• jess

Comfort in Chaos

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the behaviors and relations between my mother and I.


Why? Because she’s essentially the only human I’ve seen in months…


Also, because in the past 20 years we haven’t been able to stand each other for more than a few hours at a time. Somehow, I've been in her home without any other social buffers for nearly 3 months. So how the fuck has this situation been working out?


I’ve made some interesting observations in the past month, in particular. There have been mild days where we were at each other's throats. There have also been some rough points that culminated in our increased bonding.


How odd - considering increased stress absolutely results in my increased dickheadedness on any normal day.


This morning, my wheels were turning as I thought about these developments. A correlative epiphany moment struck me down while I paced around the yard with Archie. What if this is all because of the influence of an un-acknowledged process outside ourselves?


Why have we both been bonded together, working cohesively together in the past few months? Sure, because we both have a better understanding of our own mental illnesses and how they interplay. Yes, because we’ve been working on talking more effectively and listening to each other.


But ultimately… I think another big factor has been at play in our improved relationship.


One word. Chaos.



Extreme external stress; decreased internal stress


So, to be clear, there has been tension between us during my prolonged visit. Things were building at times. We’ve had some disagreements and I’ve had some tears (my mom doesn’t show emotions outside of anger - don’t worry about it). We've had some challenging times.


Then in the midst of a smoldering "I hate you mom!" teenage-throwback streak, last week we had a massive storm blow through the area. A huge thunderstorm with wind over 75mph pummeled the Midwest, spawned dozens of tornados, and destroyed a lot of property. Apparently this weather phenomenon is called a “derecho,” I’ve since learned. News to me.


During this sudden weather outburst, we found ourselves running around the yard, working together and trying to secure anything that could become a flying projectile missile. We grabbed the two broken dogs and got down into the basement as the windows looked like panes of glass on a vehicle, mid-car wash. We hunkered until the storm passed and we lost power.


But the fun wasn't over!


Then, we spent the next two days without any electricity, air conditioning, or forms of entertainment. Living in the country on a well-water system, this also meant we had no water for ourselves or the dozen animals on the farm. When you’re talking about 8 horses in the middle of Summer… uh… it’s a big fucking problem to be without running water.


Let me be clear; individually, when my mom and I get stressed, we both get passive aggressive and snappy. I’m an asshole on my best days - put me under pressure and I explode. She’s a neurotic ball of energy - upset her schedule and watch her spontaneously combust. When these two high vibration, bitchy energies interact, we normally get into knock-out fights thanks to our agitations. We have always had a hard time being in each other’s presence for this reason.

In this period of extreme upset and stress… one would think that we would be squabbling more often and intensely.


Let me be clear; individually, when my mom and I get stressed, we both get passive aggressive and snappy. I’m an asshole on my best days - put me under pressure and I explode. She’s a neurotic ball of energy - upset her schedule and watch her spontaneously combust. When these two high vibration, bitchy energies interact, we normally get into knock-out fights thanks to our agitations. We have always had a hard time being in each other’s presence for this reason.


But this time, instead of trying to rip each other’s heads off, as usual, for the days that this minor emergency was taking place, we were completely peaceful. Unified. Supportive. Chilled the fuck out.


But this time, instead of trying to rip each other’s heads off, as usual, for the days that this minor emergency was taking place, we were completely peaceful. Unified. Supportive. Chilled the fuck out.

We got through it together and there weren’t even raised voices or sighs of exasperation.


Why?


Immediately, I was curious and analytical about the reduced stress responses and pro-social behaviors that instinctively took over. Something had involuntarily happened for both of us and I was beyond intrigued.


How were two neurotic nightmares capable of finding peace and banding together when the worst of the worst was taking place?




When Chaos is the norm


The thing is, my mom and I have both lived lives defined by chaos. We’re used to things going awry. We’re accustomed to unexpected events tearing apart all our prior plans and good intentions. We’ve had the rugs pulled out from under us more often than feuding Loony Tunes.


I truly don’t think either of us knows what it’s like to have peaceful, directed days.


The thought of a relaxed, perfectly executed day actually makes me a little uncomfortable - “What’s coming next?” is my first response. I’m more riled up than ever when good things are happening to me. Surely, the other shoe is about to drop.


