Unlocking the Cell Door to Our Self-Created Hell

Photo by Guido Jansen on Unsplash

I got COVID over Christmas. And, in many ways, it was a gift.

Apart from feeling tired for the first few days, I just felt like I had a cold. After I tested positive, the testing centre doctor said it’s highly likely that I only had mild symptoms because I was double-vaxxed. Within a week, I was back to feeling normal—whatever that is.

As you may surmise, it was a quiet Christmas. There are only so many books I can read, and music documentaries that I can watch on Prime (although the Duane Allman doc made me realize he’s up there with Clapton and Page as a guitar demigod).

With more time than usual to whirl around, my mind went into an aggressive spin cycle.

I created my own little hell for a few days, just like I do with golf from time to time.

In sitting in men’s circles for nearly 20 years, doing a podcast devoted mostly to the mental side of golf, and certainly in coaching golfers, I’ve got lots of experience with how we create our own little slice of hell.

How we get in and out of hell in golf and life has become fascinating to me.

First off, what the hell kind of hell do I mean? I don’t exactly mean the hell we associate with Dante where we’re up to our armpits in flames forever because we cheated on our spouse or taxes, although there are similarities.

I mean the hellish mental drama that we create and sustain completely on our own. Rather than eternal flames, we’re tormented by runaway thoughts, imagined dialogues, fantasies of vindication and other delights, often garnished with the fearsome foursome of fear, anger, sadness, and shame.

It’s a self-created Hades. We’re like Otis, the town drunk on the Andy Griffith TV Show. We voluntarily open the cell door to hell, walk in and lock ourselves in.

It’s nonsensical, but it’s what we do.

And it’s certainly what I did over Christmas.

I was really tired with COVID, and thus I gave into naps, which, of course, messed with my nighttime sleep.

COVID made me particularly self-righteous about the whole vaccination debate. Rolling around alone—as a good isolator—in our downstairs bedroom, my restless mind went into furious fulminations about dialogues that I was going to have with anti-vaxxers in my life.

‘See! Even I got it!’

My head spun with the arguments I’d lead with, their response, and how I’d deftly lay out my irrefutable data like killer trump cards.

My mind became like a Merrie Melodies cartoon: my winning intellectual points dancing gaily around their cloddish comebacks. But the cartoon dance never resolved. It just whirled on and on, like the eternal flames of hell of religious and poetic lore.

Trashing around in bed, I became exasperated by the futility of this mental tomfoolery, and that I needed to stop it.

The next day, I asked my spiritual director if I could talk to him for a few minutes. (For about 15 months, I’ve exploring my spirituality with a priest at my church.) I described the situation and my rampaging thoughts during the past few restless nights.

“You know that there’s nothing you can say to change their minds, in the same way they can’t change your mind, right?” he said.

I nodded.

I added that it was ridiculous because I’d long ago committed to not engaging in these kinds conversations because—there’s zero point. I determined that my primary duty was not to prove these folks wrong, but to maintain my relationship with them.

“So all this spinning is pretty useless, wouldn’t you say,” he said.

“Yup. I’ve created my own hell.”

“It appears so. All I think you can really do is just let it go. When it comes up, let it go.  And over time, things will quiet down,” he added.

And they did, almost immediately.

I am convinced that expressing my experience to my spiritual director hastened my escape from hell. I believe that releasing what’s in our heads through our voice is like throwing up the toxins that roil around in our gut. It feels damn good to get them out.

Moreover, the conversation helped me realize that I created my own suffering; my indignation, self-righteousness, and my arrogant desire to be right had done nothing but create my most recent residency in hell.

With the priest’s help, I saw the whole thing as a gift. As yet another challenge posed by my ego mind. It’s part of the deal in being human; discerning what parts of me that I will give life to, and those parts of me that I will let go.

I don’t think we can control what we think about, but I do believe we have a choice about how we respond to our thoughts. We can react as we always have; feed and sustain our thoughts, identify with them, and let them become my reality.

Or we choose our response, unlock the cell door to Hades, and walk the hell out.

At least until the next time.

About Tim O'Connor

Tim O'Connor is a golf coach, an award-winning writer, and speaker. Tim takes a holistic approach, coaching golfers in the physical and mental aspects of golf. He co-hosts the Swing Thoughts podcast with Howard Glassman, and is the author of The Feeling of Greatness: The Moe Norman Story. He plays bass in CID—a Guelph punk band!


  1. Tim, you are such a talented writer. That is truly blessed with such a super communication skill. I really enjoy your blog. Keep it going.