I started this post two Lents ago.  I hoped to publish it when my bad habit was gone.  That has not happened.  This morning at Mass I decided I should post it anyway, even though it is not a success story.   You are invited to pray for me.

Compulsions abound.  Many people have them and there are many different kinds.  Some folks suck their thumbs or bite their nails.  Some like things arranged super-orderly.  Some eat too much, drink too much, some binge and purge.  Some twist their hair and pull out their eyebrows. Some masturbate.  Some are kleptomaniacs and some are child molesters.  Some of these compulsions are more serious than others, less socially acceptable, more harmful to self and society.  One thing true about compulsions is that most people wish they didn’t  have them – but by now they are habitual.  They say, “I can’t help myself.”

Habits develop one fine gossamer strand at a time.  You do it once.  It somehow comforts you.  You do it again. And again. And again.  Soon the gossamer strand is a strong cable–the action becomes second nature.  When you are tired, or anxious, or bored, or lonely, you go there, almost “naturally.”

I’m an old lady and I’ve noticed that the older I get the longer it takes for little wounds to heal.  I do not seem to have the patience to wait for nature to take its course.  The mosquito bite that I’ve scratched until it bled would heal in due time but I will scratch it when I think the scab is “almost” ready to come off, and keep that up over and over again.  Every little protuberance on my epidermis annoys me and I’ll pick at it, actually making it worse rather than better.  Eventually I’ll develop what is essentially a callus, and I can peel off the top layer every now and then.  The blemish could have been gone in a month.  Now it will take six months, perhaps, for it to disappear, even if I never touch it again.  Once I had such a “hyperkeratosis” on my right hand which the dermatologist froze with his zapper, and I actually allowed it to heal.  But I found something else to pick at.  Once I had one on my left hand and when I broke my left wrist the cast covered it.  Six weeks later it was still there, just waiting for me, with a few little skin flakes on top.    I kept it going for a long time after that. If I had a raised mole anywhere on my body I suspect I would have  to have it surgically removed or I would scratch it off.  Once I pulled a wart out by its roots and it bled all over my white cashmere sweater.

I can admit I have a problem.  I have been picking at myself for years.   My fingers are familiar with every little bump on my body.  My mind tells me I should let God heal my little wounds in his time, in his way.  But I pick and pick and scratch and scratch.  I have a habit I don’t like.  I’ve tried replacing it with another habit.  I thought that saying the rosary would occupy my hands.  But my mind would wander and one hand would pick while the other fingered the beads.  I would ask God to take away my habit– presto, change-o.  No miracle was forthcoming.

Notice that all the compulsions I have listed  somehow involve the hands.  If we could just keep our hands still we would not do any of the things mentioned.  We know these actions are things we can control, if only a little bit, because we don’t do them in public. That is important – we still have a wee bit of control.  But not enough to stop entirely.

It is Ash Wednesday, 2009.  I am going to give up TV.  (When you think about it, watching TV can become a compulsion.  You just flick it on and it comforts, amuses, occupies you — takes your mind off yourself and your problems.)  And chocolate.  (Another “comfort food.”  How often have I thought “I need chocolate, do you have any chocolate?”  I can empathize with addicts of all kinds.  Fortunately, my fix is chocolate — so far.)

The third thing I wanted to give up was picking.    This was not as simple as turning off the TV for six weeks, or just not buying anything chocolate.  This was not a one-time choice that you make once and it’s done for all of Lent.   No, picking is a thing to be dealt with daily, or even numerous times a day.

This has been a long-ingrained habit.  I remember visiting with my grandmother-in-law when the kids were small.  She commented, “That child [meaning me] has done nothing but scratch since she’s been here.”  I wasn’t even conscious of it.  There’s a tactile thing going on that seems to be a tension reducer.  After all, the skin is our biggest sense organ and the skin arises from the ectoderm, as does the nervous system.  Why do we love massages? Someone fussing with our hair?  A back scratch?  I note that even seasoned performers on TV occasionally do a little nervous scratching, usually on an arm, because it is so handy.  The arm is  not itchy but somehow it needs scratching.

Why do I write about my picking habit, which hardly anyone knows about?  Because habits are hard, hard, hard to break.  It was not enough for me say a prayer that God would take away my habit.  I could not use my intelligence to find a solution on my own.  We need, of course, to take advantage of whatever helps we can.   Use whatever you can think of that might delay or prevent indulging in your particular habit.    With my picking, tiny spot Band-Aids are helpful. After I have shelled out several dollars for a box of little bandages I am less likely to tear one off to scratch something I really want to get rid of.

However,  I found it necessary to call upon God for help, not just once but rather minute by minute, to have any real self-control at all   And then, of course, it was not MY control – it was my little effort combined with God’s help.  Calling on God: “God, you are my help.  God, you are my help.  God, you are my help”  Over and over again, like a mantra.  I decided to keep on saying it until I fell asleep.

If my mind wandered, my fingers wandered.   As long as my mind was directed to God, my hands were still.  Than I noticed a remarkable thing.   I was no longer restraining hands that wanted to wander.  My hands didn’t even want to wander.  In fact, they felt heavy, and I felt peaceful, somewhat like the feeling when someone prays with me and I rest in the spirit.  I would feel my prayer had been heard and WE had some control.

Does my “solution” to bad habits sound too easy?  Am I saying that all you need to do is call on God and your bad habit will disappear?  Not at all.  Breaking a habit  is not an easy thing to do.  It requires repeated decisions.  It requires constant efforts of the will, repeated turning to God to ask for help.    It is not easy, but it is possible.  God is our ever present help in times of need.

It’s not as if calling on God for help is anything new!  It’s a time-honored remedy for many things.  Whether you have a scab you want to pick at, or a neighbor you want to pummel.  GOD IS OUR HELP.   We don’t need to go it alone.

My bad habit is one that is relatively easy to talk or write about. It is not expensive, life-threatening, or harmful to others.  It is hardly worth mentioning.     But I, who like to be in control, found myself with lack of control.  Perhaps God has let me struggle with this because it might help others with different bad habits.  Perhaps just one person in Brisbane or Beijing will read this post and find hope and help.

That was the way I wrote at the beginning of Lent.   I was sure that God and I would conquer this bad habit.   Now Pentecost approaches and it is time for full disclosure.   Yes,  my two favorite scratching spots are now just blips on my skin, almost unnoticeable.   I am still tempted to scratch at them but usually don’t.   Why?   Because I have started a NEW scratching spot.  I like having something to scratch at.  It gives me something to do.  It relieves tension and I am wired fidgety.

I know turning to God is the way to go.  Maybe if I had a habit that disfigured me or threatened my health I would have tried harder to get rid of it.   I would have leaned harder on God.  I do not have a success story to report but habits are known for their tenacity and relapse is usually part of the healing story. I never like to admit defeat but the failure is mine, not God’s.  It is true that God helps those who help themselves but, as Scripture says, when we are weak, he is strong.

The entire selection from 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 reads thus:

And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated.  Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.  I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities, for when I am weak, the I am strong.

I should, therefore, thank God even when I am weak for it is a blessing in that it keeps me looking to him for strength.  Should I ever become whole and healed, I might forget where it all comes from, I might forget from whom comes my very breath.

Another blessing comes with my “thorn.”  It has given me enormous compassion for those who are trying to kick  bad habits.  I know from experience that they have a hard row to hoe – I pray for patience and perseverance for myself and them.

~~~

For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. — Romans 7.

Just because you got the monkey off your back, it doesn’t mean the circus has left town. — Anon.