The forgotten suitcase

How could I not notice this?

How could I not notice this?

A visit to my son

For several years my family lived overseas and had a holiday flat for UK visits. I’d usually be the last person out and I had a routine – a useful sequence of habitual behaviours. I’d go into each room, check nothing had been left behind, lock the window, and close the door. I’d leave bags and coats near the back door, then load the car and have one last look round the kitchen, before locking up and leaving.

Nowadays my son lives in the flat. I went to stay with him for a few days and it felt strange immediately. I kept wanting to put things in their ‘right’ place and had to stop myself interfering! Still, I had an enjoyable time and did a bit of shopping. I couldn’t fit the extra bits and pieces in my wheelie bag and so put them in a carrier.

On the morning of departure I left my son in bed, because he’d worked a late shift the night before. There was no need to do my customary check because the flat was not going to be left empty. Instead of leaving by the back door, I used the front door, because I was walking to the station, just 15 minutes away.

The horrible realisation

I’d bought an advance ticket so arrived there in plenty of time, about 15 minutes before departure. As I was approaching the station I realised, to my horror, that I had left my wheelie bag in the house. If I missed the train I’d have to buy a new, very expensive ticket but I had to have my bag because it contained my laptop.

I called my son who was awake, even if not out of bed. Fortunately his flatmate (owner of a car) was already up and dressed. They shot into the station car park with my bag just before my train rolled up to the platform. (Funny how trains are always on time when you wouldn’t mind them being late …) I grabbed the bag, flung a £20 note at them as a thank you, and dashed through the ticket barrier. All was well.

Changing habits can be disorienting

The boys had a good laugh about it but I sat wondering how I could have done something so silly. I was quite alarmed! As an expat I used to travel regularly with two children and several pieces of luggage and never once lost a bag. (I did lose my younger child a couple of times, but that was because he wandered off. I always found him again.) The thing is, when you change a habit, you can be a little disoriented for a while.

Good and bad habits

When I ask pupils if they have any good habits, they tend to look blank. We often think of habits as something bad, e.g. biting our nails, smoking, or constantly checking the phone. But we also have good habits, such as brushing our teeth last thing at night, picking up our keys before we leave the house, and putting on our seatbelts as soon as we sit in a car.

A habit is something we do routinely, and it can become a subconscious behaviour. This may make our life easier, such as when learning the moves needed to drive off in a car. While you’re learning, you have to remember each step of the process, but after some time you can do it without thinking, leaving your mind free to observe what is happening outside the car.

Unhelpful subconscious behaviours can be highly irritating to observers. Everyone’s had to endure a companion who picks their toes, constantly repeats the same phrase, or twiddles their hair.

Promoting useful habits of movement

In Alexander Technique practice we promote useful habits of movement, such as bending at the hip joints to pick something up from the floor, because we then function more easily with less risk of pain. We learn to say ‘no’ to undesirable practices, e.g. bending at the waist instead of the hips.

It’s fairly clear, though, that I hadn’t paid enough attention to my actions that morning. I’d been lulled into a false sense of security by the familiarity of the place, and hadn’t considered what I needed to do. I was also more focussed on catching the train than leaving the flat – a classic case of ‘end-gaining’ behaviour.

In other situations you can be distracted by your companions rather than the location. If you take someone to the airport whom you’re not going to see again for a long time, you can become so caught up in the emotion of separation it’s easy to forget exactly where you left the car.

Habits of movement are probably a little simpler to deal with, but the same principle applies. Take things slowly. Say ‘no’ to the old habit and practise the new one. Be mindful of what you’re doing and gradually the new movement pattern will become second nature. You’ll eventually feel very odd if you temporarily revert to the old pattern and wonder how it could ever have felt OK. Those old slippers may feel really comfortable, but if they make you shuffle, then it’s time for them to go!