The thought of a relaxed, perfectly executed day actually makes me a little uncomfortable - “What’s coming next?” is my first response. I’m more riled up than ever when good things are happening to me. Surely, the other shoe is about to drop.

In truth, I feel more comfortable when there is chaos swirling all around me. At least then I can stop guessing what kind of clusterfuck is coming next - it’s right in front of my face! I have things to work on. I have fires to put out. I can be distracted from my own brain emergencies and put my energy towards the upset that’s dancing right before my eyes.


This is why I end up working in poorly managed organizations. This is why I stick it out with roller coaster relationships. This is why I justify all sorts of dysfunctional living situations. This is why arguing with my mom feels as natural as breathing most of the time.


I’m comfortable when everything is burning to the ground. When my emotions are being yanked all over the place. When there is so much stimuli that I have to act with immediacy to reduce the internal discomfort - an excuse to dissociate for my own lazy avoidance.


This is a fairly common trauma response, I’m told. After decades of living in extreme entropy… well… you start to find comfort in the chaos. It’s all that you know. It’s what you inherently expect around every turn. So, it’s actually easier when there is validation for your expectations.


This is a fairly common trauma response, I’m told. After decades of living in extreme entropy… well… you start to find comfort in the chaos. It’s all that you know. It’s what you inherently expect around every turn. So, it’s actually easier when there is validation for your expectations.

I think everything is about to implode, whether or not that’s true. When things DO implode, my worrying was just positively reinforced by the occurrence of exactly what I anticipated. Now I can focus on the fuckery and my brain can stop daydreaming up worst case scenarios. When things DON’T implode, I never find that relief. My worrying pathways never quiet down. An invisible threat is still headed my way.


For me, and for many others, unexpected entropic events are a bittersweet combination of frustrating negative occurrences and beautiful, self-pacifying validation.


For trauma survivors, chaos can be comfortable in daily living. Keep this sentiment in mind, we'll come back.




Learned grounding


All talk of reliance on small, daily entropy reliance and anxiety aside, there’s an interesting effect on my brain and body when something REALLY goes wrong.


Previously, I’ve spoken about my brain’s learned response to CALM DOWN during times of extreme unsettling. While other people lose their heads, I feel a sense of peace and determination in crazy moments. It’s an interesting mechanism that I assume can be traced back to my wildest experiences in life - a “benefit” of living this traumatized life.


Previously, I’ve spoken about my brain’s learned response to CALM DOWN during times of extreme unsettling. While other people lose their heads, I feel a sense of peace and determination in crazy moments. It’s an interesting mechanism that I assume can be traced back to my wildest experiences in life - a “benefit” of living this traumatized life.

When everything goes to hell, my brain goes somewhere else.


Half of the time on a completely normal day I’m a ball of nervous, riled up energy. I’m agitated and restless, unhappy no matter what I’m doing, and “on pause” as I wait for inevitable disaster to overtake my day.


On the other hand, in a moment of acute stress and emergency, everything slows down to let me react with logic and purpose. My energy completely shifts towards “what needs to happen,” and, “what can I do right now,” whereas the rest of my existence is plagued with questions like, “what’s coming around the next turn,” and, “how will I ever survive the garbage headed my way tomorrow.”


Things go wrong, other people freak out; simultaneously, I’m catapulted into the peaceful eye of the storm. My calm energy effectively “balances out” the panicked response of anyone else present. My brain immediately starts ticking off check lists, taking stock of where we are and what we have to accomplish to rectify the situation. I start calling out directions. I act as the pack leader, anchoring everyone in what we know, what we should anticipate, and what we can functionally change in that moment.


Things go wrong, other people freak out; simultaneously, I’m catapulted into the peaceful eye of the storm. My calm energy effectively “balances out” the panicked response of anyone else present. My brain immediately starts ticking off check lists, taking stock of where we are and what we have to accomplish to rectify the situation. I start calling out directions. I act as the pack leader, anchoring everyone in what we know, what we should anticipate, and what we can functionally change in that moment.

During this sudden windstorm and subsequent power/water outage, I think my mom and I both went into our calm, leader mode. Determination and inner strength were drummed up; personal dramas and interpersonal frustrations were dialed back.


