I had a lovely lunch with a wonderful friend today and we were musing about my recent post Self Care and a Myth of Crisis Mode. She made an excellent point I wanted to share, which was that for her, crisis mode was being triggered, not by trauma but by being the ‘bottom line’ in a number of areas of her life at the moment. This really resonated with me and fit the pattern of a number of people I know who struggle with constantly being in crisis mode and all the distress around that experience.
Being the ‘bottom line’ is being in a place where you must function because there is no one else to pass important tasks off to or take on the role you are doing. It can be a part of trauma and crisis, for example a soldier on active duty must function and do his job well. But it can also be a part of everyday life in ways that aren’t so much about trauma as they are about being under pressure. So, having tight schedules and a demanding job where you can’t easily be replaced can put you under a lot of strain. Being a parent with children who are sick or have high needs in some way is exhausting because you are always the bottom line, and even if they are being cared for by someone else for a night, you know that if the wheels really fall off the train, you are going to get a call at 3am and you had better be able to turn up and fix it all again. There’s a kind of chilling reality of adult life going on here, that is possibly more about our fractured social networks and isolation than it is about being adult. It’s the culture we live in where each family is responsible for it’s own and asking for help outside of that family can be extremely challenging – or getting it, for that matter. I remember a few years back when I was single, I was very sick and desperately needed some support – having a friend who would offer to come over and fill a script for me, or another who kindly drove me to the doctor, or another who came down at short notice late at night to sit with me so I didn’t have to let a stranger into my house by myself when the locum called… such kindnesses were the difference between a challenging situation and a desperate one. We all need the networks and capacity to drop our bundle from time to time. In fact, know that we can drop it and things will still be okay is a big part of what helps us be more resilient! It’s a kind of foundation upon which we can stand and face the world and fulfill our responsibilities.
So, being the bottom line is about pressure. Some pressure is fine, it’s manageable, even helpful. Too much is destructive. Where that line is, is different for each of us. And some of us put ourselves under a lot more pressure than the situation warrants. I’ve talked with lovely, hyper-responsible people who are acutely suicidal and at extremely high risk who simply will not cancel something they are booked in to, because they must keep their word, must do what they’ve said they will do, and because they think they are basically a lazy or overly dramatic child who needs to be pushed into doing the right thing and not allowed time off whenever they feel like it.
Oh boy, is this me. Rose and I have had some memorable show downs where I’ve been acutely unwell – physically, or at extremely high risk emotionally and I’m still trying to get off to college or keep a work commitment of some kind – even when I’m so stressed about it I’m shaking and hysterical! In fact, the more stressed out I am, the more likely I am to not think clearly and default to my preferred stance of “it’s not that bad, I’m just a sook, and I must do whatever I was scheduled to do”. Rose, who is at that point thinking considerably clearer than I am, is the one who both demands that I take better care of myself, and gives me permission to.
I’ve been a little like an exhausted horse who’s rider is flogging it with a whip to keep it moving, except I’m both the horse and the rider in one. The more the horse collapses and staggers and foams at the mouth, the more the rider beats it and drives it on. Over time the rider becomes absolutely convinced that the only way the horse will ever be kept moving is with this driven brutality, because whenever they try stopping the horse collapses and doesn’t move at all. It takes some serious convincing to get the rider to understand that the horse wants to run, and that if they tried caring for it instead, letting it rest and feed and move at a pace it can handle, it will carry them joyously and loyally. This is the driveness I’ve described so often on this blog, and it costs me a great deal, not to mention sucks a lot of the joy out of life.
We don’t generally come up with these ideas by ourselves. Most of us put ourselves under pressure, are brutal about withholding things we need, and suspicious that we are actually just weak or lazy because at some time, in some way, someone has treated us this way, or treated themselves this way and modeled this for us. We internalise this kind of approach whether it was parenting, or teaching, or an impossible standard to live up to, or high expectations of our capacity, or low empathy for vulnerability, or the idea that austerity and self denial makes us strong. These are the voices we hear in our head, they are the inner voice we talk to ourselves with. If they were harsh, we are harsh. If they had no grace, we give ourselves none.
Sometimes it was overt trauma, situations in which we simply had to push past our limits to survive, had to endure the unendurable, face the horrific, know things we absolutely could not bear knowing. And somewhere in that we lost trust in ourselves and started to use pressure and contempt to motivate ourselves and now we are too afraid to let go of that tool even when it’s destroying us. I’ve written more about self hate as a form of motivation in
When I put myself – or others put me, under the intense pressure that says I must function no matter what it costs me, this sets me into crisis mode and makes self care impossible. If I try to do self care from within crisis mode, I do it as a task that I must perform – something to keep my shrink happy or prove to my doctor that I am a responsible patient. I am unable to actually benefit from it. I schedule in fun and try to have it and feel totally detached and find myself looking sideways at myself to see if I’m having fun yet. I sit in a hot bath and it’s not a luxurious break from my day, it’s just a tub of warm water. My body is still rigid with anxiety and becomes more so as I start to wonder why I’m not relaxing properly and why I’m even failing at this simple task. Self care become exhausting and depressing, one more thing I should be doing to keep people off my back and prove I’m being a responsible person. I’ve written more about this in
Self care that breaks me out of crisis mode feels completely different. It is felt. The body calms and unknots, not because I make it but because it is genuinely relaxing. My mind calms, the anxious tension eases, the self hate settles. I don’t have to do anything, accomplish anything, prove anything. I’m not under attack, I don’t need to prepare a defense, and I’m not under pressure to perform. I can just be, and follow my own impulses. In this place, it’s easy to do self care. It’s easy to tell what would be nice, there’s a strong pull towards a bath or the beach or a Blackadder and popcorn night, and none of it feels like work or something I can fail at.
I’ve noticed certain trends such as – everytime I’ve fallen into a sick exhausted heap and had to step back from all my passions and projects and just BE for a little while, I’ve suddenly radically improved. Everytime I’ve been given permission to be human and vulnerable and have limits and needs, I’ve suddenly found things easier. The more I’ve been coaxed and cajoled (and modelled) to take care of myself instead of pushing myself way past my limits all the time, the better I’ve functioned. Walking out of things that stress me like a really triggering talk or film took immense courage the first few times and now I can do it easily. Having to cancel on someone still eats me up inside but with coaxing from Rose I can do it when I have to. Just being given permission to stay home when I’m having a meltdown oddly enough means that I often suddenly feel up to managing the trip. Feeling past my limits and trapped in a situation where I must function is the exact set up that means I’m least able to. Chronic pressure and long term crisis mode are killers.
A shift has taken place inside me. The better I look after myself, the more I stay out of crisis mode, and the less pressure I put myself under, the more I can actually do. I was a high achieving, intelligent child of whom great things were expected. I was often able to accomplish them but at huge personal cost. Learning that I get to stop when it’s too much has taken me a lifetime because that’s not how things worked when I was a kid. I was often past my limits, exhausted and suicidal and yet things like school remained a brutal, inescapable reality I simply had to endure. Permission to be human and take care of myself have been difficult to learn. I’ve had to start by finding other people who do this themselves, and who could help me do it without putting me under the intense and impossible stress of forcing me to do it before I was ready. It’s taken courage to explore self care when I was convinced that I did not deserve it and that it would make me weak. But the place it’s taking me to is that my inner horse runs free; it runs, not because it must, but because it loves to, from a place of heart singing joy.