Everyone has their own ingrained system for dealing with emotions. We, while capable of reacting in a multitude of ways, form paths early in our lives that predict and dictate how our later/future selves will respond in times of trouble.
Unfortunately, those behaviors aren’t always the most sophisticated or the wisest choices in how to react. Remember: we learn these during our formative years when our brains and bodies are still coding experiences to save us time later.
The first time I wanted to kill myself, I was eleven.
I had learned about suicide the year before. There had been a death in my family. Decades later, I would learn that a minimum of two people in my family had attempted suicide. And those are just the family I know about. When I was a child, I was exposed to a negative, reoccurring event. It’s taken me several dozen years to get to a place where I can fully acknowledge how toxic that situation was. At the time, my brain and body assessed that I was incapable of dealing with the flood of fear that I was immersed in. In order to survive, my unconscious created a plan.
As an adult human functioning in the real world, this has fucked up my life and created a ripple effect that I’m only just beginning to grasp. But as a frightened child trying to survive, my brain said, “This is how. We’re going to live.”
Which means that when my mind encounters a stressful situation, it switches to auto-pilot and puts on a record that went platinum when I was little. Because it was a proven system to ensure survival.
Let’s use an example: if you have a parent who beats you, you strategize to decrease the likelihood of physical abuse. Maybe they hit you when you wear the color red. So you learn to *not* wear that color, because your life is much easier when you don’t. But ten years later, you see yourself avoiding shopping at Target and refuse to drive, because being exposed to that color is a trigger that sends you back to that fear and now you’re hyperventilating and you don’t know why. Or you know, but you can’t stop it.
The example is absurd, but that is what the brain does.
The past year has been a learning experience for me. I often have to pause and congratulate myself, because my mind adapted initially and the plan succeeded…for that situation at that time.
But now, when I find myself in stressful situations, I respond the same. Several years ago, a co-worker who has anger management problems confronted me (poorly) about something I did that she didn’t like. Within seconds, my heart pounded in my head, my breath hardened, and I felt my attention from her drift to the door. You could run, my fear said. Right now. This qualm is ridiculous and petty. You don’t have to work with someone like that, and you shouldn’t have to. Run out that door right now and never come back.
Which meant, in addition to being afraid that I hadn’t heard a word of her complaint after she began, because all my energy kicked into the Kevin Space hostage negotiator from the amazing 90’s movie, The Negotiator: “You are at work. You only have a few hours until you can leave. Money is important to not living on the street, and running away from this will mean that this could be your reality.” I have a better understanding of the situation today, but I have a long way to go to undue years of trauma.
While I’m training my brain, I have to limit my exposure to triggers. Which is harder than it sounds. Almost two years ago, I had a rough week. My therapist at the time instructed me emphatically to rest the whole weekend. “Do NOT do any activity that stresses you out, even if it is an errand or chores.” This was a compromise. In return for doing this, she would agree not to hospitalize me. When I told my husband I was essentially on bed rest “against all stressors,” he chuckled and said, “But that’s everything except TV.” I proceeded to spend the entire weekend on the couch sobbing through a TV marathon. At one point, I invited a friend over, and partway through our time together, she had to call for a ride home because I was too upset to take her. And she’s one of my best friends but I could barely talk to her while she was here.
Two winters ago, one of our friends told us a mutual acquaintance had been “hospitalized due to her pregnancy.” It took several minutes for me to realize what was abundantly obvious to all others present during this discussion: she’d been hospitalized for morning sickness and loss of fluids, not as I had interpreted, for a mental breakdown.
So, when you see someone struggling to wade through the tide of everyday life and see their confused, poor reaction as an intelligence issue, consider the alternatives. One of which is that their brain is operating on an original format in an advanced, non-traumatic world.
Sometimes the struggle is a more intense reality than we’re willing to verbally admit.