Coping Mechanisms: My way or the highway?

I’ve been listening to the audiobook Insomnia by Stephen King (1994). About three hours and forty minutes in, the main character receives a letter from a friend. At the time the friend wrote the letter, she was staying in a home for women who had experienced domestic violence. In the letter, she says: “I’m finding more women who know what I’ve been through than I ever would have believed. I mean, you see the TV shows – Oprah talks with women who love men who use them for punching bags. But when it happens to you, you can’t help feeling that it’s happening in a way it’s never happened to anyone else…in a way that’s brand new to the world. The relief of knowing that’s not true is the best thing that’s happened to me in a long, long time” (King, 1994). This really speaks to me because it reinforces the idea that there is this collective human struggle with abuse, depression, anxiety, etc.. We feel completely alone until something happens that opens our eyes to the fact that we aren’t the only ones. There are others who experience what we experience.

I felt this was a great way to introduce a topic I’ve been thinking about for a while now: coping mechanisms. The reason it seems appropriate is because there are a million different coping mechanisms, thousands of self-help books, and just as many different therapists and gurus. How does this relate to the quote from the Stephen King book? I firmly believe that, although we all need to recognize that we are not alone in our struggles, we must respect the fact that we are all unique individuals with unique experiences. As soon as we get stuck in the rut of thinking our own coping mechanisms are the best, that is when we instantly reduce our ability to reach out to those around us.

I see this bumper sticker in my apartment complex on a daily basis. The well-meaning individual lives a couple buildings over from me. I say the individual is well-meaning because, at first glance, the bumper sticker may seem like a positive thing – it is encouraging people to not put chemicals into their bodies. However, as someone who takes medication daily for anxiety, depression, and insomnia, it comes across as a touch narrow minded.

bumper sticker

Let me explain. I personally have tried many different things to help me “fix” my issues – counseling, meditation, mindfulness, deep breathing, medication, physical exercise, staying busy, diet, chiropractic care, crafting, socializing, alcohol (not healthy, I know), and some other things I’m sure I am forgetting. People recommend various coping mechanisms to me all the time – they’ve tried this or that and feel it is the best possible option. I’m happy for anyone who has found a coping mechanism that works best for them, but unfortunately, that does not mean it will work best for everyone else. Because my life experiences, support network, brain chemistry, personality, and any number of variables differ from you, it may or may not work for me. Therein lies my issue with that bumper sticker – don’t assume that meditation will work for everyone and that medication should not be a valid option. In her 2015 book Furiously Happy, Jenny Lawson makes this incredibly powerful statement regarding those who live with mental illness: “I can’t think of another type of illness where the sufferer is made to feel guilty and question their self-care when their medications need to be changed.” If medication helps someone get up and face another day – helps someone survive – who is anyone else to make them feel guilty for that? For me personally, I can say with confidence that medication saved my life. What good does meditation do me if I’m not alive to meditate? Nothing about life is black and white, so we should not expect coping mechanisms to be the same.

To show how vastly different coping mechanisms can be, I thought I would share a few of my own. Based on what I shared above, I am not intending to offer a panacea or must-try coping mechanism. I simply want to show you that it’s never just one thing. My interests are different from your interests, which means my conglomeration of coping mechanisms will likely not reflect yours. I do think it is important, though, to recognize that our interests and strengths should be utilized when trying to identify the best way to get through an anxiety attack or decompress after a difficult day. If something I share speaks to you, give it a try! If not, DON’T give it a try. Always keep an open mind when talking to others about coping mechanisms. Try not to belittle something that works for them – it may be the only thing preventing them from jumping off the ledge!

  1. Medication

My number one coping mechanism is medication. I have been off and on various anti-anxiety and anti-depressants for my entire adult life. I have been with the same psychiatrist for about a year and a half now and we finally are figuring a good medication combination. As anyone with mental health issues will tell you, it’s difficult to find that “sweet spot” as far as medication is concerned. There are countless types of medication, and each individual responds differently to any one of them. My strongest recommendation with this coping mechanism is to have patience: sometimes it takes a while, but it’s possible to find the right dosage or combination to help you function on a daily basis. It doesn’t “fix” anything, but it helps you manage your symptoms in a way that allows you to live as normally as possible. For all the medication nay-sayers out there: please remember that we are all unique and that being alive is better than being off medication.

  1. Blogging/Writing

I have been shocked by how cathartic blogging can be. I have always been one to keep a journal, but this is taking written thoughts to a whole new level. I like to describe journaling as verbal vomit – it doesn’t matter how or what I say because I don’t intend for anyone else to ever see what I write. Usually, this translates to me writing down a bunch of emotional nonsense that I never read again. The blog, on the other hand, forces me to read what I write and think extra hard about it, as I know at least a few other people will be reading it. Because my goal is to reach as many people as possible, I obviously want my thoughts to be well-written and coherent enough for people to keep coming back for more. A surprising byproduct of this is that I am processing more of my emotions and experiences than ever before. Instead of angrily or emotionally “vomiting” on a page, I am wading through my feelings in a way that forces me to confront the demons within. According to Paulo Coelho (2011), “Words are tears that have been written down. Tears are words that need to be shed. Without them, joy loses all its brilliance and sadness has no end.” This is beautiful to me because it captures how powerful the written word is when processing complex emotions. In a way, this blog has set me free.

