Why I’ve Stopped Living Like Each Day is My Last

Recently, I had a jarring insight in therapy. Our marriage therapist was remarking on the fact that we have a high tolerance for living in high-demand, high-stress environments. We’ve been living like each day is our last since we were kids.

Apparently? This isn’t healthy. Who knew?

As children we were both raised in oppressive religious environments. On top of this, my husband’s family of origin was always teetering on the brink of breakup. My family was always teetering on the brink of church scandal.

As children, we learned how to live on hyper-alert. We were taught that tolerating abuse was normal and healthy.

As adults, we know how to live in chaos. We know how to manage and juggle and try to keep everything from falling apart.

Here’s the Big Lesson I’ve learned: no matter how hard you try, shit falls apart anyway.

This is a relief, actually. It’s not MY job to keep everything together. It’s not MY fault if things fall apart.

Additionally, living in survival mode is not a healthy thing. This is what is scaring me right now. I don’t know any better than to drive myself onward. Ever faster. Ever stronger. Always biting off more than I can chew. I am so driven that I am modeling that for my children. I am showing them that keeping up the frenzied pace is good and normal and healthy.

Furthermore, I am my own harshest critic. I criticize myself before someone else has a chance to do that. As a kid, I spanked myself. I don’t have mean thoughts about other people, all my mean thoughts are about myself.

I punish myself.

I never lashed out at the unfair, abusive living conditions. I simply internalized it and told myself to figure out a way to survive.

I didn’t leave.

Do you know how much courage it takes to leave an abusive situation? So much. I didn’t have that kind of courage. I am in awe of those who do.

People tell me I write courageously and vulnerably and the truth is: writing courageously is easy compared to the courage it takes to leave an abusive church. I didn’t have enough courage to do that. What I did do? I resigned myself to a life of misery. My church had to fall apart before I worked up the courage to leave.

The thing is, when dysfunction is your normal, you adapt accordingly. For children like me who were raised in high-demand, religious environments we simply adapted and learned how to survive. Hostile environments were our normal.

It’s just sick. You never give peace or happiness a chance because healthiness is abnormal. A major part of my recovery has been realizing my addiction to THE WORLD IS ENDING. Nothing seemed real unless it was fraught with adrenaline.

Happiness and peace feels abnormal. In fact, it feels damn uncomfortable.

But here’s the truth: human beings can live in survival mode for awhile. But eventually, it takes a toll. My marriage has taken a huge, direct hit. We are finally beginning to understand the long-term toll the Survival Lifestyle has taken on us.

Human beings are not supposed to fight unending wars. Something gives out. First goes our empathy. Then goes our health, perhaps. Then we lose our sanity.

I am finally admitting that I am human and I can’t do it all.

I need help.

And I need to keep getting help until I’m all the way helped.

I need to stop living like each day is my last. I need to sloooow down and just live.

  • http://mattiechatham.wordpress.com/ Hännah

    EE, thanks for being vulnerable with this. It’s helping and encouraging to me as I’m sorting out some parallel struggles. Realizing how abnormal this way of living (all I’ve ever known) is has been a huge thing. I’m still fighting the guilt hangover, but now I know it’s there…

  • http://www.facebook.com/jen.singer Jen Singer

    Well said and well done. Hypervigilance kills. Take care of yourself above all, and then make a new normal.

  • http://www.ericpazdziora.com/ Eric

    Why not live like each day is your first. Because it is.

  • Anonymous

    Powerful & I get this.
    ~ Wendy

  • Margaret

    think I needed to hear that today: survival mode is not healthy. Thank you!

  • http://evenonesparrow.blogspot.com even one sparrow

    Wise thoughts. It takes a lot to realize this reality. I think that beyond your background, our culture tells us we need to be doing EVERYTHING or we’re not being the best we can be. For people who are perfectionists or who have very high standards for themselves (I’m talking about me, here), it only adds to the pressure. I’ve had to learn to slow down a LOT once I had kids. I simply cannot push myself the way I used to and have energy for them.

  • Joanie

    I loved the “no matter how hard you try, shit falls apart” part. That was my big lesson over the summer. It stinks, doesn’t it, but I’m glad we’re both wiser for it now, and I’m glad you’re hanging in there, EE!

  • Tricia

    Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. In therapy now and realizing that I can just relax. Feels so strange after so long. <3

  • Karey

    Ditto the yes yes yes. I’m always saying how I looooove your posts – it’s kind of embarrassing, like I’m a groupie or something. The truth is, I’m just glad to read what I think.

