I posted this on Facebook last week, but forgot to post it here. So here it is; sorry for the delay!
Lesser known fact: I’ve been writing characters with PTSD since before I knew what PTSD was.
I’ve just always had one or two characters running around in my novels (which I started writing in 5th grade) with some disastrous tragic past, who are now navigating a world where this is mostly not relevant to their everyday life, but just because it’s not relevant doesn’t mean it’s not always there, capable of snapping to the forefront if they see something, smell something, hear something, taste something. This just seemed to me like a perfectly logical way for a mind to cope with unthinkable amounts of stress and trauma while remaining functional that I had no idea that it was a diagnosable condition, and that some people don’t understand or even believe in things like triggers.
Of course, once I was a worldly 8th or 9th grader, I at some point learned of the existence of PTSD and did some research in the hope of writing my PTSD-afflicted characters in more authentic and realistic ways. But pretty much everything I found aligned just fine with the ways I was already writing the characters, based on the logic of how I perceived a person’s psyche would react to their sorts of situations. I had essentially deduced PTSD and some of the various manifestations of it: triggers, flashbacks, emotional outbursts, self-imposed isolation, frustration and self-loathing at the betrayal of one’s own body and mind, insomnia, insecurity over being perceived as weak because of it, undercurrents of anxiety at being unsure when/how bad the next attack could be, health issues outside of attacks (like high blood pressure), and coping mechanisms.
Lots and lots of coping mechanisms.
I personally did not begin to have anxiety issues until the past few years, and the outright panic attacks didn’t start until a couple of years ago. (I actually have a Facebook note — and post here — about when the first one happened and why, because of course I do.)
I usually don’t think about my own life in terms of coping mechanisms, because I don’t have PTSD/a diagnosed condition, and my anxiety attacks are usually so sporadic that I almost totally forget about them in between. This is not super great, because then when they hit me, every time, it feels like they’ve just come out of nowhere and that I don’t have the tools to deal with them, because I’m lucky enough that I don’t have to deal with them on a day-to-day basis.
But after last week’s spate of repeated attacks with barely any respite between them, I couldn’t afford not to develop some tools for myself. Or at least to hone the ones that have lain dormant in the back of my brain. I mean, I think I do use these all the time, but unconsciously, automatically, and I think I need to start employing them in a more deliberate, methodical way, instead of just relying on my brain to kick in with them when I need it to, because clearly my brain is tired of being taken for granted and would appreciate a little jump start (#carjoke).
Years of writing PTSD-riddled characters has left me with a wealth of underutilized coping mechanisms just hanging around back there. I haven’t technically written any fiction in over a year, but over the past decade and a half, I’ve spent countless hours inside the heads of these characters, a headspace where coping mechanisms are second-nature; I’m sure they won’t mind if I borrow a few.
So the idea behind the rest of this post is to compile some kind of list and explanations of various coping mechanisms that I’ve been using since my last panic attack. (It’s been a week and a half, for those keeping score at home; it’s been a fantastic week and a half, actually.) The list is by no means definitive or comprehensive, and of course not every technique is right for every situation. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of flexibility here. Stress and anxiety are many-headed and adaptable monsters, and trying to counter with exclusively the same move over and over again is rarely going to stay effective. You have to set your phaser to a rotating frequency (#StarTrekjoke).
Again, a technical term I only learned about wayyyyy after I’d been utilizing it for years. Basically, the way I cope with my fears is to bulldoze right through them.
I remember during my gap year in Israel before college, one of my classmates had one of those bags with so-called inspirational phrases slathered all over it, but the only phrase I remember was: “Do one thing a day that scares you.” And I started doing that, maybe not once a day, but once in a while, and I learned to think in terms of what scares me, which at that point in time was a lot of things. Like, talking to that teacher. Or approaching that classmate. Or asking that family if they could host me for a meal. Or going into the Chabad house to see what it was like. Scary stuff. Or at least, scary until you’ve done it once or twice. Then it’s easy.
I gradually graduated from tiny little fears to bigger and bigger ones. Distilled thought process: “This scares me. Why does it scare me? Do the reasons include ‘likely to cause bodily harm, financial disaster, or extensive emotional damage’? No? Then DO IT.”
Afraid to tell that really cute guy he’s cute? TELL HIM. Afraid to write that really personal essay? WRITE IT. Afraid to post it online? POST IT. Afraid to tell that guy you really want to date that you really want to date him? TELL HIM. Afraid to let those people see you without makeup? LET THEM. Afraid to perform at that Open Mic? PERFORM AT IT. Afraid to go to that party where you might not know anyone? GO TO IT. Afraid to start a conversation with a stranger on a train? START IT. Afraid to hang out with that person from the internet that you barely know? HANG OUT WITH THEM. Afraid to travel alone and go hostel hopping for two weeks? DO IT. Afraid to let your new boyfriend see your vulnerabilities? LET HIM. Afraid to say hi to Kevin Bacon when you practically bump into him on the street? SAY HI TO KEVIN BACON; IT’S FRIKKING KEVIN BACON.
