When Survival Mode Becomes a Way of Life

It’s easy to recognize when a period of transition begins, but how do you know when it ends? Are there concrete, measurable ways to know you’ve come out on the other side and accomplished what you set out to do? Or is there just a constant sense of unease over never truly recognizing you have simply stepped into a new phase of existence? If you began following a path with no real sense of what you expected to find on the other side, how would you know if you reached your destination?

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Image via Unsplash by Kelly Sikkema

For the past six years, I have been in a seemingly never-ending period of transformation. I have celebrated successes, mourned losses, floated around aimlessly trying to figure out what happens next, and have continued to set personal and professional goals for myself in the face of adversity. I keep expecting things to settle down and become more manageable, but honestly, I think I’m kidding myself. I’m beginning to think this is just my life, and good, bad, or ugly, I’m living it.

2012 was a busy year. In February that year, I celebrated my 40th birthday with three good friends in New Orleans: my cousin Tara, my best friend’s sister, Katie, and my friend Christina, who flew all the way from Amsterdam to celebrate my birthday. The four of us met up in the Crescent City, a magical place I believe to be my birthplace in a past life, and quickly eased into a long weekend of drinking, eating, laughing and dancing. Highlights from that weekend include:

  • Shopping at Trashy Diva
  • Eating beignets past midnight at Café du Monde
  • Getting my photo taken with a demon on Bourbon Street
  • Laughing so hard at inappropriate jokes that my sides hurt
  • Watching a Mardi Gras parade in the Garden District with floats from a Krewe in Lake Pontchartrain who wore creepy old-fashioned Mardi Gras masks
  • Getting a birthday spanking by a stranger in a bar on Decatur Street
  • Watching a man in his 70’s perform kickass R&B for a solid hour straight in a Mardi Gras Indian costume down on Frenchman Street
  • Spending time with women I love and respect

I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun. That was a magical weekend I hope to recreate in the very near future.

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Café du Monde New Orleans

Soon after that trip, several life-changing events happened. Events I had speculated about while on that magical trip. First, I was accepted to the MFA in Writing Popular Fiction Program at Seton Hill University, and I began the three-year MFA in June that year. For years, I had struggled with the notion of taking myself seriously as a writer. I had been writing fiction fairly consistently since I turned 12, and then I completed a BA and MA in English in the hopes of finding a career in writing or teaching, but neither of those things happened. Why? Well, that’s a story for another day. The point is, reading, writing, and writing about writing were some of my favorite things to do and yet somehow I wasn’t making a living doing those things.

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Image via Unsplash by Ali Yahya

A few months before my 40th birthday, I decided it was time to take myself seriously and finally write a novel. And, hey, why not earn another college degree while I was at it? That was probably one of the best decisions I ever made. During my second residency, in January of 2013, I decided to end my marriage. I sat up late one night with my good friend and fellow writer, and she and I brainstormed an exit strategy. After that weekend, I applied for a job at my alma mater, and contacted a lawyer friend about the process of getting divorced. Shortly after telling my husband I was leaving, my brother-in-law died. The key to comedy, and apparently tragedy, is timing. One of these days, I’m going to write about that experience: the sadness, the guilt, and the inexplicably delightful black comedy of the whole thing that still fills me with a sense of awe over how bizarre life can be.

Anyway, by April of 2013 I had a new job and had moved back to my hometown. I left a job that was killing my spirit and a marriage that was making me unbearably unhappy, I started a new job, became a single parent, and faced the realities of my father’s rapidly declining health. My mother had recently put my dad in a nursing home because she couldn’t leave him alone at home while she worked. He had developed dementia after fighting several life-threatening illnesses that honestly, he probably shouldn’t have survived. For years, he had battled diabetes, pulmonary hypertension, and levels of stress I can only imagine. Well, to be fair, my own current levels of stress are probably slowly killing me. By some unbelievable twist of fate, my dad received a heart transplant. I’m not sure that was best thing that could have happened. He really wasn’t healthy enough for the surgery, and after the transplant he slowly went crazy, nearly taking my mother with him in the process.

Not only did he become difficult to talk to–because he developed a pathological need to be right about everything–but he forgot to pay bills and drained my parents’ bank account buying books and online services for an imaginary business he believed he had started. My father had spent his adult life working hard to keep people with mental illness tethered to reality, yet at the end of his own life, there was no one to help him keep madness at bay. One day, my mom got a call at work from the police. They had found my dad wandering around a few blocks from home and he had no idea where her was. His hallucinations, unpredictable mood swings, and strange changes in personality were difficult enough to deal with, but after the police brought him home, she put him in a nearby nursing home to keep him safe.

