Learning To Dance In Survival Mode – Part One

flame thrower rising to challenge

Part one of three in a series on mental illness, the effects it has, and healing. Consider this the backstory.

To say that this has been difficult to write would be an understatement of proportions so epic, I can’t find a word or cliche to cover it. I have started and scrapped 31 drafts at this point. From pen and paper to seven different digital writing tools, even finding the right space even to string the words together has been a battle fit for a Tolkien novel.

But somewhere in the war of putting one word after another is a direct relationship to what you need to hear. Sometimes shit is hard. Sometimes we spin our wheels and feel completely overwhelmed. This needs to be ok. And we need to talk about it.

We have to allow ourselves to dance with this mess, to confront it, to accept it, and to see it for all that it is. We must get comfortable staring it down. The way out is always going to be through. There is no real avoidance, ultimately only delay tactics.

So I’m walking the talk, and sharing the messy details of my adventure into, and the journey out of this fight-and-flight mode of being. It has not been a perfect road, and this is why it needs to be shared.

For those unaware of what survival mode is, let us take a moment to examine it.

We all experience stress and struggle at different points in our lives, and many of us will also live through some level of depression. Survival mode is an amplification of the side effects of these things. Generally triggered by prolonged periods of stress and often accompanying depression, it is a mode where our instinctive minds turn everything into, well, a battle for survival.

Think of the sci-fi fantasy where the ship has taken on damage, and it diverts power to life support systems, which usually results in a lack of power for the engines or shields. The resources become focused on one system, to the detriment of others. Everything becomes an attack on your ability to maintain your life support systems.

The details and mileage will vary depending on the individual, but some classic characteristics are:

• Feelings of helplessness and powerlessness
• Everything feels like a crisis, or highly urgent
• Inability to put attention on the future, there is only getting through the day
• Pushing others away, due to a lack of energy to deal with them
• Isolation from people and things you used to enjoy
• Disturbed sleep and complete inattention to diet

• Stuck in a reactive mode (lacking proactivity)
• Repetitive thoughts of “why is this happening to me.”

There are a few subtle differences and some considerable similarities here to depression. Think of depression as survival mode’s apathetic cousin. They often join the party together, but survival mode turns the party into an anxiety-addled shit show. Though the effects are not always neon-sign obvious, the observant will see them happening in themselves or the folks around them.

Survival mode by definition inhibits our ability to thrive.

Not my first rodeo.

Feelings of shame and the desire to run when in survival mode is normal.

My familiarity with the reductive experience of survival mode is a point of shame for me. Pity that, as I ventured down into it again, I didn’t recognize that I was fighting for emotional survival sooner. Shame that I didn’t implement the things I’ve learned as well as I could have.

Shame that it keeps happening.

But also, a point of pride. Once I heard the call of experiences past, the ability to stand more resolute in who I needed to be, came naturally.

See, I’ve run the gauntlet of trauma before, and have journeyed up and out into healthy and fully expressed living previously.
Seventeen years ago a series of events kicked-off that would lead to a forfeiture of health, happiness, well-being, and empowerment. This particular chunk of the journey is not the point I want to make, but knowing about the perspective it brought is vital to the second act of this tale.

So in rapid-fire bullet form:

  • About halfway through my college program, I find out that the college fund I worked to contribute to was stolen from me. There is no more money for tuition. My step-father eventually pleads guilty to theft, to the tune of about $10,000. He leaves our family.
  • I end up marrying the man I’m with at the time, who I’ll eventually find out had been having an affair longer than our actual marriage.
  • Just before we marry, I have an ectopic pregnancy. I enter the hospital with the pain, not knowing I am pregnant. That the pregnancy is growing in my fallopian tube is missed on the first ultrasound is not seen, leading to a month-long stay in the hospital. I am pulled off of pain medication and labelled a drug seeker, and being switched through four different doctors while they try to figure out what is wrong with me. I am treated abusively and callously while I’m terrified and in incredible, focused pain. Eventually, I have emergency surgery to remove the pregnancy. (I’ll eventually have a second ectopic and am told I have little likely-hood of being able to carry a pregnancy to term in the future.)
  • I enter a significant and prolonged depression, as I’ve developed multiple health problems. Getting care and diagnosis proves to be a battle, and we believe it is due to the drug-seeker label form the pregnancy. The exhaustion from trying to get help leads to a suicide plan. The gift of self-awareness, a good friend, and a supportive mother result in checking myself into the hospital.
  • I am diagnosed with Fibromyalgia, a chronic widespread pain disorder that is very poorly understood.

I can’t tell you precisely when survival mode kicked in during all that, just that it unquestionably did. My world reduced to making it through the hour. I couldn’t see beyond the moment or the things that I was reacting to. I felt hopeless and confined beyond explanation. Happiness was something I was sure I would never experience again.