  1. Arts & Crafts

I enjoy learning new things and perfecting existing skills. These days I apply most of that passion to the realm of arts and crafts. Whether it’s teaching myself how to crochet, knit, cross stitch, paint, or draw, I find great emotional release in taking a ball of yarn, blank page, or any other form of “nothing,” and creating something beautiful. Not only does it occupy my hands, it reminds me that goodness and beauty can come as a direct result of my own hard work. It also provides me the chance to accept that I am not perfect, as very few projects actually end up looking as perfect as I would like.

“Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something” (Vonnegut, n.d.).

  1. Reading/Audiobooks

Books offer such a wonderful escape from reality. There are times when I just want to jump into the life of another – to experience someone else’s joy, someone else’s heartache, or someone else’s drama. The words on a page give me something to focus on when everything in my own life feels out of focus. I have also discovered a great love for audiobooks, which allow me to either rest my eyes or work on crafts while still keeping my mind busy. If my mind is not busy with something already, I will find situations to be anxious about or to worry about. There is certainly something to be said for distractions!

  1. Sleeping

Iris Murdoch states that “there is a gulf fixed between those who can sleep and those who cannot. It is one of the great divisions of the human race” (n.d.). How true! I would love to sleep for a solid 8 hours. I can’t even manage that with sleeping medication! My psychiatrist reminds me time and time again that lack of sleep lowers my threshold for both anxiety and depression. With this in mind, I take my medication religiously and do my best to clear my mind before I drift off to sleep. I never take any amount of sleep for granted, as that may be what determines whether or not I’ll be pushed over the edge on any given day.

  1. Quality time with animals

I started this blog a few days before I was gifted my puppy, so it’s really up in the air what/who has had more influence on my sanity. Maybe it’s 50/50. A friend of mine was looking for a new home for her pup, so I jumped at the chance to have a companion again. There is definitely something to be said for companionship – having another living thing that relies on me gives me incentive to make sure I am here to feed, water, and love him. He does an excellent job reminding me that I am here for a reason, that I am worthy of unconditional love, and that I can do good in someone/something else’s life.

  1. Positive friends & family

I can’t forget all the amazing people who hold me up when I have no strength left. I will never forget the time a coworker pulled me aside and asked if I was okay…she had noticed I didn’t seem myself. Little things like that can sometimes make all the difference. That coworker showed me that people do notice. Thank you to everyone in my life who continues to push me toward bigger and better things. Thank you to everyone who reminds me that life really is worth living. Thank you to everyone who tells me what I need to hear, not just what I want to hear. Thank you to everyone who loves me exactly the way I am. You mean the world to me and I wouldn’t be here without you.

 

 

References

 

Coelho, Paulo. (2011). 1 Min Reading: tears are words that need to be written. Retrieved from http://paulocoelhoblog.com/2011/08/02/tears/

King, Stephen. (1994). Insomnia [audiobook version]. Simon & Schuster Audio.

Lawson, Jenny. (2015). Furiously happy: A funny book about horrible things (First edition.). New York: Flatiron Books.

Murdoch, Iris. (n.d.). Iris Murdoch Quotes. Retrieved from https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/453940-there-is-a-gulf-fixed-between-those-who-can-sleep

Vonnegut, Kurt. (n.d.). Kurt Vonnegut Quotes. Retrieved from https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/529521-practicing-an-art-no-matter-how-well-or-badly-is

Soundtrack to a breaking heart

music

Trigger warnings: depression, abuse, suicide, lots of emotions

I am a musician at heart. I took many years of classical piano lessons, which taught me how to feel each note and appreciate each dynamic chord. Speaking of the word chord, I find the various definitions of the word to be incredibly fitting. According to dictionary.com (n.d.), one definition for chord is: “a combination of usually three or more musical tones sounded simultaneously.” Right below this definition on the website is the following definition: “an emotional response, [especially] one of sympathy.” Music and emotions are synonymous. You can’t have music without emotions. And emotions can be explored and interpreted with the aid of music. There is a reason that music therapy can “promote wellness, manage stress, alleviate pain, express feelings, enhance memory, improve communication, [and] promote physical rehabilitation” (American Music Therapy Association, 1998-2018). Simply put: music is powerful.

For this very reason, a lot of people have playlists for different moods or occasions. Whether we are in love, heartbroken, feeling festive, or even just going to the gym, there’s a song for that. I personally have a playlist with a simple name: Heartbreak. It’s frustrating how frequently I turn back to this playlist. Maybe it’s bad luck to keep it on my phone, but it’s easier than recreating it every time I need to lose myself in some melancholy tunes. The songs represent some of the most painful moments in my life. They bring back memories of heartache, but also bring comfort and reminders that life isn’t as hopeless as I may think right this minute. Since they have been such a big part of me for so long now, I thought I would share them. There are so many feeling and emotions associated with each song, but I did my best to categorize their message. I have so much in common with people experiencing various types of heartbreak. Each of these songs are dedicated to you. I see you.


To the used and abused

Christina Perri: Jar of Hearts (2011)

I know I can’t take one more step towards you

‘Cause all that’s waiting is regret

Don’t you know I’m not your ghost anymore

You lost the love I loved the most

 

I learned to live half alive

And now you want me one more time

 

And who do you think you are?

