Sunday, May 26, 2013

Compartmentalization: An Effective Coping Mechanism

I am perpetually behind. It's just a fact of my existence as a full-time single mother with no built-in support network. A given. A fait accompli . . . or, as it were, a fait inaccompli.

Playing catchup in so many areas of my life both large and small could make me crazy. Indeed, it has felt like it would countless times in the near-decade that I've been a full-time single mother. The pressure from too many responsibilities and the frustration from things not going right build, and I sense that I'm going to explode.

But something has happened to me recently to alter that. I hesitate to call it a permanent change or one I can successfully bring about in every circumstance when it would be useful. But it is a change I am very happy with, and it seems to have rewired my brain. Gasp. Did I just say that? First, a disclaimer. I did not grow up a medically- or psychologically-oriented person. Quite the opposite: I was raised in Christian Science. However, I have always been highly observant and self-aware, even more so since seeking psychotherapy following my mother's passing. Not to mention that figuring out how to deal with my complex present life without going out of my mind has been Job No. 1 for a very long time. So while my brain "rewiring" may not be exactly medical, it sure feels that way to me because it represents such a welcome departure from the way I have handled responsibility overload in the past.

What change am I talking about? Compartmentalization. I've learned how to compartmentalize.

I can now separate issues in my mind without the sum total of them steamrolling me. I've learned how to address one issue at a time, put it down (or back in its "compartment"), then pick up another. I am making progress on many of them, though it is slow and perhaps not even noticeable. But I reassure myself that the progress is there, and I am taking the right course of action.

Growing up, I took the weight of the world on my shoulders. I was a worrier. A serious worrier. I worried about my parents arguing. I worried about taking tests, writing papers, winning tennis matches, getting through swim-team practice, and remembering my lines in plays. I worried about talking to boys and friends liking me. As if that wasn't enough, I also worried about many things a child shouldn't have to worry about such as the financial condition of my family after my father would hit the roof over mundane expenses or a piddling motel bill. (They were piddling in the '70s.) I worried about a plethora of issues. And, of course, I worried about my father's hair-trigger temper as well.

Not surprisingly, I was a horrible sleeper, an insomniac. I felt rested one day in about every nine. I kid you not. Hard to believe, but my father was an even worse sleeper than me. He had undiagnosed sleep apnea, I'm convinced. I came to this conclusion after researching and writing a story on the condition for a daily newspaper I worked for many years ago. Unfortunately, my father died not long before my assignment, so my findings came too late to help him.

Thankfully, I am no longer the same kind of worrier or sleeper. My transition began after my mother died in early '95. It was an issue of learning to relax -- transforming my whole being by silencing her "do's" and "don'ts" and "why aren't you this's?" and "when are you that's?" When someone with a dominant personality has been in your daily life for a very long time, his or her absence through death doesn't automatically remove that person's words or tone of voice from your head. But they do fade over time and so does the power they long held over you. When that eventually happened for me, I was finally able to sleep better than ever before and help myself in countless other ways that opened a door to a much-improved me.

My psychotherapist in Seattle -- I moved there after my mother's death -- referred to my then-new adult-orphan state as "a second chance at life." In all honesty, I couldn't disagree.

Taken to the extreme, compartmentalization can be highly detrimental. It could be employed as a tactic to deny, avoid, or erase one's feelings to the point at which they one day explode out of their "compartments." But, if used judiciously as a coping mechanism, compartmentalization can be very effective in helping one manage simultaneous tasks, emotions, and even crises without going off the rails.

Personally, I think it has to be one of the greatest skills a mother can have. It's right up there in my book with multitasking. Mothers learn to become adept at doing many things at once, and compartmentalization helps them prioritize their duties along with set aside the emotions associated with each that would otherwise detract from their ability to carry out said duties. In other words, it's how you can get the kids off to school, do the laundry, shop for groceries, clean the house, perform your job, and host a party with your marriage in crisis and your elderly parent in the hospital with a stroke. You must multitask to maintain your daily routine for your family. Yet you must also keep your inner self together. The two go hand in hand.

Recently, someone on a single-mothers Facebook page I'm on asked the group: "What characteristic do you have that has surprised you most since being a mom?" As one of the women with the oldest children, I wanted to give a very specific answer. I wrote, "The ability to bounce back from extreme sleep deprivation and years of chronic fatigue syndrome." Not fully satisfied with my reply, I then added: "Also the ability to compartmentalize."

If you are a full-time single mother like me, learning to compartmentalize is essential because your job of 24/7 caregiving is/can be (depending on your level of free help and/or finances) overwhelming. So many balls are in the air at once all the time. It is difficult to keep everything on track and when you can't -- hate to break it to you, but it's inevitable -- you need to be able to (for the most part) keep your cool and carry on. You can't fall apart, and you can't quit. There is a time and mental place for everything in your mind. The challenge is to keep the various aspects of your life, duties that you juggle, and emotions that surface separate in your thinking. Approach them one at a time, and try not to stress out over the big picture. It can be very daunting, so look at it in parts.

Easier said than done, I know. Oh, boy, don't I know! 

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