Over a couple of years, and with some fortunate help, I was able to shift into a positive, learning and growing mode. I began to search for possibility and embrace it. Instead of letting my conditions put me on disability, I went to work in a restaurant kitchen.
I learned that it is not that the things that happen to us, but what we do with them that matters. We get to choose. I turned the things that had happened to me into a source of strength.

No, I would not be defined by this.

The second wave is shattering my worldview, allowing me to rebuild it.

When you are looking after your mental health it becomes clear that the only way out is through.

While I had gained the ability to stand tall with my struggles, it would take another wave of “I can’t believe this is happening” for me to learn the faults in the ways I learned to cope.

During the last three years, I have been watching my twelve-years-younger brother enter his own dance with mental illness. A dark and twisted tango. It started out harmless enough, many of the standard pieces of coming-of-age that we all expect. Drinking, drugs, poor decision making. Growing distance from his longtime friends, and from his family.

But the decent would be faster and more profound than any of us could have imagined. In what would typically be considered three short years, but in reality were the longest of my life, we watched helplessly as his life blew apart at the seams. He’s now in prison.

I’m fighting the urge to lay the entire story bare here and now, but this format doesn’t lend well to the detail that is required to do it justice – but that story is coming soon. For now, let your imagination fill in the gaps – it’s probably not far off. You can check out a short non-fiction story I wrote here in the middle of this journey.

Over the course of his battle, my mother and I would wrestle and come face-to-face with powerlessness and a life-consuming worry. It goes far beyond a squandering of potential or worrying that someone is drinking too much. The point where we were forced to see how bad it had honestly gotten came about two years ago.
It was the first severe mental break we witnessed. There may have been others, though on a smaller scale – the warning signs were everywhere. It needs to be said – there is precious little you can do to stop a spiral for someone else. A lesson we were not prepared to learn.

He and his partner had a young child, just a couple months old – when something snapped in him. This was well into the pattern of drug abuse, lying, and all that comes with it. There was some sort of fight that triggered it. He chugged a half dozen beer and went to the house his partner and child were at, in the middle of a psychotic break. He was trying to fight his way into the house, where there was also a group of people, to say goodbye to the mother and child. Our mother was there, witnessing part of this unfold. Some people at the house fought him off, and he left to find a knife. He frantically sliced up his arms and wrists, and through a stroke an incredible fortune, the blade he was able to find wouldn’t be able to accomplish the task he wanted. With bloodied arms, he would return to the house. My mother would call the police, trying desperately to find a way to stop this scene from happening. He’s screaming at everyone and everything. He’d leave the house, and mom would follow along behind him, still on the phone with dispatch.

She would end up watching him get taken down by three officers while screaming for them to “just kill me, I want to die.” They’ll hold him for a couple of hours and take him to the hospital.

I end up there next to him in the hospital, waiting for him to be seen. He refuses to talk to our mother, due to her having just called the cops on him. I watch him cycle through completely mania, terrifying anger, and utter despair every two to three minutes for hours. After a 20 minute conversation with a psychologist, and bandaging his arms, they release him that night. I even plead with the doctor in front of my brother to keep him there, at least for a couple of days – but he refuses.

So he comes to stay with me. That night we talk a bit, but he’s exhausted. The next evening, he sneaks away from the house. For a couple of hours, I’m panic ridden that he’s tried to return to the mother and child. I mean, he hasn’t gotten any help, and has had one dose of medication – how can this be even remotely stabilized?

In the end, it was true, he had gone to see her. She lied about him having been there until she was sure that I knew. They both had been lying to us for so long it came as no shock that it was happening still, but this time it became terrifying.

In what must have been incredible clairvoyance, just a week earlier there had been a series of small events that made us confident that things were going to get worse. The safety of the child was and had been obviously at risk. My mother and I spent a nine-hour day going to every social office available. To mental health and through their departments. We spoke to the police. We called every number on the hand out cards, trying everything we could to get them, and the child help. Desperate to avoid the action that ultimately had to be made. We ended up calling social services and reporting the stories that each of them were telling us. We discussed with the caseworker that they both had been lying to us, and we genuinely had no way of know what the truth was. We filed the report with child protective services.

It was only days later that the whole terrifying scene happened. But it wouldn’t be the bottom. Far from it. It wouldn’t be the end of the lies. Far from it. But this would be the beginning of my shift into survival mode again.

I felt trapped.

You don’t have to be trapped in survival mode, you can start taking little steps to get out.

The effects of his battle had ripple effects that people just don’t talk about. That house I mentioned him fighting his way into? That was a meeting place for my social circle. I play in a band, and they regularly have bands play there. His partner? – The sister of a once close friend. This epically messed up scene was happening in the middle of my social life. The shame, powerlessness, the frustration, and isolation, the illness that affected him – made me feel incredibly disconnected from the social safety net we should have in times like these.

