Survival mode and the vicissitudes of being out of it.

Anxiety is a strange beast. Sometimes it makes sense: yes, I’ve just seen a clenched fist. Of course my amygdala will arrange for a huge amount of adrenaline to be dumped into my system, just in case that fist is actually heading for my face, and I need to defend myself, or flee, or retreat into my own mind to get through another beating. That’s where I appreciate my limbic system – it’s kept me going. Cheers, brain.

Other times, though, it’s less convenient, less obvious. Why, in the middle of a lovely lunch with people I adore, should I be visited by churning, writhing anxiety so that I can barely breathe for the solid mass of it in my chest? Why should it attack out of nothing, clenching my throat in a choke-hold so tight as to be painful, constricting my voice and thinning my breathing? And why, a year and a half after the last beating I took, should the innocent movement of a hand cause me to cringe in a way I never did when I was living that constant sense of threat?

I know, intellectually, that it’s ok. That a soldier can go through a war, live through bombardments and battles and survive them without a second’s hesitation – it’s only when he arrives home that he snaps out of survival mode and the clatter of the neighbour’s bin lids sends him screaming into full fight-or-flight mode, body arching without his conscious permission to take shelter or to reach for the weapon he no longer carries. It’s only when he’s freed of survival mode that his mind is opened to begin to make room for what happened to him, to begin to carry such dark reality and to heal from it.

I’m not in survival mode anymore, and so – counter-intuitively, perhaps – I’m more frightened of a non-existent threat than I ever was of the real one. I hate it –  I hate that I cringe away from a friend because he’s bigger than me and talks with his hands, or because she comes up behind me unnoticed to give me a hug. But I also have to celebrate that: because I’m not in survival mode anymore. Because I am healing. Because I am making space for what happened, what was done to me, what I survived. I am learning to make room for that in my story. I am learning to heal, and I am learning to be strong.

And I’m learning to sit at the dinner table with anxiety screaming in my chest, and I’m learning to stand up straight and to laugh more, and to turn around and hug my friend right back because touch is no longer something to fear. I’ve drawn from the light and strength of my friends and I’m grateful for that and now I’m learning my own light and strength.

And I’m grateful for that too.

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2 thoughts on “Survival mode and the vicissitudes of being out of it.

  1. “I am learning to heal, and I am learning to be strong.” Your strength enables more healing, learning and in turn more strength. It is an upward spiral towards wholeness.

  2. I am sorry if that happened while we were at lunch and didn’t pick it up. I wish there was something I could do. Hang in there – you have come such a long way.

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