By Mark E. Smith
I’ve spent a lot of my life around two areas – boats and dysfunction – and what I’ve learned is that in either case, if we’re not careful, “autopilot” will fail us.
See, living in dysfunction is a lot like being aboard a boat running on autopilot – we’re not questioning or changing, but continuing on a haphazardly set course. And, as waters worsen or dangers approach, if we don’t take control, our boats – read that, our lives – will collide with them in the most harrowing ways.
For me, taking life off of autopilot has been a very personal process. As one raised in a dysfunctional family, I only knew what I knew, and my emotions were on autopilot for a long time. Turning off that autopilot proved harder in some ways than others.
Alcoholism, addiction, poverty, and a lack of education were all fairly easy for me to avoid because my awareness was so blatant. When I had welfare Christmases, parents with ninth-grade educations, and an unbroken family lineage of alcoholism and addiction, it was fairly obvious that our family’s autopilot was a disaster in full swing, cruising in the Oblivion Sea.
For me, turning off autopilot started as young as 10, but really by my teens I saw my life set on a course for collision and I took control of the helm. I saw everyone around me literally dying from living on autopilot, and I knew I had to turn that monster off for myself. Once aware and assuming conscious control of my life, I steered around the many dangers my family collided with. However, I was fortunate in that aspect – that I somehow had the understanding to do so – where I empathize with how difficult it becomes for many to turn off autopilot the longer we’ve unwittingly been on it, often from birth. It’s simply not as easy as my words read to break cycles of dysfunction, to turn off autopilot.
And, emotionally, I absolutely remained on autopilot for quite some years. Again, for me, getting off of autopilot has proved harder in some ways than others. I grew up knowing that those who loved me also hurt me, so love and hurt were intertwined. My head was off of autopilot – sober and successful – but my heart was still running its course. And, so I found myself in relationships of all sorts – from marital to sibling to friendship – that hurt, that as the psychobabble calls it, were toxic. It’s what I knew, what I grew up in, and continued living. That’s the sinister beauty of autopilot – once you’re on it, it continues on a course without any effort by you.
Awareness, though, once again proved my switch to turning off autopilot. Once I was aware that my heart was on autopilot, steering me into collision after collision, all my relationships changed. Some I just cut off; some I set healthy boundaries; and some I started anew with healthy individuals.
I’m still not perfect at any of this, and never will be, but every once in a while, when the autopilot that I grew up in intrinsically kicks in, my awareness takes the helm in a reflex type action, where I’m able to quickly correct and stay on a healthy course.
Through what I’ve lived and learned, I see among the greatest gifts that we can give others is the truth that they can break cycles of dysfunction, turning off autopilot. There’s a big difference between preaching from the mouth and speaking from the heart. I believe in speaking from the heart, and when a young person at risk in my circle was recently running on autopilot – it’s what they grew up in, escaped, then were thrust back into it based on a traumatic chain of events – I took the time to remind them of how far they’d come, to be aware that although understandably they’d temporarily returned to autopilot, awareness was what would keep them emotionally safe – that is, regrasping the helm and steering a healthy course.
Now, it’s not possible for everyone to just turn off autopilot and get their lives moving in healthy directions. We know of the medical effects that alcoholism, addiction, and mental illness have on those immersed in those conditions. These aren’t autopilots that just turn off. But, for the rest of us – and especially youth in our families and communities at risk – the ultimate intervention isn’t once there’s no turning off autopilot, but acknowledging our vulnerabilities to it early on, and elevating our awareness to the point that we turn it off and truly take control of our lives in healthy ways before life is spiraling beyond our control.
The fact is, we have no choice in how the dysfunction of autopilot gets turned on in our lives – typically, we’re born into it or trauma ushers it in. However, when we’re aware that it’s been turned on and we are running on it or at risk of running on it, that’s the time to turn it off. See, turning off autopilot removes continuing living the pain of our pasts, and allows taking the healthy helms of our futures. May you and I chart the healthy course our lives are meant for.