How to deal with not dealing with things well
December 22, 2014 11:39 AM   Subscribe

I have had a long, difficult year, and I'm starting to crack. All year, I was dealing with things pretty well and now I'm not, and I can't stop beating myself up over losing my grip.

In the past year, I've been diagnosed with a serious, life threatening illness. It has been incredibly difficult and has been compounded by a series of less serious health issues, and a flurry of things being poorly handled by doctors. It has also caused me to have to miss several important family gatherings because travel and other issues make it impossible to safely travel at the moment.

In general, though I have grieved my illness and the resulting family issues, I think I have handled things pretty well. I go to work, I have fun with my husband, I exercise and go to therapy and lots of other things that have kept my head above water. But the past month, I had a double whammy of some important tests being bungled by my doctors, and not being able to go home for Christmas (which I thought I would be able to do). I feel like these have been the straw that broke the camel's back, and in the past couple weeks I have gotten in a screaming fight with my husband and this weekend I got way too drunk and spent the night crying like a crazy person. I know those things probably don't sound that bad, but I feel like I've lost control of the one thing I still controlled, my reaction to all this stuff. Note: I am cutting myself off from drinking for the time being since that obviously contributed to my most recent break.

How can I feel better about not being in 100% control of my emotions, when it feels like I've already lost control of everything else?
posted by whodatninja to Human Relations (18 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Ugh, health issues. For me the issue of control, of maintaining control on my own terms when my own body is conspiring against me, is a really serious one and it's something I struggle with on a daily basis. I have various ways of dealing with it, some of which are detrimental to other aspects of my life but which are overall beneficial to my mental state of I'M NOT PANICKING YOU'RE PANICKING. The not drinking thing is a big part of my sanity quest, the other is my physical therapy/gym time. Unfortunately I also do stupid stuff around food intake which I'm trying to get over but it's a WiP.

I guess my (maybe questionable) advice is to find something that you can control 100%, something which won't harm you, even if it seems really unreasonable to other people, and just put all of your stress and your worry and your lack of bodily agency into that one thing and just fucking own it and destroy it. If you're already able to do stuff like exercise that can be a good start, it doesn't have to be a crazy HIIT workout, it can even just be something like meditation (which tbh is really just a workout for your mind) as long as it's something that gets you in the zone.

Also keep in mind that this is one of the shittiest most stressful and exhausting times of the year for so many reasons; everything that has been building in the stress zit all year tends to just pop all over the bathroom mirror of life in december.
posted by poffin boffin at 11:53 AM on December 22, 2014 [19 favorites]

I've had my worst year by far and offer you any amount of empathy that will help.

I don't know how I would have gotten through this year without writing and art to do. Really. I love to cultivate obsessions, and finding new things that I can learn about and obsess over and write about has always been extraordinary, and the world is rich with metaphors. You can never have enough metaphors in your arsenal.

Try to see yourself as you would a friend as much as you can. There will be times you freak out over dumb things because you can only control so much. Embrace it and laugh at it later.

Be glad for what people have to offer and remember that nobody will offer you everything. I have friends from the psych ward, friends who were also adjusting from the psych ward, sometimes friends I can play Scrabble with. All of them are golden.

Look for role models. I think a lot about Frida Kahlo and Nina Simone, two beautiful and brilliant women who dealt with crap from society and from their own circumstances and still produced stunning, incisive work.

This book is pretty great.
posted by mermaidcafe at 12:03 PM on December 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm really sorry you're dealing with this. The holidays are bad enough on their own, you know? So unfair.

Would it be possible to build some time into your schedule for venting/crying/stomping around and feeling the unfairness? That way you are still giving voice to these very very real feelings, but on your terms. You aren't losing control, you're consciously controlling your actions. Maybe just a couple hours a week, or a few minutes a day? (Just make sure you tell your husband the plan, so he knows you're not yelling AT him, it's your Venting Time.)
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 12:05 PM on December 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

To be honest, it sounds like you're doing a great job of controlling your complex situation and managing your emotions. Two major outbursts doesn't sound like much, given everything you're dealing with at this point. If you don't have a good outlet, like poffin boffin mentioned, do what you can to make your home your "safe space" to vent and let it all out - shouting, crying, whatnot. Your husband should understand it's not about him, like Blast Hardcheese said.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:11 PM on December 22, 2014 [5 favorites]

everything that has been building in the stress zit all year tends to just pop all over the bathroom mirror of life in december.

