Our coping mechanisms are always on autopilot.
We don’t think twice about lighting up that smoke after a hard day or rolling into the drive-thru for a quick meal or triple, quadruple mocha latte with extra whipped-cream.
For some, it may be an evening stop at the liquor store or corner market; for others, it’s slipping onto that naughty website after everyone is in bed, sexting with a co-worker, or fantasizing about someone—only to be brought back to reality again and stuck in our miserable lives.
Since we have such a lack of control during childhood, we develop coping mechanisms for survival.
Parents, educators, and mentors often tell us who we are and how to feel.
I don’t recall anyone ever asking me:
“How do you feel?
Where do you feel this in your body?
What made you feel that way?
How could we solve this problem?
Is this a big problem or a small problem?
Can we take five big, deep, and calming breaths together?”
Nowadays, social-emotional learning is part of a children’s curriculum. Students are given scenarios in which they can decipher between certain choices affecting the outcome of any given situation. For instance, a lesson may include: Jimmy is at the playground and Bobby is hogging the swing. Jimmy is getting increasingly frustrated. What could he do instead of losing his cool?
A. Ask Bobby when he will be done with the swing and ask for a turn.
B. Take a calming breathe and play somewhere else
C. Ask an adult for help
D. Flip his lid, start screaming and rip Bobby off of the swing
What is the best scenario, what would you do and why?
This gives children a chance to read and reflect and hopefully, when one of these similar scenarios comes up in their lives, they will be able to recall how to handle it appropriately.
I remember being in the first grade and starting at a new school. It was my third school in that year alone. I started out in one school that I really liked while my mom had one boyfriend. He was abusive and we fled from him in the night. My mom and I lived alone in an apartment for a short time where I started a new school that I loved. She met another guy with whom we quickly moved into a new apartment and hence another new school.
Maybe it was the chaos of my home life and another new man to perhaps call “dad,” but I had a horrible experience when I got to this new school. Before I had felt confident, loved, and nurtured by my teachers, but this new school was a rude awakening. Kids are so adaptable, but I think I had hit my threshold in my tiny 6-year-old life.
It was toward the end of the school year, so all of the kids were in their element. I was frowned upon and the teacher would make fun of me while I read. I felt judged and dirty and she snubbed me. I reeked of cigarette smoke and wore the same outfit multiple times a week, but I was just a little girl who needed grace and compassion.
I was reprimanded for talking out of turn (a lot), and had to spend recess indoors because I had to finish work I couldn’t understand.
I remember times when I was sent out of the classroom, bawling and having no idea what I did wrong.
I sat crying alone, eating my little hot lunch, while kids and teachers stared at me. No one asked me what was wrong or tried to intervene.
This was a traumatic year for me, and I held that teacher in contempt for many years. Her behavior toward me shaped some of the trajectories of my life.
The way she looked at me in disgust and smiled at the other little girls in their pretty dresses left me feeling as if I was not enough—and it stuck.
I desperately needed a guidance counselor or social worker—someone to help me to work through this emotional trauma.
I hit a breaking point and I was all alone. I didn’t feel safe being vulnerable with anyone and so I toughened up.
When I needed adult intervention while in school, I was met with teachers often screaming in my face—one even pulled my hair. Afterward I went into the bathroom to cry, feeling like I was to blame.
I never told anyone about that incident.
I ran on autopilot during my teens and throughout my adult life. I lacked impulse control and honestly believe I have damaged my brain from all of the coping mechanisms (drinking and drug use) at such a young age, while my brain was still developing.
I lived in a constant fight-or-flight state of mind most of my childhood. I walked on eggshells for my moms’ predatory boyfriend. I could never rest easy, living in an alcoholic home.
When I first had children, I didn’t know why I couldn’t relax and enjoy life. I was hypervigilant of the all potential dangers that could happen to us and I still struggle (a common trait of ACOAs).
After being sober for four years, a therapist recommended medication to help take the edge off. She said that sometimes when we are in fight-or-flight for too long, the brain receptors that are needed to make decisions become damaged. My brain was misfiring and stuck. I was always in danger.
The medication helped—I felt better in some ways. I was easier to live with and wasn’t so obsessive-compulsive. I was still impulsive with shopping and looking for love in all the wrong places, even as a married person.
This ended badly.
Throughout my 20s and 30s, I tried to get off of the medication (or try something different) and I would feel crazy. The withdrawal was so unpleasant, I’d feel like I’d lost my mind.
I was scared of the rush—of all the feelings—anger, grief, and unprocessed trauma.
I couldn’t trust anyone and didn’t know how to work through the feelings of being suicidal, homicidal, anxious, and depressed.
I talked my heart out in therapy. In AA I worked with a sponsor and completed the 12 steps over and over, but feelings of trauma kept surfacing. The fear led me back to the doctor for more medication.
My brain became so dysfunctional that even simple tasks were challenging. One evening, I couldn’t dress my own body because I was afraid I wouldn’t look good enough to go out. I couldn’t find anything to wear so I screamed and cried in my closet and never made it to the movie.
I have been medication free for three years now.
I can overcome intense emotions by breathing and sharing how I feel. I take care of my needs so I’m not running on empty. I find internal safety when my brain tells me I’m in danger and remind myself that I am okay. I pray and pray. I am calm and safe.
Staying calm is not always the answer. I have needed to punch pillows, scream, yell, and cry so viscerally I thought I would wake a foreign country.
I have been emotionally scarred and physically abused for most of my childhood. My scars run deep and five deep breaths will not heal them. This trauma needs to come up and out.
Therapy has been instrumental, but I can’t say any one thing has healed me. It’s been a combination of prayer, meditation, exercise, yoga, calming techniques and strategies, time alone, writing, and journaling.
Surrendering and being vulnerable, without shame, has helped me release a lot of deep-rooted pain.
When I’ve accepted my emotions, I have also found my voice. My brain was no longer holding me captive, and I was free. I learned to trust others (I’m still wary of people) and slowly let my guard down. People didn’t ostracize me for expressing myself.
I breathe now instead of running to alcohol, caffeine, sugar, or other substances or devices to numb me out. I can connect to my inner self and needs.
I don’t want to be an adult who is dependent on coping mechanisms to feel safe in my own body. I am not a fake mirage of clothing and armor with a false sense of security.
I strive to be a real and authentic person.
I am learning that security is not an outside job. I want to feel the same no matter what I’m wearing. I am not an outfit. I am not the car I drive or the house I live in. I am unencumbered by material possessions.
I am tearing down the deep, tall wall of denial and disassociation I had built around myself for protection.
I am no longer living in survival mode.
When we let our defenses down and observe what is lying underneath, we reveal what needs to be heard.
When we listen to our feelings and put our hand over our hearts, we ask our inner child how they feel.
Here are some questions for clarity on why we feel the need to run and cope:
What am I running from?
What do I need to heal from?
Which parts of my story needs to be told and processed?
What am I using as bandages?
Who is a safe person in my life that I can share with?
What is one coping mechanism I can lay down today to become a little closer to the person I dream of becoming?
Where am I not being authentic and honest in my life?
What am I hiding from others about myself?
What am I ashamed of?
Writing is a helpful tool for releasing.
I have written many things and let them go in my own private burning ceremony.
It is cathartic to let it all go.
As we dig closer to the root of our authentic self, we can heal and experience our true freedom.
We are loved more than we can ever imagine.
We are worthy of care.
Our healing is the best gift we can give ourselves this year.
When we embrace the process of healing, it has a ripple effect on others.