Life is not static. We are always learning, growing, and evolving. I don’t use the word changing, because most of us don’t completely change. We build and evolve what we’ve already learned in our life, adding new information or things we enjoy into who we are. The old things are still there, sometimes buried or out-of-use, but still able to rear up in times of stress or turmoil when we are overwhelmed. Sometimes our old “tapes” are good, sometimes they’re not. Being self-aware of our triggers, coping mechanisms, and pitfalls is always a good way to live. Do we change behaviors as we learn? Sure we do! But that doesn’t mean old patterns simply disappear forever.
In working so many years in mental health, especially the last seven years spent on the crisis team, I’ve learned a lot of invaluable lessons. Some from co-workers, others from clients themselves. But really, the best lessons come from my own life journey.
I was born with a birth defect and spent most of my childhood ill. I had four surgeries between the ages of four and ten, and continued to struggle with side effects and byproducts of my condition into my teens. I endured bullying and not very friendly teasing from my peers throughout grade school and junior high. By my eighth grade year, I was very depressed with low self esteem. When the bullying came to a head with physical bullying by a couple of girls in my class, my parents sat down with me to decide what to do. Since I grew up in the same small town since the age of three, I couldn’t really get away from the main sources of the bullying. After some discussion, my parents and I agreed that a change of educational environment might be helpful. I ended up living with my aunt and uncle in Alaska the last half of my eighth grade year. And I’ve thanked my parents repeatedly for being open to such a radical change up many times since. I went from a small town with my class totaling around sixty students, to a larger community that my class totaled 300+. I discovered that there was a world outside my small town. I was allowed a “clean slate” with kids who knew nothing about the health problems that had made me weird and different before. I gained confidence and a better view of myself. By the time I started high school in my hometown, nearly a year had gone by. The bullies had moved on, and I cemented what had been tentative friends in junior high into good friends. By my senior year, I was on the yearbook staff and was captain of the drill team (dance squad). However, even with all the successes and positive strides I made, depression and automatic thoughts rooted in earlier events still lingered and were my own personal rain cloud that always hovered on my horizon.
When I began college in the fall of 1989, I was optimistic about my future and life. But going from making all A & B grades in high school with very little hard studying to college where I really did have to study hard threw me for another loop. The old tapes of being stupid, not good enough, etc., all started to resurface. After a year and a half of struggling through college, I quit and went to work full time. At just shy of my 21st birthday, I began working an inpatient psychiatric unit of the agency I work for to this day. Working this type of “trench” work in mental health is tough on a stable, healthy person. When you have unresolved, hidden mental health issues of your own and work this job, it’s going to become an issue. Which is exactly what happened for me. Realizing that if I wanted to remain in my chosen field of mental health, I needed to get right with myself, I worked up my courage and started therapy at age 22. Although antidepressants were tried early on, I made my real progress through cognitive therapy. Basically, I learned how to recognize when old, bad tapes were playing in my head, stop the thought(s), and have myself focus on more realistic and positive thought processes. Cognitive therapy was my life saver, but it is not an easy therapy. You have to get up every day and tell yourself that you’re not going back. You have to recognize your triggers and your comfort zone. And you absolutely have to acknowledge, if to no one else but yourself, what your areas of distress, discomfort, vulnerabilities, and weaknesses are. We never like to admit our “failings,” so this is really hard stuff, believe me. But so ultimately worth it if you stick to it and really do the work. The only major depressive episode I’ve had since my early twenties was linked to being diagnosed with fibromyalgia about six years ago, and ended up being a relatively short episode because I knew my triggers and utilized coping skills to help myself recover.
Be proactive. Don’t let something you know is an issue for you keep festering until you basically have a meltdown/breakdown at work or the less than three lines perpetually open at Wal-Mart. (Seriously though, if you can explain why they have 20 registers and only ever seem to have 3 open, I’d probably hug you.)
Acknowledge your issues. This is half the battle. Acknowledgement of problems and/or issues not only allows you to find what will help or alleviate them, but relieves a lot of extra work and stress related to burying your head in the sand.
Have a goal or goals. Whether it’s a broad sort of ideal self that you’d like to be, or more goal directed targeting certain unhealthy coping skills, identifying where and who you want to be (realistically) helps your process of getting there. However, a small caveat… don’t get so wrapped up in the ideal, that it becomes another issue to deal with. It should be a framework, not an absolute.
Develop a sense of humor, if you don’t already have one. Because trust me, there will be days that life just sucks and everything seems to go wrong. Learning to laugh and find the humor in things is a life line. Do silly or random things just to desensitize yourself to that part of yourself that always seems to be “on.” Then when you truly do trip or embarrass yourself, it’s a blip on the day’s agenda, rather than an event that totally sends you off course and unable to recover your composure.
Find your coping skills. Know what works to bring you back from the edge. What helps you to refocus and move on. Coping skills are often little things that can make a big difference. Taking a 10-15 minute break to sit outside in the sun while you listen to music. Taking a walk or bike ride. Reading a book. Doing a puzzle or crossword. Taking a bath. Baking or cooking. Spending time with a friend or family. Playing a game. Cleaning. Writing or journaling. Doing artwork or crafts. Deep breathing or progressive body relaxation. Yoga or exercise. You get the idea! As long as it is healthy, adaptive skills, the sky’s the limit.
Don’t live fearfully, live skillfully.