If I hadn’t read this set of symptoms in a book on grieving, I might think I was coming down with a neurological disease:
Bewilderment, confusion, indecisiveness, clumsiness, forgetfulness, inability to concentrate, a reduced attention span.
I am so unbelievably disorganized. (I only notice this when I am home alone, back from distracting and engrossing visits, trying to take care of business.) I stagger around here, tripping over my own feet, completely defeated by mounds of unsorted papers, unable to find documents I could swear I put away carefully, unable to remember what I just set out to do. All tasks, regardless of size and urgency, seem to have the same bland proportions, so I can’t prioritize, I can’t put them in any kind of order or hierarchy. I mean, I do — I get things done — but it’s a senseless, blundering process, like wading blindfolded through a warehouse full of empty cardboard boxes.
I’ve lost my habits.
Given the high energy cost of running the prefrontal cortex, the brain prefers to run off its hard drive, known as the basal ganglia, which has a much larger storage capacity and sips, not gulps, fuel. This is the part of the brain that stores the hardwired memories and habits that dominate our daily lives.
“Most of the time the basal ganglia are more or less running the show,” says Jeffrey M. Schwartz, research psychiatrist at the School of Medicine at the University of California at Los Angeles. “It controls habit-based behavior that we don’t have to think about doing.” . . .
The interplay between the basal ganglia and the prefrontal cortex helps explain the resistance [to change]. . . . Doing [something] the way [you’ve] always done it draws upon the basal ganglia and burns less fuel than making a change and involving the prefrontal cortex.
What this passage doesn’t quite capture, but what I’ve read elsewhere, is that the basal ganglia are not only incredibly pervasive in our lives, but incredibly good at running things. Not all habits are bad. In fact, getting actions down pat and then hooking them to the brain’s automatic pilot enables us to function smoothly, gracefully, and efficiently much of the time, and frees up the prefrontal cortex to deal with novelty, beauty, and trouble. The habit system is what we call “second nature.” How almost unconsciously you drive a car (usually coming off autopilot in an instant if there’s a threat), how briskly you run through your daily routines, how nimbly you navigate the familiar terrain of your house and neighborhood (probably tending to take the same paths day after day), are all examples of the huge role habit plays in our functioning. Unconsciousness gets a bad rap, but you really wouldn’t want to try to drive a car on the highway with just your conscious mind.
I could intone “Habit is a good servant but a bad master,” and talk about bad habits and addictions and our power to break them (the subject of Dr. Jeffrey M. Schwartz and Rebecca Gladding’s forthcoming book You Are Not Your Brain), but that’s another post. This one is about clumsiness, disorganization, and grief. Are you starting to put the pieces together?
Fortunately, I’m not trying to drive a car with just my conscious mind. Driving and editing are among the few activities in which I still feel competent and collected. I don’t want to do anything but work because that’s the one place (other than behind the wheel) where I still have a sense of mastery and orientation.
Getting around my apartment and neighborhood, through my errands and my day, on the other hand, are all new. I have no habits that aren’t bent around taking care of Jacques, and those habits are now useless, severed, their loose ends trailing on the ground and tripping me, often into wells of pain. Here’s where I used to . . . this is when I used to . . . The emotional part of it is that relationships, once they settle in, are about habit, and habits are about relationship. There’s safety and familiarity and companionship and an almost sacramental ritual repetition in the routines you share with or perform for the other person. You inhabit those habits, and all you need to be conscious of is how comfortable and dear they are. When they’re gone, they are much of what you miss and the way you miss the other person, the way he or she is built into you.
Then there’s the neurological part.
I am trying to get through my days without habits. That’s why I’m getting through them so badly. My prefrontal cortex is really cranky at having no routines to rest on and rely on. It doesn’t want to handle all those petty decisions itself any more than the head of the household wants to mop the floor or the CEO wants to do the filing. For years my life was organized by the imperative urgency of taking care of Jacques and, if I ever did anything else, rushing it so I could get back to Job One. Outside of work, I have as yet no other driver or organizing principle for my actions, no governor on my time.
So, like a beginning driver, I lurch around spasmodically, in fits and starts, grudgingly and intermittently putting my skittish thoroughbred prefrontal cortex to the brute task of mapping out workable pathways and rhythms — making lists, having “bright” ideas like “Clean out one drawer a day.” It doesn’t help that this is not going to be my home, this place strewn with the raw ends of amputated habits like downed live wires. Any structures I set up will be strictly temporary, soon to be struck like circus tents.
It certainly is a time between.