Wednesday, July 9, 2008

department of defense

When it comes to psychological coping strategies, it's probably no surprise that I tend to to favor denial and rationalization. If I can't manage to make myself believe that something I don't want to deal with doesn't exist, I can usually smother it in enough carefully constructed layers of logic that it hardly bothers me at all.

Lately, though, I've been trying a new defense mechanism on for size. Call it universalization. I tell myself that everyone else has had exactly the same bad experiences that I have. Although it's demonstrably untrue, it's something that makes me feel much better. Misery, it turns out, really is awfully fond of company.

So, anyway, a few weeks ago, the office receptionist's middle daughter, a pretty and sullen girl of maybe 18 or 19, had a baby boy. While the receptionist hadn't been especially pleased when her daughter first announced the pregnancy, ever since the baby was born, she's enthusiastically taken on the role of doting grandma.

I stopped by the reception desk and, once I'd asked the usual questions, the receptionist told me about her grandson's curls, his nursing schedule, his possible colic and probable reflux. While she was talking, I looked at some of the photos she'd taped to the wall next to her desk. I was struck by one photo in particular. In it, the baby was lying on his back, his nose crookedly flattened, his eyes closed, his eyelashes dark against absurdly round cheeks.

The photographer did a really nice job with that one, I thought, What a beautiful baby. He looks like he's fast asleep.

The receptionist started telling me her grandson's birth story, and when she got to the part where the labor wasn't progressing because the baby was so big and they were worried they might have to do a c-section, two thoughts came to me with such force and cogency that, if anyone had been watching, they might have seen an illuminated light bulb magically appear in the air over my head.

One, the reason that the baby looked like he was sleeping was because he was sleeping. And, two, my new defense mechanism might be working just a little too well.

So, what's your best coping strategy? How do you deal with difficult feelings: displacement, distraction, uglification, derision or, perhaps, a nice Pouilly Fuissé?


Kymberli said...

When it's really bad I tend to be an avoider and a hider. If I can keep it contained within myself and don't have to see or talk to anyone it's better. I'm the type that can't focus or concentrate on anything so closing myself off is a better way to deal. I've had two or three major points like that in my life.

For the less-severe problems, I cope by over-processing and over-rationalizing to the point of minimizing the problem. Sometimes that works in my favor, sometimes it doesn't.

In either case, ice cream and other food is a good distraction. Judging from what the scale says, I'd rather be the type loses her appetite.

thailandchani said...

I'm another fan of avoidance apparently.. and when that doesn't work, dissociation definitely works.

Not healthy coping mechanisms but they do work.

Anonymous said...

Wow. That's amazing.

I remind myself how much worse others have it. Works sometimes...

sweetsalty kate said...

Wow niobe, that first paragraph in particular is incredible.. not many people are so insightful and frank.

My coping is one of two tactics: first, swimming in lyricism, mysticism. In the absence of religious belief I tell myself his soul is flying through the sky having a grand time, imagining him speeding through the cosmos seeing the true bigness of the world beyond our world, or perhaps having been assigned some new value or adventure.

Or, I imagine him alive. That helps me to rationalize his absence because if he had have lived, he would have been blind, unable to speak, unable to walk, suffered constant seizures, would have had cerebral palsy and would have worn diapers for his whole life. Such is what my body did to him, so I sure can't hold it against him for not being here in that state. Of course I would have loved him and given anything to nurture him, but what kind of a life would that have been, for him?

In that bizarre way I find myself ... what's the word? Lucky? ...that I do have these reasons, his injuries, that help me to understand why he can't be here.

Oh, and the third. Wine, beer.

This was so illuminating, niobe.

Duck said...

I like the wine defense.

Also - I like the everyone is infertile defense (which I apply to all pregnant women and babies - look at all the miracle children). Now that we now that I will never be pregnant, it doesn't give me the good feeling anymore, and I can't say that all these women are surrogates, too unrealistic.

So I also do this thing where I tell myself that these awful things that happen, happen because I can take it, that in the end it will be fine...

Tash said...

Humor -- usually sarcastic -- and a big swig of gin.

I'm laughing at the part about the baby really being asleep. I'm sure I would've thought the same thing. That means I'm going to hell, doesn't it.

Anonymous said...

I tend to smother the feelings and retreat, retreat, retreat. I don't suppose that's really coping and it will quite possibly manifest in some other way (blood presure, weight gain, digestive issues and the like)


LAS said...

Oh I am right there with you. Denial and rationalization all the way. Mostly denial, the depths of which are incredible I have recently discovered. Oh yeah, and working an obscene number of hours usually allows me to check out also. Or check into the denial.

Aunt Becky said...

I assume the worst. Constantly.

And you know what? I'm not a negative person, it's just how I cope.

debbie said...

