CW/TW: talk of disordered eating behaviour and thoughts
Let’s talk about coping mechanisms.
We hear about these things all the time, these “coping mechanisms”. Some coping mechanisms are considered to be bad or unhealthy, despite the fact that they seem to do a good job. Some are considered better for you, or healthy, but maybe they require a little more work.
A coping mechanism is something that we do in the face of life’s stresses, something that makes us feel better, or something that simply acts to insulate us from these stresses. Some examples of “bad” coping mechanisms include, but are not limited to drinking alcohol, doing drugs, gambling, excessive online shopping or self harm. Things considered to be “good” coping mechanisms are physical exercise, getting back in touch with nature, socialising, seeking mental health support, mindfulness and engaging in healthy eating practises.
Sometimes though, no matter how much research you do, you end up with a “bad” coping mechanism that doesn’t appear in any of the lists online. This means that a) you maybe don’t realise that it is a coping mechanism and b) it takes a while to realise that it’s really not a good thing.
Personally, I start to feel stressed when I feel like there are too many things in my life that are beyond my control. This might be related to other mental health things I have going on, or it could be related to having a lot going on at work (which, let’s be honest, is a pretty usual thing for me because I tend to overcommit to things). When I get stressed, I can’t concentrate. And when I can’t concentrate, I can’t take control over my situation. At least, I couldn’t, until I found ED.
That’s right, for me, my eating disorder was a coping mechanism. When life felt out of control, I took that as an indication that I needed to change, and I am something that I can (usually) control. That sense of control, that sense of discipline that you feel when you control your food intake, it’s something else. For a while at least, it brings a sense of peace… a feeling that as long as you stay on track, things are going to be okay. By the time you realise this is a bad thing, it’s too late, and you can’t stop. Not on your own anyway.
But let’s say you do get help. You get help, it’s pretty successful and you no longer engage in those harmful and (in my case) restrictive behaviours with food. What do you do to cope then?
This year has been pretty wild. I spent all of January in a manic state where I spent most of my savings, and then all of April in my living room because I was too depressed to leave the house and face whatever was out there in the real world. Despite my extreme moods though, I’ve been doing something since Jan 1 that has helped bring about some sense of control and peace, and it hasn’t been starving myself.
The thing that makes this interesting though is that I didn’t realise that this thing was a coping mechanism until a couple days after that thing was ruined.
I’ve been bullet journalling.
I make the books myself, I set up all the spreads I need at the beginning of each month, I have a gratitude page that I try to remember to write in, I track my moods on a 5 colour scale, I write my to do lists in there every day before starting work and it’s all very lovely.
Last week I got caught in the middle of a monster thunderstorm on my way home and my journal, which was inside my semi-waterproof backpack, got wet. From the spine to about half way across the pages was soaked through. The ink all spread and bled through the pages. It was ruined, and frankly, I was devastated. But not until a few days later.
The devastation took a few days to hit because things started piling on at work and I realised I didn’t have a journal to help organise my time. Not only this, but because I had so much stuff that I needed to get done, I wouldn’t have time to make a new one and set up all the pages. How could I find time to make a new journal if I didn’t have a journal to organise my time???
I got the suggestion of just using a scrap piece of paper for now until I could find time to make a new book.
This suggestion was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I didn’t respond. I just cried and cried and cried and spiralled into a deep, deep anxious pit of despair. This was to no fault of the person who made the suggestion though, it was really a good suggestion. The reason I spiralled was because as SOON as I got stuck in this loop of needing time to build that thing I use to manage time, my old coping mechanisms tried to creep back in. I started to get those thoughts again.
“you’re a wreck, let me help you”
“how many calories have you eaten today?”
“you’ll have time to get everything done if you spend less time eating”
The list goes on.
I spiralled because I very suddenly realised that this thing I’d been doing that I thought was a sign of health, was actually just a replacement for starving myself, and that without it I was still a fucking mess.
I spiralled, and I continued to spiral for the majority of the day, the anxiety only lapsing when I found myself interacting with people, or working towards setting up a brand new journal. I chose to write about this because this kind of anxiety is not something I have felt for a very long time and it’s very easy to forget how it feels.
I was shaky, I was teary, I would drop things, and make little mistakes. Typing was a nightmare, binding a new cover to my journal was far more difficult than it needed to be because I couldn’t hold my hands steady. I was cold, and even when I wasn’t cold, I would be hugging myself because I was still trembling. I couldn’t think straight. I’d either stare into the empty void that was the inside of my head or I’d be fixated on the fact that I’ve actually been defective this whole time (please note: My thoughts during anxiety episodes do not reflect my thoughts of those with anxiety. You are not defective for doing things to cope.)
Despite the fact that I was feeling this way, I didn’t stay home. I went to a place I go often, and even though I cried the whole way there, and I cried most of the time I was there, and that it was likely pretty obvious I had been crying, no one drew attention to this. They didn’t even make it obvious that they could tell I had been crying. They just spoke to me like they normally would, and for this I am grateful.
Look, I’m not the kind of person who tries to find a lesson in everything, but I think there is one here. Maybe “lesson” is not actually the right word, but here goes. I think it is okay to use tools to cope, and that requiring these tools does not make you weak. In FACT, being able to effectively use these tools to a point where you can function in society makes you hella strong. That should be celebrated.
Recognising that something is bad for you, fixing it, and replacing that thing with something healthier is NOT a sign of damage, but a sign of resilience, a sign that you can adapt. It makes you human. I am human.
Here are some pictures of my new and improved journal, that I’m more than happy to continue using.