Man, that really sums it up for me. I'm chiming in to second the great advice here: cut yourself some slack, and see if you can find a way to safely vent (a therapist, maybe?). Take care of yourself, too, and make sure you are eating well and getting enough sleep. Sometimes it helps me to just sit and thnk "okay, what is it I need now?" Often I find the answer is something really simple, like a cup of tea, a warm blanket, a nap. It's okay to give yourself those things.
posted by rpfields at 12:13 PM on December 22, 2014 [4 favorites]

I'm in Stage 3 of a progressive, hereditary illness. It's as much fun as you can imagine. Here's what seems to help me:

1. Always plan something to look forward to. For me, it's a canoe trip this spring in a part of the world that fascinates me.
2. Treat yourself as kindly and as patiently as you'd treat a dear friend with the same illness.
3. Protect your relationships with the people who are dear to you. No more screaming at your husband. Treat everyone in your circle of support with kindness, love, gratitude. I think it's harder on my loved ones than it is for me because they don't know.
4. I outed myself at work. This might not be the best choice for every workplace, but my coworkers have been amazing and supportive.
5. I try to remember to read this Onion article every six months or so. It steels me up and reminds me to be brave!

Not drinking is a GREAT idea.

You can do this.
posted by mochapickle at 12:16 PM on December 22, 2014 [12 favorites]

I had a discussion with my therapist friend about breaking points recently. It's been a big build-up for my family, too, over the last year, and for some dumb reason, we decided to get a dog in a relatively small home. We got it for our girls, thinking it would help our current situation, but the dog started driving us bonkers. Not the least of our problems was that we couldn't get him to stop going to the bathroom in the house. I don't consider myself an angry person at all, but I felt mad and disappointed so often during this time from the Big Pile of Everything that I almost didn't recognize myself. After a few months we had to find the dog a new home. It instantly brought things down to a more manageable level emotionally in our house, but I spent time feeling disappointed in my reaction to the stress, disappointed that we had to give the dog away, and disappointed in the unhealthy coping solutions that I leaned on during this time.

My therapist friend's response to me was helpful, and I pass this on to you, in case that it's helpful. Namely, we all have our inevitable breaking points, and this is okay. He compared it to someone he knew who had chronic back pain, and it left him constantly irritable. My friend always held his crankiness suspect until he experienced severe back pain himself. This was a light-bulb moment, as during that time he could not always contain how he was feeling in an ideal way. Stuff tends to leak out when we are over capacity. Life lived well, then, is not about being able to take a constant barrage of pain and always responding well to it. It includes trying to finding where our limits are and mitigating the forces that press upon that because everyone has a breaking point.

What is difficult, though, is when things are thrust upon us that we can't avoid, and it takes us to that point. I'm so sorry that it sounds like this has happened to you. There aren't always perfect solutions to things that life sends our way, but I suspect that if you can find some ways to take good care of yourself, perhaps find someone who can provide a sympathetic ear to you (like a therapist), it can help. That being said, my main purpose in responding was not to try and find solutions to your situation, but to try and encourage you not to think of yourself in overly negative ways because you have limits, or because you can't handle everything in a perfect way that keeps coming at you. You can continue to handle things well, you just bumped up against something that exceeded your normal reserves. It happens to everyone, it takes some effort at times to adjust and recalibrate, and there's no shame in it.

What I really hope, too, is that you can lean on your husband during this time and find ways together to relax and recharge, despite the ways your doctors have disappointed you. It's normal to be disappointed in that, too, by the way, especially if those mistakes removed some of the things in your life (like family connections) that were allowing you to cope. The holidays can sometimes be more stressful, too, and I've found that often what helps me the most when I'm feeling stressed at the end of the year is just getting through and actually starting a new calendar year with a clean slate.

