was a quick switch. Suddenly, I was in with individuals that rode the psychology train straight through undergrad into graduate school. It was a top ten school in my program, in a city that thrives on its reputation of academic excellence, especially in the ‘medical field.’ I quickly learned the mob mentality was all about ‘science,’ and ‘research.’
I remember sitting one night about a month or so in and thinking, “I miss my artist friends.’ The science stuff was interesting, but I missed people who saw art or beauty in all that was around them. It’s interesting looking back because I’ve struggled with this dynamic throughout my career. The hospitals and agencies I worked for, definitely looked at my profession as a mental health therapist as ‘science.’ I see therapy as more of an art form. It’s a dance. One size will never fit all. Yes, there’s the brain and medicines and diagnosis, but there’s also the relationship. It’s interesting because as more and more hospitals fight that they have the ‘evidenced based practices,’ to treat mental health, go to any therapy text book and it’ll say clearly, “The one thing that really predicts a successful outcome of an individual’s treatment in therapy is his or her relationship with the therapist.
Therapy is a wide field and there are so many theories and philosophical ideas about it. They range in such a wide variety. Go to a bookstore where they separate therapy books from self-help books and observe what is placed in what section.
Often, when I’m curious about something and researching it, I will come across scholarly articles and self-help blogs. Sometimes I’m surprised at what they both offer. The other day I was teaching a Cognitive Behavioral based group on depression. We were going over the symptoms and I came across the words, ‘living your life on auto pilot.’ I found that interesting.
Depression itself is interesting. Psychiatrists will tell you medication is the route you need to go. I’ve heard the talk on serotonin many times. There is a very clinical depression that responds well to medications. I will never deny it. I’ve seen it many times. I’ve also felt depressed and tried those medications and felt nothing but side effects, which I also hear a lot from individuals I’ve treated.
Depression can look very different in different people and it can look similar in people and its origin or the way it responds to treatment is extremely different in different individuals. In the world of the internet and information at our fingertips, when we don’t know what something is or how to fix it, we go online.
I became curious about what the internet would say if I noticed “I was living my life on autopilot.’ I mean, to some degree, except when I was young and not beholden to anything; my life is mostly on autopilot. I get up, go to work, come home, work on some stuff or just relax, and go to bed.
I don’t deny that I have some form of depression. It’s not the psychiatrist, ‘here’s a medication and we’ll fix it.’ I actually had my serotonin level counted at one point when I was very down and I had extremely high serotonin levels.
What’s fascinating to me, is that when I researched this idea of ‘life on auto-pilot,’ there were articles from things like Psychology Today to personal testimonials on Reddit, to blogs that had ‘suggestions on how to ‘abandon my auto-pilot life.’
What I love about these articles and most self-help books is that they promise you these ideas that are going to assist you in ’turning your plane off auto-pilot.’ The more psychological based articles kind of do the same thing. The big difference is they offer you skills you might hear in a CBT group.
The blogs often have this individual in the first person telling you, “I was in terrible shape. I was fat, out of shape, broke, my wife was going to leave me….blah, blah, blah,’ The individual then realizes they are living on auto-pilot and they’re ‘too scared to take the wheel and fly the plane towards their dreams.’ Essentially, they realize it’s all about determination and they hold the key to their own destiny.
I believe in free will. I believe you do play a role in what happens to you. What scares me is what happens when we read this stuff. We live in this culture of self-determinism, which is not a ‘bad thing,’ but it’s not so black and white. Ask anyone who has every been depressed and been told, ’Stop thinking those negative thoughts,’ and they most likely will tell you it felt really invalidating. I mean, if someone could just stop thinking negative thoughts by choice, who would think them?
It’s sort of like the ’take control of your plane,’ idea to someone whose life is on auto-pilot. It’s like, “Do you think I don’t dream of doing that all the time?’ The idea that I’m scared is somewhat true and so is the idea that most people can’t go beyond some fears. Most people do not have the luxury of quitting a job with health insurance and a steady paycheck because they are stuck on autopilot.
