Spring is here. And that can only mean one thing: Water Torture!

It’s time to frog-march a story about water torture into a metaphor about context, freedome, and productive solitude, don’t you think?

I’ve been mildly fascinated by this topic for years. By mildly, I mean I think and perhaps talk about it once in a while, but I’ve done absolutely no research or discovery on it.

I learned about water torture at Booker T. Washington Elementary, back when it was always called Chinese Water Torture, and I have learned almost nothing about it since the days when Dale Preuss and I sat playing paper tank war from opposite sides of a small desk, our hand-drawn Shermans attacking one another through the silver-grey flames from our No2 Ticondaroga pencils. Dale told me as many details as he could, while his pale face became red and blotchy with the excitement, surrounded as it was by a thin, sharp curtain of white blond bangs. 

I formed a picture of a single American soldier in dirty striped pajamas tied down to a wooden plank in a dark military prison cell with a bent lead pipe leaking directly over his face. He lay there alone in the darkness, being spattered by one tiny drop every few minutes, but because it was dark, he could not anticipate the next drop, nor could he move his hands in the way, so he lost track of time, and that made him lose his sanity.

Imagine, I thought, how long that would have to go on before these tiny, harmless, painless droplets of water would erode the sanity of a hardened adult solider. But of course, limestone caves are formed over centuries by groundwater, so maybe this minor annoyance, working a little bit at a time would work the same way.

One day, the enemy would put you in there under the leaky pipe, tell you not to move. Then, every few months, they’d come back to check on you. Are you crazy yet? No! Ok, see you in 13 days…

Didn’t seem very efficien, but OK. I’m not a military torture expert now, and also I was not one in 3rd grade. What the hell would I know.

Decades later, the water torture seeped, bubbled, cascaded (can’t find a non-water verb right now) back into my thoughts, and I realized that whatever I had not borrowed from Bridge on the River Kwai was from Pappillon. Neither my interpretation nor my set design had changed since the Nixon presidency.

This time I thought – it’s all about context! If your three best friends put you in that position on a dare, say, maybe it would take 6 months for them to dissolve your personality. But if I imagined being a solider who lost a firefight, survived an attack that killed most of my fellow fighters, and then had been frog-marched into that cell by enemies, the experience of a few drops of water on my face begins to seem more damaging.

After every drop that hits my face in the dark, I have to prepare myself for what the next moment will bring: a beating? some food? surprise execution? nothing? another drop? But trying to prepare for all these possibilities at once is so exhausting, it’s like trying to hold a heavy stone in your outstretched hand while standing indefinitely at attention. Your mind races to allocate energy based on how long the stress is expected to last. But that estimate is always changing, and the mind continues to race.

Also, being out in the world, you can always tine your ears to a waiter in the next room bitching about how slow it is for a Friday, or look above your head for a glimpse of the airplane you hear, or even shift your weight from one leg to the other. But in this water torture scenario, none of these avenues is available. After a while, stone you’re holding up becomes too heavy, and it drops out of your hand. But you’re still there, and so maybe you drop backward into the ground below, Get Out! style, into a sunken place. Now you’ve unplugged from yourself, mostly, and you’re in a typical trauma response.

If the trauma is sudden, like a car wreck, you may see yourself from a few feet away – like, oh, that’s me bouncing up and down as the car rolls over and over. If the trauma is slow and prolonged, repetitious, you may get into the habit of drifting into the removed state regularly, even seeking it out during periods of recovery, as a way to self-comfort or get to sleep despite gnawing anxiety.

Once established, this octopus-like retreat from the time and place of your personal reality is always an option. It’s a brilliant survival tactic in the short term. But longer term, it carries serious cost, emerging as a habit during moments of uncertainty, stress, or boredom. At some point, this escape tactic can become so engrained it seems to be happening without effort, or worse even, become established in your daily rhythms. At this point, the habit of energetically checking out starts to become automatic, draining off your energy precisely when you most need to pay attention, be alert, and use energy to participate in your life. Small problems become bigger, and the temptation to retreat becomes even stronger.

Getting out of these habits of retreat can be slow and frustrating. But it can be done. It might require some outside help, cognitive behavioral therapy, professional treatment, group support, to enable you to get to a place where you can address this habit of checking out.

I believe the ultimate solution is regular investment in productive solitude. This is the best way I know to get out of the habit of retreating, tuning out, fading. I have spent the past 18 months practicing a daily routine I call The Three Tutions.

The Three Tuitions

It’s impossible to overstate how much this has helped me get out of the habit of checking out, spacing out, and dulling out.

But there are tons of resources on setting the tone for your day. (https://mymorningroutine.com/book/)

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