Surviving Crises

I guess this is an appropriate chapter for me to be writing today. I think I have been in survival mode for at least the last month. Today is one of those days in which it seems ludicrous for ME to be writing about Joy in Parenthood. I have felt overburdened, discouraged, unworthy, and grouchy all day. Today is Sunday, and I usually feel better after church, but that did not happen today.

Survival mode can happen with just one member of the family, or it can happen for the whole family. Somehow, I think, when it is the whole family it becomes easier to cope with in some ways, because even though everyone is coping in a different way, the event that put you there is big enough that everyone knows WHY everyone is having a problem! When just one member goes into survival mode, it affects everyone else, and others can get resentful. If the person in survival mode is Mom, then the whole home is even more affected.

Survival mode is when something happens that stresses your coping capacity to the limits, and requires you to re-prioritize, either short term, or long term. An example for us is when our Alex was diagnosed with cancer.

Suddenly there were things to do that we had not had to do before. Mom was required to be gone more than she ever had been, often overnight. There were deep and urgent needs for everyone to step up and do more in certain areas, and in order to do that, they had to cut out in other areas. Our main goal was to keep the family intact while we made it through. Anything that did not contribute to that goal got shoved aside. I stopped working on my business completely, and the boys did not make it to Scouts because I was not there to drive them. We could not have people over at times because of Alex's depressed immune system. Our entire schedule as a family was reorganized.

In this situation, normality reasserted itself fairly rapidly. After about three months, things became more predictable, and most of the usual activities and schedules were re-instituted. We were only in survival mode for a relatively short time.

Survival mode is normally characterized by cutting out things in your life that are not absolutely essential. This has a huge impact on Moms, because they have a tendency to take on too much at once anyway, and during crisis, it is often still very difficult to say NO when asked to do things, but we do so simply because we have no choice.

The real difficulty in coping comes, I think, when you have to do this for an extended period. When the problems require permanent changes, or worse, when the problems keep growing. Now, we are not talking about the normal challenges of life here, we are talking about catastrophic changes. Major crises will happen in most families, at least once, usually more than once. Things like serious illness, divorce, death, job changes, financial difficulties, mental illness, spiritual crises, marital stress, disability, catastrophic disasters, etc. I can look back and identify distinct periods in my life when we went into survival mode.

First was when I had clinical depression. After the depression left (I had it for about three years), I spent a full year rebuilding what had been eliminated during that time, and even learning to laugh again.

Another time was when we had a very difficult month in less than adequate living circumstances and lost most of our chore routines. Our family went into survival mode after that, and it took years to rebuild the basic routines, and we never did get some of them back.

This happened again when Alex was diagnosed, and then once more when Sidney was diagnosed, and lasted until a few months after she died.

The thing is, we all go through this, and there comes a time when we have to rebuild. When we say to ourselves, “This is why we did what we did, now it is time to step up and put back some of what we eliminated when the crisis hit.” Because while cutting back and eliminating some things is necessary to survival during crises, it is not necessary once the crisis has past. There are two aspects which I have noticed about this process:

1.Sometimes it is hard to recognize when the crisis HAS past. Often, we are bowled over at first, but then we adjust to the changes and gradually learn to cope with it. It may take a while to realize that we have indeed grown in the crisis enough to now be able to handle some of the things that we cut out again, even though the crisis has not exactly changed any, we have simply adapted.

2. We never ever quite build it back the way it was before. We find that we really didn't need some of the occupations we had previously, and we tend to fill our time and use our energies a bit differently once we do rebuild. This is not a bad thing, it is part of the process of maturing.

The thing that I want to reassure parents about is the GUILT issues! Somehow, when we go into survival mode, we seem to see and feel what we are NOT doing so much that we don't even realize that we are, in fact, surviving.

There is this false perception that we are supposed to sail right through the really harsh events in life without dropping out of anything, and without ever sitting down and just crying ourselves out because we are so exhausted and overwhelmed with what is required of us to cope in that situation. This unrealistic image somehow holds more power than all the words of friends who say, “I could never do what you are doing” (when we think “of course you could, you just don't have to”).

So I want to say, loudly and encouragingly to anyone who may be in survival mode:

Survival is good. Survival is an amazing accomplishment, which only the strong and determined achieve. Survival is a big job, and the only job that is required of you right now.

Coping is progress. Getting by is not only “good enough”, it is exceptional! It is learning, it is maturing, it is growing spiritually and intellectually, and it is worth feeling satisfied with, and proud about those around you who are also coping.

You'll know when the time is right to get out of survival mode and start increasing the other things you do again. You'll realize one day that you are no longer stressed about the crisis, and that you actually now have some breathing space. You may not realize exactly when it came, or how it happened, but it does happen. And then you'll feel like volunteering to take on one more small thing, just to see if you can. And gradually, something new, exciting, and absorbing will develop where it could not have before the crisis.

I don't like being in survival mode. But I have learned to approach great changes with more confidence. When the demands of my family or the limits of my emotional state require that I cut things out, I can do so much more firmly than I used to be able to. I know how to say “No, that is not something I can do right now.”, and how to assess things in my own mind and know when I really can, and when I really cannot. And it is ok that I do that, because I am the only one who can make those judgments.

Crises stress a family in unexpected ways, and they tend to either bring out the strengths, or bring out the weaknesses. If you can eliminate blame in the situation, and focus on supporting one another to get through the difficulty, then your family will come out stronger for the challenge.

If you have to go into survival mode for a while, then confident assessment of what is needed and what is not will make a huge difference in how well the family weathers the storm. The leadership of the parents, both in cutting out the unnecessary things, and in rising to the new challenges presented by the crisis itself, will leave a lasting impression on the children, and give them an example which makes them more resourceful and resilient as adults.