When Coping Becomes A Problem

When I was a child, I had a fever… My hands felt just like two balloons. Now I’ve got that feeling once again, I can’t explain, you would not understand, this is not how I am.

I have become comfortably numb. — Pink Floyd

CW: Substance Use.

For me it started in junior high. I loved the idea of rock’n’roll, of partying and rebelliousness. And gods know I had plenty I wanted to escape from. My dad being an alcoholic, there was always alcohol in the house. The first time I snuck some, and went over to a friends house in the neighborhood with a buzz, I felt so badass, so free… It seemed well worth the headache the next day.

My Rock’n’roll persona ca. 1989

Through high school as things with my parents grew ever more tense, I branched out to other substances. I lived for the high – any type of altered state was fantastic for me. I did so much LSD that my friends stopped buying it for me. I absolutely reveled in my reputation as a stoner and party girl, no matter who dared look down on me.

Fortunately (?) for me, my budding addictions were put on hold in my early 20’s when I joined a fundamentalist christian church. For the next 20 years or so, all substance abuse was taboo. During that time of course my traumas were continuing to build, lacerating my soul with one wound after another. I was supposed to be “casting all my cares on Jesus,” including any abuse or mistreatment I suffered. I was told this was how to heal, by turning the other cheek and letting the christian god handle my problems.

Instead, my pain only grew, until finally it could no longer be ignored. I began slipping away from the strict beliefs of my church, and one of the first things I picked up was a nice glass of wine to relax.

When major things happened – any type of confrontation, sickness or death of someone I loved, reminder of childhood pain – in other words, whenever I was triggered – my response was to get drunk. Once I was diagnosed with CPTSD, I was given a new handy coping mechanism: Xanax. When the first psychiatrist told me I couldn’t drink while taking Xanax, I laughed in his face. “OK,” I said out loud. But inside I was remembering my party days and the drug & alcohol cocktails I’d downed in my youth with no repercussions. “HA! Can, have, and will again!” I thought to myself. And I did.

Feelin’ No Pain, High on ….

Everyone who battles trauma finds coping mechanisms. It’s part of the human survival instinct – we have to find a way to deal with the pain. Of course, some of our coping mechanisms are healthier than others. One of the least healthy, and simultaneously one of the most common, is substance use.

We self-medicate in order to numb the pain. It’s completely understandable, and something none of us should ever be ashamed of. Deal with all the traumas I’ve experienced and NOT use, I dare you! And many of you reading this will have experienced far worse than me. There is no shame to be had in our desperate search for a sliver of comfort.

It’s when our coping mechanisms begin to harm us that we have a problem. And when we continue to use those habits or substances despite the harm, we find ourselves firmly in the grip of addiction.

Everything, All the Time…

For me, this developed slowly over a couple years time. What began as a glass of wine to calm down became a bottle, then two. By the time I went to rehab I was drinking two and a half bottles of wine every night, plus 2-3 Xanax every day.

I thought this was helping me cope with the ever-present knot of anxiety that was balled up in my solar plexus. I would try to cut back or even go several days without drinking. Yet the Knot would always win. Within a few days I’d be holed up in my bedroom, drunk, scaring my adult sons and making my own home a hell similar to the one I’d grown up in.

There was nothing cool, badass, or rock’n’roll about it. Well, unless you want to be Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Bon Scott, John Bonham, Michael Jackson, Prince, Tom Petty, Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston, or over 100 others… you get the point.

How Will I Know?

It’s notoriously difficult for an addict to realize they indeed have a problem. For we who battle trauma, our tendency to numb and avoid our feelings makes this even harder. So how do you know when your coping mechanism (be it a substance OR a behavior like gambling, sex, etc.) has become a problem?

Psychology Today lists several areas to consider:

  • Importance: How important has it become to your sense of self and the way you live your life? You can determine importance not only by how much you’re doing it, but also by how much you’re not doing other things. Priority equals importance.
  • Prevalence: Do you find yourself doing it more often and for longer periods of time than you originally planned? This is the never-enough compulsion. If you feel compelled to say, “Just a little bit more,” all the time, you’re carving out more and more space in your life for these activities. The question becomes, in order to carve out this time, to what else are you taking the knife?
  • Disruption: Has doing it disrupted your life and your relationships? Be unflinchingly honest here, as the temptation for denial is strong.
  • Reverting: Do you often say to yourself you’re going to do something different but then turn around and keep doing the same thing—or doing it even more? This is the “I’ll diet again on Monday” syndrome.

A careful, honest evaluation of these topics can help you see whether or not your coping mechanisms have become problems. Once you know, and once you accept that fact about yourself, you begin to have the power to do something about it.

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