All of these things — the more you do them, the less scary they become. At least for me. (Kevin Bacon is super nice, tbh.) I can’t tell you that the fear always goes away entirely, because in certain areas, it definitely does not. But if you know you’ve faced a fear in the past and lived, it’s easier to face it again in the present.
People I know have at times referred to me as “fearless.” That is categorically false, of course. I just have a compulsive need to face my fears, conquer them, beat them into submission. Sometimes this is a bad strategy and results in me damaging my mental health by forcing myself into situations that I ought to have walked away from rather than trying to beat. As I’ve noted in the past, a tactical retreat is not cowardice. But it runs counter to my need not to be controlled by my fears, so sometimes I err on the side of recklessness.
But essentially what I’m saying here is that when that horrible empty feeling and subsequent panic attacks made me afraid to go back to work, I instinctively felt that the only viable path open to me was to GO BACK TO WORK.
Identification and Verbal Acknowledgement
One of my greatest talents is my ability to wordify my thoughts. Sometimes this is easier than other times, because honestly sometimes I don’t have thoughts; I just have feelings. Sometimes a feeling will put the whammy on me in the span of a split second — between one bite of my meal and another, I can go from ravenously hungry to losing my appetite completely. It happened a lot last week. I would feel fine and then BAM. The cliched description of it is “that sinking feeling” in your gut, but it’s really more like “that sudden sheer drop off the Cliffs of Insanity feeling” (#PrincessBrideJoke) (#whyamihashtaggingallmyreferences #idontknow #cantstopwontstop)
And because that kind of dramatic loss of appetite and sheer drop feeling is often a precursor to an anxiety attack for me, my immediate reaction when I’m caught unawares is, “Oh god oh god it’s happening again oh god I don’t know what to do what do I do what do I do whatdoIdoWHATDOIDO????” And of course a thought process like THAT is just magnifying the unknowns in the situation, rather than focusing on what I do know. Known quantities are inherently more calming than unknowns. In the opening of the most recent Hunger Games movie, the heroine Katniss Everdeen is shown rocking back and forth, whispering, “Start with what you know. My name is Katniss Everdeen. I survived the Hunger Games,” etc. This is not just handy exposition but a very real way of coping with PTSD, from which Katniss most certainly suffers.
I’ve found it helpful to verbally identify the known factors as specifically as possible. I’ve obviously done this a lot through my writing, but writing is for when I have a chance to sit down and compose eloquent paragraphs of thoughts after having had some time to reflect and ponder and ruminate, which is not the case most of the time. In the moment, my thoughts are scrambled and fragmented, and I need to grasp at all the straws and pull as many of them together as I can. And it helps to whisper it to myself, to say it aloud. For instance:
“I just lost my appetite. I don’t know exactly why. I’m feeling anxious. I’m feeling anxious because I lost my appetite and I don’t know why. And my throat is closing up and it’s getting harder to breathe and swallowing is making me nauseous and I don’t know if I’m going to throw up. But feeling anxious made me lose my appetite in the first place. So all this other stuff is definitely adding to the anxiety, but I’m anxious about something else too.”
And then I have to be honest with myself about what is scaring me at the moment. It may surprise you to hear me say this, but honesty is hard. But I have to be brutally honest with myself; I can’t pretend to be better than my fears, no matter how much I wish I were, because I can never deal with them if I can’t admit them, and my gut knows when I’m lying (and often when other people are lying) and has a violent aversion to it.
“I’m anxious because I don’t feel happy. I don’t know if this job is right for me. Imagining a future of doing this feels suddenly suffocating and I don’t know what I want anymore. And I’m afraid that means that one of my exes was right, that this isn’t for me, and I really really don’t want him to have been right. And I’m afraid that maybe that other friend of mine was right and that the reason I’m unhappy is because I think I’m better than this. And I don’t want to think like that; I don’t want to be that person. I’m afraid that the only jobs that will satisfy me are the really mentally challenging and exhausting and impossible ones, and I’m afraid that I’m scared to try them because I’m afraid to fail. And I’m afraid that succeeding still might not make me happy.”
Admitting that I was unhappy was a hard thing to do, which clearly meant that it was a major key. (Back to exposure therapy: often the more difficult something is, the more you need to face it.) Same thing with acknowledging that walking away might be my best choice, and to forgive myself for it if it was.
