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  • suzannedenigris

Survival Mode

In my previous life, I used to fill every waking moment with productivity. I would pile as much as humanly possible onto my plate and then scramble to get it all accomplished. It was like a competition, except I was the only one playing. There was no winner. And there was certainly no prize in the end. I would offer. I would volunteer. I would sign up. I would say yes. I would show up. I was constantly spinning my wheels as though I had a point to prove.

I would pack Pinterest worthy school lunches in case the teachers were giving out gold stars. I would make sure my husband's lucky shirt was dry cleaned and hung in his closet whenever he needed it. I would spend entire days in the kitchen prepping all of our favorite healthy foods. I would sort toys by category. I would clip coupons. I would organize items into bins. I would work out. I would pay bills. I would arrange field trips and play dates. Every so often my husband would tell me that I should take a nap. I thought he was insane. A nap? I would say. Are you serious? And I would carry on.

When he died unexpectedly by suicide, the rug was pulled out from under me. I didn't know which end was up. It's fascinating to me how the brain works, allowing only a little bit of trauma at a time for protection. I think back to conversations I've had or situations I've been in where I was obviously still in shock. The gravity of his death hadn't yet hit me. I was walking around like a zombie. I was going through the motions of life. I was picking my son up from school, cooking dinner, doing chores all in a complete daze. I was trying to prove to myself and everyone else that I was going to be okay. Of course I could handle it. No problem. And everyone kept telling me how strong I was. To be honest, I was operating on autopilot for the first year or so. It wasn't until the fog lifted that reality finally set in. And I started to unravel.

Most days I felt like I was crawling through quicksand. Every task at hand was a struggle. My mind was racing. My body was weak. I became preoccupied with trying to piece together information. To solve the mystery. To understand why my husband ended his life. Meanwhile, there were legal matters to be sorted, a house to be run and a child to be cared for. It was staggering. I felt my sense of control slipping and my morale starting to plummet. My appetite disappeared. My level of concern was at an all time low. I was overcome with emotions I wasn't prepared to feel. The goal was to just get through each day in one piece.

I had high anxiety and started having panic attacks regularly. My hair was falling out. My body started rejecting certain foods. The physical tension I felt became extremely painful. I could barely move my neck. I was lethargic and unmotivated. I would spend hours scrolling through my phone. I was overwhelmed by the thought of leaving the house. The farther away from home I travelled, the more sensations I would feel in my body. I would picture myself fainting, collapsing and dying on a daily basis. I was jumpy and nervous. I was so angry I could hardly see straight. I was exhausted. And that's when Survival Mode began.

I stocked up on paper plates. I gave in to my son's requests for McDonald's drive-thru. I used melatonin and blackout curtains to guarantee sleep. I kept a constant supply of Costco rotisserie chicken and chilled chardonnay on hand. I barely ate. I drank a lot. I hired a housekeeper. I ordered whatever I could online to avoid going to stores. I let my son stay after school, even when I could pick him up on time. I cried in the shower. I told complete strangers what happened. I repeated affirmations in my head to drown out my thoughts. I called my best friend to talk me through my out of control thought spirals. I researched and questioned and Googled everything I shouldn't have wanted to know. I laid in bed and begged for someone to please protect us. I prayed to a God who I've never spoken to before. I got up every day and did my best. And I did that over and over again. I recognize that this could be every day behavior for some. And there's nothing wrong with that. But for the people pleasing perfectionist that I was, it was sub par adulting at best, causing further guilt, self criticism and shame.

What I couldn't see before, that has become glaringly apparent now, is that busying myself, along with drinking and other behaviors, was a coping mechanism for me in the past. The irony here is that before my husband died, I had already been through my share of heavy shit. I was raised primarily by my mother and stepfather, who were alcoholics and drug addicts. The neglect, abuse and constant criticism led to a number of unresolved issues. And in order to survive these issues, I put them all behind me and buried them deep down inside. Instead of facing those feelings, I avoided them with hefty to-do lists, mountains of projects and gallons and gallons of wine. I have learned that I am not just bossy or controlling or particular for no good reason. There are deep rooted reasons that go way back to the beginning of time that formed these characteristics in me. Most of which helped me to survive. And somehow my husband's death opened a Pandora's box of packed away trauma.

The more work I put into myself and the more I education and surround myself with like minded people, the more aware I become that I've been living in survival mode for much longer than I was aware. I have always had my ways of managing stress and avoiding feelings. It occurred to me that most people are probably currently experiencing, or recovering from, some type of loss or grief. A breakup, a lost job, financial struggles, aging parents, single parenting, an argument with a friend, mental health issues, an injury or health concern, car trouble, the world shutting down, the death of someone they love. The list goes on and on. And as I learned from my husband, people can be struggling without anybody even knowing about it.

I no longer want to judge and criticize. I want to empathize. I want to go easy. On myself and everyone around me. I no longer want to power through and do all the things and overextend myself. I want to do enough. I don't want to beat myself up (although this one will take a lot of practice for me). I want to give myself grace. I want to cheer myself on and acknowledge all the little wins. I want to remember that I am human. I have moments. I have bad days. I have conflicting feelings. I am working hard. I am fighting. I am constantly making tough decisions. I am doing all I can. I am doing better than I give myself credit for. I am a survivor. Life is hard. I've come to believe that we are all just doing the best we can. Even if our best doesn't live up to our own, or anyone else's, high standards. Sometimes very little is all we have to give. And that is enough.

One of the many takeaways from my grief journey is that my house looks roughly the same now as it did when I spent hours on my hands and knees scrubbing it down. There will always be crumbs on the kitchen counters no matter how many times I wipe them down. There will always be sand in the bathtub no matter how well we rinse off after the beach. And there will always be goldfish under the couch no matter what. And it just doesn't matter. It's not that I don't care if I have a dirty home. It's that perfection just isn't my priority anymore. I have lowered my standards to realistic. My current goal is to find balance between rest and adventure. Productivity and relaxation. Being responsible and having fun. And as it turns out, the new version of me is much more pleasant to be around than the frantic, anxious me that has to have all my ducks in a row. If only I could turn back time.

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