While we could have easily turned against each other in our anxieties and fears, instead we became one cooperative unit, united against the external issues that we both faced.


It's not a coincidence.




Survival mechanisms, at work.


My hypothesis is that less energy is sent to the emotional center of our brains in times of extreme unsettlement. Normally, I spend a lot of energy here, prancing around my limbic system so I can drudge up old memories, get anxious about my future, and feel all sorts of ways about the ways I've fucked my life.


But it’s not all that important to be thinking about your fulfillment on this earth, twenty years of hurt feelings, or your honey when you’re facing an immediate threat.


It only makes sense that more blood is shuttled toward the brainstem, and later, to the pre-frontal cortex when a real danger is detected. First, get yourself safe with your primitive survival instincts; choose your fight/flight/freeze/fawn response and jump into action. Later, use those brain juices to figure out what the fuck you need to accomplish with efficacy and accuracy, so as not to waste precious energetic resources.


It only makes sense that more blood is shuttled toward the brainstem, and later, to the pre-frontal cortex when a real danger is detected. First, get yourself safe with your primitive survival instincts; choose your fight/flight/freeze/fawn response and jump into action. Later, use those brain juices to figure out what the fuck you need to accomplish with efficacy and accuracy, so as not to waste precious energetic resources.

In the moments that the dark, then vividly teal, sky was quickly descending upon us from the West, we were shoved into action by our lizard brains - inciting physical response to gather our beloved dogs and dodge into the basement. Over the next two days as we encountered immediate and undeniable emergencies, our logical centers for forming reasonable “human” thoughts were engaged - helping us to think critically about the challenges at hand and the paths of least resistance.


There’s no room for spending energy unwisely in an emergency. There’s no reason for unnecessary mental processes to be draining the battery. And therefore, there’s no extra power for those emotional, reactive parts of the brain that normally define my daily mental landscape to be running away with me.


There’s no room for spending energy unwisely in an emergency. There’s no reason for unnecessary mental processes to be draining the battery. And therefore, there’s no extra power for those emotional, reactive parts of the brain that normally define my daily mental landscape to be running away with me.

Anxiety, dissipated. Frustration, deemed useless. Worry, already consumed by the situation at hand.


And so, we work together calmly and reasonably, instead of battling ourselves and each other in the midst of a flaming dumpster fire.




Larger conclusions - the real chaotic epiphany


So, thinking about how this trauma brain is wired to use energy wisely in times of ACTUAL threat (not just imagined neuroses) is one thing. It can be explained fairly easily on a physiological, survival basis.


But for me, the most interesting connection was drawing a line between world events and our ongoing positive relationship developments.


I guess my real epiphany moment came this morning when I realized that my mom and I didn’t just get along for those handful of difficult days following our stormy emergency because of the chaos around us… I’ll be motherfucked if that wasn’t the force behind our relatively-cooperative living for this entire visit.


I guess my real epiphany moment came this morning when I realized that my mom and I didn’t just get along for those handful of difficult days following our stormy emergency because of the chaos around us… I’ll be motherfucked if that wasn’t the force behind our relatively-cooperative living for this entire visit.

I think we can all agree; the world has been burning for a few months now. Specifically, the US has been the epicenter of the highly flammable material. This year has been nothing but chaos, potential danger, and unrest.


In the midst of this increasing global risk, I’ve been here, at my mom’s house, safely watching the flaming bag of shit burn brightly from a distance. And oh boy, how we’ve been watching it.


In the midst of this increasing global risk, I’ve been here, at my mom’s house, safely watching the flaming bag of shit burn brightly from a distance. And oh boy, how we’ve been watching it.

My mom is one of those people who constantly has the news on in the background. She is obsessed with all MSNBC news programs. She is an avid anti-trumper. She is the person who posts endless political messages on Facebook for an audience of 0.


Normally, I am the complete opposite end of the spectrum. Leave me out of it. I don’t want to be more upset than I need to be. I have enough to worry about in my own world, let alone the alternate universe that is Washington DC.


During my stay at her house, obviously, this plunge into the daily news has been unavoidable.