I’ve read articles where it’s presented like, ‘you can sit there and do nothing and be a zombie or you can get off your ass and change,’ as if it’s about laziness. I have no back up paycheck. My income goes to pay my rent, put food on my table, pay my medical bills (which as a Type 1 diabetic are not cheap), and I need insurance. Even in changing jobs, I have to consider if I can afford the month on COBRA or three months because there are months where I literally work to keep my body functioning at the end of the month. There is no money going to new clothes or other things. I’m paying bills.
I’m far from lazy. Friends have joked that I apply for more jobs than anyone they know. I take risks. I don’t know many people that take their vacations completely alone, that go to movies alone, that will go to a restaurant alone. I’m not afraid of breaking my routine. I look for opportunities to do so.
As a single man without children, people would say, ‘you have nothing to look out for,’ so jump. Unfortunately, I also don’t have anyone to catch me if my risky attempt to get off auto-pilot fails.
The last few years have served me a lot to wade through. I found myself living on auto-pilot, and I would say, ‘it makes you depressed.’ The more I dug into how to get out, the more I found articles that really made me feel like I was a lazy, piece of shit. They confused me. They made me question myself over and over (just what a depressed person needs who is already in a negative feedback loop of their own thoughts) is more things to question yourself about.
It’s a dangerous rhetoric. The idea that it is our own negative thoughts that bring us suffering. Really dig and you’ll start to find ideas that you caused your own illnesses or you were off track so someone in your life had to die to show you that. To a person who is trying to survive, these thoughts can really bring you to a dark, confusing place.
Do I agree it’s important to be conscious about our choices? Yes. I agree whole heartedly in the idea of stepping back and looking at making a conscious effort to notice what you’re doing, how you’re doing it, and why you’re doing it. Certainly, there are people who struggle to say ‘no,’ or can’t assert themselves due to a fear of conflict. I believe these are things that can help and can be changed.
I just think we have to also acknowledge there are times when life cannot be lived on our terms. There are real obligations we have to our families, ourselves, society. I am always looking out for the opportunity that is going to make me grow, whether that’s a new friend or relationship or a new job. I am so open to it. The reality is, sometimes those things don’t show up even when we’re searching.
I think technology is exciting and interesting, and I also lived in a time when things were not as accessible. I had no idea what some of my friends were doing at night and I lived with that. I sat with it until I saw them or talked to them again. Today, we have the ability to know not only what our friends are doing but what Susie, we met at a wedding two years ago is doing, who added on on social media and we’ve never talked to again. We can read blogs and watch you-tube videos on people who seemingly overnight just decided to steer their plane in a different direction.
It’s wonderful to have insight and knowledge into how other people do things. The thing is we get a story. We get a slice of the whole picture. The guy with the “Five Ways to Get Off Auto-Pilot,” who quits his job, goes for his dream, loses a ton of weight, and falls in love with the most amazing woman, doesn’t talk about how he lived for all those months without income.. Maybe he was an amazing saver, maybe he comes from a wealthy family, maybe his family afforded him that time. We don’t know.
What we do is compare, which again for someone already down on their luck stuck in a negative feedback loop is dangerous ground.
I wish every Friday night there was somewhere to go, money to do it, and people around. I would love to follow my dreams and have my own private mental health practice, where I could make my schedule, see only the types of clients I want, do therapy how I want to do it, but it takes a lot of money to just start a practice, and the reality is, I don’t have an extra income to back me up. I also have a chronic health condition that requires medication that’s not cheap and lots of doctors appointments. That’s not to mention, I work in a stressful field and being diabetic means (even when I’m eating perfectly) there are days my body is going to take me for a ride. Anyone who’s diabetic will tell you that ride from low to high to low…is if nothing exhausting and causes fatigue and moodiness.
I compare enough all day long. It’s hard enough wishing I was the guy that people were just drawn to because I’m handsome or who is athletic enough to join every sports league in town or somedays just feel ok to get out of bed and feel physically well. It makes me sad that I live on auto-pilot, but I am a therapist and I hear a lot of truths. One truth I think it’s important to keep in mind is that most people do live on some sort of auto-pilot.
There definitely are the outliers. I definitely am all for shaking things up, but the older I get, the more I’ve witnessed the widespread outbreak of “I’m abnormal because…” The worst thing you can do when your home and feel like your life is on auto-pilot is read someone’s five steps to getting out of it.
