When I was almost 30, I spent a hundred hours in a mental hospital on suicide watch, though I wasn’t suicidal. I had been switched to a new antidepressant by my general practitioner. I had a strongly negative reaction, flooded by serotonin, and could feel myself going crazy every time I took it. One time I took it and had a meltdown. I went to the hospital trying to relay what was wrong with me, but I couldn’t do it effectively, and I ended up on suicide watch with weird markers on my chart that nobody else had.
I was fine once I came off that antidepressant. Even so, they gave me strong, strong sedatives in the hospital and I remember nodding off sitting up at random times. This hospital has since been condemned; it was sinking while I was there. With nothing else to do, I organized activities for the bored younger people in the ward. The cafeteria served great food so I obsessed about eating as much as possible while there. There was plenty of time to read books. I herded young women around because we were not in a segregated ward and old men sexually harassed them. I only got to see the sunlight when I was walked outside in a group by a student therapist. I think we went outside once while I was there.
Basically it was miserable, but I made the best of it, and aside from the enormous trauma I did learn things.
During that one time we sat outside, I think we had the most productive (for me) group therapy session.
Group therapy is my favorite. Other humans are so compassionate in this setting, when we are vulnerable about the things that hurt us most deeply. I shared some of the thoughts I hadn’t been sharing with anyone, and the kindness of others really helped me see that I was having some basic issues of rationality.
Primarily: Why hadn’t anyone in my family known something was increasingly wrong with me?
The medication alone was not the only problem. I was swallowing poison-bombs of stress constantly, to the point where I did pop a massively bleeding ulcer the prior year. I internalized everything in my body. I was hurting myself without ever hurting myself, just by turning myself into this crazy, bolted-down, feverish ball of I CAN’T COPE. When I did cope, it was maladaptive, like controlling my diet so my body shrunk to its smallest size ever, drinking way too much alcohol, and other things you expect an almost-30 femme to do to herself. I never felt good. Ever. I could never relax.
But I had a genuinely loving family standing around me who really didn’t know the severity of the problem. They saw me hiding myself away to over-work, but I didn’t have any way to explain what was going on. I didn’t know. I was locked up.
I had to learn radical new ways to cope in order to change into the person I am now.
These days, I am happy and relaxed and only productive in ways that feel constructive.
The changes were radical in effect, but they were super duper easy in practice. It turns out that coping well is something that fills up your cup and makes everything better, and you shouldn’t run away from it into the arms of toxicity (or just self-destruct quietly on your own).
My four radical coping mechanisms:
- Talking to loved ones
- Conscious time with loved ones
- Food (ideally eaten/prepared with loved ones)
- Seek perspective on the role of personal responsibility in a hierarchical world
Talking to loved ones kind of has to be the first step. It means saying all the messy stuff, even the hurtful things, the stuff that sounds bad no matter how you put it. It means vulnerability.
This isn’t safe with everyone you know. Your family may not be your loved ones. If you’re already resisting the natural human impulse to talk to your loved ones, you’ve probably been exposed to derision when you were vulnerable at *some* point.
But the wonderful thing is that *most* people *are* safe to be vulnerable with. Yes, I’m including random strangers here. Most humans are kind in response to vulnerability. It’s a human quality. If you feel like everyone is going to judge you, you’re just wrong! The world is not made up entirely of people who are derisive and cruel. That is an experience you had with some particular folks, and I’m really sorry.
If “people will usually be nice to you” doesn’t ring true, consider: Humans form social groups (families, cliques, whatever) that have develop personalities unto themselves. A social group in itself may foster toxicity. And it may foster toxicity *selectively*. People perceived as lower in the social hierarchy of this group will be the subject of abuse from people higher in the social hierarchy as a bonding mechanism. If you’ve been picked as a punching bag by a group, they might even be good people to each other, or to others outside the group, but uniformly awful to you. It feels like The Whole World is awful. That’s not the case. You’ve been chosen as a punching bag. Your role will be different in different social units.
You can find people to treat you kindly anywhere, as long as you don’t wait around expecting toxic people you know to change.
Talk with loved ones.
“I don’t want to be a burden,” sayeth your mind.
Doesn’t it feel good when you help people work through things? People will feel good helping you too. Give them the opportunity.
You have to try to say the things that are hardest to say. Whatever is stuck deep in there, get it out. Don’t hold any grudges. You can’t fix what you won’t address. Say things quickly, when they come to mind, so you’re not building up pressure to explode everything out. State your intentions with your loved ones clearly: “I feel really embarrassed talking about this but I need help because I’m too scared to do xyz.”
Solutions can happen quicker than you think, if you don’t simmer on stuff. And for the things that can’t be solved, or don’t need it, loved ones can then be a big emotional hug of validation.
For me, my loved ones are my spouse and sibling foremost. But I really don’t stop there with expressing my emotions. I’m a whole fountain of it. The more I talk openly about what I’m dealing with, the more I find other people I’m dealing with, and they become loved ones (at least on this subject).
If people react negatively to you, they’re not your people. Move on. It doesn’t reflect on you.
Therapy actually can fill in a lot of this, and some folks do need therapists for specific causes, but you can get a lotta emotional work done just in your community like this because it’s so natural to humans. Before therapists, we had hair dressers, neighbors on an adjoining stoop, the other guy sharpening spear heads beside the fire. Use your community.
(FWIW, I’m under the care of a psychiatrist and on multiple psychiatric meds. I’m so happy I did many many years of therapy and plan to return. I absolutely believe in handling the medical side of things in a medical way. I just don’t talk about it much here because it’s not always very accessible to folks.)
