Learning Healthy Coping

I, like many of us I am learning, was never taught how to cope as a child.  I was not taught how to process my emotions or how to handle a trauma in a healthy way.  Lacking actual education on the subject I learned through example. My example taught that when you are upset you do one of two things.  You can lash out and put all of your emotions onto someone else or you can bottle it up and swallow it down with a big helping of dessert. In my early twenties I learned that lashing out is not beneficial to anyone and gained better control of how I displayed my emotions outwardly.  I thought that was all the work I had to do, if my emotions weren’t effecting anyone else then how I’m coping is not a problem, right? It took until a couple months ago to even realize the other method was a coping mechanism I relied on heavily.

Binge Eating Disorder is thought to be the most common eating disorder. It can be simply defined as Eating-Your-Feelings-On-Steroids.  Links at the end of this blog can provide you with more information.  Many people don’t know that this is a diagnose-able and treatable condition.  I know I didn’t. After opening my eyes to the fact that this disorder has been my main coping mechanism since my teenage years I had an irrational amount of shame to work through.  The perfectionism that comes with my anxiety makes me hard on myself, and this was no exception. Why had I not seen it previously? Why was I able to spot and steer clear of other destructive behaviors I witnessed in childhood, but not able to see this one? I would think back on particularly stressful moments in life and could remember the binge episodes that followed. I beat myself up for each and every one. How could I not see it?

Here is where I could get on a soap box for a while, I’m not going to, but I have to make one point. When we are inundated with a culture that encourages you to eat your grief and markets things like a “chocolate hug” for those single on Valentines day it’s easy to see why someone who struggles with the actual disorder would not notice their disordered eating. It’s hard to see the line between what society says is “normal emotional eating” and what is actually disordered eating.

Since seeing my disordered eating for what it is I have taken steps to minimize my use of this coping mechanism and began learning new, healthy ways to cope. I cleared my home of all foods that I would binge on, I set my finances up so I would not be able to swipe for fast food without my husband seeing it (and helping keep me accountable), and I began to write. Writing is quickly becoming the best coping mechanism I have ever used. I can write out my feelings and read them back to myself so I can easily spot what is rational and what is irrational. I can write out traumatic memories and read them back to myself to desensitize the impact they have. I can write out my successes and read them back to myself to remind myself what I am capable of when I have a low moment.

In addition to writing I practice mindfulness and meditation. Forcing myself to be fully in the moment helps keep me out of my head and lessens my anxiety in day to day situations. Meditating on specific triggers, traumatic memories, or overwhelming situations helps me to fully process my emotions and get to the root cause of them so my emotions do not effect my behaviors.

Developing healthy coping mechanisms is something that is not easy as an adult.  Unlearning what you have learned, breaking bad habits, working through long buried traumas is extremely difficult work. It is work worth doing. For every moment that you feel raw and exposed you will have a moment of relief and peace. Every overwhelming memory, every emotion you felt but never processed, every grudge you don’t even know you are holding do not have to burden you forever. You can process them now. You can feel them now. You can work through them in a healthy way and find peace now. I strongly recommend doing this work with a qualified therapist to guide you as I am. But, if you walk away from this post with nothing else I want you to know this: There is no shame in having unhealthy coping mechanisms. It is not too late to learn how to cope. Peace of mind is possible, learning healthy coping is the road to healing.

Visit the Binge Eating Disorder Association’s website for more information on diagnosing, treating, and supporting loved ones with the disorder. http://bedaonline.com/ 

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The Battle to be Better

My anxiety likes to tell me I can’t better myself.  It likes to tell me I’m incapable of change. This, combined with the Binge Eating Disorder I developed as a coping mechanism for my anxiety has seen my weight fluctuate across a 60 pound range since I hit puberty. Having a body type that is not societies definition of beautiful or healthy only egged my anxiety on in lowering my self image. Since I began treatment for my anxiety a few months ago I have been pushing myself emotionally and I’m making great strides.  I decided to start trying to make some changes that anxiety has kept me from in the past.  As I gained some control over my binge eating I thought adding regular exercise into my routine could have multiple benefits.  The stress relief, outlet for physical anxiety symptoms, and happy brain chemicals being created would all benefit me with my anxiety. What I didn’t expect was what my anxiety would tell me while I exercised.

What my anxiety told me: 
1. You are weak.
2. You can’t do this.
3. Who do you think you are?
4. You aren’t capable of being better.
5. You’re just a fat, lazy, slob, you can’t be anything else.
6. Why are you even doing this if you’re just going to binge it away tomorrow?
7. You could never have enough strength to see this through.
8. If you’re not going to see this through why even start?
9. Why are you even trying?
10. You’re not going to get anywhere.
11. There are grandma’s who could do this better than you.
12. What makes you think you are worth the effort?
13. You probably look like an idiot.
14. If anyone saw this they would laugh at you.
15. This effort is laughable.
16. If you’re not going to give it your all why are you even trying?
17. That’s not your all! You should have done better!
18. If you’re so weak that you can’t do better then you should give up right now.
19. You are weak.
20. You’ll never be strong.

What I said back to my anxiety: 
1. You can do this.
2. You just did this two days ago.
3. Just push a little more.
4. You got this.
5. You. Can. Do. This.

Multiple tears fell down my face as I pushed through different portions of my workout. My anxiety got louder and louder the longer I went so I screamed back at it in my mind. I did not quit, but I was too exhausted at the end to claim any sort of victory. The next time someone tells you that exercise is more of a mental battle for them than a physical one I’d like you to think of this before you judge them as unmotivated. It is literally a battle in the mind for some people.  It’s a battle that, even when won, is met with disdain in my mind because I had to fight it at all.