Running ‘round leaving scars

Collecting your jar of hearts

And tearing love apart

You’re gonna catch a cold

From the ice inside your soul

So don’t come back for me

Who do you think you are?

 

I hear you’re asking all around

If I am anywhere to be found

But I have grown too strong

To ever fall back in your arms

 

And it took so long just to feel alright

Remember how to put back the light in my eyes

I wish I had missed the first time that we kissed

‘Cause you broke all your promises

And now you’re back

You don’t get to get me back

 

I don’t know which is more difficult: getting out of a mentally/emotionally/physically abusive relationship or staying out of one. It takes a special kind of person to use and abuse another human being. Thankfully, I have never been physically abused, but I have been to hell and back with emotional and mental abuse. I have been taken advantage of. I have been stabbed in the back. I have been used for my generosity and forgiving nature. And in spite of that, my abusers have had the audacity to request I stay with them. They make empty promises with their fingers crossed behind their back.

This song brings tears to my eyes for a number of reasons. The lines “who do you think you are? Runnin’ round leaving scars, collecting your jar of hearts” is a reminder that abusers don’t stop at one. If they have beaten you down, chances are they have beaten down others before you and will beat down others after you. That is a person to get away from. Don’t go back. On the other hand, I love the defiant strength that builds throughout the song. The rose colored glasses are off. The game is over. Find that inner strength and don’t go back to that life. You are strong! You are a beautiful soul! Don’t stand for abuse of any kind.


To those with regrets

Britton Buchanan: Where You Come From (2018)

I trade guts for glory
I trade love for pain
I trade my tomorrows
If you just say my name
This spoon and this needle
This blood in my veins
I’m an innocent victim
On a runaway train


But it’s time to let go
It’s time to break free
From these sins that I hold
And this blood that I bleed
Don’t say goodbye
You don’t have to hold on
The place where you come from is gone

This. I love this. It’s okay to set your regrets free. We’ve all made mistakes. We all have actions we wish we could undo, words we wish we could unsay, and pictures with 90’s hairstyles we wish we could burn (for those born in the 90’s or later….shut up…your time is coming). I get chills when I hear the line “Don’t say goodbye – you don’t have to hold on.” Give yourself permission to let go. Give yourself the go ahead to stop beating yourself up about things you can’t go back and change. Regret, guilt, personal grudges…they accomplish nothing except cause you pain. We can never move forward if we are constantly looking back. If you did things you regret (who hasn’t?), the present is your opportunity to change for the better, to shed that old self, and take the first step into the rest of your life. Don’t let past mistakes keep you from experience the life staring you in the face right now. My cousin recently reminded me of a brilliant Bob Ross quote: “We don’t make mistakes. We just have happy accidents” (n.d.). Each happy accident opens new doors and offers opportunities to learn humility or practice forgiveness. Acknowledge those experiences and move on, rather than focusing on them and holding on. You’ve got this.


To the fighters

Julia Brennan: Inner Demons (2016)

They say don’t let them in

Close your eyes and clear your thoughts again

When I’m all alone, they show up on their own

‘Cause inner demons fight their battles with fire

Inner demons don’t play by the rules

They say, “Just push them down, just fight them harder

Why would you give up on it so soon?”

 

So angels, angels please just keep on fighting

Angels don’t give up on me today

The demons they are there; they just keep fighting

Cause inner demons just won’t go away

So angels please, hear my prayer

Life is pain, life’s not fair

So angels please; please stay here

Take the pain; take the fear

 

They say it won’t be hard; they can’t see the battles in my heart

But when I turn away

The demons seem to stay

Cause inner demons don’t play well with angels

They cheat and lie and steal and break and bruise

Angels, please protect me from these rebels

This is a battle I don’t want to lose

 

What I absolutely love about this song is how it brings to life the fact that it’s so difficult for others to understand what people with mental illnesses go through. It’s easy to stand on the outside looking in and say “do this” or “do that,” without an appreciate for the emotional and mental anguish happening under the surface. I see this song as a cry to the outsiders to have compassion and acknowledge that my behaviors and mental struggles are not always a choice. No one would choose to live this way or fight such darkness. When people tell me repeatedly that I worry too much, that I’m overreacting, or that I’m being irrational, I want to shout, “give me a little credit!!” I know all that. But telling me that is not going to change the fact that the chemical imbalance in my brain makes it impossible at times to rationalize my way through a situation. It’s not always helpful to point out to us how irrational I am being. Rather, please acknowledge that I am trying and appreciate that sometimes all I need is a quiet companion on my journey to find clarity within my far from simple reality.


To the homesick

Lindsey Sterling (feat. Andrew McMahon): Something Wild (2016)

You had your maps drawn
You had other plans
To hang your hopes on
Every road they led you down felt so wrong
So you found another way

You’ve got a big heart
The way you see the world
It got you this far
You might have some bruises
And a few of scars
But you know you’re gonna be okay


Even though you’re scared
You’re stronger than you know

If you’re lost out where the lights are blinding
Caught in all, the stars are hiding
That’s when something wild calls you home, home
If you face the fear that keeps you frozen
Chase the sky into the ocean
That’s when something wild calls you home, home

 

My best friend shared this song with me shortly after I moved out of state. I’d never lived more than a few miles away from where I grew up, so moving 700 miles away was a bit of a system shock. I made this somewhat rash decision after having my heart ripped out by my ex-husband. Over the last couple years since the move, I have learned that there are different types of homesickness. There is the homesickness in which you yearn for the people you love. There is the homesickness in which you want to find your way back to a place of peace, security, and belonging. There is the homesickness in which you just want to feel safe in someone’s arms. All those things are home to me: people I love, peace, security, belonging, and safety in someone’s physical embrace. There are days when I still am scared to be so far away from home. My heart, or rather my heartbreak, led me on this adventure, for better or for worse. Someday I hope to experience less homesickness. Until that time, I listen to this song and remind myself that home is always closer than I think and that I am strong enough to find my way back at any time.