I’ll end with a story that’s stuck with me over time. Almost everyone I see in therapy (and I hold it myself) has a belief that they are ‘wrong,’ in some way. I feel like we need to throw the word ‘should and shouldn’t’ out of the dictionary. “I should be happier.’ “I should be better looking.’ “I shouldn’t be sad or anxious….”
A long time ago, there was an elderly woman and she repeatedly checked herself into the mental hospital. She was so convinced something was wrong with her. There were challenging parts to her life, as there are to every ones. One day, I sat down with her and I asked her about her days. I asked her to tell me exactly how she spends her days. She began to tell me about her day and then she stopped at her morning shower. She broke down and just started sobbing. She told me she cried every day in the shower for 20 minutes in the morning.
I asked her, “And then what?’ She then told me she would cry and then go on with the rest of her day. She named off the things she did. At the end, she started to cry again and I asked her what she was thinking about that made her start crying again,’ and she told me, “There’s something wrong with me. I shouldn’t be crying every day in the shower.’
I just paused and said, “Did you ever think that crying might be your body’s way of releasing emotion?’ I noted our emotions build up kind of like a sneeze and if don’t address them, they will find their way out (often in unhealthy ways). I noted that after she cried every day, she was able to go on and live her day.
She paused and agreed that after she cried, her days were ok. The only thing was she ruminated all day that she was ‘not right,’ because she cried every day in the shower. I told her if that’s how your body releases emotions, there’s nothing wrong with crying in the shower every day. I noted, ’the only thing wrong is you then believe it’s wrong all day and that causes anxiety and self-doubt.’
We talked and I normalized the fact that every day her body needed to let some emotion out and so she cries in the shower. She sat for a moment almost in disbelief that I was stating it was normal and ok to feel sadness and to let it out for twenty minutes in the shower. She stayed a day or two longer and then told me she was ready to leave. She was crying in the shower, but since she started viewing it as just something her body needed to do, she felt better all day.
From that day until I left that job, I never saw her again. She never admitted back into the hospital. I tell that story often to illustrate the power one’s beliefs have. When I think about myself being on auto-pilot, I feel like a loser. I feel like I’m not doing enough. The negative emotions just start stacking themselves upon me and they’re all my fault. The when’s, how’s, why’s, show up and I’m full on ruminating, and I become so depressed.
When I come from a place of acceptance I allow myself more. I can say, “Hey, there’s not a minute in your day where you’re alone. You do put yourself out there. There aren’t many people that would go to a movie alone or a vacation.’ Yes, I keep looking and trying to find new opportunities, but also I recognize ‘I’m ok. Right now, I can afford my insulin. I do have a tiny (but a place of my own), etc, and the truth is most people I know are on auto-pilot to some degree.
I’m introverted and my body is sensitive. If I don’t unplug when I can, I often get sick. Yes, I’d love a job where I could take.a week off for self-care, but right now, it’s work and be on auto-pilot to rest and not get sick, to have healthcare so I can afford the medicines my body needs to function, and so I can show up for the people who depend on me.
I originally started this piece because I was going to write a poem I wrote a few years ago. The poem speaks to my life on auto-pilot. It was a time when I lived at work it felt like. It was demanded of me, but it also saved me. When I wasn’t at work, I was at the hospital with sick relatives. I was struggling with the fact that I had lost the physical capability to exercise away my emotions due to a leg injury. The poem led me to look up the idea of ‘living on auto-pilot.’ I think I wanted to find in my research fun, new interesting ways to shake things up. What I found was confusion, as I compared myself to individuals whose full stories I truly didn’t know.
Home on a Friday night and reading this poem I wrote a few years ago, I felt like things had not changed much. I went out searching for ideas, for research, on what I was doing wrong, and I ended up realizing through writing this. The only wrong is not giving myself a break and allowing myself to compare myself with someone else’s story, which is truly not their whole story.
The fact is, I don’t need the whole story because even if I had it, they’re not me. Writing this actually eased my ‘should’s’ and quieted my effort to always be ‘better,’ and reminded myself, “I am ok.” I hope if you feel stuck on auto-pilot, reading this might allow you to do what auto-pilot was built to do, to make things a bit easier, to allow you to just relax as the plane does some of the work for the pilot.