When we were faced with our baby's diagnosis and were wrestling with termination, my husband and I realized that we were no worse off than all the families around us having perfectly healthy babies, but rather, that we were just getting our bad news much, much sooner than them. Then we started playing this game when we saw really happy people with some sort of good news to share. When no one was listening, he and I would say, "Congratulations on your pregnancy, did you know your marriage is going to fall apart in five years?" Or, "Congratulations on your pregnancy, I'm sorry that your child is going to despise you in its teenage years and turn to drugs and alcohol." It's an awful game, I know, but during our darkest days when we absolutely could not handle anyone else's good news, it made us feel a little better knowing that we were all actually swimming in the same boat, only ours was sinking just a little sooner than everyone elses. We also figured that by the time theirs sank, we'd already be excellent swimmers!

luna said...

avoidance, disassociation, dark humor often bordering on bitter, deep breathing, and unfortunately comfort eating.

I agree with kate, your first para is powerful insight.

Kristen said...

Denial, first. Then I try to tell myself that losing another baby surely isn't the worst thing to happen - that not only have others before me endured much much worse than to have another pregnancy lost - but that in the grand scheme of things, my loss isn't so bad. Think about the pioneers, right? Or women in the middle ages that had lots of kids in the hopes of a select few surviving. Surely their loss was greater than mine, right???

But then, of course, my emotions break through the rationalization - and I find myself thinking that at this moment in time, this IS the worst thing that can happen. And my pain is very real.

And then I hold my breath and wait for the bottom to fall out again - as it surely and inevitably will.

Magpie said...

Wine and denial.

Wabi said...

My default coping emotion for life is always anger. As a kid it was the thing that kept me warm in a cold, not very loving household. Anger gets a bad rap, but honestly, for a long time it was the #1 thing that saved me.

Of course, as an adult aiming to creating a nice and loving family, anger is maybe less great for my coping than it used to be. But I'm sort of stuck with it at this point. Luckily most of the time it comes as a short burst now. It's the yellow light of the traffic signal in my brain: I know that when I feel angry, the very NEXT thing I feel after the anger is the real issue I need to face or work on.

Of course, if the thing causing the anger isn't fixable, sometimes I still find it preferable to surf wave after wave of rage for awhile. That feels better than despondency.

Norman said...

I'm a fan of avoidance.

mattina di lunedi said...

I, too, find myself thinking of those fucking pioneer women when I get really down. Like "they had so much more to deal with, living in a sod house, having children die left and right, eating salt pork for decades on end" but that is such bullshit. They were all dead by the time they hit 40, if they were lucky. If I only had to deal with this hell I'm living in for a few more months, I feel like would be better off. Unfortunately I'll probably live into my 80's.

As for dealing with the hard times, I drink, eat too much, and get mad at my husband, and disassociate as much as I possibly can, which is, unfortunately, not too much. The cold hard reality of a dead child always brings me back to reality.

Rachel said...

To stay in a good mood, I like distraction. If I'm busy, I don't think about the bad stuff and I'm not as sad.

But when I start thinking I start getting pissed.

I've been pissed so long, I occasionally get sad, but I'm sad less often. I'm starting to cope, I think. Not sure how it happened, but it seems to have happened.

So I still keep busy.

Julia said...

I universalize, or at least I do on occasion. Spent a good part of last spring and summer doing that-- making up sad stories for all the pregos and new moms I saw. I also rationalize, and, for special dumb asses, get mad at them for stupid shit they say. There must be more, but I can't think of what it is now. Oh yeah-- I hide out a lot.

Which Box said...

I could hsve written your opening paragraph. Except I couldn't have, at all.

Christine said...

um i have no decent coping skills. i tend to go with the hysterical crying method of non-coping.

Topcat said...

Well, Niobe, let's see .... my current coping method of dealing with my husbands cancer is to not look at him.
Then I won't have to see his newly-bald head that keeps frightening me to the core.

Oh, and this weekend I will go out with my girlfriend, leaving him and my newborn at home while I kick up my heels dancing, without a care in the world.

What denial?

Aurelia said...


I have used denial, derision, wine, distraction, and maybe even uglification. (great word, btw)

But time works best, because after all these years I do know that most people will have something terrible happen to them.

If I told you how many women have disclosed miscarriages and late losses like stillbirths to me--you would choke. So many people I thought were perfect and happy and had more than me, have had crippling depression, cheating spouses, bankruptcy, jail, divorce, substance abuse, and more.

And you would never never know it to look at them.

We really are all suffering, and all sad. Too bad we don't talk about it more.

Furrow said...

Short-term memory loss. I'm still smarting over slights I received 20years ago, but if you punched me yesterday, it's already forgotten.

Heather said...

I am a master rationalizer. Just ask, and I can explain why it's perfectly understandable that my dad molested me for years. But at least I can get out of bed every day and function. Isn't that the point of a coping mechanism?

Jennifer said...

my defence mechanism is to blame others with willfull wait...!...actually it's TRUE.

Jennifer said...

my defence mechanism is to blame others with willfull wait...!...actually it's TRUE.