After writing this post and realizing how long it was, I decided to split it into two parts to make for more easily digestable reading 🙂
When I was in grad school, I took a class on crisis intervention. Ironically, while I was taking it, my family and I were actually in crisis. I’m going to pause here for a moment because ‘crisis’ is one of those words like ‘depressed’ that has reached a point in our vernacular where it has been overused to the extent that its definition has gotten lost. Kind of like how socks manage to vanish between the washer and the dryer. In order for us all to be on the same page, then, I’ll share with you the definition I’m using which is the working definition in the shrink world: when you’ve reached a point where your perceived demands of your environment overwhelm and exceed your perceived coping mechanisms. In plain English, that means that the stress you’re experiencing with whatever it is going on in your world is so great, so vast that you literally cannot deal with it. You are drowning in an ocean when you’ve only ever learned to doggy paddle and your stamina is quickly running out.
Crisis is a strange thing. It’s strange when you’re experiencing it, and it inevitably changes you. Due to its extreme nature, the change it brings about is also generally extreme, though the individual experiencing it is the only one who can determine which way that goes. In crisis, it typically feels as though nothing is stable, nothing is solid, very little is safe. It is a time not just designed for tending those most basic of needs on Maslow’s hierarchy (e.g., food, shelter, water, sleep, etc.), but it is a time when there is no room for anything else.
I don’t know and won’t speak to or for anyone else’s experience of crisis, as we all process things differently. For me, I had no idea how to “appropriately” invite, ask, or accept support from others. The crises I experienced spread across a range of topics that are all in some way taboo in one form or another. Finances and homelessness, spirituality, incest. It didn’t help that my family lives on a different planet from orthodoxy and my greatest fear of someone pointing a finger at any of the things that make us ‘different’ as the reason for what we were experiencing was too great a fear to conquer in the midst of chaos. It haunted me every day.
And so I withdrew. I stopped talking to my family of origin completely. I kept my eyes averted when I was in class. I stopped calling friends. The world had become a desolate and coldly unpredictable place. It seemed every time I turned around, something else had exploded. I want to clarify a moment here – it wasn’t that I didn’t receive support from others throughout this time. I did. In many forms. But it was as though I had lost my knowledge and ability to interact with others. Because focus has to shift to all those primitive needs, interactions with others become more, well, primal. Thus, there is no sugarcoating, no easing your way around things. A starving person will simply snatch food out of your hand if you hold it out. There is no thinking about manners and politesse. That’s just not the space they’re in.
When you’re in a crisis, though, other people don’t know that unless you tell them, so they still expect you to behave like a “normal” human being. This adds a degree of stress in and of itself. I would find myself wondering, How many times should I say ‘thank you’ so that they would know how grateful I was? How could I infuse those words with enough emotion that I sounded as genuine as I was especially when I was doing my best to not even glance at my emotions because if/when I did, I’d fall apart? How many times should I apologize for burdening them until they believed me? How cliched did I sound when I asked my best friend to borrow money? Again? How should I explain to my professors that, I’m sorry, I can’t come to class today because my family and I just spent our last $2 on egg noodles from the dollar store so we could eat today and therefore we don’t have the $4 I need to get a subway ticket to get to class and home again? Who could I possibly talk to and share what I was going through with and not have a concern that they’d call DFCS on us and tear my whole family apart? So I hid behind my fear and my pain. And I kept my mouth shut.*
After we moved here and things had settled a bit, I found that I still kept my eyes averted. I wouldn’t tell anyone I met much about myself or my family or the circumstances that surrounded our arrival in this new state. I was still hiding. But while I was hiding, my thoughts were as venomous as the mouth and belly of a kimono dragon. Internalizing my fear and pain was destroying me, so at least in my head, I began to direct that poison outward. I alternated between using that fear and pain as a shield and as a weapon. I clung to my sense of wounded entitlement and became resentful of everyone who wasn’t me. When I looked at the people with whom I worked and the people I served at my job, the people I saw in the grocery store or on the street, all I saw were the differences between us. Differences to which I took personal offense. (Before all of those crises took place, believe it or not, I had liked people in general. While I wasn’t ever one of those super outgoing, extreme extrovert types, I found people fascinating and loved learning about them, hearing their stories.) Now, there were few people who could provoke even a kind look from me. And while I realized this wasn’t me – wasn’t who I was – at the time, I had no interest in changing it, let alone any idea how to do so even if I did.
(continue on to part II here)
*If you know or are close to someone who is experiencing or has recently experienced a crisis, I hope that what I share in these two posts might help you to understand what they may be feeling and going through. I encourage you to keep reaching out with compassion, understanding, and patience while they move through the dark night they’re facing.