There once was a time when stress for me had two settings only: the needle sat on 0 or it jumped straight to Level 10. An unsettling phone call from a loved one could send adrenaline shooting through me as rapidly as if you stepped on the gas and take your car from 0 to 100 mph in 0.3 seconds. I was often hurled into panic. Getting pulled into chaos and the craziness of family conflicts, or addiction-related crisis, was almost a daily event. I know by heart what that’s like (as detailed in my book Unhooked, a Mother’s Story of Unhitching from the Rollercoaster of her son’s addiction).
In those days, I was easily snared by gut-wrenching arguments with family members who were enmeshed in our situation. Sometimes I’d even get pulled in by strangers brought randomly into our life by virtue of the circumstances. Like a speeding pinball, I would be catapulted from those moments back to my constant wrestling-match fear and the heartache that tormented me night and day. I had no peace.
Returning to 0 after an episode of chaos wasn’t really that peaceful. Sadness resided in the quiet times, along with fear and dread as I waited for the next wave to crash or for bad news to come.
Back then my emotions could become ferocious alongside the stress. Have you ever tried to wrap your hands around a raging thunder storm, or attempted to calm a hurricane? Internally, that’s pretty much how it felt for me. The pressure was unbearable, sickening, overwhelming. And yet I had to function through my daily routine.
I remember reading the German saying: denn wir haben eine Krise der Verzweiflung erreicht in the SESH book for Nar-Anon families. It translates as: “For we have reached a crisis of desperation.”
Before my son entered recovery 4 years ago (and I began to work on recovering my own well-being from the long term effects of the chronic stress), I reached a crisis of desperation often. In fact, it happened constantly. Stress and desperation ruled my life. I was living beyond the red line, the panic zone, that miserable kind of stressed-out desperation that rises up with the madness that addiction brings with it. When addiction enters your life it feels as though a freight train is roaring through the house. And it keeps coming back! Many times my mind would race wildly and my heart would beat so fast that I would feel my pulse in different places all over my body, throbbing in my temples and neck. Level 10 stress becomes par for the course for a mother, daughter, father, brother, wife, etc., who are closely involved with someone in active addiction.
At least it is at first.
Once you begin seeking recovery, support and healing you do begin to level out. Somehow once recovery and support enter your life, the wave crashing moments don’t come as often, hit as hard, or last as long.
Since telling our family’s story, I now frequently receive emails and calls from frantic parents, relatives and others who are absolutely wracking their brains to figure out how to manage a life adjacent to active addiction. These are everyday people who are pulled into profoundly difficult circumstances.
One recent conversation was with a shell-shocked mom in a crisis of desperation herself. Only the night before, her son had shaken her awake, whispering and gesturing madly over her, “Mom, wake up!” He ranted frantically. “I need $200, they’re waiting outside! Mom, they’re going to kill me if I don’t pay them! They even said they’ll kill you!”
This desperate and scared mom once again pulled a handful of cash from a locked safe she’d recently felt the need to purchase for cash and valuables that often went missing.
“This threat is becoming common now!” She told me. “Do I believe it every time?” I noticed she sounded as tired as she did worried. “Am I truly to be afraid for his life? Should I fear for my own? Or…do you think maybe he’s manipulating me?”
Unfortunately, these insidious situations can come up all too frequently for those living with a loved one battling the disease of addiction. These are the moments that send a parent reeling. It feels like you’re falling off the world, unable to land. I’ve been through those intense situations and felt as though fuses were blowing in my brain. It was at times like an out-of-body experience. Sometimes I would get so stressed that I felt like I might start levitating! My brain felt like it was steaming and about to explode. Life became powerfully overwhelming. The combination of terror, exhaustion, worry and sorrow are like a herd of elephants standing on your chest.
So how does one respond? And more than that, how do we go on about normal life in the midst of the madness? How do we go in and face a demanding work day while dealing with something so horrendous at home? How can we go to bed, have another fitful night of sleep, and face another day? How do we go to the grocery store, fold the laundry, or ever have a normal, lighthearted conversation with anyone when nothing about life is normal? How can we accomplish a thing while going through this?
Truth be told, it was almost impossible for me at first and it didn’t get better overnight. It takes time, it’s a process.
While I certainly don’t want to minimize a threat that could lead to a tragedy, I have learned myself that most of the time in scenarios where money is supposedly needed to avoid physical harm, manipulation was absolutely involved.
Beyond than that, I also began to learn that we don’t have to jump into the madness and surge along with it. I have to be okay and level-headed to maintain a sane, peaceful, safe environment. Therefore, I had to develop the ability to not get pulled into the chaos or conflict. I learned that it’s actually wise not to.
Living with chronic stress has lasting effects.