  • Angela

    For the record: You *are* freakin’ courageous. Leaving an abusive church as it is falling apart is nonetheless LEAVING the abusive church. You did it when you were ready, when you knew you had it in you to stand up to the resistance that you would face on the other side of that decision. That was a huge act of courage, an act that goes on and on every day that you choose to live outside the system you were taught as a child. Bravo, my friend!

  • Paul Merrill

    I think we’re only “all the way helped” when we get to heaven.

  • Shannon Coe

    Elizabeth, Everything you said…It was my life too. I am so glad you got this break through. Christ never said to live every day as if our last. That’s some “thought up” quote that would be quaint for other people. All we have to do is live everyday as if for Him. And sometimes that is sitting on a well talking, or taking a walk with friends, or eating a nice meal with the lost. That is how our Lord did it. I love His ‘normal’ and glad you and I have found it. Blessings dear one.

  • KatR

    Yeah, I didn’t leave until things fell apart either. I daydream sometimes about things being different, about telling someone off and walking out in a huff. The reality, though, was that I didn’t even know that the environment I was in was abusive until I left and saw what normalcy looked like. I was run down and depressed and thoroughly miserable, to be sure, but I thought that was the way it was supposed to be. That if I just “persevered” like the Bible said, through the misery, then I would get my reward. It didn’t dawn on me until I got some clarity that the writers of the Bible were encouraging Christians to persevere against, you know, lions and be-headings, not the crazy ass behavior of other Christians.

  • http://turquoisegates.com/ Genevieve Thul@Turquoise Gates

    This resonates so deeply with me, I hardly know what to say about it. God has us in survival mode, has for years – cancer, and Amy’s illness, and it just never seems to end. But the church stuff has. I was just re-reading a piece I wrote about how being a Christian felt like being in jail because I identified all those performance-based, do-or-die ideologies that I was taught in the sick church with God Himself. I wondered if it might speak to you as you process this stuff. I wrote it right after I came out of the psych ward when I had my complete and total mental break after being excommunicated from the last in a string of abusive churches. We’re at a mainline Protestant church now – a liturgical, peaceful, orderly church. It’s peaceful. I don’t have to work hard at anything. And yes, it’s totally, completely uncomfortable. I am a deer in headlights simply because I am NOT performing there. Odd. Anyway – my piece on my time in jail – read if you wish. I love you, EE! And miss your face!! (and your shortness, tee hee!) http://www.turquoisegates.com/2011/09/my-time-in-jail.html

  • bob

    Well, one thing about your wisdom (there’s a lot of it), it sure is hard won. But there’s a pretty high “ouch” factor for the reader (well, at least this reader) in all the negatives you heap on yourself. I’ve read enough of your posts to see a lot of that can come from the territory of your past but it looks like you know that and are “working on that” as they say. I’ll just say what helps me at hard times–God made only one you (ever) and you’re here for good reasons So, the thin skin you mention in one post can be looked at as the tender heart that lets you write and appreciate great poetry. I’m not saying always look at the glass as half full maybe when it isn’t. I’m just saying it’s ok to appreciate yourself.You can see the fruits of your labors in all the responses here and to the other posts. Keep going.

  • Roxanne

    I once tried to explain to a therapist how insanely frightened I was of the proverbial “other shoe” dropping. I could feel it, I told him. It’s about to drop and I don’t know what to do or how to make it not drop. You know what he told me? “It’s going to drop. Because shit happens. Something bad is going to happen to you again at some point in your life. What you need to do is make sure you are able to handle that.” And that’s what he helped me do. We can’t live in worry. We can only trust that we will be able to handle the next thing that happens – good and bad. You can, and you will. xo

  • Liz

    It is far harder to stop abusing myself than it was to tell them to stop abusing me.

  • Kim Prince

    It’s remarkable how many people can identify with this. I hope we all get help (I’m working on it myself) and then maybe the world be much chiller. Or at least it will seem so.

  • Katie W

    I work with at-risk kids, mostly from “high stress, high demand” environments. Guess what happens? They are DRAMATIC… peace and even normality are strange concepts. Maybe now I can tell them…. we are not supposed to fight unending wars. Beautiful!

  • Aprille

    Thank you so much for this post. I didn’t realize I’ve been doing this too…while it wasn’t nearly as abusive as your background, I too was raised in a very fundamentalist background. On top of that, I’ve been an Army wife for the last five years with a year of military separation before that. As a military spouse, I have that “live every day as if it’s your last” hanging over my head all the time when he is deployed. You get it engrained into you. And when we are together, especially if it’s for only a short time, it’s full of adrenaline and a “honeymoon” type rush.

