What it means to cope.

I had an odd conversation with my therapist the other day.

I’m definitely on an upward swing treatment wise. I’m stepping down in treatment, and stepping up in life. But what a lot of people don’t tell you is that even when you’re ready to not be in treatment for twelve hours a week, you’re still not always sure that you’re ready or able to recover. I was describing a slightly scary incident that I had the other day, and how a lot of the urges to act in “bad” ways had come back for the first time in a little while, and my therapist asked me, “So what did you do?”

I was a little shocked at the simple question, mostly because I was so caught up in how I had been feeling, and describing to her exactly how bad the situation seemed, and how it obviously meant that I was going back down my old road again. So when I answered it felt really, really anticlimactic.

“Well, I drew up a pattern, cried a little, watched some TV, finished my work, ate a snack, and went to bed.”

That’s it. That was the conclusion to my big night of emotional turmoil. Productivity, a few tears, and some much needed sleep. And she informed me that what I did was cope with it.

Now: I did not know until a few weeks ago that I had this ability. It still feels a little bit like a super power or something else miraculous. I mean, something horrible happening doesn’t mean that horrible things need to continue happening?! It may seem obvious, but when the pattern is to drag out the unpleasant and dismiss all good things, to start to reverse that feels like some bizarre opposite day.

So what is coping anyway? Its a word you hear a lot once you start treatment in any form– “Did you use any of your coping skills when that happened?” is a question that will forever be burned into my brain, and I’m not sure that its in an entirely helpful way. It brings to mind stress balls, CBT worksheets, and lots of suppressed feelings. It seems that if someone has to cope with the situation, they have to let it “win,” and just deal with the outcome, or at least that’s how I always interpreted it.

In reality though, I’m finding that coping with a situation is just the opposite of that. Its not that you’re giving up to the situation, its that you’re letting go of the pointless struggle. When you can’t change a situation, does fighting it do anything other than show that you’re fighting it?

For a long time, I thought that if I actually coped with a situation it would mean that I wasn’t feeling the actual emotion behind it. Because if you feel that strong an emotion, and that strong an urge, is there anything left to do but act on it? As it turns out the answer is yes.

But what coping is not is: artificial, forcing yourself into something, unpleasant, or suppression. An actual coping skill that you use can’t be something that you don’t want to do, or it loses its purpose as you’ll never do it.

Also: this whole coping thing? Not just for people with mental illness! Thaaat’s right, everyone can do it! (Cue cheering I know!) In fact, I learned how to really cope by watching people who weren’t depressed, and who (as far as I know of course) had never “officially” learned coping skills in therapy.

So how to do it? How to cope with a situation in a healthy way instead of overexercising, cutting, bingeing, purging, or beating yourself up in any way? I came up with a system that works for me, and I figured I’d break it down and share it with you all.

First, accept that the unpleasant thing happened. That’s right, let it into your mind: let it become a past event just like all the other things you’ve ever done, and don’t give it any more significance than that. Its something that happened, that’s now over, and that you cannot prevent or do anything about, other than move forward.

Next, look at your options. Usually, when something bad happens, you have options. If you don’t have any options, move onto the next step. I recommend at this point, until you’re used to doing things the healthy way, making a list of your options. I have a huge list from past events in my planner. And really consider what you can do, including things that you might initially discount. I’ll share my list from the example I was giving: binge, binge and purged, overexercise, restrict food for the next day, cut (and yes, it may be the unhealthy things that come to mind first: don’t worry about it), continue doing my homework, eat a reasonable snack. After thinking a little more, I added to this list: put on my favorite movie, let myself cry, practice banjo, play ukelele, plan out the next week, watch How I Met Your Mother, sleep, play with the rats, wake up my parents to talk, pet my dogs, feed the fish, go for a walk, plan out my meals for the next day, call my therapist, start a book for NaNoWriMo, make something for my Etsy shop. Get creative with this list: the only restrictions are that it has to be things that you actually like to do, and things that you could get up and do that second, without making excuses to prevent yourself from doing it. But you want a really good list, and you want to include literally everything you could do

Choose the ideal option. This isn’t always easy, because what you want to do is almost always what you should do. So take a look at that list, and pick out what it would be ideal for you to do–even if you don’t want to do it in that moment. So for me, I would circle “Continue homework.”

Identify what options would move you backwards. That is any action that won’t bring you towards where you eventually want to be. And not just short term. For me, although in the short term, when I’m in a bad place, I might want to just be a patient forever. It helps here to look at the long term, where I want to be a respected neuropsychologist, with research going, and patients that I see, happily married, with kids that I homeschool. So I would take my list and  (because I love colorful pens) underline in red anything that doesn’t bring me closer to where I actually want to be.

Then, decide what you feel like you can do, that isn’t underlined in red.  This doesn’t have to be the ideal option: we’re getting there! This is just what you feel emotionally prepared to do, in that moment, right away. For me, it was to watch TV. I felt a little guilty about not doing my homework, but it was what I could do, and even if it wasn’t moving me forward, it wasn’t going backwards either.

Repeat previous step as needed. As you do each thing, you’re distracting yourself, and proving to yourself that you don’t need to do the things marked in red. I ended up combining to things on my list: I made a pattern for something I’m going to put up on my Etsy shop! Make your way through your list, doing everything you can. What will usually happen is that you’ll either calm down, or run out of time and have something come up that you need to do.

Now, notice that the unhealthy things aren’t crossed off, just marked as backwards-moving. This is because if you go through everything, and you can’t calm yourself down, and you’re in a really bad place, I won’t pretend that they aren’t an option.  And its possible that you’ll make it all the way through, and have nothing left to do but something that will move you backwards. But if it gets to this point (which shouldn’t happen often) keep in mind how long you’ve made it without resorting to unhealthy behaviors. Try repeating some things on the list. Or seeing if you can add to it.  Just know that you don’t have to do those things: recognize them as a choice, not a compulsion. You’re free to make that choice, but you should do so recognizing that it’ll only move you backwards, and hurt you in the long run.

Anyway, hopefully you’re still on the happy things on your list, and you’re now calm enough to…

Do what you need to do to move forward in your situation. For me, as my crisis was school related, what I had to do was to do the homework that I could do. But because I didn’t just jump into trying to do this, I was able to get it done quicker, without getting frustrated with myself. Sure I could have gotten it done sooner without doing all the other stuff, but by pausing for a moment and doing something that made me happy, I reminded myself that there are things in life beyond the stressful situation at hand. There are things that you enjoy, and that bring you joy. Life is bigger than what makes you miserable.

Congratulations, you just coped with an upset in your life!

Yay, congratulate yourself!

If you actually try this out, and keep doing it, you won’t always have to make physical lists. You don’t even have to at first if you don’t want to–I’m just making suggestions, do what works for you. I like lists because I’m paper-obsessed, and like to write things, and see them all in front of me. Also, making lists makes me happy for whatever weird reason, so its another one of what my therapist would call my, “delaying tactics” (what I refer to as your options).

If you have a slightly backwards mind like me, it might be scary to successfully cope with a situation, without using your unhealthy coping mechanisms. To this, I say: f*** your mind, because it obviously doesn’t know what’s best for you. You made decisions specifically based on what will bring you to where you want to be, and if something in your mind doesn’t want that, then its only trying to hold you back.

Know this. Own this. And keep kicking butt.

Also, I have a ton of things I’d like to write about, but consider taking this poll to show me what you’d like to hear about. If no one answers, I’ll do whatever I want 🙂

Until next time, lots of love from me to you.

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