Every day of my life, at least twice a day, I brush my teeth. I open the medicine cabinet and take out the toothpaste. Then I take my toothbrush out of the holder, and I begin the process.
About three months ago, we started buying a new kind of toothpaste. The tube stands up on its own. So it’s not in the medicine cabinet any more. It’s out on the vanity, standing there, in plain view.
For the first few days with the new toothpaste, I opened the cabinet, looked for the tube, and then I remembered it wasn’t there any more.
“Oh, right.” I said to myself.
Now it’s three months later and every day, at least twice a day, I still open the cabinet door. And just as I open it, I stop myself.
“Oh, right.” I say as I close the cabinet.
Every day. Twice a day. Sometimes three. Every single day.
Each time, just after I open the door, just before I reach in for it, I remember that it’s not there. Sometimes I laugh out loud. Sometimes I curse myself. Sometimes I sigh.
And each time, while I brush my teeth, I wonder how long it will take until I unlearn this routine? How long will it take before my brain realizes that I don’t have to do this any more? How long before I let go of this habit that isn’t serving me? And if I can’t easily let go of this simple thing, how can I let go of bigger, more significant habits?
Letting go of habits for the month of February brings with it a heightened awareness of all sorts of things.
I’m not eating bread. And the other day when I was making sandwiches for the girls’ lunches I instinctively scooped out the insides of the hard rolls to make room for the sandwich stuff. I was about to roll that handful of bread into a ball and pop it into my mouth.
I am a mindless bread eater!
Since I have forbid myself from bread this month, I didn’t eat it. I am hoping that I can break this habit altogether, and not do it ever again after February.
But one month may not be long enough. I’m still opening the freakin’ medicine cabinet after three months.
Our habits, our routines, the things we do every single day, make pathways in our brains. These pathways are like marked trails in the woods. If we keep walking on them day after day the traveling is easy. If we stop walking on them for a while, things will slowly start to grow there, making the travel more difficult. If we don’t go back to them at all for a while, they will become so overgrown that we can’t possibly walk on them again.
But how long does it take before the trail is so overgrown that it becomes a part of the woods again?
Sometimes when I’m in the kitchen and I’m in a groove, frying, stirring, chopping, moving around the room, I open up the drawer next to the stove to get a knife. Then I remember that we don’t keep knives in that drawer any more. The knives have been in the other drawer for about five years now. When I first moved them, I still opened this drawer every single day. But now it only happens on a rare occasion and when it does, I am completely surprised by it.
I’m surprised that after five years the movement is still there in my muscle memory. The trail is still there under the growth.
I know that if I were to move the knives back there right now, it would only be a matter of days before I was walking down that old familiar trail again. I know this, because I have reopened overgrown trails before.
For years I was addicted to cigarettes. I quit many times, and each time it was a trigger that brought me back. One of my triggers was the telephone. I wouldn’t even pick up the phone until I knew where the cigarettes and matches were. I couldn’t have a phone conversation without a cigarette.
After I quit smoking, the pathway was still there. Every time the phone rang I craved a cigarette. Pavlov would be very pleased with himself. This went on for a very long time. But it doesn’t happen any more. Not ever. Phone and cigarette are no longer connected in my brain. That trail is covered over.
Oh, believe me, the trail markers are still there somewhere. I know that I could chop down the growth with a machete some day if I really felt the need to. Because I have done that before. Several times. I really hope I don’t do that again. It took a long time, and a few tries to successfully grow brush on that trail. It wasn’t easy.
And then there are trails that slowly, easily cover themselves over while we aren’t looking.
We bought our house 20 years ago. Any time that anything in the house broke I would always call my dad before I did anything else. I’d seek out his advice or ask him to come over and take a look at it. For many years after he died I still wanted to call him each time something happened.
The other day when it was 12 degrees outside and we had no heat in the house I didn’t think about calling him.
Later in the day I realized that I hadn’t immediately thought of him. I was a little sad to admit that after ten years this particular trail had been covered over. A broken boiler and a call to my dad are no longer connected in my brain. But I can look back lovingly, knowing a trail used to be there. I can turn down another trail that will still get me to fond memories of him. That took ten years.
Tonight before I go to bed, I hope I can stop in my tracks before brushing my teeth so I don’t open the cabinet door.
But if I forget, if I slip up, I’ll try again tomorrow.