“It’s okay to walk away from this. I have a college degree, I have a wide support system, I have money in the bank, I have no debt, I have plenty of time, I have options.”
And what unexpectedly helped me a lot was when I calculated how much I would earn at this job, at this rate of pay and the number of hours I’m willing to work, and it turned out to be only around 11 or 12 thousand dollars a year (post tax), which is clearly not a sustainable rate of pay to cover NYC rent, insurance, cell phone bills, food, potential car payments, retirement funds, etc, and that hammered home for me how very very temporary this is, and how there’s no need to envision a suffocating future when this is obviously not going to be it. So for my first day back at work this week, whenever that chokey sinking feeling started to hit, my mantra was:
“I’m unhappy right now, but that’s okay because this is not forever. I can leave anytime I want.”
(That’s how I tend to get through synagogue services, by the way, by reassuring myself that I can leave whenever I want. And sometimes I do. So far, I haven’t come close to leaving my job early, but knowing that I can makes everything so much easier.)
And that chokey sinking feeling has all but gone away as my mind has begun to internalize how transitory this job is. A fun detour is much more enjoyable than a necessary stepping stone. And maybe eventually I’ll come to enjoy it enough that it will change from a detour back into a stepping stone and I’ll rise through the ranks of this profession. But that’s not something I need to know right now.
Don’t be afraid to fall on your support system — hard. It’s tough to reach out to people. It’s tough to admit that you need help. But if you have a support system, if you have good friends, if you have family who you’re on decent terms with — utilize them. Talk to them. Open up about what you’re going through, even if you’re still struggling to put it all together to make sense of whatever it is you’re feeling.
For me, a lot of people were asking “HOW IS WORK??” and I couldn’t tell them; I just didn’t know how. There was too much and it was too confusing to explain in conversation. But I told most of them, it’s complicated, I have a lot of thoughts, I need to write a post to figure it all out. And anyone who knows me even a little understands that. And once I got that post up, I could send it to any of my friends who asked, and then they’d have a reference point and we could move forward from there into commiseration, support, brainstorming, etc.
It’s just hard to explain it from scratch every single time, but I wanted to be able to seek support; I didn’t want to isolate myself and sink further and further into the quagmire in my own head, because that would just suck and compound the problem.
If telling people scares you, you know what I’m gonna say: DO IT. EXPOSURE THERAPY, KIDDO. If the friends you tell freak out and reject you, they weren’t your friends. GET NEW FRIENDS.
Also: It’s good to get outside perspectives, but you don’t have to listen to everyone’s advice. Some friends are better at being supportive than others. You probably have a sense of which of your friends are best at that, and it’s probably best to seek the bulk of your support from them. You probably also know some people who are well meaning but frequently give terrible advice, or advice that simply doesn’t apply to you, and it’s fine to ignore those people and not ask for their opinions. And some people who are just plain awful and toxic and you should avoid them at these times at all costs. And some people are wild cards; you don’t know how they’ll react — they might give great advice, or they might have no frakking clue and say all the wrong things, so they probably shouldn’t be your first line of defense. But people can surprise you and sometimes great support can come from places you least expect if you take a chance on it. (Parents are often wild cards, I think. But I was in bad enough shape last week that I actually reached out to them, and it worked out.)
Lastly, cast a wide net for support. Don’t dump everything on one or two people. They can be the best people ever, but you can have the strongest trampoline ever and if the Hulk drops out of the sky in stiletto heels and lands on it at full combat drop speed, it’s gonna puncture.
Spread the weight around if you can. Talk to a core group of people you trust rather than just a couple of individuals. Don’t be so exclusive that the other person feels like they’re your sole source of support and that if they drop the ball, whatever happens to you will be their responsibility. It’ll be better for you and it will be better for them if you have multiple support beams and layers in your trampoline.
When I’m in the midst of a full-on attack, the previous things on this list are not necessarily going to help me. When my body just flat-out decides to rebel with almost no warning, I can’t just think myself out of it; that’s not how it works. I have to find ways to distract myself so that my body can have the time it needs to reboot itself, or at least calm its systems or metabolic rate or whatever it is that’s going haywire.
(By the way, you might not always be able to tell that I’ve had an attack or am fending off another one just by looking at me; I’m pretty good at hiding it when that’s happening, if I want to. Unless I am puking. That’s hard to hide. But like, this picture was taken less than an hour after I threw up and probably at least 12 hours before I was physically able to eat again:
So yeah. Just thought I’d mention that.)