To the broken

Danny Gokey: Tell Your Heart to Beat Again (2014)

You’re shattered

Like you’ve never been before

The life you knew

In a thousand pieces on the floor

And words fall short in times like these

When the world drives you to your knees

You think you’re never gonna get back

To the you that used to be

 

Tell your heart to beat again

Close your eyes and breathe it in

Let the shadows fall away

Step into the light of grace

Yesterday’s a closing door

You don’t live there anymore

Say goodbye to where you’ve been

And tell your heart to beat again

 

This is a song my sister shared with me at a time I so desperately needed to hear it. Not long before, I had been over at a good friend’s house. It was actually the friend who found out about and informed me of my husband’s on-going affair, so our friendship was both strained and immeasurably strong. I could not determine whether or not I hated her for bearing the news that ruined my life or loved her for telling me what no one else could or would. Either way, no one else saw into my pain quite like she did. I remember standing in her kitchen, then leaning against the wall, sliding to the floor, and crying my heart out on the cold tile. This was only days after the bomb had dropped. I had reacted with little emotion up until that point – I had been too numb and in shock. I remember telling her I had no idea what I was going to do. I remember the feelings of complete and utter hopelessness, loneliness, and brokenness. Then this song came along, perfectly describing the state of my life. It certainly didn’t fix things – nothing could fix things – but it brought some element of piece. I’m not the only one who has been crushed beyond recognition. I’m not the only one who has survived. I’m not the only one who has started to rebuild again.


To the actors

Christina Perri: Human (2014)

 I can hold my breath
I can bite my tongue
I can stay awake for days
If that’s what you want
Be your number one

I can fake a smile
I can force a laugh
I can dance and play the part
If that’s what you ask
Give you all I am


I can turn it on
Be a good machine
I can hold the weight of worlds
If that’s what you need
Be your everything

 

But I’m only human
And I bleed when I fall down
I’m only human
And I crash and I break down
Your words in my head, knives in my heart
You build me up and then I fall apart
‘Cause I’m only human

 

This song speaks to me on so many levels. I am an actor. I can be whoever anyone needs or wants me to be. At some point, though, something must give. Even the best actors can only keep up their façade for so long before they break. For my kindred spirits out there, it’s okay to let others know that we have chinks in our armor too. It’s okay to remind others that we can’t be strong for everyone else. It’s okay to give ourselves permission to not be perfect. “I can hold the weight of world if that’s what you need” – but I shouldn’t have to bear that weight. It’s difficult when so many of us, myself included, have set a precedent for strength and reliability. Those are invaluable traits, but not if it means sacrificing ourselves in the process. We matter too. Be what others need you to be within reason. Don’t forget about yourself. Don’t forget that you are made of flesh and bone and human brokenness just like anyone else. Sometimes we have to let ourselves be weak so someone else can bear the weight of our world for a bit.


To the betrayed

Demi Lovato: Stone Cold (2015)

 Stone cold

You see me standing

But I’m dying on the floor

Stone cold

Stone cold

Maybe if I don’t cry

I won’t feel anymore

 

Stone cold

Baby

God knows I try to feel

Happy for you

Know that I am

Even if I can’t understand

I’ll take the pain

Give me the truth

Me and my heart

We’ll make it through

If happy is her

I’m happy for you

 

Stone cold

You’re dancing with her

While I’m staring at my phone

Stone cold

Stone cold

I was your amber, but now

She’s your shade of gold

 

God knows I try to feel

Happy for you

Know that I am

Even if I can’t understand

I’ll take the pain

Give me the truth

Me and my heart

We’ll make it through

If happy is her

I’m happy for you

 

Don’t wanna be stone cold

I wish I could mean this

But here’s my goodbye

Oh, I’m happy for you

 

So many emotions with this one. This song tears my heart out all over again every time I hear it. This was another song shared with me after I found out about my ex’s affair and betrayal. The line “I was your amber, but now she’s your shade of gold” is obviously one that cut me to the core. It took my name and slapped me in the face. Setting that aside, my interpretation of this song might be different from someone else’s. Some people might see this woman as a push over. A door mat. She’s standing by and letting some other chick steal her man. And that is probably all true. However, I see an underlying theme of forgiveness. Instead of getting angry, she let’s go and puts his happiness before hers. That is what I tend to do, whether it is healthy or not. In the end, I believe that mentality is what made it so “easy” to forgive his sins against me. I also recently told my new ex-husband that I genuinely hope he finds happiness and that his dreams do come true. I don’t see the point of holding grudges or wishing misfortune upon someone who has wronged me in any way. As with any grudge, it will do me more harm than the other person. For me, this song represents the pain and agony that goes with betrayal, along with the bittersweet relief that goes with forgiveness. Let go of the hate and bitterness so that you may see all the love that is out there waiting for you.


