I had dinner last night with a friend who recently experienced a significant break up. This also happened to coincide with her completion of an education program and the start of a new job.
She’s in first responder mode as she works to triage her life. The pain and heartbreak have to be pushed aside for the moment as she tends to exams and the demands of a new job.
It’s a state I identify with – the adrenaline fueled days and sleepless nights. The pressing demands overriding any fear or emotion. The tunnel vision that develops so that you can attend to one crisis at a time. The weird excitement that courses through the body, even in the face of loss.
I went into first responder mode when my husband left. I was facing overwhelming change – loss of a husband, home, dogs and health. Nothing was the same. I had never ending legal obligations between the divorce and the criminal trial. I had the same job, but the start of the school year was fast approaching and that is always a time of increased stress and adjustment.
I triaged my life. I set priorities and worked to accomplish them. There wasn’t room to feel sad. I let my focus narrow and I allowed anger to be my fuel. In an emergency, you have to be able to ignore all non-essentials to address the matters of life and death. You need to be able to act rather than feel. You don’t have time to worry about non life threatening issues or to attend to the bigger picture. It’s all about doing what needs to be done so that life continues for another breath.
Eventually, the emergencies pass and the first responder mode is not appropriate any longer. I remember my struggle to let go of my first responder and to allow a more holistic self-caregiver to take her place. Here is the advice I gave my friend last night based on my own experiences:
– It’s okay to not feel right now. You have to do what needs to be done to make sure your basic needs are met. It doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with you.
– Just like the reality of a medical emergency hits after the danger has passed, expect the reality of this to hit you once the initial crisis have been navigated. Don’t be surprised.
– Allow yourself to feel; don’t stay too distracted for too long. You’ve compartmentalized for the moment so that you can function. Those walls won’t hold forever. When you are ready, slow down. The fear of the pain is usually worse than the pain itself.
– Again, when you are ready, look for what you can learn from the relationship. When those nuggets come up right now, file them away for later when you are better able to analyze them.
– I know you want to be okay. But don’t let that desire cause you to pretend to be okay before you really are. There is no timeline, but if you don’t heal, it will eventually fester.
– It’s okay to ask for help. First responders rarely work alone.
– Be careful of the adrenaline; it can become addictive. Unless you want to live your life jumping from one emergency to another, you have to learn to let it go when it is no longer needed.
I know my friend will be okay. She’s strong and capable. In time, her emergency will resolve and she can leave her first responder mode behind.