When Self-Preservation turns into Dysfunction

To say that I have regrets about my reaction to my trauma is an understatement. I have many things I wish I could change about those years.

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Let’s talk about coping mechanisms. Everyone has them. They all come from some degree of trauma. It doesn’t matter who you are, if you have grown up in this world, someone or something has wronged you. Sometimes it’s intentional, sometimes not. You can have “Big T” trauma or “little t” trauma. It doesn’t matter what type of trauma you have been through your brain creates ways for you to survive.

If you’ve had Big T trauma your brain is desperate for safety. It isolates those memories and puts them in a specific place in your brain. They are locked there for the foreseeable future. Just because they are placed in that special compartment doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect your everyday life. Your subconscious is always surveying the environment, anxiously awaiting a perceived danger. Your brain is in hyperdrive even if you aren’t able to identify it.

That is what happened to me. My trauma got placed in my trauma center so I could survive both during the acts perpetrated against me and also afterwards. I survived many years before the Lord graciously saw fit to notify me that I had some things to address! These coping mechanisms serve a very important purpose: survival. They also cause a lot of damage.

The biggest thing my brain did (does) to me is dissociation. I numbed out. I couldn’t feel a true emotion. I never felt truly connected to my body. I ignored emotional and physical signals my body tried to send me. I went through much of high school nauseous and underweight. I threw up multiple times per day. My body was crying for attention. As I became further and further removed from the actual years of abuse, my nausea subsided and I started having headaches.

It was during high school that I perfected my “don’t mess with me” persona. One that to this day I am not proud of. I developed a look and a way that dared people to cross me. I could tear anyone down with just a look and a couple words. I became very perceptive. I was skeptical of everyone and their motives. I treated almost everyone as the enemy; I had to reject others before they had the opportunity to hurt me.

In college I felt like I was living outside of my body most of the time. I felt like I was watching myself live my life, like a movie. I didn’t know what I believed. I didn’t have anywhere to place the memories I had. Dissociation helped me to isolate. I wasn’t able to engage in normal activities like other college kids do. My brain was so concerned with protecting me relationally that I wasn’t able to maintain lasting relationships with friends. Disconnection and isolation led to depression. It’s all a vicious cycle.

I have also dealt with dissociation in my marriage. I have unknowingly disconnected from my husband more times than I’m proud to admit. The first few years of our marriage was spent him trying to reach me and me not getting the clue. I was just surviving on auto-pilot.

To say that I have regrets about my reaction to my trauma is an understatement. I have many things I wish I could change about those years. I have been learning that I have to accept those things that I did for survival. I have to honor my brain for reacting that way. If I would not have developed those coping mechanisms, I never would have survived; I believe that. I need to save room and grace for my response in the midst of my pain. I had no other choice, I did the things that I felt would help me navigate this world.

So to my survival techniques and coping mechanisms I say thank you. Thank you for keeping me from further trauma. Thank you for helping me not implode. Thank you for making me successful. I am forever indebted to you for your strength of mind and perception. BUT! You are no longer serving my needs. We’ve reached the end of our road. The things that have kept me safe are now causing pain. So today I am choosing to rewire my brain. I am choosing to honor my past while pressing into the darkness. I am saying thank you, now it’s time for change. It’s time to be more the way Jesus made me to be; not the way the world has made me.

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