The Devil is in the details. What does this phrase even mean? Where does it come from? I wrote this in my journal a couple of days ago as I was trying to work out this… thing that was holding me back from accomplishing a task. You know how it goes, right? You have this one project you need to do, this deadline looming, people depending on you to get one task accomplished, and yet you can’t seem to get to it. You avoid it like it’s radioactive. You suddenly find those cobwebs in the rafters of your attic intolerable and in need of vacuuming right this minute. That’s the first clue that the devil has started to sway.
When I finally realize my brain is in avoidance mode, I know I should try to spend some time in mindful observation and notice what is going on inside of me. I didn’t. The project I was avoiding was an entry on my Psychology Today blog. No one was waiting for it, but rather, if I don’t post X number of entries each quarter, I wouldn’t meet the contract agreement and wouldn’t get paid (it’s like $0.005 per read so that’s hardly the point). Nevertheless, it was an expectation I had set up for myself, and I was struggling to make it.
I had been trying to work on this last entry to meet my quota for almost 2 months. I had started the blog over about a dozen times in those weeks since my last post on National Coming Out Day (October 11). Nothing was coming together enough to meet their standards. What’s worse, my procrastination and self-doubt was beginning to spread. Becoming bored with this one step, the devil danced around to other areas of my life.
I had a great opportunity to write an entry for the UK-based Mental Elf. I was given a week to do it. I was struggling to write each sentence. Then, a peer reviewed journal, the Journal of Gay and Lesbian Mental Health, sent me a “revise and resubmit” invitation for an article I had written with a colleague. Rather than a flat-out rejection like the 6 other peer-reviewed journals I had sent it to over the past 3 years (and we wonder why it takes up to 17 years for research to reach the hands of practitioners!), this was a conditional acceptance. While I was excited to finally have a home for this article, I found myself procrastinating and avoiding the relatively minor edits they were suggesting. The deadline for this re submission was December 16th.
The devil’s insidious influence spread and other areas began succumbing to its powerful pull. I no longer wanted to post my weekly blogs, interact with my students or my clients. Every Sunday, my Monsters Beneath My Bed blog has a self-imposed deadline. The fall semester final grades were due December 17th. My clients had needs for end-of-year and holiday “emergency” sessions.
The deadlines loomed, and the voice of my internal critic added lyrics to his wild stomping. Echos of self-hate reverberated in the caverns of my mind.
“You’re becoming a broken record, whining for people to pay attention to you!”
“You think you have something to teach?!
“Who do you think you’re helping?”
Next, this demonic couple waltzed into my personal life. While my fiancé had been working hard to decorate the house for Christmas and purchase gifts for our family and loved ones. I had been doing everything I could to avoid it. The attention my fiancé was able to give to decorating our tree, hanging stockings and garland, and choosing perfectly thoughtful gifts, was somehow intimidating as hell.
“You’re lazy! The least you could do would be to act interested!”
“You’re not even trying. What good are you?”
As the fervor of the couple grew they kicked up every loose piece of detritus around, I felt the pressure coming to a head. Migraines came knocking multiple times a week, my typically joy-filled mornings of writing waned. My work, my relationships, everything in my life was feeling the pain of the frenzied havoc.
Finally, I was able to drag myself to my journal to figure out what was happening. As I began to write, the storm began to calm. My mind drifted back to where I was a year ago. In therapy, I had needed to attend to a particularly difficult set of memories from a Christmas morning when I was 7. The memory had a lot of missing pieces. In my EMDR and IFS work, I came to realize a part of me I call Mr. P had stood in for me when things got too overwhelming for a little boy to process.
What I remember of this Christmas day was having been so excited to open presents, I had been begging and whining for my mother to wake my stepfather. He apparently had been drinking heavily the night before so my mother wanted him to “sleep it off” before waking him. I was relentless however, and eventually, in her frustration at my whining, begging, and complaining, she had thrust a full dish drainer off the counter and onto the floor. This, of course, woke my stepfather who came downstairs in a fury of anger. What had happened afterward is a dissociative blur of tears, domestic violence, and terror.
Because my little-boy brain couldn’t process what happened, in my mind, Mr. P. stood there, frozen in fear, with dishes, mugs, and silverware suspended around him like ornaments on a Christmas tree. He stepped in for me so I could escape. Time had been frozen in my head for the past 4 decades, because the second it moved forward, the cups, dishes, and silverware would all fall to the ground.
Over the years, Mr. P became a perfectionist, driven to perform every task to standards set by an unrelenting God and an impossible to please stepmother. Each time there was a math test to pass, a Bible verse to be memorized, a chore to be done, he would add this task on as another ornament to hold onto.
As I sat there with my journal, remembering where I was in therapy last year, I looked over at my Christmas tree, holding a hundred ornaments suspended over a miniature world of ceramic buildings and figures, I could see Mr. P standing in the middle of a kitchen on Christmas morning trying to catch and hold a whole set of dishes and silverware in mid-air. I see him trying to look beautiful and perfect, happy and bright so that the big bad stepfather doesn’t come down and unleash his violence on his mother, sister, and himself.
It was starting to make sense. As I continued to process these connections in my journal and with my therapist, the migraines eased, the devil’s dervish slowed, and my inner critic quieted. I submitted the blog for the Mental Elf. Thanks to my colleague who was able to make 80% of the edits in about 2 hours, I was able to face my fears and make the rest of the changes. I submitted them with a few hours to spare. My final grades were submitted a day early. I began to enjoy my therapy sessions. I expressed my appreciation to my fiancé for his labor of love making our house warm and welcoming for the holidays. I found joy in shopping for loved ones this weekend. I am happy to write this personal blog post this morning. My migraine has eased. That leaves the Psychology Today post.
This year, my therapist tells me Mr. P gets a Christmas morning “do-over.” This year, my inner child gets to be a kid and enjoy his Christmas morning. This year, maybe he drops the Psychology Today ornament and learns that he doesn’t have to be afraid of the big bad stepfather who died several years ago.
If you’d like to share part of your journey with me, I invite you to connect with me at: WillKoehlerLCSW@aTraumaInformedLife.com or find me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or LinkedIn. I’m also now on Research Gate and Psychology Today.