The Little Boy in the Room of Light

There are a million ways parenting is made harder by mental illness.  Probably more than a million.  You don’t have time for self care, you can’t work through your emotions right away when you’re triggered, every minute of every day you are needed by this other human being who relies on you for everything. It’s exhausting having to put your needs aside every day to make sure your child’s needs are met.  It’s terrifying doubting your every move and parenting decision.  It is just plain overwhelming to have to push your anxiety down to be fully dealt with and worked through later when your child is asleep. The thought of my anxiety bleeding over onto his experience has literally kept me awake at night.

You know what, though? I wouldn’t choose any other experience for my life right now.  My son is the reason I sought help.  My anxiety reached peak levels after having him and forced me to see it for the illness it was instead of ignoring it as a personal flaw. My son pushes me to be my best self every single day. The best illustration of this happened in therapy a few days ago.

I did a guided imagery for PTSD for the first time.  I wasn’t sure what to expect, just lots of emotion.  I have a very active imagination so it turned out to be a great exercise for me. The recording starts out having you picture yourself walking on your heart, seeing all the damage on the surface. Walking through and past the trauma, the pain, the shame, the anger. Then you are supposed to picture a tunnel with a light shining through it, this tunnel would lead down to the safe, pure, undamaged, loving part of your heart. My tunnel was guarded. A large grizzly bear blocked the entrance. It was not threatening, it simply said “people are not allowed here.” With my husband by my side we eventually stepped into the tunnel and the bear walked through with us. When we reached this room of love and light which I keep so well guarded I saw my son.  He was sitting on the floor playing like I have watched him do millions of times.  He looked up at me with his beautiful, joyful, smile and seemed to say “Hey mom, welcome to my room.”

The beautiful, loving, undamaged part of myself that I keep so walled off that I cannot even reach it myself is where my son lives his life. I may not be able to accept love from others, or able to love myself yet, but my son has just nestled in without my realizing it.  He has helped me to open my heart to others’ love. Most of all, he has helped me to open my heart to myself. I have no doubt that he is the reason I can picture a safe and undamaged part of myself at all.

I can never thank him enough for the influence he has had on my life. I can never fully express the impact motherhood has made on my mental health. I can say with full certainty that I would not be on this road to healing if he had not shown me that is it possible.

Is parenting hard with a mental illness? Abso-fucking-lutely.  But, parenting is what makes my daily struggle a little brighter.  It is what forces me to live in the moment. It is what shows me multiple times a day that life is beautiful, no matter what my negative voice says. On my hardest and darkest days I still have moments of clarity and love because of the little boy who lives in a room of light and love, mirroring it back to me, showing me what I’m capable of every time I forget.

Showing Struggle is Strength

My life story from birth to age 17 involves multiple mother figures, parental addiction issues, and verbal, emotional and physical abuse. Many people have heard some or all of the story. I am consistently told that I am strong. I am amazing. I am capable. I am inspiring. People are continuously surprised by how well I function, how “unaffected” I seem to be.

I was praised so consistently and so often for my strength and ability to cope that it took me until the age of 26 to realize I wasn’t coping at all. I have had severe anxiety since childhood and never knew it. I have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from one specific traumatic memory and didn’t know it. I developed severe depression at different points in life as a coping mechanism for my anxiety and didn’t know it. I developed binge eating disorder as a coping mechanism and didn’t know it. How could I not know all of these well-known mental health problems were problems I was experiencing?

I didn’t know because I was functional. I forced myself out of bed in the midst of my depression, so it must not be that bad, right? I could hide my anxiety symptoms from others so they couldn’t be that concerning, right? I could avoid my traumatic memory so it couldn’t have had that deep of an effect, right? People “eat their feelings,” so my food relationship is totally normal, right?

Here’s the thing, everyone who called me strong didn’t know what I didn’t show them. They didn’t see me curled in a ball in a corner shaking and crying because it felt like my world was spinning out of control and there was nothing I could do to fix it. They didn’t see the sheer amount of food I would sit and eat when I was home alone because I didn’t want to see the darkness in my mind. They didn’t hear the voice in my head that consistently told me I wasn’t enough, I was weak, I was a fake, I was not worthy. They didn’t know that someone simply touching my throat would cause a debilitating flashback to the moment my fathers hand held me against the wall, his spit hitting me in the face as he screamed, his eyes showing his pure rage and lack of control as I pushed out the words “Dad, please don’t kill me.”

I hid these things from the world.

Now that I see my mental illnesses and am on a journey to heal, I see I am strong.  I am capable. I am worthy. Everyone telling me these things was not wrong. I can’t help but wonder, though. If I was less functional would it have gotten this far? If the symptoms of my mental illnesses were obvious sooner in life would I have gotten the help I needed to succeed? Would I have finished college? Would I have made better choices? Does it really matter? After all, I do love my life right now.

The next time someone shares their life with you, let them know it’s OK to not be strong. It’s OK to show vulnerability. It’s OK to feel the emotions and work through them. It’s OK to show suffering on the outside instead of hiding it on the inside. They are still capable. They are still worthy. Showing their true struggle is strength.

If you or a loved one is affected by domestic violence or emotional abuse and need help, call The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.

This piece was originally published on The Mighty, but it is the first real piece I wrote about my mental illness(es) and the experience inspired me to start this blog.