Coping Mechanisms

To be clear right from the outset, I feel like a relatively ‘together,’ functioning human. I don’t think many people would be able to tell from meeting me that there is a deep, dark secret buried away at my core, hopefully. Aside from that time of the month when I turn fucking nuts or the odd occasion when men drive me up the wall and I lose the plot a bit I like to think I maintain some semblance of normality…on surface level at least. On reflection, that is probably due to the fact I have reached an equilibrium in life where I am now happy and content with where everything is. But it has not always been this way.
Recent events (bloody Covid-19) have meant that I’ve spent more time at work and zero time with the people who help me to feel sane. I live alone, save for two of the biggest diva-like felines you could imagine, and there is now lots of solitary time that used to be filled with seeing friends or at least having the option to. I used to cherish my solo time because it was so rare in the pre-Coronavirus world but now it is an enforced way of life the psychology around it seems to have shifted. I have found myself thinking back to those bad habits I picked up in my teens and twenties and being tempted to start behaving in those ways again. I can only think it is the excess isolation time that has impacted me because it certainly isn’t due to any lack of control or displeasure with my life right now. Boredom, fatigue and anxiety in the air have a lot to answer for.
The coping mechanisms started when I was young, of course. I found many methods of distraction from the tortures behind the bathroom door and then, when that ended, these diversions took over everything else.
Firstly, from the moment things began to take a turn with Dad, I stopped being able to let people touch me. This is a problem that has continued – it has never become better or easier; I still feel exactly the same as I did about it. I try to stay as far away from people as I can get and I am acutely aware of the lightest graze or brush of someone else’s skin on mine. Most people are very tactile without knowing it; they will put a hand on the small of your back as you walk through a door ahead of them, or touch your shoulder to comfort you or hug you in greeting. I can cope with this when it is my friends or close work colleagues but, for the most part, feeling someone touching me sends me into a panic – my skin feels like it is crawling. It has taken me a very long time to get used to enjoying the familiarity of a greeting cuddle from friends because I know there is warmth behind it, but I am always intensely aware of people being in my personal space and touching me for even the briefest of moments. I recoil, I avoid and I maintain as much space between myself and others as is possible.
Men were the main, and most immediate, problem. Always have been, always will be. I found distancing myself when uneasy was the most effective way to forget what had happened to me and handle the reminder their physical presence represented in those dark times. For the most part I steer clear of relationships and sexual encounters because I know they just don’t suit me; I’ve enjoyed the company of some guys, of course, but I mostly accept I am made and meant to be a solitary creature. Certain men give off an energy or an aura I just don’t like and the only way for me to deal with this is to move away from them – I’m much better at managing this now but as a teenager it was all-consuming. There are men that I simply cannot be near – this is rarer now than it once was and it is due to my overactive sense of self-protection providing an instinct that such men are not to be trusted – in most cases this has been proven right. In those instances I remain as distant as I possibly can and curtail any conversation rapidly. Back in the day though, I avoided these circumstances by staying at home. For the majority of my teen years I studied, stayed focussed on learning and did not socialise outside school in areas I knew I might have to interact with men.
Mum obviously brought home many, many men who instilled in me that instinctive need to flee and my bedroom became a safe haven where I was able to relax entirely, away from both her nasty attitude and the advances of her suitors. She always told them what had happened to me as a kind of apology or excuse for my lack of warmth and acceptance around them.
‘Don’t worry about her, she was molested as a child,’ was her usual sentence spoken almost as though she were joking. The men would shift off awkwardly, not saying too much in response to the upbeat, jovial delivery of the shattering sentence she had uttered. Some must have thought she was kidding but I noted in some an opportunistic gleam in their eye as the magnitude of what they had heard sunk in.
‘Oh, so she’s fucked up then?’ their expression seemed to suggest and I felt their eyes lingering on me more often from that point. In response to this, my radar sounded alarmingly and I protected myself further, shying away from spending time outside of my bedroom when they were round. Men can tell there’s a level of damage within me: most steer clear and leave me to my own devices but some see that as a vulnerability that can be taken advantage of.
It was as I entered my twenties, though, that the real problems started.
The fear of men rolled over the years like a tank and I learned to live with it, coping as I saw fit. But the unhealthy and debilitating mechanisms in reaction to ridiculous anxieties developed gradually, so I almost didn’t notice them emerging from the fog like enemies of the mind.
It all began with a story of a local girl who had run over an elderly gentleman as she reversed. It was classed as a ‘hit and run’ because she left the scene but it later transpired she had not even realised she had knocked down and killed the man. This sewed a seedling in my mind that it was very possible to run someone over without realising it. From this tiny kernel grew a poisoned tree that bore fretful fruit of such magnitude at times it seemed I was enveloped in a very dark tunnel with no windows and no doors. I don’t know if you know what that level of anxiety feels like, but if I can summarise it in a word, it feels like Doom.