I need things to pull me out of my own head when I’m in a bad place, otherwise my thoughts will just burrow further into my brain and spiral down, down, down. I need to find things that stimulate my senses, but without triggering me further — for example, a strong smell is more likely to make me throw up than distract me, but a radio broadcast of a baseball game will form a protective cushion around my brain and stop me from spiralling.
It sometimes helps to leave the lights on at night because in the dark it’s just me and my thoughts. It sometimes helps to walk around outside and look at everything and distract myself with motion and sound. It sometimes helps to stay as still as possible and focus on my breathing. It sometimes helps to watch TV; it sometimes helps to read. It sometimes helps to talk to other people; it sometimes helps to be away from everything and just sleep. It’s extremely variable, and I have to pay attention to my body’s reactions and see what’s working at that moment and what isn’t.
This is very similar to the next item on my list, which is…
Positive Triggers (Soothers) (Not to be confused with a particular type of allomancer from Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy)
I don’t have a lot of these, unfortunately. Finding them means being on the lookout, paying extremely close attention to anything that calms me, even in the most microscopic ways. I doubt I’ll ever find something that positively triggers me as dramatically as anything that can negatively trigger me, but little pieces of calm in a storm have their uses too.
For example, a kid I babysit for recently gave me yet another Livestrong bracelet. It’s multicolored, and one of the colors is what my brain dubs cyan, because I know obscure colors like that. It’s a kind of pastel turquoise, I guess. And I noticed that for the split second that my eyes glanced over that cyan patch of silicon, sandwiched between the yellow and the fusia on the band, I felt just the tiniest bit calmer, more relaxed. Apparently very small doses of cyan is soothing to me. Large doses seem to lose their impact, but tiny ones, well, they seem to help. It’s the only bracelet I wear at work now, so that in the constant dusty grey of the repair shop I can glance at it for a second for a miniscule pick-me-up.
Other things that soothe me: Petting my giant stuffed tiger or cuddling with it. Being in my own bed. Taking off a layer (or more) of my clothes so that my skin can breathe better. Wrapping myself in a blanket or a towel. Entering the mind of a character during a scene I’ve been writing in my head that constitutes a particularly serene moment for him/her. Writing a post about coping mechanisms.
I started putting this in the Soothers section but I’m not sure it really fits there so I gave it its own subheader.
See, I think this second week at work made me realize yet again that the crux of what makes life interesting and worthwhile to me are people and their stories. Let’s face it, the main thing I got out of automotive school was not knowledge of cars. Sure, I got that too, but that feels like small potatoes compared to the vast canvas of human experience that I got a chance to see and learn about by being in that environment.
I think that my first week on the job, I was so intent on being a good little worker that I was all business all the time, just going from task to task to task, so that by the end of each day, I had a lot of tasks accomplished, but no stories to tell. And to me that felt like a worthless existence. I mean, I can tell you how I changed oil, but that’s an instruction manual, that’s not a story.
This second week, I chilled out a little, didn’t focus so intently on the work to the exclusion of all else, largely because I was working on telling myself that this is not where I’m going to end up, that this is temporary, that my entire life and future does not hinge on my success at this job, so it’s okay to relax a little. I actually sat down and ate my lunch, for example, instead of just skipping it or devouring it in five seconds and heading back to work. I took things slower, I observed more. I paid more attention to the dynamics of the shop and the workers.
I think that because I slowed down and was also less new, the guys in shop started feeling more comfortable chitchatting with me, asking me questions, but mostly giving me their opinions on how things work around here. Everyone has an opinion on everyone else and their style of work, and they’re all willing to tell me about it, not knowing that everyone they’re talking about has been talking to me about them. This guy thinks everyone else is incompetent and phony. That guy thinks the other techs have no finesse and take no pride in their work. This guy thinks one of the bosses is incredibly patient and has never seen him raise his voice in all the years they’ve worked together. That guy tells me that two of the techs constantly bitch and moan about the smell of the paint fumes from the body shop section, but that they’ve miraculously stopped complaining since I’ve been around, because “they don’t want to seem like a lady in front of a lady.” (Oh, casual misogyny, you make the best stories.)
I think my mind is happiest when I am occupied with day to day work, but at the same time piecing together another canvas that no one knows I’m working on. I wouldn’t want that canvas to be my primary focus; I wouldn’t want to approach it like that was my job, like I’m a journalist, asking questions, interviewing, investigating. I’d hate that. I like learning by osmosis, in bits and pieces, not through the things that people want to tell me, but by the things I figure out from experience and observation.
That’s what makes life feel worthwhile to me by the end of the day.
There was actually another subheader on this list, but holy hell this is long so I’m gonna cut it short. If you read all the way to the end, I’m very impressed and I appreciate it a ton. I hope you got something out of it.
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