“A fine line separates our angels from our demons.”
Shane Neimeyer had just tried to hang himself. It, too, had failed. Like much of his life to that point, which had been spent in and out of state custody since his adolescent years, his road had hit a dead end. But in the depths of his despair, thoughts of a different kind surfaced, with one idea in mind: Ironman. Sitting in his straight jacket, awaiting sentencing as a homeless heroin addict, he had turned the pages of an endurance magazine to pass the time. As he began to read more about triathlons, there was something about the discipline, the drive, the pursuit of a difficult goal, which began to consume him. The thought entered his mind. Maybe he could be one of them. Maybe his life could change forever.
His troubles began as a teen in central Illinois. By the time he was 18, he had already been arrested for theft, burglary, and driving under the influence. After skipping out on college at Colorado State University, his drug addiction only worsened as he found himself on the streets of Boise, Idaho. By the time all of his sentencing was over, he would land in jail 25 times. He began exercising intensively during his stays, often running laps around the small courtyard. In 2005, he placed 50th overall in his first half Ironman held in Bend, Oregon with a time of 5 hours, 8 minutes. In 2010, he landed himself in the granddaddy of all triathlons, the World Championships in Kona. It was the year he finally said goodbye to official state supervision of any kind.
Today, Shane is a strength and conditioning coach in Boulder, Colorado. He has now done eight full Ironman triathlons, and continues to train intensively. In talking about his life, he often discusses how the “neurotic, excessive personality traits” that fueled drug addiction and a life of high-risk crime are the same kind that enabled him, like others, to become an elite athlete. Although he acknowledges that he still thinks about his former life, he credits his dramatic change to triathlons. As he said, “Triathlons gave me what I desperately needed: a purpose.”
Beneath each purpose that propels our lives, we are driven by a daily source of energy that is difficult to define, but impossible to ignore. Bred of genetic underpinnings, individual experiences, immediate surroundings, collective culture, and other influences, this unique energy begins to manifest itself early in our lives. Expressed as desires, urges, compulsions, curiosities, drives, interests, or any other given name, this energy gradually becomes known as part of our personality. In actuality, it is a dynamic, daily interplay of what I simply will call drives (for ease of communication) that is an ever-evolving, unique sense of self that interfaces with the world we live. Often, our varied drives are easily satisfied in ways that are considered acceptable by us and others. Sometimes they are not. When a particular drive reveals itself within us that can result in negative consequences, like in Shane’s situation, we find ourselves a serious quandary. Although directions from caregivers or peers may be to simply squelch the desire, this may not work. If not, we are left with two primary options, although these are not always consciously chosen. The first is to
continue with similar behaviors as before, and accept the possible consequences as Shane did with his drug use and criminal activity. The second is to find a more acceptable outlet for the particular energies that exist. This is where channeling becomes crucial.
Channeling as used here is defined “a way, course, or direction of thought or action” as in “new channels of exploration.” It is the process by which we define novel pathways and new outlets for a specific drive or state that may otherwise be undesirable. Although channeling could technically occur in a negative way, the focus here is on using energy in a positive, productive manner.
In some ways, we do this every day probably without even realizing it. If we are feeling stressed after work, we may channel this into a run. If we are worried about an upcoming event and can’t sleep, we may get out of bed and clean. We might use a journal entry to create a narrative to channel our sadness. We might mow the yard to harness the “edge” we feel after a long day at work. But, for more chronic states of drive that can cause us or others harm or disruption, it is critically important to figure out a way to transform this energy in a way that will do good, or at least, not wrong. In some ways, channeling is closely related, but not synonymous with sublimation. Although sublimation is often associated with a psychoanalytic perspective, the broader meaning of the term is “to divert the expression of (an instinctual desire or impulse) from its unacceptable form to one that is considered more socially or culturally acceptable.” It applies to any drive that may consume or divert us to behaviors that contradict our particular values or calls. In Shane’s case, he literally created a new pathway, a new life from the same drives and compulsions that almost destroyed him. The drive never left, but the way in which he satisfied the drive changed dramatically.
One way in which this can be important for some is in regards to hostility and aggressive behavior. Hostility has long been shown to be associated with negative health outcomes, including heart disease (Smith, T. W. (1992). Hostility and Health: Current Status of a Psychosomatic Hypothesis. Health Psychology, 11(3), 139–150). Some research (Frost, B., Implicit and explicit personality: A test of a channeling hypothesis for aggressive behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology. 2007, Vol. 92, No. 5, 1299–1319 0021-9010) has indicated that we can channel aggressive or hostile impulses. But, it appears that our ability to do this is affected by our conscious beliefs about how aggressive we perceive ourselves to be, and our implicit acceptance of rationales for a particular aggressive act. In other words, if we believe we are an aggressive, hostile person, and rationalize why another person or entity deserves our hostility or violent behavior, we are less likely to channel these behaviors to more acceptable, and at times, useful alternatives. Therefore, in order to channel aggression, we must first address the beliefs and assumptions that we hold about ourselves and others. As with forgiveness, channeling does not mean that we forego a courageous, and at times, militant pathway toward undoing wrongs being done. But it does mean we attempt to harness this energy in a way that is productive, not destructive, in a manner we do not intend.
This seems very much what John Walsh did, after the brutal murder of his six-year-old son, Adam. He went from building luxury hotels to a lifetime of anti-crime activism. Although not without his own controversy, it appears that he channeled his rage towards a murderer never convicted (the alleged killer died in prison on a life sentence for other crimes before going to trial) in trying to help others avoid a similar fate. His ability to channel his anger productively was a key in aiding justice for many people.
Another form of channeling is also used to treat tics in children and adults in the empirically-supported method of habit reversal training (HRT). Once a person recognizes a premonitory urge that immediately precedes the tic, they are taught how to channel this involuntary urge into a voluntary behavior that closely resembles the original tic, but draws less attention from others. For example, a tic that involves shaking the head side-to-side repeatedly may be replaced with tensing the neck in place, and pushing the chin towards the chest while deep breathing. Gradually, these behaviors are often shaped into other actions that become manageable and less frequent.
Over the past few decades, studies have increasingly shown just how predictive self-control in youth is when it comes to almost any important outcome as adults. Studies have also shown that self-control, unlike intelligence and other factors, is very malleable and sustaining. With our own kids, my wife and I try to teach awareness and self-discipline daily. But as I watch them grow, and I see the various drives and urges spring forth, I am become increasingly convinced that the formation of self-control and self-channeling are, and must be, intertwined. Whereas one may sit through a church service without much challenge, another one really struggles to inhibit the instinctive urges that come with an hour in the pews. Simply rehashing the same old redirections about willpower or consequences may not be enough, for them or for us. We must get creative and persistent, in teaching a skill, however challenging it is now, that could spawn a lifetime of promise. No matter the age or circumstance, like Shane, it is never too late to channel our drives in a manner that not only benefits us, but also others as well. In doing so, we may do much more than avoid potential negative outcomes. We may begin thrive in ways we would have never dreamed even if life gets really trying.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.