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Image via Unsplash by rawpixel

After moving back to my hometown in March 2013, my son and I lived with my mom for a few months. She had the space and wanted the company. I wanted to save money and needed a safe space to deal with all the changes I was making. We gave each other support in a challenging time. She helped me look after my son, and I helped her deal with the things she didn’t want to face about my dad. There was paperwork, visits to the nursing home, and just accepting the fact that dad was never coming home. She felt guilty for leaving him there, but neither of us could quit our jobs to look after him.

At the same time, I was dealing with financial struggles that followed me from my marriage, an undiagnosed mental health issue with my then 6-year-old, anxiety over starting a new job, anxiety about starting a new job at my alma mater that I vowed to burn to the ground and salt the earth when I had left it, anxiety about being a single parent, anxiety about being single in my 40s, anxiety about what the hell I was going to do with the rest of my life, anxiety about how to finish writing a novel so I could graduate from my MFA program…well, you get the idea. Most days, I was just amazed I got out of bed and made it to work without driving into oncoming traffic. Somehow, I was still functioning as an adult.

I dealt with my emotional and psychological discord by crying a lot. In fact, crying while driving to work was part of my daily routine for a while. I wrote. I went for walks. I talked to friends. I lost myself in social media. I watched Hannibal religiously. I took short trips on the weekends, sometimes alone and sometimes with my son. I went to work, built good working relationships with my co-workers, and began accomplishing career goals. Oh, and I finished writing a novel and earned my MFA.

I also tried online dating after being “off-the-market” for more than 10 years. Dating in my 40s while dealing with nearly crippling anxiety, and battling a lifetime of poor body image and excruciating self-doubt was no small task. I amazed my friends by going on date after date after date with a laundry list of strangers. Some of the strangers were interesting, some boring, some confusing, some I liked, some I didn’t understand, and one was so psychologically damaging that I had to seek out a therapist to leave him. After my second session with her, she told me I was suffering from a mild case of Stockholm Syndrome, and that I was participating in a very dangerous relationship with a narcissist with borderline personality disorder.

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Image via Unsplash by Nicolas Picard

When she told me that, I actually breathed a sigh of relief because I thought the reason why that relationship wasn’t working was my fault. I have a complete set of steamer trunks full of issues that stem from my inability to trust people. I am no stranger to betrayal, and because I think my earliest betrayals occurred at home at a very impressionable age, as an adult, I have simply come to expect betrayal as a given. In fact, sometimes I think I actually court it. Consciously or unconsciously, I seek out relationships with people I know will eventually disappointment me. I open myself up to people who see me for what I am: a safe, warm place to rest while they put their own pieces back together. Once they figure their own issues out, they move on or continue to abuse my kindness until I say enough is enough.

I’m tired of living like that. I’m tired of building walls to protect myself from the thing I want the most: love. But not just any kind of love. I want respectful, reliable, unconditional love. Love that takes work on the part of both people involved. Love that’s worth fighting for. Love that comforts me and puts my fears to rest, or at least makes them more manageable.

My anxiety has been very active lately. But to be fair, the reasons why are no mystery. I have been consistently underemployed for the past several years. I went from living paycheck to paycheck with the saving grace of health benefits, to living without paychecks and no health insurance, to living from considerably smaller paycheck to paycheck with no health insurance. That’s where I’m at right now. In the midst of a financial crisis, trying to figure out how to get a better job, better pay, dig myself out of debt, and rebuild my credit rating. Those are all valid concerns for a single parent with unpaid bills and a late rent payment hanging over her head.

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Image via Unsplash by John Baker

You would think that would be enough to worry about, right? But, thanks to the magical gift of anxiety, I’m also worried about being a good person. Or rather, being good enough. Am I attractive enough to be appealing to potential sexual partners? Will I ever meet someone I’d like to build a life with? Am I talented enough to keep writing? Will I ever have a job that pays me enough to not only get out of debt, but also buy a house and go on vacations? Will I ever trust myself enough to dismantle the walls I’ve built to keep myself safe?

These are the questions that keep my from falling asleep at night. The fears that drive me to binge eat, skip going to the gym, and stop writing for weeks at a time. My pattern of bad habits often leads me to fantasize about a self-fulfilling prophecy that ends with me dying alone surrounded by empty bourbon bottles, ice cream containers, and the pages of an unfinished novel or memoir.

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Image via Unsplash by David Zawila

I don’t have a crystal ball. I don’t know what happens next. What I do know is that I am in charge of creating my future. Or, at the very least, I am in charge of making better choices so that my future is a bit brighter. All I’m really hoping for is a better job, stable pay, and access to health insurance so that my mental health needs are met through medication and therapy. I’m not asking for a lot. And, I haven’t given up hope yet either. I believe things will get better. They usually do. I’ll be sure to let you know how things turn out, so stay tuned.

