I have a few coping techniques that I’ve developed over the years—techniques that have served me well and that have helped me through difficult periods. By far and away the one that has served me best is ‘plugging on’— head down, one foot in front of the other, until I’m through. It’s kept me functioning through really stressful times.
It’s also meant putting a stopper on any feelings that try to surface. Pushing them down, and hoping they stay there …
It got me through my childhood. Standing stoic and firing back, pretending I wasn’t hurt. Fighting with my mother on the way to school, then slamming the car door and walking into the classroom with a smile on my face.
It worked. I got there. It had side effects—my worries surfaced in other ways, like when I was drinking …
Sometimes, it’s necessary to put your head down and get on with it. Marathon runners, even sprinters, ignore the pain, the fatigue, the injuries, and ‘just do it’—head down, bum up, relying on adrenaline or autopilot or whatever it is that gets them to the finish line.
The first day of the Cradle Mountain trek I had to do it—we all had to do it. Head down into the sleet to get to our destination. We couldn’t collapse or we wouldn’t have reached our campsite. So we held on …
And collapsed when we got there. I did anyway, and very loudly …
There have been other times when I’ve had to keep on keeping on. Exams as a medical student. With a toddler and a newborn when my husband sat his Fellowship exams. I just had to do it, or give up, and I don’t give up.
I did it, too, when my father was sick. I used to stand at his door, watching the grown, bearded man in a nappy, lying sideways on the bed, skinny legs dangling over the sides, writhing and twisting.
At times, I wanted to turn around and not have to face it. Instead, I braced myself and stepped in because it was my Dad and I wasn’t about to abandon him. I put a smile on my face as I greeted him, and acted as if I hadn’t noticed how much he’d changed—I didn’t want him to know how upset I was.
I plugged on until we reached the finish line—Dad’s death—and I didn’t have to pretend any more. I could allow myself the luxury of feeling, and of crying.
It’s served me well, this ‘plugging on’, but right now, I’ve run out of steam, or strength, or resilience, or whatever it is that’s kept me going in the past. I want to collapse in a heap on the floor. Minor incidents are setting me off, penetrating the gap in the armour, triggering memories, and I’m crying, sometimes not even knowing why.
It’s all right, I’ve been told, to cry. I don’t have to soldier on. I don’t have to deny the sadness I’m feeling, or the grief, or the hurt—especially the hurt.
So I’m trying to let myself feel it as it comes, to acknowledge it, to accept it. To accept that my feelings are valid, that they’re not wrong. Nor are they a luxury. I am safe.
I’m hanging in there and getting by, hoping that by going with it and allowing the tears to flow, it will pass. But it’s hard to break the habits of a lifetime.