Best wishes to you.
posted by SpacemanStix at 12:17 PM on December 22, 2014 [16 favorites]

I'm so sorry you've been going through this. It might be a relief to vent to an online forum of people living with your illness. Because even though your husband and family love you and empathize to the degree they're able, there are aspects of your experience that can only be understood by people also going through it. They will be in a better position to understand and validate your feelings, they'll understand about your pain in a way your family can't, and they may also be able to offer tips on self-advocacy when it comes to the care you're getting. (And in your role as a care consumer at least, you might also get a boost in your sense of competence if you can share your knowledge and experience with others who are just starting to figure this out.) In this way, you may be able to compartmentalize your vulnerability, if you like, and so feel a bit more in control of how it's expressed.
posted by cotton dress sock at 12:50 PM on December 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

I reached my breaking point earlier this year. I got reduced hours from work and essentially laid in bed for two weeks because I absolutely just could not deal. I'm sort of back on track now, but only sort of. The major stress in my life is (sadly, actually) gone, and so I'm just left dealing with the aftermath. If I hadn't had the time to take off and just lie in a dark room, I probably would have been fired. I was just completely broken. So, I understand where you're coming from that those two things feel like "This is it. I've hit my breaking point." Because it's not about how it comes out, it's about the internal feeling. The certainty that the incident is just a harbinger of things to come.

If there's any way at all for you to get a break, you need to do it. My work doesn't know the full extent of what I was dealing with, but they were amazingly kind (much more so than I expected) about figuring out a way for me to have reduced hours. They weren't able to pay me, but they made it work. Sometimes being just a bit vulnerable is a good thing. Try opening up and asking for what you need from the people around you. I know it's hard, but at this point? You're already at your breaking point. What else could happen? You have nothing to lose from asking.
posted by stoneweaver at 12:55 PM on December 22, 2014 [4 favorites]

I asked for mantras earlier this year to help me with feeling like my life had fallen apart and to give me something to repeat to myself when I felt out-of-control. (The specifics are different but lots of the mantras would work equally well.)

I also hung a set of Buddhist prayer flags outside my window where I can easily see them. When the wind blows across them, it prays the prayers on the flags ceaselessly and carries them off in the world to do good. I'm not Buddhist, but I've found this to be very comforting. When I feel particularly frantic and all-over-the-place and start to get upset with myself for not handling all my shit very well, I can look out the window at the flags, waving in the breeze, and go, "Okay, at least the flags are still working. The flags are still on my side and they're on the job. It's okay if I fall apart for a little while; the flags will keep up the hard work of thinking good thoughts until I get myself back together."

I realize this sounds silly, but it's been enormously helpful to me to have a visual reminder that the world will not come to an end if I fall apart for a little while, and that there are plenty of people ready to help me out after I cry myself out and have a nap.

Doesn't have to be flags; could be anything (music, even). But give yourself a few reminders of peace and strength and doggedness and love around your space to help you think those thoughts -- or to think them for you -- when you're at low points.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:08 PM on December 22, 2014 [16 favorites]

How can I feel better about not being in 100% control of my emotions, when it feels like I've already lost control of everything else?

My experience has been that my medical condition causes the loss of emotional control very directly. So I accept that if I am feverish, I will by grumpy and ranty. If I am in pain, I will be depressed. Etc.

The other thing I will suggest is that the holidays themselves are part of the problem, not just in terms of social stress but in terms of health stress. Crowds, decorations coming out that are stored for 10 or 11 months of the year and myriad other things make my medical condition worse. I try like hell to avoid crowds and what not. That is usually something I can manage, but it falls apart at Christmas time to a degree that does not occur for such a protracted period any other time of year. And the fact that I am under more medical stress makes me even more grumpy and emotionally out of control than usual.

I have learned to take care of myself physically, be protective of myself in the face of potential stressors like crowds, and cut myself some slack for being a lot more grumpy and out of control at such times. It helps to recognize the emotional fall-out as yet another symptom of my medical situation, just like pain, vomiting, and so on. So, for example, today I am feverish and I was really ranty this morning because of this. That told me to avoid writing about certain things, at least until after lunch, or it would go badly. That also tells me that when my fever eventually breaks, the rantiness will also come to a stop. They are interrelated. That helps me cope a whole, whole lot and helps me reduce the odds of doing something I am going to regret later. I just don't tackle certain things when feverish. I know it won't go well -- and I know that will change when the fever comes down. Knowing it will change when my physical state changes helps my sanity enormously.

Best of luck.
posted by Michele in California at 1:17 PM on December 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm in the middle of reading A Guide to Rational Living, and it's all about strategies for controlling your reactions to bad events. I've found the advice to be intuitive and helpful.