    Thankfully, we are leaving it. We are getting out. It isn’t abusive in the same sense as your church was, but there is a sense in which enduring war and being told what to do constantly by superiors is definitely a different form of abuse. Only 4 more months and then we are free.

    I was thinking the other day how scared I was. Because I’m so filled with hope that once we are out we can start breathing again and living our lives. But then, what if? what if he can’t get a job? what if something horrible happens? what if I lose a baby? what if there’s a car accident? And I had to stop and just tell myself…hey girl! Enjoy this peace. This is the way life is supposed to be. Full of peace and joy and freedom and not constantly waiting for the next shoe to drop.

    Thanks again. I could really really relate to this.

  • Maryann

    Hope this isn’t a dupe (having tech problems)…I was raised in an alcoholic family, and some of the things you discuss remind me of character traits I developed. Have you ever thought about going to open meetings of Adult Children of Alcoholics (can be from other dysfunctional families too) or AlAnon? For example, see the list of character traits here. http://www.adultchildren.org/lit/Laundry_List.php Here are the home pages of ACA and AlAnon http://www.adultchildren.org/ and http://www.al-anon.alateen.org/ If you don’t have time for meetings, they have lots of great daily readers. Just an idea. P.S. No idea what that star thing is…hope I’m not accidentally giving you low stars or something. Technodork here.

  • Anonymous

    I had a similar conversation with my counselor today. I admitted that I’m afraid to trust again and sometimes feel completely numb to it. It’s an effect of living in vigilance. The words, “today is the day of your salvation” and “work out your salvation. . .” ring through my ears. She reminded me of Mary and we talked about how she must have felt before and after Jesus was born. It was constant crisis and conflict. Just when things would seem to settle, something else would happen. Yet, it was all good. We read about her and see the good. She felt it all, the good and the bad. I wonder if she ever felt numb.

  • http://www.mymusingcorner.wordpress.com/ Lana

    Yes, that is very true about depression and such things becoming so normal one can have trouble imagining any other way.

  • Heatherjanes

    I feel similarly as the eldest in a large Quiverfull family. Thing is, I did fight back starting at age 12, calling the police on my Dad at age 14, and leaving it all behind at age 17. Yet at age 30 I still feel most comfortable in dysfunctional and chaotic situations, and work most clearheadedly under pressure and in risky environments. These situations feel like home even though I have come to realize I don’t want to live like that and it makes me tired. It has damaged and stressed my marriage too and I am struggling with what is the right course of action. I respect the work you have done and are doing, appreciate your honesty on this difficult subject, and am thankful that there are people like you who are open about the gradual nature of this journey away from toxic faith, willing to share what forms it can take.
    I read your blog and others and recently decided to share my journey too.

    http://becomingworldly.wordpress.com/

  • Daring to hope

    I want to write but I can’t. I know what you’re writing about. I’ve lived it too. We are healing thank God. It’s a process, one step at a time. I feel like I’ve lived in a dream world for most of my life and now I see a lot of the dream was a nightmare. I’m seeking a new life but the old responsibilities keep me tied down. I’m supporting the abuser in his recovery, but I’m still living with the effects of an under functioning provider and 3 church and father abused teens. I want to write, so many thoughts, but I can’t, I don’t know how.

  • http://www.gabbingwithgrace.com/ Grace at {Gabbing with Grace}

    First off, just found your blog through a friend, and immediately all ready love it…feel a kindred of spirit! (abusive church, home, etc….just those *small* similarities =) Anyway, I feel like I’ve lived in this too and know hard it is to pull oneself out of that inner focus that becomes unhelpful. And, I’ve had those same compliments on vulnerable writing, etc. but the truth is vulnerable writing has not been all that hard for me (with the exception of a few key circumstances), but what’s been harder has been the crazy amount of effort to lift myself out of unhealthy patterns and mindsets as a result of growing up with the kind of crazies that I did. and in some ways it’s been harder to quiet that inner critic as you mention…I’m 35 and only now really learning what it means to be nice to myself. I relate so much to this post. Thank you thank you thank you for sharing!

  • http://www.everydaygyaan.com/ Corinne Rodrigues

    I so get what you mean. I had gotten into the habit of living on the edge and trying to get happy was a hard habit to form. Thanks for sharing.