Chronic, long-term stress does damage. Brain damage to be precise. Chronic stress actually changes the brain. Long-term stress changes the functions, structure and size of the brain. I am fascinated by the study of stress effects on the brain, by Madhumita Murgia, an educator for the Telegraph who compiled a report for Ted X. Medical research shows that stress begins in the Hypothalamus Pituitary Adrenal Axis (HPA Axis which interacts between the brain and the kidneys). When a stressor occurs, the HPA Axis immediately signals the kidneys to release the stress hormone cortisol, signaling the body to instant action. This is helpful in moments when we need a boost, like exercise, moments of danger etc. However, a long-term releasing of cortisol caused by chronic stress wreaks havoc on the body and brain. Areas of the brain inevitably become weakened and so then becomes our ability to deal with stress.
The prefrontal cortex is especially affected. This is the control center for concentration, decision-making, judgment and social interaction. As a result, fewer brain cells are made, making it more difficult to learn and remember things.
The long-term stress I experienced caused me to become very forgetful, hasty in my decisions, confused and socially awkward. Even more than usual! I also noticed that during that time of my life I became very clumsy.
At the time, it became obvious to me that I was heading for a crash if I didn’t get ahead of my stress. I knew I had to develop different responses for the ambush, crazy-making moments of chaos. There are solutions. There are ways to handle those stressful moments when cortisol becomes activated. There are also ways to reverse the effects.
What I found to be helpful for me in moments of chaos was stepping back, maybe going into another room and closing the door even if demands were still being aggressively made. Stepping away gives you a moment to collect yourself and not jump into the chaos. I would then take a moment to silently lift the burden off of myself and place it onto my Higher Power. Turning it over to my faith, praying “Please God, help us. Show me what to do. I believe you make all things possible, please make peace possible in the midst of what right now feels like insanity.”
I felt quiet relief in those moments.
Another method I still use when plunged into urgency is to allow myself four deep, full breaths. Deep breathing floods oxygen to our extremities and calms us enough to think about what the options are. This breathing technique never fails to calm my mind.
If I had a longer break from the situation, I would go for a quick walk, bike ride or run.
If the situation was still spiking, I knew I needed help and support. This is when I called upon a trusted friend. If things continued to escalate and I felt it necessary, I contacted law enforcement. I did whatever I felt was helpful to restore sanity, peace and safety to my environment.
One thing I stopped doing was allowing those moments to force me into a quick decision.
When I started to respond this way instead of accelerating with the situation, I began to actually sense myself calming down in the midst of the chaos. I found then that the atmosphere around me would grow more calm as well. Over time, life became more calm and manageable. Addiction, terror and chaos were no longer calling the shots.
From my work towards my own recovery I have learned that eventually thicker skin and calmer responses do prevail.
Again, this wasn’t easy. It took time and effort. It is definitely a process. Sometimes I’d fail, but I kept getting stronger. I was determined to have a peaceful, sane life; I would therefore keep working toward it. I agree with Napoleon Hill that “Effort fully releases its reward only after a person refuses to quit.”
As far as undoing the damage, it was noted in the Ted X report that exercise and meditation are two of the most effective ways of reversing cortisol damage, as they involve deep breathing and mindfulness. It doesn’t mean we have to start spending hours in the gym or meditating the morning away! However, these truly are great forms of self-care. I personally try to exercise at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week. I also meditate 10-20 minutes every morning to prepare myself for facing the day.
For me, these rituals have boosted my strength and changed my life. We have to make ourselves a priority. We all can find 20 minutes here and there for a brisk walk or some other activity to get the blood flowing. And even if it’s for only 90 seconds in a quiet room or hallway, pulling away to breathe, meditate and release pressure will produce great results over time.
It’s a process.
These days, we have come so far in that area that I barely remember what those moments were like. That is how permeating peace can be. Not only does life begin to settle down and stabilize, but peace can soothe even the memories of traumatic days gone by.
The process of recovery leads not only to peace, but also to the deepest kind of relief.
Wishing you peace, strength and hope,
If you find yourself pulled into these kinds of moments, know that you are not alone. It is no way to live and is not something anyone should handle alone. Others have been right where you are and have come through to a much better life. There is hope for peace and relief. Reach out for support; send a message, make a call, attend a meeting. There is help and there is hope. We can get control of stress by not letting the stress control us. Peace is possible. You don’t have to bear it alone.
Annie Highwater is a Writer, Speaker, Podcast Host and Family Advocate. She has a particular interest in family pathology and concepts of dysfunction, addiction, alcoholism and conflict. Annie published her memoir, Unhooked: A Mother’s Story of Unhitching from the Roller Coaster of Her Son’s Addiction, in 2016. Her story sheds light on the personal challenges facing the affected parents and family members, and illustrates how family dynamics both help and hinder the recovery process. Annie’s second book, Unbroken, Navigating the Madness of Family Dysfunction, Addiction, Alcoholism and Heartache was published in August of 2018. She resides in Columbus, Ohio and enjoys writing, long distance running, hiking, the great outdoors and visiting her son in California as often as possible.