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When You Leave Survival Mode

We all know what survival mode is. It’s where we are doing everything we can to keep our head above water and not suffocate on the stress in our life. The stress could be from work, financial problems, grieving from a loss, watching a loved one suffer, or your own physical and mental health.

When mid-June of 2022 came around, I remember thinking, “I endured that school year.” It was a tough year for several reasons, some of it from a toxic, chaotic climate and people, much of it from coming to the realization of what is happening to my mother, and then the toll that my depression and anxiety took on me. On top of all that, what I finally found out was a herniated disc pressing against nerves causing a great amount of pain that landed me in the emergency room, only for them to put me on a cocktail of pain medications, including opioids, that sunk me into such a deep depression that it made me want to sit in an exhaust filled garage and be done with it all. No one knew, even my wife, the extent of what was happening in my mind during that time. I had no idea the effect opioids would have on my depression. Something made me reach up and turn the key to my truck off and walk inside and sit down on my couch, breaking down, realizing that I was close to checking out of this world. I recognized it wasn’t truly me that wanted to die but the pills interfering with my mind and not allowing me to access all of the coping strategies that I built up over the years, or even have rational thought. Still, it gave me closer insight as to what leads people to finally make the decision to end their life. My doctor and therapist admitted it was a mistake for me to be given these drugs, especially without being monitored. It’s something I have reflected on because I know it is happening to others.

My journey with healing my pain, both physical and emotional, began after that day, April 19, 2022. Some will say, “He’s crazy” and fall into the stigma hole dismissing everything I just wrote, not truly reading the words. Some will think I am sharing too much and others will say my writing is too honest. My transparency and vulnerability make people uncomfortable. However, what I have found, and what has been researched, it that by talking about tough subjects and being transparent about depression, anxiety, panic, and suicide, it helps people feel less alone. It offers hope. It is why I am willing to share my experiences because I have heard from enough people, especially young people, that listening and reading about my struggles has helped them understand what was happening to them and normalized the tough conversations that are needed.

The last few months I started leaving survival mode. I have been using all of my strategies that I have written out on my Circle Map and I have felt my body and mind begin healing from the past year and a half. I am certain that some of it has to do with finally having some concrete answers to the pain I have been dealing with, the daily discomfort with my legs, and much of it has to do with understanding the craziness of last school year. In reflection, I was able to step back and look at what I witnessed, realizing that teachers and administrators were stepping in the fire daily and not knowing they were being burned. They became used to the chaos of the building and accepted it as, “This is just how it is,” and then the same ol’ wheels keep on spinning with little change. I found the attitudes of some that brought in the poison of their individual attitudes to their environment was also accepted because they have been doing it so long that it also became the norm. It becomes something that is often overlooked because it is difficult to deal with directly. Students running the school was also the norm, so many just recycled the accepted chaos day after day, not realizing how much of a mess they were in. I’ve been there before and was part of organized chaos, where you went into work and tried to change the speed of an out of control train only to get run over. When you are in the thick of it, you often get stuck in the mud, unable to move, and think, “Well, it is what it is.” I hear this from teachers often from various districts. They think a good day is when there is one fight and only a faint smell of weed in the hallway. It’s a good day when teachers are only told to “Fuck off” once. It is incredibly harmful to get used to stress and chaos and simply accept it as the norm. We all wish it wasn’t that way but feel stuck to do anything about it. Wishing doesn’t do much to make change.

However, coming out of survival mode is more than just getting away from the chaos of your daily job and being able to see the reality of what was happening. It is more than understanding what is happening to you physically and emotionally. It is about looking at your life as a whole and reassessing how you want to continue living. How do you want to continue walking on your journey? It is looking at the things that you value, your own virtues, and deciding that it may be time for a different path in your life, a new journey, but not being totally sure what that means yet. It is a strange renewed feeling, where the heaviness of what has happened is still on your shoulders but a little bit is shrugged off daily. There will be those moments where others, unknowingly I am sure because it is just who they are, will try to pull you down again. They will attempt to capture you in the toxic, negative trap they create daily in their own life, and bring you back to survival mode. After all, misery loves company and there are some miserable folks out there that do not want to see you succeed in life.

Coming out of survival mode will bring about many new emotions and have you face the realities in your life on a very personal level. It will make you take a look at yourself from a different view, not straight on like your reflection in the mirror, but from somewhere above. You will be an observer of you, maybe even for the first time. It is a deeper reflection than most are used to and will be important to be extremely mindful of the experience. It is an experience that feels very powerful to you, knowing something is happening, but you may not even be able to identify it yet.

At first, you may wonder what this new feeling is. You have been trying to swim to the surface for so long, taking shallow breaths, and grasping at a resemblance of actually living a quality life. The stress or depression and anxiety that you carry may have become your new norm, and now you see some light. Actually, you may find yourself “lighter” and more at ease. Yet, because you are no longer just trying to endure, the feeling is not normal for you, and you may start to notice that it’s actually awkward, even uncomfortable to be stepping out of the turmoil that you were in. We get used to chaos.

