Sunday, August 12, 2018

Unfuzzy Things

When Post Traumatic Stress Disorder hit me almost three years ago, the most visible symptom was a dramatic increase in my formerly mild case of trichotillomania – the compulsion to pull out your hair. I began ferociously rubbing my forehead and yanking out what's left of the hair above it. Most of the time I’m unaware it’s happening. By the end of particularly stressful days, my scalp is raw. 

To mitigate trichotillomania’s impact, I learned to fiddle instead with over-sized pipe cleaners – “fuzzy things.” As I wrote here last year, I found my fuzzy things serendipitously. Long ago I had a favorite stress squeezeball, a miniature blue and green globe. So when the scalp-rubbing began driving me crazy, I went to the basement and sorted through all the kids’ old balls to see if I could find something with a similar size and soothing squishiness. (Yes, I’ve tried fidget spinners. Too hard.) Finally, I found a green ball that felt just right – but it wasn’t a ball after all. It was a balled-up oversized pipe cleaner, left over from some forgotten art project.  

I began buying fuzzy things in bulk at Michael’s craft store, which I then cut up into eight-inch strips. They’re soft and squeezable, but you can also fiddle with them, or use them to tie up your fingers. They work pretty well at keeping my hands occupied, or at grabbing my attention as I see them approach my forehead. But they’re not 100% effective. And they fall apart too easily.

A few months later, I discovered a shelf at Michael’s displaying reinforced supersized fuzzy things. Unfortunately, Super Fuzzy Things only come in black. And they wear out after a few heavy-duty hours, breaking up into fuzzy fragments with sharp metal protrusions. I still end most days with a sore forehead.

Have you identified the improvable therbligs in your life?

One of the favorite books from my childhood is Cheaper by the Dozen, a memoir by siblings Frank Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey. (They also wrote the sequel Belles on their Toes.) If you’re only familiar with the 2003 Steve Martin movie of the same name, you would think Cheaper by the Dozen is merely a story about growing up in a large family. But what set the Gilbreth kids apart from their early 20th century peers was the profession of their eccentric parents: Frank Sr. and his wife Lillian were pioneers in the field of “time and motion study,” what we now would call organizational behavior and management consulting. And the Gilbreth parents insisted on embarrassing their numerous offspring by practicing efficiency techniques on them at home.

Frank and Lillian coined the term “therblig,” which is their surname spelled backwards, to refer to each of the individual steps or standardized components of an industrial process. In Cheaper by the Dozen, the Gilbreth children provide a practical illustration of how motion study works. The goal is to identify and optimize each “therblig” that makes up a particular process:

Suppose a man goes into a bathroom and shave. We'll assume that his face is all lathered and that he is ready to pick up his razor. He knows where the razor is, but first he must locate it with his eye. That is "search," the first Therblig. His eye finds it and comes to rest – that's "find," the second Therblig. Third comes "select," the process of sliding the razor prior to the fourth Therblig, "grasp." Fifth is "transport loaded," bringing the razor up to his face, and sixth is "position," getting the razor set on his face. There are eleven other Therbligs –  the last one is "think"!

Cheaper by the Dozen neglects to share the secrets of a perfectly efficient shave. However, every time I put on a dress shirt, I remember I’m doing it wrong. According to the Gilbreths, it’s faster to start buttoning up from the bottom button, rather than from the top down.

In the final novel she published before her death in 1974, my favorite author Jane Duncan focused on two beloved characters that readers first got to know in the earliest tales of the author’s childhood. Her uncles George and Tom spent their lives in the remote Highlands, on a marginally arable family farm (a “croft” in Scots dialect) – very like my Mormon pioneer ancestors in Utah.   

After the death of her husband, our 50something narrator finally returns home to Scotland after a long expatriate stint in the West Indies. She begins a new life as a writer, and moves into the family cottage with her elderly uncles. (This was in the 1960s, about the time I was born.) George and Tom were born in the Victorian era, so by this time they had seen enormous changes to their world: revolutions, depressions, two world wars, and massive technological transformations. Through all the tumult, they remained endlessly curious and resourceful. 

Duncan writes about the time her uncles figured out how to convert a couple of pieces of abandoned furniture into an ergonomic work station for her. According to the narrator, the episode was “illustrative of their ingenuity”:  

I have often thought that the men who erected the Pyramids or the statues on Easter Island must have had something in common with George and Tom, for at the croft they had contrived to move enormous boulders or huge trees that seemed to be beyond the strength of two men.

Frank and Lillian Gilbreth would have liked George and Tom.

George and Tom always remind me of my father. He grew up milking cows by hand on the family farm, before escaping to college at the end of the 1950s. A pragmatic insurance adjuster by profession, my dad also has endless practical skills. He’s built a house and remodeled two others to death. He has a tool for every occasion, or he will jury-rig one. He’s a real-life amateur MacGyver. At age 54, I still approach every mechanical or automotive task by asking myself “what would Dad do?” Or I just call and ask him.

Earlier this summer, my parents made their annual trek to Utah, where they stayed with my Uncle LaMar. Dad’s younger brother is more of a professional MacGyver – he’s a management consultant who travels the world figuring out how to improve manufacturing processes.

While in Utah, LaMar took my parents to the site of his current client, a manufacturer of next-generation pillows and mattresses. My dad saw a bowl full of purple “unfuzzy things,” which the company offers to customers to show how their technology works. Dad immediately recognized these promotional items had the potential to replace my Super Fuzzy Things as a tool for mitigating the impact of trichotillomania, and brought a few home.

Sure enough, Unfuzzy Things work. I can fiddle with them endlessly without their falling apart or poking my fingers. The cool non-metallic texture feels soothing. I need to lay up a healthy supply before Uncle LaMar moves on to his next consulting project.

Trichotillomania is not just for people living with PTSD, although there is a high correlation. The Trichotillomania Learning Center, now rebranded as the “TLC Foundation for Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors,” has a helpful website if you’d like to learn more about the disorder. Although my own particular symptoms hurt and make me terribly self-conscious, I’m relatively fortunate. As a middle-aged dad with thinning hair, my localized handiwork is pretty inconspicuous. In contrast, Google will take you to ghastly Pinterest photos of women who have mowed broad bald swaths across their skulls. Body-focused repetitive behaviors, like the related cluster of eating disorders, are examples of the debilitating impact of mental illness.

I know a teenager who was abused and neglected as a young child. Now she’s a poised, happy young woman. Most of the time you would never guess what she went through. Nevertheless, for as long as I’ve known her, she has compulsively brought her fingers up to her face and fiddled with them. Just like me now.

Before I began living with PTSD, my reaction was to gently suggest she stop doing it – to “snap out of it,” as Cher says to Nicholas Cage in Moonstruck. This same thoughtless response is exactly how too many people react to other very real examples of mental illness, including depression, anxiety, and PTSD. 

Trauma alters the wiring of our brains. Some of trauma’s impact can be mitigated by medication, counseling, and other treatments. But as with other disabilities, both “physical” and “mental” (as if there was a meaningful distinction, other than society’s disparate response), some symptoms may never go away. 

After three years of living with a PTSD diagnosis, I’m overjoyed by the progress I’ve made. Like other disabled people, I’m frustrated by the doors that remain closed, but that’s another story. Meanwhile, I’m resigned to the prospect of relying on fuzzy and unfuzzy things for years to come. 

So I turn to something like Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer, which folks repeat countless times every day at meetings of Codependents Anonymous, AA, and other similar groups:  

Grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the Courage [and Creativity] to change the things I can,
and the Wisdom to know the difference.

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