What Dreams May Come

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The Nightmare, Henry Fuseli, 1781

“Dreams are today’s answers to tomorrow’s questions.” ~ Edgar Cayce

I have a recurring dream. You know the one. No, not the one about being naked in public. The other one. And no, it wasn’t the one about showing up to an exam after missing every class for the semester. It was definitely a stress-related dream, like the other two, but this particular dream is a recurring one that many of you may have had at least once in your life. On a regular basis, I have the teeth falling out of my mouth dream. I say dream, but you might say nightmare. Tom-A-to…tom-AH-to. If you had some of my nightmares, or had the teeth falling out dream as often as I have, you might not be as worked up about having it.

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Image by Yingpis Kalayom via Unsplash

I’ve had variations of this dream for as long as I can remember, and it usually occurs during high-stress periods of my life. Guess what? I’m stressed. And you probably are too. If you have a pulse and are not a chronically deluding yourself about how well you’re managing things in your life, then you are stressed.

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Image via American Psychological Association

The good news is, sometimes our subconscious mind speaks to us in dreams and let’s us know we aren’t completely alone in our struggle. We have our own instincts and internal compasses to guide us through. Since having my teeth fall out is a recurring theme in dreamland, I’ve come to appreciate this dream as a sign that there is something happening in my life that I need to address immediately. And, fortunately, it is usually something I have control over and can manage with the right course of action and attention to the problem. I don’t panic when I have this dream. Oddly enough, I am comforted by it, because when the dream arrives, it tells me that I am almost ready to deal with the situation that is causing me stress.

Great, but what do these dreams actually mean, and why should you be concerned about having them? Well, according to a website dedicated to this particular type of dream, the symbol of teeth have both positive and negative meanings in our dreams.

Negative Meanings

  • Insecurities, especially about a personal loss
  • Anxiety about sexual experience
  • A compromise that is costly to you
  • Life changes and “growing pains”
  • Fear of becoming older

Positive Meanings

  • Signs of personal expansion
  • Wish or need to nurture yourself more carefully
  • An invitation to explore feelings of loss and personal growth
  • A call to look at your support system
  • The Jungian interpretation: Times of renewal and “rebirth”

I checked a lot of boxes in both the negative and positive columns. How about you? Any of these fears feel familiar? Again, are you alive?

A few years ago I was having the teeth falling out dream almost weekly. Beyond the regular stress of daily life – work, family, finances, and relationships – I lost my father and was in the process of grieving his death. He battled with a variety of health issues over an eight-year period, and spent the last two and a half years suffering with dementia and becoming a stranger to my family and me. His death was, in many ways, anticlimactic simply because I had been grieving the loss of his personality for several years as he lost his memory, developed bizarre habits, and eventually could no longer take care of himself. When my mother and I took him to the nursing home, he asked us where we were going when it was time to leave. At that point, he still had enough understanding of who he was, who we were, and that his life was about to change dramatically. It was heart breaking, and we began grieving for him that day.

Even though I did a lot of grieving during that time, obviously, my father’s death had an impact on me and I still find myself missing him at strange moments. Like when I completed my first novel, a supernatural slave narrative, I wrote as my thesis for the MFA in Writing Popular Fiction Program at Seton Hill University. Writing that novel caused me to have the teeth falling out dream on numerous occasions, but when I finished it and found out that my thesis passed,  I was one step closer to graduating. Both accomplishments filled me with a new sense of confidence about myself as a writer and also reminded me that I can achieve bigger goals if I put in the time and effort. These happy achievements were slightly tarnished by the fact that my dad, the person who encouraged me the most to be a writer and pursue my creative interests, will never be able to read my book or share in the joy I felt on graduation day.

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Image by Melanie Wasser via Unsplash

Wait. What does this have to do with the teeth falling out dream? Oh right, I was illustrating an example(s) of the kind of stress that can trigger the teeth falling out dream. But, it doesn’t take the death of a parent to make life stressful. I’m a divorced single parent who works full-time and writes part-time and is looking for a fresh start – a new job, new place to live, and maybe even a chance at a new romance. Honestly? I manage a lot of my life very well, but there are always things I can take a step back from to examine with a bit more clarity. What do I want to do to pay the bills so I can follow my dream of becoming a full-time writer? Where do I want to live? What am I looking for in a partner? Do I even need a partner?

Typically, when I have the teeth falling out dream, a bunch of teeth fall out of my mouth, or I’m yanking them out as I discover that they’ve come loose. The last time I had the dream, only one tooth was loose. When I looked at myself in the mirror, it easily came free between my fingers, but it didn’t look human. It was too big, like a great big honking horse tooth. Apparently, there was one major issue I needed to address, but my unconscious mind was already working on solving the problem. Shortly after having the dream, I found a therapist and began working toward extracting the cause of the tooth dream. I’ve since moved forward and have been managing the stress in my life a lot better. Sometimes, removing what causes stress from our lives alleviates the need for pulling teeth.

Sweet dreams.