This may be the time that you start a more productive and intentional self-care routine where you focus on your nutrition, perhaps drink less alcohol, start to practice gratitude each day, read more, study something that interests you, and develop habits that will help you grow. You will also set boundaries, realizing that maybe part of the reason you were trying to survive in the first place is because you lost bits of yourself along the way and were letting others absorb all of your energy. They were taking and taking, wanting more and more from you, but the return deposits were not much. So, you finally decide it is time to look at those people in your life that have drained you and you place up an imaginary fence with a gate, and you only open that gate when you are able and ready. At first, it may seem selfish because you are finally caring for yourself, but it is necessary.

You may even feel like this renewed self, or even this new self, no longer fits into the life that you created. It’s a strange feeling because who you once were, and who you identified as, is changing. This can also be a lonely time because you may have decided that it is time to move on from people you once associated with, including friends and family. It is when you realize that your growth has taken you down a different path, and part of setting your boundaries is to remove yourself from negative, toxic people. At first, it may feel isolating but you may find respite in other things like nature and reading, or maybe meditation and yoga. You may also find that you have more energy for the people that are your true loves, your true friends. The ones that make sure that you are also a part of their life and show it through action. Still, be prepared for a feeling of loneliness but also a time of understanding and getting to know yourself on a deeper level. It is when you may ask, “What do I want for my life, myself, and who do I want to participate in it?”

Coming out of survival mode will be a time when you may decide that any dysfunction and negativity is something you no longer wish to participate in. Again, this could be work or relationships. The decision can be difficult because you may decide to leave behind a career you once loved but the turmoil of that career was part of why you were drowning in the first place. It may be that the dysfunction is also the people around you, whether it is coworker, family, or friends, you decide in order to live the life that you want, it is time to move on. Perhaps, and this can be powerful, you move on from your own bad habits. You recognize the things that were holding you back, not allowing you to be your best, and so you find the discipline to let those habits go. After all, we are responsible for ourselves, for our own actions, and we are the only ones that can do anything about it.

Your current relationships will shift but you will be available for new relationships and experiences in your life. You will make space for new opportunities. This will also make you feel renewed but hesitant at first because you have been protecting yourself for so long. You were simply trying to survive but now you recognize just how deep you were into survival mode. Awareness is key to any change.

Coming out of survival mode will give you renewed hope that something awaits you. It is something new and positive that will change and enhance your life. You may feel like you are at the crossroads and the devil is trying to get you to come back to the path that you were just down because it was chaotic, and the devil loves chaos, but you keep looking towards a new path. It is one of enlightenment, sunnier, with fresher air and better scenery. Walk that path because change can be wonderful.

This is a time where you may start to make choices for what you need in order to find joy, and you might bring more awareness to what already brings you joy. This is how we can heal our suffering, to understand that we have happiness already, it has always been there, but because you were in the trenches, the swirling cesspool dragging you under, you were unable to recognize the good you had in your life. You have beauty all around you but when you are surviving, it is hard to pause and understand that. Now that you are moving away from survival mode, your awareness allows you to see more of what truly matters. It is probably not what you think either.

You may have been in survival mode for months or even years. That part of your life may seem like a blur at times or it may have drained your energy. You may have kept moving away from jobs, relationships, or interests that you loved because just like being lost in the wilderness, when you stop moving you die, so for your survival you had to keep leaving the places that you were at. Others never understood this because they didn’t take the time to understand what you were going through. You own it though. You own your decisions and then move on, letting go. Oh, the art of letting go is magical. It is a weight of shot lifted off your shoulders and mind.

One of the tricky things, the thing that will test your resolve, is that when you start coming out of survival mode, your old self, old ways, bad habits, fearful thinking, and the darkness will try to pull you back. The devil leaves those alone that thrive in negativity and lack of compassion. He goes after the ones that want something better for themselves and others. He goes after the ones who want to bring kindness to the world.

There will be people that will notice your renewed self, your calmness, and resent you. They too, maybe unknowingly, will try to pull you back under the dark waters because they love to see you drown instead of succeed. They enjoy seeing the darkness in you because it makes them feel like their personal chaos is normal. Again, this will be when you are lonely because you start to care more for yourself and protect your contentment, your joy. You protect the new path that you are on, get better boots for the trek, and build your body and mind up to be more resilient so you can climb the obstacles before you. However, you will look back at what you just survived and realize that you can take a hell of a lot, so nothing, absolutely nothing will get in your way to keep moving forward to a new self.

You will find your way back home. You will recognize that the person you love most will lift you with their smile. You will cherish the hug that you give your mother. You will pause and watch the sunsets and remember how wonderful it is to be alive, seeing all of the glory that surrounds you. You will do what you were meant to do and keep forward on your path of serving others. You will be more prepared when chaos comes your way again because you are more aware, more intelligent, stronger, resilient, and understand your “Why.” You will be home.

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