I’ve been trying to write about safety behaviours for three weeks now. But I keep going back to an incident that happened around two weeks ago that is haunting my mind. In response, let me try to get out what happened, and then I’ll move on to safety behaviours, and why this is a bit ironic.
I am a student betwixt and between right now. I am saving money to go to graduate school, and trying to find time between full time work, part time running a charity, and therapy and everything else, to keep up to date with my studies and research ideas. I am eager to go back to school – ugh, trash this quiet talk.
Imagine my voice suddenly dipping into that low, grunting, desperate desire reserved for frustrated, endless wanting phrases that take a deity’s name in vain. That’s how you should imagine me saying, “Oh, God, I want to return to studies!”
Last week was a scholarship deadline for me. Many of my references submitted their letters and information on the last day. This stressed me out, but it didn’t surprise me. I checked with them all earlier in the week to make sure they had everything they needed and were reminded of the deadline. But with 2 hours left one of my references had not submitted. I didn’t see any chance for the scholarship, and for my studies to continue, without their help.
I would not say that I had a panic attack. If I had had a panic attack, my reaction would have been to do nothing but crawl into a corner and shrivel until it was over. But I did freak out. I searched all my files for any way to contact them. They weren’t in their office, no reply to my email. I had one other number from a long time ago that was labeled as “lab”; I called.
It was their home number. I made several people very, very unhappy with my late night desperation, and, I gather, I lost any hope of having that reference ever help me again.
First of all – I’m really sorry. I didn’t know.
Secondly, and more pertinent to my reason for writing, the experience that followed that phone call was very new and interesting to me.
I am currently in mindfulness based cognitive therapy. It is a course that teaches a set of tools that help keep one’s feelings and thoughts in the very current moment – the exact moment of existence that one is currently in. The purpose of mindfulness is to help a person be more aware of their body and thoughts, and to move towards accepting and living with them, instead of avoiding or ignoring them, or forcing them to be what they are not.
To get a quick understanding of mindfulness, try to answer the following questions without checking – ie., do you already know the answers?
What items are closest to you – books, pencils, paper, elastics?
Is it noisy outside – are there birds or dogs?
What did you see when you walked home?
What tangent were you thinking about a couple of minutes ago?
Chances are, you were not already aware of some of these answers. Mindfulness practice tries to keep people from living on auto-pilot, and help them pay attention to their current, in-the-moment world. We so frequently space out and think about dinner later, shopping lists, to do lists, angry conversations that went badly, desires, mistakes, frustrations and worries, that we miss out on life that passes in front of our nose. We lose control of our own thoughts, and we lose perspective.
Normally, when something bad happens, I spiral out of control. I used to panic. Even when I could manage the panic attacks, I would still spit hateful thoughts to myself in my brain, hiss myself to sleep and wake up thinking about what I did wrong.
At the time of the phone call, I had been practicing mindfulness (although not very diligently) for about 3 weeks.
I hung up the phone. Shame, anger and despair exploded in my gut, and I could barely bubble out the story to my boyfriend before I burst into sobs. I wracked and gnashed and gasped. My fervent desire to erase and undo the last 10 minutes was like a volcano eruption forced through the eye of a needle, with feeling so molten hot and gripping that I felt myself torn apart. I may have surpassed my desire to study with the desire to rewind.
With every muscle in my body tensed in an attempt to keep myself from spontaneously combusting, something in my head lurched. The voice of the upset family stopped tolling in my ear like a never ending dial tone. A sort of wild, terrified emptiness took a hold of me, and I felt the present moment happen. It was as if the bomb exploded and the moment of explosion was continued infinitely as I stood up, grasping at the air and my hair and my head for reprieve.
Happening kept on, as I searched for some way out of the situation, any possible action I could take against the last 10 minutes’ conversation. Happening ticked and was frozen in a continual tick that never quite reached 2, but hovered between 1 and 2, endlessly clicking the sound of a second passing without ceasing.
This extended moment, during which I took in every object in the room, every possibility of what had occurred, every silence, every breath of air, every mindful millisecond, gradually subsided as I calmed down.
My terror and shame would rush upon me again in waves, as I began to rush into a repetition of spilling the milk but I fought with Presence. I came forward on the seat of the couch and breathed and focused on the nature of already-spilt, lack of control acceptance.
I do not know if I have ever been so mindful – so horribly alive – in my entire life. There was nothing but Now and I hated Now because it was inexorably tied to Just a Second Ago, and to all the horribleness of the mistake itself and what it could mean for my future, and certainly my future relations with those people.
There was nothing more to do than send an apology email, which I did immediately, and then wish that it had never happened. And every time I relived the words I had heard, I had to fight back with Now-ness, the inescapable It’s Over which was both my only comfort and my greatest regret.
In order to get past that evening, my boyfriend offered the last option available: distraction.
Here I come to why it is ironic that I was trying to write about safety behaviours. These behaviours are actions taken to reduce anxiety, that tend to have the long term effect of allowing anxiety to return, due to a mistaken connection made in the brain – that the safety behaviour is what reduced the anxiety, rather than your own ability to cope. Distraction is a great safety behaviour.
My boyfriend and I watched TV for another 6 hours. As every episode ended I had a moment to reevaluate my emotional state, and as it rose over me we rushed to click on the next episode. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, by the way, is an awesome show.
Eventually I fell asleep about halfway through an episode, and when I woke, I was groggily able to transfer myself to bed. I could never have slept without exhausting myself. And I could never have lasted without rushing to my bad habits like cutting or hiding in the park without distraction. I was too emotionally drained to keep being in the present moment and fighting so hard not to replay the looming tape deck of the phone call. It frustrated and hurt me too much to keep up the fight. The distraction helped me get to sleep.
This asks the question, however – is distraction a good idea? In such circumstances, is it allowable or even preferable? Did I use a safety behaviour? Did I act against my own well-being? How can something so helpful in the short term be detrimental? What other choice did I have?