Basically, it's about practicing cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) without going to a therapist. If that avenue appeals to you, there's also The Feeling Good Handbook. That seems to be the most recommended book for learning about CBT, but I haven't started it yet, so I can't vouch for it.
posted by diogenes at 1:41 PM on December 22, 2014

I would question the goal of being in control of your emotions 100%, or what "being in control 100%" means. After all, here you are in control and asking this question. You didn't go on a shooting spree. The metaphorical bridge didn't collapse. It's just that you -- in-control you -- have noticed, in your monitoring, that there are some signs of stress, some bolts coming loose. Sure it would've been nice to have noticed those bolts before that one part of the guardrail fell off, but I think that being really gentle with yourself right now will help you achieve early future detection more than being angry at yourself.

I'd reframe these as "wake up calls" - the positive moment when you receive new, useful information. Sometimes, you think you have something under control but don't realize you are approaching a breaking point. Now you know. That's good, because now you can respond. A better question might be, now that you realize that the level of strain is reaching a breaking point, how do you want to modify the bridge operations, monitoring, and maintenance plan? These events seem like a good indication that you're needing to do whatever you can to reduce your burden, reduce stress, take care of yourself, bring in other resources, be more attuned to early signs that you're reaching this point again, etc.

The drunk crying episode you could even consider somewhat curative, e.g., as "finally letting it all out" or something. Drinking to excess can be dangerous, and I don't want to sound pro-alcoholic behavior, but assuming you don't have any family history of alcoholism and this isn't a common occurrence but just one night of letting down some of your inhibitions (not blacking out, driving drunk, or giving yourself alcohol poisoning), I think one episode of really letting yourself go every year can be a useful and not entirely negative way of hitting the emotional reset button. Societies have festivals for a reason, so that everyone can collectively lose their shit within a context designed to minimize the social disruption this causes. So one time this year, you (safely at home) got drunk and cried all night... Did it make you feel better? If yes, then I'd say "good for you. You obviously really needed that." If not, then you can instead think of it as something like (again) "emotional wake up call" or "hitting emotional bottom."

The way I see it, you have an emotional self and a manager self, and these events need not inspire the manager self to feel like a failure or to come down hard on the emotional self to "stay under control." I think a more positive approach might be "ahh, I knew things were hard but was unaware you were really nearing the breaking point, Emotional Self. I'm sorry it got to this point. how can I better support you?" Maybe next time you'll notice the signs earlier and go have a good cry without the alcohol, in the bath, before the shouting. By taking this as a wake up call and responding by becoming more attuned to your emotional health and breaking points, you improve your ability to manage the situation. I'm sorry you're having to deal with this, and fwiw, it sounds like you're doing an incredible job.
posted by salvia at 4:13 PM on December 22, 2014 [17 favorites]

As an expert in accidental over self medicating with alcohol, I'd consider whether this pit of despair feeling is not also just residual chemical rebalancing from the bad night this weekend. It is seriously amazing how low you can get and for how long just from one bad night with drink. The anxiety spiral during the day(s) after a night like that is much, much worse than the physical hangover. I hope this is the case and that you start to regain some of the "I can handle this" perspective soon. I am sure that you can.

I'd also second the advice early on in the thread to pick a thing to do that is healthy and right for you and then do the shit out of this thing so that you get the quick fix of feeling productive/in control. A good one for me is to pick part of my place to clean - a room, a counter, whatever. Another one is taking the 20-30 minutes in the morning once in a while to get my hair just the way I like it. I spend the rest of the day feeling like at least that is done.

In times of oh shit the camel's back is BROKE levels of stress, I also relax the control parameters on things that will not actually hurt me. I take sick days from work. I nap an amount that would usually make me feel guilty. I buy a frivolous small thing. Something that is you being kind to yourself and listening to your own needs.

I'm sure you have already apologized for the things you feel you handled poorly. It helps me to move on with the feelings of guilt and out of controlness to realize that I have forgiven those I love for similar offenses in the past, how easy it felt to do so, and to then try to think of myself with that same compassion.