For the survivors

Brian & Jenn Johnson: You’re Gonna Be Okay (2017)

I know you’re trying hard to just be strong

And it’s a fight just to keep it together

I know you think that you are too far gone

But hope is never lost

Hold on, don’t let go

 

Just take one step closer

Put one foot in front of the other

You’ll get through this

Just follow the light in the darkness

You’re gonna be okay

 

I know your heart is heavy from those nights

But just remember that you are a fighter

You never know just what tomorrow holds

And you’re stronger than you know

 

When the night is closing in

Don’t give up and don’t give in

This won’t last, and it’s not the end

It’s not the end

You’re gonna be okay

 

Where do I even begin with this one? Depression is real. Depression is scary. As someone who has struggled to find a reason to take my next breath, these words are a war cry. If I had a fight song, this would be it. Don’t give up. It may be an uphill battle, but it’s a worthy fight. For me, the wars that rage on at night often seem a little less overwhelming at sunrise. Another Bob Ross quote is appropriate here: “You need the dark in order to show the light” (n.d.). Sometimes it’s so difficult to see beyond the here and now. The hope that comes with tomorrow is too far out of reach to actually be worth considering. I am here to tell you that you aren’t alone in these struggles. The sun will rise, bringing with it a promise of new discovery and grace. I have struggled, currently struggle, and will struggle going forward. We’re in this together. I see you. Please see me.


 

References

American Music Therapy Association. (1998-2018). Retrieved from https://www.musictherapy.org

Brennan, Julia. (2016). Inner Demons. Inner Demons. Lyrics retrieved from https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/juliabrennan/innerdemons.html

Buchanan, Britton. (2018). Where You Come From. Lyrics retrieved from http://www.metrolyrics.com/where-you-come-from-lyrics-britton-buchanan.html

Chord. (n.d.). Dictionary.com. Retrieved from https://www.dictionary.com/browse/chord

Gokey, Danny. (2014). Tell Your Heart to Beat Again. Hope in Front of Me. Lyrics retrieved from https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/dannygokey/tellyourhearttobeatagain.html

Johnson, Brian & Jenn. (2017). You’re Gonna Be Okay. Bethel Music. Lyrics retrieved from https://bethelmusic.com/chords-and-lyrics/youre-gonna-be-ok-bright-ones/

Lovato, Demi. (2015). Stone Cold. Confident. Lyrics retrieved from

Perri, Christina. (2011). Jar of Hearts. Love Strong. Lyrics retrieved from https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/christinaperri/jarofhearts.html

Perri, Christina. (2014). Human. Head or Heart. Lyrics retrieved from http://www.metrolyrics.com/human-lyrics-christina-perri.html

Ross, Bob. (n.d.). From The Joy of Painting. Retrieved from http://mentalfloss.com/article/65452/20-bob-ross-quotes-make-life-better

Stirling, Lindsey. (2016). Something Wild. Brave Enough. Lyrics retrieved from

Photo credit: Unsplash.com

Gaslighting: “It’s Not Me, It’s You”

it's you

Trigger warning: Emotional and Mental Abuse

Let me tell you a story. It is a difficult story to put into words, so please bear with me.

When my second husband and I first got married, he worked as a paramedic. Not long after we were married, he switched to working with a full time female partner. I would imagine that any spouse in that situation will tell you it makes them a little uneasy. There is a reason ambulance crews are called partners. They work long hours together, go through some very traumatic situations together, and often end up knowing each other really well due to conversations had when the call volume is low or when they are posting (waiting for a call to drop). They depend on each other in potentially dangerous situations and must be able to read each other’s verbal and non-verbal cues well enough to anticipate needs during emergencies. Trust is key in their working relationship.


Partner: “A person with whom one shares an intimate relationship: one member of a couple” (n.d.).


Initially, I had no issues with his new partner. She was married with several children, so I did not see her as a threat in any way. The thought really didn’t even cross my mind. The longer they worked together, the more he talked about her. He seemed to know every detail about her personal life, including her marital issues. It was clear they were forming a close bond, so a small bit of doubt began to worm its way into the back of my mind. I started making jokes about how she was the “other woman,” which always annoyed him. He said it was an unfair, tasteless joke. I felt bad enough that I kept my thoughts to myself, despite the fact that he literally spent more time with her than me and continued to gush about her every word or action.

One day, my best friend and I were out to lunch. Low and behold, my husband walks into the restaurant with his partner, unaware that I was there with my friend. I caught their attention and invited them to come over and sit with us. I ended up sitting on the same side as my friend, while my husband and the partner shared the other booth. My husband made no move to try and sit with me. The way they interacted made my stomach churn. They kept laughing and giggling and sharing private jokes. Later, my friend told me that she felt like they were a couple on a date and that she and I were their friends. Anyone observing would have thought the same thing.

dating

Partway through lunch, the partner says, “Tell them about the table.” My husband turned bright red and stayed silent, which immediately piqued my interest because he was the type of person who was embarrassed by nothing and had a witty comeback for everything. She said, “Fine. I’ll tell them. It’s a great story. We probably won’t ever be allowed in that store again.” She proceeds to explain that it had been a quiet morning, so they had posted at a local furniture store. She continued on by saying that they went in to look at kitchen tables. My husband and I had just moved into a house and were planning to look for a kitchen table the following weekend, so I was horrified that he would go do something so personal – something I had been so looking forward to – with her before he’d even gone with me. He took her furniture shopping for our house! To my horror, she then proceeds to say that when he found a table he liked, she hopped up on the table, made an action wholly inappropriate in public view, and suggested they make sure the table was sturdy. She maintained eye contact with me the whole time. In case you missed it: She. Told. This. To. His. Wife.