While driving, I would regularly get to the end of a very long, very straight road and the idea descended upon me that I had knocked down a cyclist I hadn’t seen. I couldn’t shake the thought, though I knew there was no way I could have done this without noticing, so I had to go back and check. Over and over again I drove up and down that one road, checking for the dismounted corpse of a cyclist or pedestrian I had inadvertently knocked down. With each new journey came the additional fear that in concentrating so hard on looking for a dead or injured person I had actually hit someone because I wasn’t paying attention. I have been known to drive up and down the same road five times, just to check my worst fears had not been realised. Always in my mind was the understanding that this was a silly and fruitless endeavour – I knew with a resounding awareness that I could not possibly have done what I was worried about, and the fear I felt was added to by impatience and anger at myself. Why was I doing this? I had survived so much worse than this feeling of disquietude and yet it seemed more likely to tear me down into insanity than anything I had experienced before. I tried so many times to tell myself I was still that strong girl who had come through so much and that this too would pass, but then another fear would overwhelm me and I felt like I was drowning in a muddy lake of negligible terrors.
The panicking around knocking people down with my car bled like a haemorrhage into other aspects of my life. Had I said something at work to someone that might get me fired? Had I done something in my youth that might get me arrested? Could someone accuse me if a crime I hadn’t committed just because they didn’t like me? My ultimate fear perpetuated itself in a blinding certainty that I was going to end up jobless and worse, in prison. Night after night I lay awake running over the events of the day, consumed by fears that I had done something truly treacherous and my mind would not stop until I found something to be terrified about. The smallest, most trivial utterance earlier in the day, when remembered, would vault into realms of an excruciating distress that I had said something overtly offensive, even racist or sexist, and I was going to be fired because of a misunderstanding. It was nonsensical and I always knew I was worrying myself into sickness over an inconsequential moment that anyone and everyone else had, in all likelihood, forgotten about. But the germ had infiltrated my brain and invaded my inner peace. I waved a white flag to the dread and allowed it to overwhelm me.
Living in a constant state of alarm is a hellish ordeal. Made more so by the fact I knew I was being ridiculous and was therefore too embarrassed to tell anybody. My brain ran overtime, wave upon wave of doom crashing onto the rocks of my tranquillity until only the sea of fear remained. I had to find a way to restore serenity and harmony, to quiet my mind.
At this time, mindfulness and meditation and all that stuff didn’t exist. A cynic by nature, I can’t imagine such exercises would be beneficial to me anyway but certainly at that time anxiety was just an issue for pussies and you needed to eat better, exercise and chill the fuck out. Well, eating we will talk about in a moment but suffice to say that was not going to be helpful. I was working 16-18 hour days so the chance of exercising was non-existent and I couldn’t turn my mind off enough to chill the fuck out. So where did that leave me?
I’ll tell you where that left me: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Onion-like in the complexities of my psyche, my Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder following childhood molestation had manifested itself in anxiety and anorexia and in retaliation to this I had now become obsessive over petty little rituals. To be fair, the OCD tendencies alleviated the anxiety disorder as I felt I was able to do something to combat and control the panic. But the OCD behaviour came with issues of its own.
I wasn’t the stereotypical light-switch flicker or anything like that. I was obsessive with hygiene and cleanliness…and counting: above all else, counting!
When I could feel myself panicking I went to the bathroom and I washed my hands. I waited until the water was scolding hot to ensure all germs were truly dead and I scrubbed my hands until the discord washed away with the suds. But then…sometimes, once wasn’t enough. So I, of course, had to wash them three times. Three was my safe number; I couldn’t tell you why. It became ritualistic – hands had to be washed three times and that was just the rule. If I lost count or doubted myself in the number of washes I had to start gain. Not because I thought bad things would happen as a consequence of not washing my hands three times in boiling water, just because it HAD to be three times. However, the ritual of washing three times became the norm, and so when I was in a state of flux or fluster what could I now do to cope? I’d wash my hands nine times, obviously. Because nine times is three sets of three so mathematically I’m cleaner and safer…surely? And then when none of that was enough – what then? That’s when I started with the bleach. I washed my hands with bleach wherever I could and whenever I was able to until my poor little hands were so blistered and raw even luke warm water was agony. I woke in the morning with open sores all over the backs of my hands where I had scratched them in the night.