You will feel better soon. And if you do not feel better soon, you will figure out a way to deal with it that you think is ok. Hang in there.
posted by skrozidile at 5:12 PM on December 22, 2014 [5 favorites]

P.S. Sorry if my comment came across a bit long and preachy. (Wanted to shorten it but had run out of time.)
posted by salvia at 5:30 PM on December 22, 2014

1. re: runaway emotions: relax and enjoy having an absolutely ironclad, fool-proof excuse for acting any bizarre way at any time (an excuse redeemable both to yourself and to others). There aren't too many upsides to catastrophe, but this is one, so enjoy it!

2. For the dealing/coping, here's something unusual to try. Take notice of something you may never have observed before: who's looking out your eyes?

Same person as always, right? Same person who's been looking out those eyes, unchanged in any way since your earliest memory. Same presence. Here you are, same as ever. Nothing's ever actually happened to you; stuff's just happened around you. Now, that said, you've surely told yourself (perhaps very repeatedly) stories about yourself - life narrative stories about how you're THIS way (for example, now you're sick. You're a sick person!). Yet here you are, same presence as always. What's changed? Hasn't it all just been self-narration and dramatic story telling? None of this - including the illness - is happening to you. Nothing's every happened to you, because if you consider the person looking out of your eyes, you'll realize it's always been that very same hum. The point of intelligent receptivity that you truly are and always have been and always will be.

The hum - the intelligent receptivity - continues, come what may. So you can go ahead and tell yourself stories about how tragic this all is, remaining fixed in the big view cinematic arc of it all, complete with drama, and feel increasingly anguished. Or you can just settle into the equanimity that comes with realizing stuff isn't happening TO you, it happens AROUND you. Including the illness. Including the drama.

So....Illness. Fights. Travel snafus. Crying jags. Lots of stuff! Like you've transformed into some tragic figure! you are. Who's looking out your eyes right now? Same you as ever, no? Rock solid and unbowed!

PS - MeMail me if you want to discuss. Happy to help if I can.
posted by Quisp Lover at 8:23 PM on December 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

Also: see this
posted by Quisp Lover at 8:36 PM on December 22, 2014

I go to work, I have fun with my husband, I exercise and go to therapy and lots of other things that have kept my head above water.

Well, you're already several steps ahead of where I am, and I don't have any life threatening illnesses!! You're doing great!!!

As I type this, I'm sitting in a 9x9' bedroom, in a 3 bedroom trailer, where also live my best friend, his wife, and their 3 children. The 16 year old son and the 13 year old son are now sleeping in the living room so that I can have some privacy. I had to quite my job because the stress was literally making me ill. I have two ex-husbands, one of whom threatened to have me committed and forced to have electroshock therapy, and the other of whom told me recently that I've turned into a real bitch. When I try to exercise, I have a panic attack, which then leads to an asthma attack, which exacerbates the panic attack. I do manage to go to therapy every other week. Beyond that, doctor appointments, and ER visits (seven in the last 2 weeks, plus 4 days hospitalized), I generally just stay here in my room. I moved in here because the basic stuff of grownupness, working, paying the bills, preparing and eating food, personal hygiene, it all became just too much for me to handle because of my health issues.

It's totally ok to have a breakdown now and then. It's actually healthy for you. When you keep stuff bottled up inside, it causes all kinds of physical manifestations: muscle tenseness, labored breathing, heart palpitations, nausea, stroke-like symptoms, heart attack-like symptoms. Your brain goes "Ack, stress!!" and causes physical symptoms designed to make you slow down and take care of you for a little while. I spent a few days in the hospital this summer with aphasia, left side weakness, a weird burning behind my eyes, and a weird pressure in my head. The diagnosis was twofold: atypical migraine and conversion disorder. The conversion disorder is the "Ack, stress!!" thing.

Ask yourself this question: if a friend had written this Ask, how would you answer? What would you tell her? I've had several friends throw that one at me, and it really does help. I realized that moving into a place where 99% of the time there's someone else in the house with me, where someone else makes food, and someone else does the cleaning, and someone else pays the bills, and someone's always at least nearby to get me to a hospital if I have a bad flareup of something, that IS the grownup thing to do. It IS taking care of me - to let someone else take care of me. It's hard. I'm a HUGE control freak. My one thing I'm in total control of right now? Letting other people take care of me.

Feel free to memail if you want to chat. All the best in the universe to you.
posted by The Almighty Mommy Goddess at 1:20 AM on December 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

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