scream

Needless to say, there were words when he got home from work that night. I was a wreck. He became increasingly upset with me, saying that it was just a joke and that I should be more trusting. He said that I should know that he would never stoop so low as to cheat on the love of his life. He expressed disappointment that the thought would even cross my mind. I had no right to be upset because he’d done nothing wrong. He couldn’t help it if she had a raunchy sense of humor and no shame.

He played my guilt complex strings like a first chair violinist. His performance was flawless. And it worked. I felt so terrible that I would jump to conclusions and assume her joke could only mean his guilt. I told myself I had absolutely no reason to not trust him. Till death do us part, right? He made that vow right along with me. I owed it to both myself and to him to stop reading between the lines or imagining things that could never possibly happen. The trouble is, doubt kept creeping in, so I had to keep smothering it and shoving it back into a locked closet deep inside my heart.


gaslamp

The actual term gaslighting was only recently introduced to me. It stunned me when I did a little research. Gaslighting is a verb. The action “is a malicious and hidden form of mental and emotional abuse, designed to plant seeds of self-doubt and alter your perception of reality. Like all abuse, it’s based on the need for power, control, or concealment” (Lancer, 2018). I also find the following Urban Dictionary definition to be alarmingly accurate:


Gaslighting: “An increasing frequency of systematically withholding factual information from, and/or providing false information to, the victim – having the gradual effect of making them anxious, confused, and less able to trust their own memory and perception” (Your Reality Check, 2009).


Doesn’t that just make you feel all warm and fuzzy?

Dr. Robin Stern, as quoted by NBC News, says that gaslighting “is always dangerous. The danger of letting go of your reality is pretty extreme.” She goes on to say that “the target of the gaslighting is terrified to change up [the relationship] or step out of the gaslighting dynamic because the threat of losing that relationship – or the threat of being seen as less than who you want to be seen as to them – is quite a threat” (DiGiulio, 2018).

Looking back on that marriage, if I had to identify one word that was constant through it all, it would be turmoil. The trouble was, all the turmoil was internal. The war that raged inside of me on a regular basis is difficult to explain. It was a combination of 1) mistrust because his words didn’t always line up completely with his actions, 2) negative self-talk over the fact that I was a terrible person for not trusting him completely, and 3) frustration over the fact that I was experiencing these volatile feelings but could not talk to him about them for fear that he would finally have enough of my unfounded concerns and be done with me. There were a handful of occasions during which I attempted to have a conversation with him about the fears that were eating away at me from the inside out. I always ended up in tears. I would even try writing out bullet point lists so I wouldn’t forget anything or miss any example or supporting detail. Inevitably, he always convinced me of the same conclusion: I worry too much and it’s just my anxiety creating problems that aren’t actually there. It was all in my head. I read an article in Psychology Today that suggested “the person gaslighting you might act hurt and indignant or play the victim when challenged or questioned. Covert manipulation can easily turn into overt abuse, with accusations that you’re distrustful, ungrateful, unkind, overly sensitive, dishonest, stupid, insecure, crazy, or abusive” (Lancer, 2018). This is what he did. He wore me down until I was blind to the truth and doubted my ability to identify red flags that were clearly evidenced by his actions.

blind


Fast forward a few years. I was actually at the point of being at peace in my marriage. I was happy. I felt that we were in a good place…a loving place. I really did trust him at this point. I had finally succumbed to the brainwashing and saw absolutely no reason to ever doubt anything he said. He wouldn’t dream of cheating on me. Ever.

Enter stage left: long-time colleague and friend who is taking a biology class. This friend is lab partners with a nice young mother. She talks non-stop about her amazing boyfriend, the father of her adorable baby boy. The more she talks about him, the more my friend begins to feel a sense of familiarity with this so-called perfect boyfriend. His name. His ethnicity. His background story. The act was up when the friend looked up his lab partner’s Facebook page and saw that her profile picture was of my husband snuggling her close and looking at her with utter adoration. The cover photo was a picture of a smiling baby who looked exactly like the man I thought I’d be with for the rest of my life.

game over

I never actually understood the term “having the rug pulled out from under me” until that moment. I was blindsided. I trusted him. I had convinced myself I was crazy every time I even considered his actions anything but innocent. I’d been a fool. Fool me once, shame on you. True. But that doesn’t change the fact that I’d been fooled, brainwashed, and had believed that it was all in my head.

When I confronted him with my knowledge, I did not tell him that I first went to the woman to hear her side of the story (It was not the ambulance partner from before, but was still someone from the EMS community). I wanted to see how much their stories differed. Of course they were wildly different. When I finally told him that I had already spoken with her and that the only consistency between their two stories was that he was indeed the father of the child, he had the audacity to tell me she was a pathological liar. He told me she had gotten pregnant intentionally to trap him into leaving me. He said she railroaded his life, that he felt betrayed by her actions, and that he was the one who had truly been wronged. She ruined his life. End of story. Oh…and would I please forgive him, make a fresh start, and forget it ever happened. I did forgive him (best thing I’ve ever done in my life), I declined his offer for a “fresh start,” and chose to never forget. Forgetting leads to repetition. I hope to never have a repeat of that experience.