So how did I stop? Honestly…I can’t explain it, I just did. One day I looked at my hands and thought ‘I’m not going to do that anymore.’ And I just didn’t – it was that simple. There was no therapy, no revelation…I ceased with the bleach and the nine washes. I still wash my hands three times but there are now no special trips to the bathroom just to stand and bleach my hands over and over again and I can’t remember the last time I washed them nine times. I don’t keep bleach in my house ever specifically because I don’t want to put myself in the line of temptation. Obviously, recent weeks and months have been much harder to fight the urge when it comes to hand hygiene.
The more difficult coping mechanism to overcome was the eating disorder.
It started because I lost a love of eating in truth. Mum wasn’t cooking me dinner because of that bastard Jim, I couldn’t be bothered to stand in the kitchen in a hateful environment making my own food and I therefore could not be bothered to eat – that’s the best way I can describe the easy descent into a problem. I worked out that if I didn’t have breakfast, I wouldn’t become hungry. And if I didn’t become hungry, I didn’t eat. It then became a challenge – how long could I go without eating anything? Hours stretched into a day and then one day could become a couple of days. I didn’t mind the act of eating – and when I knew I had to, I could. But I found a sense of pride in being able to starve myself through hunger pains in the night and waves of nausea. I ate if I was around other people because I didn’t want anyone to notice my habits…but between being busy with work and living like a lodger it was shockingly easy to get away with for a very long time.
My gums ached and my teeth hurt, I was generally quite tired and I broke out in eczema all over my forehead at one stage which was truly unattractive but aside from that it was easy enough to deal with. I was not close to Mum and she was paying absolutely no attention to me and Daniel was always with Charlotte so my starvation diet flew under the radar for months. It wasn’t like the stereotypical eating disorder though; I wasn’t obsessed with weight loss and I didn’t feel the need to wear baggy clothes to hide my body. I had a nice body; it wasn’t ravaged by a lack of care and I was always grateful for that. I didn’t want to lose my bum and I certainly didn’t want the tiny buds I called breasts to disappear – any less and they’d have been inverted nipples. Of course I lost weight, but being petite it wasn’t so noticeable for a long time. It was about the challenge – how long could I leave my body destitute of nourishment before I had to give in and eat?
Mum eventually noticed the weight loss one day about a year in to the disorder when I walked ahead of her out of the front door. In her usual maternal style she stated ‘your legs look like Woody in Toy Story – what the fuck?’ I reassured her nothing was wrong, that I was eating like normal but I think that jealous spike in her personality that resided deep down and fed off an unfounded envy of her daughter malingered over how skinny I had become. She wasn’t concerned, she was resentful. She didn’t like it that I was thinner than she was and so she began asking me what I was eating and whether I was taking care of myself.
I continued challenging myself, seeing how long I could leave it before I had to eat a slice of apple or a raw carrot to tide me over. However, now adept at training my body in how not to feel hungry, it was starting to take its toll. I was noticeably thin – at just 5 stone, I had the look of a lollipop and it wasn’t attractive. Dark circles cradled my eyes and my hair was inexplicable. I looked at myself in the mirror and, once again, made the decision to stop. It was not quite so easy as the OCD to make that choice though – I had shrunk my stomach down so now the smallest morsels filled me up but I was determined to get back to the place where I had liked my body and enjoyed food. Once again, through will power alone, I managed to get myself to some measure of a place where I felt normal. Forcing breakfast down started the day right and from there, I embraced the hunger as my body’s way of telling me it needed food. When I was stronger and plumper again I got a personal trainer and he devised me a dietary plan which I stuck to for a time. Family and friends commented on how much better I was looking and eventually I found I was no longer obsessing over challenging myself with hunger strikes.
It would be fair to say the urge to purge my body of food fluctuates. For the most part I eat what I like – I have a fast metabolism and I am not a fussy eater. I eat with my eyes so I can even err onto the side of greed at times. But there are days that slip into weeks where once again I feel I am testing myself when it comes to food. Honesty is the best policy for me when it comes to that habit though so I make sure those I am close to know about my issues and how I deal with them. I will confess when I feel the problem arising so that people know how I’m behaving and that is often more than enough of an incentive to sort myself out.
I suppose the moral to the story this week is a topical one: don’t suffer alone and don’t suffer in silence. Sharing is caring, a problem shared is a problem halved…all that stuff you hear but never take on board because it’s always more applicable to someone else than you. Even the strong ones who seem tough on the outside are fighting their personal battles internally and everyone’s problems are relative so what seems like an offhand comment to you might be cause for a sleepless night for the speaker. On a positive note, the OCD has come in massively handy for the present climate though I will admit, bleaching the epidermis is probably overkill – even with Rona lurking in our midst!

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