some reflection on coping mechanisms

April 14, 2015

you know when you start to feel the drag, the soft-slick suck of mud and heavy water pulling at your legs as you begin, inevitably, to sink? that’s how walking through here feels. swamp and fog. I’m very good at wandering into these precincts. I’m very good at ending up in places where it’s easy to drown. it’s familiar. just call me Ophelia.

I’ve spent the last two days sleeping in gulps, waking in snatches of vague operational focus before shuffling back to bed. Three hours here, eight there. Sleep, I mean. Today I slept badly for seven hours, woke for one, and drifted in and out of sleep again for nine. I have something due in two hours and I was meant to wake for it, was meant to stay awake for it, but it’s so very easy to feel gravity and my own weight carrying me back down. It’s so easy to just let it all go and ignore it slipping away.

I’m up now, because it’s night, and I’m used to waking at night. That’s familiar too. And still I’m not working, despite two hours to go, because- because.

something’s wrong. I don’t wander swampland unless something’s wrong.

I’m really bad at knowing where I am on the map of sanity and emotional stability, largely because I have so many reactive behavioural mechanisms that automatically compensate to keep me relatively functional, and when I say relatively functional I mean not constantly in pain. This basically means I have a hell of a lot of coping mechanisms that exist solely to keep me from feeling pain, and they happen instinctively without me noticing, like the subtle shifting of a machine recalibrating for balance on rough terrain, or an ecosystem self-regulating. It happens the way your body copes with cold or heat or different air pressures. It just happens. My mind protects itself, and for me that means I avoid pain and preferably also fear.

As a result I’m really bad at knowing how I am because I don’t feel much on an everyday basis, and most of my brain is wired to not pay attention to how I’m feeling so I can function, and set up in fact to avoid situations where I might feel strongly. This means, firstly, that I don’t know I’m feeling anything until whatever I’m feeling and whatever is causing it goes beyond the bounds of my ability to cope, and then it becomes Very Bad Times Indeed. Burn The Damn World Down Very Bad Times. And it means, secondly, that I have behavioural patterns that directly reflect how I’ve learned to protect myself; I don’t trust people beyond certain points, I microexamine social situations, and when pain looks like it’s inevitably creeping up, I start doing certain emotional lockdown things. in me, this looks particularly like oversleeping and binge-reading.

I’ve learned, I’m learning, to look out for those mechanisms instead of going ‘how am I feeling?’, because asking that is an exercise in futility. I may not notice that anything is necessarily out of place on an emotional scale- I’m not grimly miserable or in howling agony, which is usually my benchmark for ‘am I okay?’- but if I spend five hours binge reading trashy literature on automatic? That’s a clue something’s wrong. If I spend seventeen hours sleeping with no particular desire to get up? Clue. And it sounds obvious, but it’s even the small things like I feel like reading trashy historical romance novels. When my brain’s not in avoidance mode, I don’t. Reading trash doesn’t even cross my mind.

It’s odd. Just surveying the way my brain is set up to protect itself is odd, with the little I know of psychology. That’s trauma for you. It’s a bit like being a dinky campervan that got significantly modified with tank-guns, bulletproof plating, complex entrance codes, massive wheels and wheelwells, self-detonating decoys, trained snipers, an R&D cabin with explosives, an entire spy network, an intricate tunnel system and also a portable bunker with tea and cookies. I’ve been rewired over ten years of constant tinkering under fire to handle emotional minefields and pretty severe onslaughts and still come out the other end Not Dead and Not Exploded. If you sent me now into a psychological warzone, I’d still survive pretty damn well because that’s ten years of defensive modification on my side. I’m not a campervan anymore.

What works in wartime, though, doesn’t work in peacetime. There’s very little call for tanks on the freeway and in the suburbs, even if the tank comes with a minifridge and some comfy blankets. And so half the work in therapy, I guess, is learning how to dismantle all the heavy-duty armaments and defenses you installed in the first place, because it’s apparently hard to park a tank outside Wendy’s without people screaming or something.

I have to admit, though, that dismantling still feels rather short-sighted to me. What if I drive through a minefield again? There are no guarantees. The world is full of warzones. You’re not ever truly safe until you’re dead.

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