I share this deeply personal story not to receive pity for being a gaslighting victim, an outpouring of sympathy for the pain I experienced, or praise for how strong I was to come out of that situation on top. I don’t want any of that. I want others out there to know that this happens. I want others to know that it’s not okay. You don’t have to tolerate that behavior from anyone, no matter how much they claim to love you or need you.

Dr. Stern, again quoted by NBC, lists out some big red flags that would have been wonderful to know back then. Think of it as a “you might be a gaslighting victim if…” list:

  1. “You’re constantly second guessing yourself or have trouble making decisions”
  2. “You’re ruminating about a perceived character flaw (like being too sensitive or not a good enough person)”
  3. “You feel confused about your relationship”
  4. “In a confrontation with the person that might be gaslighting you, you feel like you suddenly find yourself in an argument you didn’t intend to have, you’re not making progress or you’re saying the same thing over and over again and not being heard”
  5. “You feel fuzzy or unclear about your thoughts, feelings, or beliefs”
  6. “You’re always apologizing”
  7. “You’re frequently making excuses for your partner’s behavior”
  8. “You can’t understand why you’re not happy in your own life”
  9. “You know something is wrong, but you just don’t know what” (DiGiulio, 2018)

If you are noticing those red flags in your own life, or in the life of a loved one, do something. Say something. It is a toxic situation and I can’t even begin to explain how important it is to get away. Stop the abuse. Don’t be afraid to reach out or ashamed of being fooled. We are all human and all make mistakes. What’s important is what you do about it going forward. Stand your ground and find courage in the fact that you are an incredible individual who deserves to be loved by both yourself and others.

If you don’t know who else to reach out to, send me a message. I’ve been there. I’m here now. I see you.


“I can never understand which is more painful, the lies I believed or the truths I did not.” – unknown


 

References

DiGiulio, Sarah. (2018). What is gaslighting? And how do you know if it’s happening to you? NBC News. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/what-gaslighting-how-do-you-know-if-it-s-happening-ncna890866

Lancer, Darlene. (2018). How to Know If You’re a Victim of Gaslighting. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/toxic-relationships/201801/how-know-if-youre-victim-gaslighting

Partner. (n.d.). In online Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/partner

Your Reality Check. (2008). In Urban Dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Gaslighting

Photo credit: Unsplash.com

Battered Self Syndrome

crying

Trigger warning: Abuse

Disclaimer: I have never personally experienced domestic violence, which means I can’t even begin to understand what these women (or men) go through on a day-to-day basis. I hope and pray that anyone who is experiencing, or has experienced, domestic abuse does not take this post as demeaning to your circumstances and experiences. I am not trying to compare my own struggles to yours. It is the concept of a specific thought pattern I am considering.

Anyone who works in emergency medicine or emergency response (ER, fire and EMS, police) can tell you how devastating a mental illness known as Battered Woman Syndrome can be to its sufferers. This form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is often seen in women who experience “sustained and serious domestic abuse” (Gotter, 2017). The reason this illness is so devastating for any woman is because of the “learned helplessness that causes her to believe she deserves the abuse and that she can’t get away from it. It many cases, it’s why women don’t report their abuse to police or avoid telling friends and family what’s really going on” (Gotter, 2017). So many women stay with their abusive partner until they end up disabled or dead, despite urgings from family, friends, and often emergency responders and hospital staff. Many people would be quick to judge and say that these women are too weak to leave. I would argue that they have a strength no one else could even begin to fathom. It’s like any mental illness – until you yourself have experienced it, there is no way to truly get it.

I have a paramedic friend who once told me about a woman he ran calls on regularly. Each time, he showed up on scene to find her beaten and bruised in some new and creatively explained way. Each time, he transported her to the hospital and urged her to seek help…to press charges…to get away. Finally, he ran one last call on her and was the one to call a physician for pronouncement and time of death. That woman haunts him to this day. In some way, he feels responsible for her death. He was unable to save her, even though he was technically by her side for each new gruesome injury. The reason he was unable to prevent a very preventable death is because only the woman herself had the power to change her circumstances. Due to her mental illness, she refused to press charges time-and-time again. She always went back to that place of torment.

abused woman

I see many similarities between the mentality of that woman and my own struggle with anxiety and depression. The difference is, I am my own abuser. If my thoughts could be transformed into physical blows to my body, I too would likely end up with fatal injuries. Human bodies are resilient, but can only sustain so many beatings before the internal damage is just too much. The same applies to the human mind – we can only take so much before sinking into despair and reaching the point of giving up. It just becomes too difficult. Would it be unfair to say we also suffer from a sort of PTSD? From Battered Self Syndrome?

According to Jennifer Rollins, an MSW and LCSW-C, “a variety of factors could contribute to people developing an abusive relationship with themselves. One might be internalizing emotional abuse that you experienced from someone else and unintentionally re-enacting it through your own inner critic. Another might be having an intense fear of judgment from others, so one subconsciously wants to ‘beat them to the punch.’ Additionally, having a trauma history, or struggling with an eating disorder, depression, anxiety, or self-harm can all contribute to developing a very harsh inner critic” (2018).