Conscious time with loved ones actually isn’t the same as talking. Think of it this way: We talk shit out the way that we demolish rooms of a house. Then we spend time with people to sweep it all away and clear the space.
I used my family as a way to get away from life. I gave them my kids and pets and house and said, “Take care of this while I have my bildung,” and then I traveled alone. Does that sound like a healthful use of family? Maybe sometimes, honestly. But not exclusively.
If you’re with your family and you spend the whole time visiting with internet friends via your phone, are you actually with your family?
Do stuff with your loved ones. Bonus points if you get casual physical contact. Make stuff, cook things, play games. Engage with them in a way that is just fun and doesn’t involve any kind of emotional burden.
Having a cleaner mind and a happy heart makes room for so much abundance. It’s just as important to create happiness as it is to process unhappiness.
Anxiety, grief, stress, et al can also steal us away from perfectly pleasant moments. I have some really nice memories surrounding funerals because we were sad, but it was still nice to just be together. Making someone laugh with a remark can be your cope when the greater context sucks. Be in your nice moment, whatever the context.
Having food with loved ones is a really important one that I neglected personally. I had come to see food foremost as a medical thing. I counted my macronutrients to make sure I had the ratio where I wanted, and I ate whatever I was eating — always prepared separately from the family.
Although my food problems were a thing unto myself, this can also develop over time if food has to be functional for another reason. I think diabetics can really fall into seeing food as medical sometimes. A method of delivering the correct amount of carbohydrates to one’s body. It’s true but not *entirely* so.
I would have thought of food as a coping method derisively. Maybe you would think of food as a coping method sadly, like, “I can’t eat for fun because xyz food intolerance/concern.”
But I want to put forth the idea that food should be cope and social bonding *first*. It is so important to us because of its role in fueling our bodies, but humans have always oriented their cultures around eating in a more meaningful way. Whether it’s coming together for feast holidays or regularly doing food preparation in a group, food is really a whole activity that can refill your cup…if you let it.
The simple act of eating whatever else my family is eating is a bonding thing. We are sharing a culture. It’s healing.
Let’s say that you can’t eat with loved ones, though. I’m gonna tell you that’s even better. You’ve never met a method of cope like eating distraction-free. Full attention on a balanced meal, tasting every bite, is an amazing cup-refiller. It doesn’t necessarily have to be gourmet food. Consider what you’re eating. What does it remind you of? Can something simple like french fries from the burger place transport you to the nicest memory of your adolescence, every time you eat them?
The taste can be good, the textures, the memories, the peace and solitude. Try putting everything away and really eating. For reals, it’s awesome.
Getting perspective on personal responsibility is such a difficult one, but I really needed it.
Anxiety can make people feel like they need to control things so that bad outcomes don’t happen. The not-so-secret truth is that we don’t control things. Like, almost nothing.
I know that’s a horrible thought, but isn’t it a little liberating, too? Stuff happens to us. Shitty stuff happens to us. We often couldn’t have done anything to prevent it.
Something shitty we’re all living with is a society that isn’t designed for everyone. In fact, it’s intended to enrich an increasingly narrow portion of “everyone.” It’s never been a secret that governments suck. Hippies knew what was going on. You’ve always seen folks going Walden off the grid to try to escape it, it’s so shitty.
There are better and worse ways to cope with the shitty uncontrollability of reality, but one of the better ways is to simply accept it *is*. So much of what is stressing you out isn’t your fault, at all. Period.
A lot of things you are holding yourself responsible for are simply not your fault, and a lot of your future’s path isn’t up to you.
On this thought, some idealogies are better than others for fostering a pro-cope environment. If you find yourself getting caught up in any sort of idealogy that preys on your anxiety and an outsized sense of personal accountability about something systemic, the long-term impact is going to be negative more than positive.
Capitalism likes you to think that bootstrapping is the moral ideal; fad fitness trends want you to think you can willpower your way through having a human body; radical politics wants you to think the pains of living as the proletariat under the bourgeoisie are your fault. This stuff really doesn’t serve you personally. Even if you are someone benefited by inequity — you are the socially preferred race, gender, religion, whatever — the environment fostered by haves and have-nots can leave you lingering in terror of losing your status and helps you cultivate a personality of superiority over your fellow human.
Like, it’s just not good for you, my dude. You gotta let go of all that stuff. Take a quick breath in and let it out slow and blow out all your sense of responsibility for the huge systemic games humans think they’re playing. The games are playing the humans. You can’t opt out entirely, but you can remind yourself of your size.
You’re just a person. One person, like anybody else. Exactly the same. You are not great or terrible. You are a person. Isn’t that kind of a relief? You might be a person having a shit life. It’s not your fault. You might have even done some shitty things. Everyone does shitty things. You’re normal. Let it go. <3
Sweep away the junk and make room for better things to grow in the future.
There are many other ways of coping that I’ve found helpful, and which you’ll hear suggested elsewhere. Letter writing, for instance. Journaling. Gardening. Crochet. Obviously I enjoy all of these things too. But personally, I found I couldn’t make use of those things as coping methods reliably until I took care of the big ones above. I had to reorganize my life into something where I fell into the embrace of my loved ones more easily before anything else really took root.
Whatever coping methods you use, just make sure they serve *you*. You’ll know it’s healthy when it helps connect you to more humans and doesn’t isolate you. It’s also good when it helps you express yourself and process everything you’re going through.
Resist the allure of coping methods that “turn off” your feelings regularly, isolate you, or cause any kind of damage to yourself or community. I am a huge fan of destructive coping, so I get the idea might be offensive, but but trust me on this one. You don’t have to feel like this.