I had just started a new career and needed to focus on getting up to speed and contributing. But things just refused to happen outside of 9-5. Phone calls and emergencies would happen, literally pulling me away from work.
It strained my relationship with my partner. Every time things seemed to calm down for a while, some other bizarrely dramatic thing would happen. It twisted the relationship with my mother. She was angry, and worst of all powerless to help her baby boy. I guarantee you, no mother deals well with this.

There was no corner of my life outside of reach. This is where the contraction began. I felt suffocated by circumstances I couldn’t control, and the occasional, “why is this happening to me” became consuming. I started shutting down and lashing out. I was angry. I couldn’t write anymore. Writing would mean confronting this head on and working through it, but all I seemed to have the strength to do was spin my wheels in self-pity and utter confusion that things had gotten this bad. My brother and I had been very close his whole life. I began blaming myself for how bad things had gotten for him. Let me tell you – that shit is dangerous.

There were good weeks and bad weeks. I was able to bring back some of the tools I had learned from my first dance with this devil. In the periods where I was able to get the hell out of my own head, I’d set up a morning routine. A few minutes of meditation, a few minutes of yoga and stretching. A gratitude practice. When I’d keep this up, I was doing quite well. Rather than being the thriving mechanisms, they ought to be though, they were survival mechanisms.

Things with my brother continued to worsen but in a quieter way. Quite literally because he had stopped speaking to us, they both had. With the quiet, I delved deeper into the tools, doing the work and trying to get back on my feet. I was still in pain, consumed by worry – replaying each event over and over in my head, and feeling isolated, part by choice, and part by consequence of that social overlap. I call in multiple safety checks on him and gain a comfort calling police dispatch no one should really have. Every homeless person on the street and the vast majority of television become trigger points for me.

The spiral wasn’t over, but the way out would become clear.

Then I got a message from an old friend I rarely speak with. She’d heard that my brother had been arrested. Let me assure you, to say my stomach dropped is the understatement of the damned century. Remember I said he’s in prison?
#Metoo is at a fever pitch, and my brother has been charged with assault and sexual assault. At the time of the attack, his arm was in a cast. His cast is to try and save the tendons he had severed in his wrist, and no, not from the incident I detailed above. All aspects and consequences of what I’ve explained, worsened. My dance with survival mode intensified.

Somewhere in here too, I have acute and severe pelvic pain that has developed, I’m regularly seeing doctors trying to figure out what is going on – I’m incredibly low on energy to cope. I’ll make yet another trip through physiotherapy to bring the pain levels down to something manageable. As I’m writing this, I’m on the list to get a hysterectomy. Three to four months from now, I’ll officially be sterile.

But last fall, just after a tonsillectomy, and smack in the middle of the 19 months between the charges and my brother being taken into custody, when I’m just utterly unable to speak, a friend grabs me by the shoulder while staring me intently in the eyes and asks, “what is the gift this experience is giving you?”

Without hesitation, my first thought is something along the lines of, you have to be f$%#@ing kidding me. I’m relatively sure I reacted with resistance. But I knew it to be entirely correct. There was a gift, there was something to be gained, I would be better for the experience – if only I’d look up. If I’d just get the hell out of my own head, and stop pitying myself.

It was a siren call to everything I’ve learned. I’ve been here before, I know how to get out. I know how to thrive, to stand tall – not in spite of everything I’ve experienced, but because of it. The gifts of it all abound. No, they are not all pretty and perfect, and the road out is far from a straight line.

I’m here to tell you that the journey is beautiful because it is imperfect.

Getting your mental health back on track is a two-way street.

It is a truth I know in the core of my being. The key is simple, so simple that it seems impossibly complicated.

It’s a choice. We choose our perspectives, whether actively or passively. We decide whether we are happy. We determine whether we grow. We choose the impact things will have on us. When we’ve entered into something like depression or survival mode, to hear these things sound like the most offensive words. Because in a sense, they are.

When we think of the inspiring stories from terminal cancer patients or quadriplegics thriving in their lives and circumstances, it imbues us with a hope that we too may have the strength to hold their perspectives – but we gloss over the part where all they are doing is making a choice. They are choosing to move beyond the constriction that comes with the struggle they face, they choose to stand tall, to be “brave,” to be everything that they are – often with a beautiful, reckless abandon. Life has provided them with enough resistance, that the choice of happiness and love seems the most obvious. It has put things into perspective for them.

So yes. It is a choice.

When I mentioned using tools like meditation, yoga and gratitude journalling – the word tool was very deliberate. They are not what cures the ailments, they are means to access a different way of thinking. They are subtle means to make small choices, leading to the big one that seems overwhelming.

It is a choice that has to be made many, if not hundreds, of times a day. Every moment that arises, every sequence of nows. That’s all anything really is. Now, and now, and now. It’s not the stories we tell ourselves about what has happened, or what might happen. It’s right now.

It’s what you choose to do with now.

It doesn’t have to be perfect. You just have to start trying. Keep trying.

Be strong. Stay tuned. The best is yet to come.

Edit:  Part 2 is now available, you can read it here!

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