Survival lessons

Some time ago I became curious about what qualities and skills people use to survive extremely harsh environments, such as polar expeditions. I wondered if there was any overlap with the kind of skills needed to survive harsh environments closer to home, such as an abusive family or chronic serious illness. I’ve read a couple of books about factors that influence survival and come across some interesting ideas, such as the notion that survivors of extreme circumstances seem to share an unrelenting will to live. It seems that perhaps some people reach a point where the cost to keep living is too high. The pain is too great, or the despair, the things they would have to do are too awful or exhausting. Others drive to live is so strong they will severe trapped limbs, drink their own urine, stagger for hundreds of miles. That’s not to suggest that the will to survive is the only factor – luck, skill, experience also play roles. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how hard you try, you simply can’t find your way back to safety. I’m also not suggesting that those who curl up and surrender to overwhelming circumstances are weaker or inferior. Both defiance and acceptance have their place in how we respond to the world. Sometimes those who defy, triumph, other times they do terrible things in their determination to live. Sometimes we mourn those who gave up before help arrive, other times we venerate those who refused to be dehumanised, who gave up their food or wrapped the last blanket around someone else. Sometimes we just mourn the loss of someone who faced hopeless and overwhelming circumstances.

It seems to me that there’s a lot of parallels between situations involving starvation, hypothermia, drowning, being lost or cut off from safety in an inhospitable environment, and those many of us face in our personal lives, children who are being abused, people living in violent homes, a family member struggling with a life threatening illness, those of us who instead face loneliness, humiliation, shame, grief, misery, hopelessness, or fear. The nature of the threat may be very different but the need to find a way through it, ways and reasons to endure or escape, and a way to balance survival and morality, these seem very similar to me.

I once watched a documentary, the name of which escapes me, about how men in the polar regions coped with such a difficult environment. It put forward an interesting idea that stuck with me, that the key to navigating a stressful environment with chronic unpredictable crises, is to be able to respond very quickly to the development of a crisis, and then to wind down afterwards equally quickly. They had as an example a fire in the campsite. A fire in the poles is incredibly dangerous, most of the water is frozen ice or snow so it can be difficult to put out, and all supplies are terribly precious and difficult to replace, possibly the difference between life and death. Men who had been dozing, reading or relaxing playing cards were shown rushing to action. In a heartbeat they ran out to the fire and efficiently had it under control. Having responded to the emergency, they came back to their quarters and returned to dozing, reading and playing cards. They said these were key survival skills, to respond very quickly, and to get out of crisis mode very quickly. Sustained crisis mode is very dangerous, burning energy very fast like running on turbo. You can’t afford to be depleted in a survival situation.

When I thought about how I manage crises like this I decided I do pretty well at responding quickly. I tend to be the first person to spring into action in a first aid situation, I’ve helped out at fires, talked to suicidal people, nursed dying pets to the vet, and so on. I’m good at recognising and quickly responding. I’m not so good at the wind down afterwards. Having gone into high alert, ‘crisis mode’ I tend to stay there for hours or days. I find it really difficult to wind back down to regular functioning. I think cats are amazing at this, they go from sleeping to manic to sleeping again with barely a pause between. One of the things I’ve noticed for me is that staying in crisis mode exhausts me. It also ‘stacks’ the crises, instead of separating them into distinct experiences. What I mean is that without getting any downtime between events, each crisis feels worse than the one before. Each exhausts me further, leaves me more depleted and discouraged, life starts to feel like I’m under siege, an army camped at my gates, staring at a larder of dwindling supplies.

Working on coming down between crises can be hard. Once you’re all wound up and on high alert and running on adrenaline, there can be a warped logic that says ‘Oh we’re here now, might as well stay here, the next crisis wont be far off anyway’. Without downtime though, you never get to restock your larder. You are like an engine in neutral with the pedal to the floor, accomplishing nothing but burning fuel. We can’t function well when we don’t get the chance to take breaks, wind down to normal functioning, and take something in. Whatever nourishes you – reading, touching base with a friend, gardening, playing music, having a bath, going for a run, having a good laugh, playing with kids, sports… whatever it is you need it. You have to take time out of crisis mode and take in some sustenance. It doesn’t matter what the nature of your difficult environment is, whether it’s something you’re working to change or something you can’t, whether the stress is physical illness, abuse, mental illness, family breakdown, financial crisis, housing stress… one of the things that may help you get through is to resolve that every minute that something terrible is not happening right now you will wind down and replenish. It doesn’t matter if you’re having Monty Python film nights between visits to the hospital, or snatching 20 minutes to tend a garden, anything that breaks up the unrelenting stress and nourishes you will help you survive, endure or escape.

Anything in your life that you can enjoy or appreciate will nourish your spirit. In times when I’ve been struggling with suicidal feelings I’ve reminded myself of prisoners of war starving, of their joy when released at such ordinary luxuries as salt on their food or soap when bathing. Not to belittle my own struggles or make me feel guilty, but to remind me to tune in to these things. To feel the softness of soap bubbles on my hands, the cool clean water running through my fingers. How good it feels to drink when you’re thirsty, to wash your face when you’re hot and tired, to stand barefoot in the warm dust, in the cold mud, on the cool earth.

They don’t make up for the pain of whatever you’re going through, maybe nothing can do that. But they break the pain down into parts, the crises into mouthfuls instead of unrelenting distress that goes on for weeks, months, years, and strips every resource, every last bit of energy, hope, optimism and tenderness from us. Just a moment can give us a little sustenance, and can break up the bad times. You don’t want to have bad years. You can break it down to bad hours, bad days, bad times, with good times between, with peaceful times, with a little pleasure or silliness or rest. Last year for me was a very bad year. It was also a very good year, because I’ve been fortunate enough to have opportunities arise, people who care about me, and because I work on snatching back any moment I can to get out of crisis mode.

If we can teach soldiers and explorers skills to cope with harsh environments, I can’t see why the rest of us can’t borrow some of the ideas and apply them to our own lives.

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