If I’m not hearing her program droning in the background, she’s interrupting my activities to tell me random “breaking” political news void of any context. We can’t have a conversation about the grass on god’s green earth without a rapid, unwarranted return to unprovoked trump outrage from my mom’s lips. Her brain is ALWAYS running through the reports of Rachel Maddow and every outspoken democrat on Twitter, regardless of appropriate timing or the other party’s interest.


It is… let’s say, as informative as it is challenging.


This morning, I realized TWO big things that have been vexing me.

  1. My mom and I have been able to live peacefully together, largely as a function of the chaotic world around us. There are real threats outside our door; we have banded together in a sort of tribal survival instinct to get through the larger emergency, rather than creating our own social stresses.

  2. My mom loves the news so much because it is another form of chaos in her life. For years she’s been OBSESSED with following all the political drama, ranting about the doom headed our direction, and ruminating over the election four years ago. Never, trying to make any changes or future plans to escape the risk. Why? It’s been a new way to inject that comfortable chaos into her life. It gives her something to focus on. Something to be outraged over. Something to scratch the itchy part of her brain - the compartment that my dad, my brother, and poverty used to tickle.


It’s interesting for me to notice this dysfunctional adaptation in action. It helps to solve some mysteries and frustrations between my mother and I.


Why is she so disruptively concerned about the news reel each day? So she has something to worry about. And why has she been less up-my-butt with hot headed demands? Like I said, because she has something to worry about. Why have I been less flighty and ready to GTFO of her presence in times of unrest? Because in this environment, I’ve been forced to acknowledge that there’s bigger shit to worry about.


Why is she so disruptively concerned about the news reel each day? So she has something to worry about. And why has she been less up-my-butt with hot headed demands? Like I said, because she has something to worry about. Why have I been less flighty and ready to GTFO of her presence in times of unrest? Because in this environment, I’ve been forced to acknowledge that there’s bigger shit to worry about.

If I leave here, I’ll go…? Back to Georgia, where COVID has been exploding for months? Far away from my friends and loved ones, in a time of national catastrophe? Hundreds of miles from the one family member I still functionally have, when either one of us could theoretically fall into dire illness any given day?


If she screams about crumbs on the counter, fingerprints on the microwave buttons, or chairs left un-scooted that will accomplish….? Driving her favorite vestibule for political ranting away? Pushing her only daughter into another decade of distant relations? Chopping off the helping hands that have been assisting with horse care, daily chores, and mental dissonance.


I want to say that my mom and I have been able to spend this time together with relative interpersonal peace because of my own trauma journey dragging her own mental health recovery along in its wake. I want to believe that we’re both healing together and making lasting improvements in how we relate as human beings. I would like to confidently state that we’ve turned a new leaf in adult mother-daughter understanding.


And I believe some of that is true.


But I also have to acknowledge the role of chaos in our recent interactions. The threat outside our door has made us into less viable threats to each other in these four walls.


But I also have to acknowledge the role of chaos in our recent interactions. The threat outside our door has made us into less viable threats to each other in these four walls.

Maybe I have a viral pandemic, authoritarian leader, and damaging derecho to thank for my extended stay and enhanced relations with my mom, more so than our mutual trauma recoveries. But, selfishly, I have to say I’m glad that we’ve had this opportunity for our traumatized brains to stop creating our own interpersonal entropy so we can focus on the real threats at hand.




Wrap up


Interesting times, yeah? Take the good with the bad, I suppose.


I wish that this mother-daughter cohesion had been the effect on our relationship in early chaotic times - when my family trauma served to turn us against each other and created enemies where allies could have existed - but I suppose the difference is due to proximity.


Back then, the risk was inside of our home. The decisions she made came with maternal guilt and shame, on top of fear. The stimuli wasn’t sequestered safely to a TV screen. And. it serves to mention that I was probably an even bigger asshole with teenage hormones pumping through my veins.


I’m just glad that today, at the age of 30, we’ve finally healed some aspects of our broken relationship. It’s a shame that we needed it to take place in the face of global upset, but I’ve valued every day of this chaos-induced recovery.


Let's see what happens next.


If the world stops burning, some cynical part of me imagines our house will be set aflame again. But maybe that's just the inner chaos lover speaking.


Traumatized Motherfxckers

Not doomed. Not damaged.

Not dead yet.

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