Two years ago, I wonder what would have come to my mind if someone were to say the word, “safety.”
I assume that I would have thought of precautionary measures – to wear gloves and safety goggles in microbiology lab, to bear a helmet when riding a bike. My responses would have been topical, uniform. Following rules, doing what I am told, and keeping people happy encompass safety. The lack of danger. Survival. I would consider myself safe. I am a safe person living a safe life.
I grew up in a small town in a nice neighborhood. My dad would get frustrated with me in high school because I would constantly leave my car unlocked in the driveway with my band director’s $10,000 french horn unprotected in the back seat. I would never lock the door behind me when leaving the house. The potential of a thief stealing my instrument out of my car never crossed my mind. The possibility of criminal activity was never a concern of mine. I felt too confident that I was safe, often to the point of naivety.
When I look back on every year of my life, I am able to clearly and plainly see that I have always been safe. Protected by loving parents, shielded by strict rules, I remained safe and oblivious to the dangers of the world around me.
So it honestly blows my mind that today I struggle so intensely with feelings of safety on a moment by moment basis. Living in another small town, barely finding a reason to leave my house, I struggle to find concrete feelings of safety. I have to go to great lengths to convince myself that I am safe, to create safety for myself, to find people that feel safe. The smallest things feel terrifying and dangerous to me, though I could still describe my life as safe upon reflection.
In the last couple of weeks in treatment, I learned about different methods of avoidance, including behavioral avoidance, cognitive avoidance, and the use of safety signals.
I can remember sitting in the living room, the second level of the residential building, on Thanksgiving. Liz, seated in a chair to my left, was leading the A-Stage group on avoidance before lunch, covering for another therapist who was off for the holiday. Sarah was sitting across from me on one of the uncomfortable, beige couches. There weren’t many of us in A-Stage group today. I felt delirious from lack of sleep and consistent panic following the arrival of the new patient this week.
The three of us that were present for group did our emotional check-in and Liz introduced the concept of avoidance to us. Obviously this was not a new concept, considering we all have an eating disorder, the epitome of avoidance. Our eating disorders helped each of us avoid or distract from something bigger that we didn’t want to face.
We went around the group and discussed one of our own methods of avoidance, starting with Sarah. Josey went next and then on my turn, I look at Sarah and say, “I don’t really ever use avoidance,” with a straight face.
Sarah busts out laughing.
“Oh. Okay, good. You’re joking. I was about to be very concerned,” said Liz.
“Yeah, basically everything I do is avoidance.”
Before doing this module, I didn’t even realize how many of my thoughts and behaviors are driven by avoidance. But upon reflection, I can see that a lot of what drives me both behaviorally and cognitively is avoidance.
I filled out this worksheet the night before group on Thanksgiving. I could probably list more now. I become more aware of my avoidance every day and can plainly see it in others.
I avoid at all costs. I have done a lot of my more subtle, general avoidance for as long as I can remember. I’ve avoided eye contact, avoided talking and vulnerability, and I’ve avoided thinking about negative things that upset me since I was small. I text people instead of calling or meeting in person so I can hide behind a screen. I avoid disagreements, arguments, and conflict. I mindlessly scroll on instagram for hours to avoid thoughts and emotions coming up at night.
So obviously, on some level, I haven’t always felt safe in every way. Intense urges to avoid are not born from feelings of safety, trust, and security.
One of the packets from trauma group my last week read, “Avoidance in many ways is the opposite of trust.”
I remember reading that sentence and thinking I’ve never identified so strongly with a statement in my life. Avoidance is the opposite of trust. It is what one does when they do not feel safe, secure, and confident. Avoidance is full of fear. Avoidance is a safe haven in itself.
Today, if someone were to ask me what comes to mind when I hear the word “safety,” I would answer a little differently. I still think of being cautious and precautionary. Of following rules and doing what I’m supposed to.
But I also think about comfort and security. Of trust. Safety is being at home at my house in my own bed with my dog. Safety is being with my best friend, my parents, my older brother. Safety is trusting that they will protect me and love me unconditionally, no matter what. A small town with little to no violence is safe. Predictability, schedules, rituals, normality, and rigid rules are safe.
But I am also realizing that my current realm of safety is pretty small right now. An entire life alone in my bed in my house with my dog is lonely. Avoiding strangers and people I don’t know is isolating. Being inflexible and scared is limiting.
I need to learn to trust myself. I am trying to trust that I can face these painful, uncomfortable emotions and feelings. I want to trust that I can do hard things, scary things, risky things. Trust that I can be brave. That I am strong. I am trying to trust that Jesus’s sacrifice ultimately protects me eternally from anything I cannot handle. And with this armor I can feel safe.
Trusting is terrifying. Breaking rules, changing plans, trying new things are all terrifying. But I think they’re all often worth it. They’re worth the fear. Though it’s obviously important to survive, I would like to thrive. To really live.
If I can trust myself, to truly feel safe and secure with myself, in my own body, that is the ultimate form of safety. That is what I am going to strive for.