For me personally, I am certainly my own worst critic (to put it mildly). I take self-criticism to a whole new level. From how I look physically, to the words I speak, to my own internal thoughts and emotions, I have nothing good to say about myself to myself. The more anxious I get, the more cutting my remarks become. As my remarks get uglier and uglier, I in turn become more and more discouraged and continue the vicious loop until I can barely face the world. At that point, I have officially convinced myself that I am worth nothing, can contribute no good in this world, and that I’m better off hiding under my covers like the scared and hurting soul that I am.

Psychologist Brett Steenbarger (2017) describes emotional self-abuse as “something more subtle” than domestic violence that happens between two or more individuals. The reason it is so subtle, he says, is because we often “don’t recognize the emotional violence, the self-abuse. That lack of awareness perpetuates the self-destructive dynamic.”

In the same way that women return to their abusers, we continually cycle back to our malicious thoughts about ourselves. The difficult part is that it is literally impossible to get away from ourselves, even for a few seconds. If we don’t learn to control our negative and degrading self-thoughts, we will push ourselves to the point of hopelessness. Again, much like a battered woman, friends and family can try to help, but it all must ultimately start with us.

mission

 The hardest part for me goes back to that hateful task of recognizing that I have worth. I deserve to be loved, both by myself and by other people. I recently participated in a core value exercise with a large group of work colleagues. We started with a giant list of character traits and behaviors, then did various processes to narrow that list down to the top five traits that drive us. My core values are listed below:

  1. Act with compassion
  2. React with empathy
  3. Offer loyalty
  4. Seek ways to make a difference
  5. Radiate open-mindedness

I was proud of this list! It really encompasses the way I try to behave towards others. But then the lady asked for volunteers to read a couple of their values. Everyone else had values related to other people (such as my “react with empathy”) and at least one or two related to self (“find joy in…” or “seek peace by…”). I realized that I created my core value list with 100% of my focus on other people, leaving no room for valuing myself. Yes, each point can be turned inward, but that was not intentional. Instead of reinforcing my core values, this exercise reinforced how little regard I have for my own heart, mind, and soul. Naturally, instead of being a positive source of enlightenment, I started to beat myself up for not loving myself enough.

put yourself down

From time to time I think about something a church small group leader said to me twenty years ago (Linda, if you are reading this – your words will be with me forever!). I remember that I made some disparaging comment about myself and she actually snapped at me! “Don’t talk about my friend like that, young lady!” It completely caught me off guard. At first I thought she didn’t realize I was talking about myself and that I had made a rude comment about another individual. But then she explained, “I wouldn’t let anyone else talk about you like that. I’m not going to let you talk about yourself like that either.”

be quiet

What a simple concept, yet it blows my mind every time I think about it. If I would never in my wildest dreams tell someone else the things I tell myself on a daily basis, why do I find it appropriate to talk that way to myself? Here’s the thing, though – we usually don’t have someone else championing that cause. 99.9% of my self-abuse is all internal. No one else hears it, which means no one else can protect me from myself. The only way to protect me from myself is to practice self-compassion and self-kindness.

Dr. Kristin Neff, as quoted by Brown (2010), defines self-kindness as “being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism” (p. 59). Right. Easier said than done. I know I’m not just going to wake up tomorrow and stop emotionally abusing myself. It’s BATTERED SELF SYNDROME, people. It wouldn’t be such a problem if it was easy to reform my way of thinking about myself. Jennifer Rollins says, “If your current emotional default setting is harsh self-criticism, it will take some time to rewire your neural pathways to make the self-compassion response feel more natural” (2018). I’m trying to break a lifelong, learned behavior. Breaking bad habits is no walk in the park. But it is a worthy undertaking. Robert Taibbi, another wise LCSW, reminds us that “it will take time for the new brain connects to kick in, for the old brain-firings to calm down, for new patterns to replace the old. Don’t beat yourself up for slip-ups or use them as rationales for quitting. Take it one day at a time” (2017).


In closing, I think it’s important to note that breaking myself out of this cycle of self-abuse will not only improve my own emotional and mental health, it will also have a ripple affect – “when we’re kind to ourselves, we create a reservoir of compassion that we can extend to others” (Brown, 2010, p. 61). If I truly want to love others, I must first love myself.

So what say you? Would you like to join me in my battle to overcome Battered Self Syndrome? Only I can do it for me. Only you can do it for you. But together, we can make it happen.

Namaste.

be kind to yourself

References

Brown, Brene. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection: Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are. Center City, MN: Hazelden Publishing.

Gotter, Ana. (2017). Battered Woman Syndrome. Healthline. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/battered-woman-syndrome

Rollins, Jennifer. (2018). Are You Emotionally Abusing Yourself? You can learn how to treat yourself more kindly. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/mindful-musings/201803/are-you-emotionally-abusing-yourself

Steenbarger, Brett. (2017). When Frustration Becomes Self-Abuse: How we can undercut – and rebuild – our own success. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/brettsteenbarger/2017/03/26/when-frustration-becomes-self-abuse-how-we-can-undercut-and-rebuild-our-own-success/#792b118e30b5

Taibbi, Robert. (2017). How to Break Bad Habits. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/fixing-families/201712/how-break-bad-habits

Photo credit: Unsplash.com