I’ve recently had a string of interactions and conversations revolving around a subject that has been pivotal in my therapy journey. This topic centers around a new word in my post-therapy vocabulary – or rather, a new definition of a term I already knew and used: “To medicate”…
We weren’t big on medicine in our house growing up. In general medication was usually a late or last resort after more natural remedies didn’t seem to be doing the trick or weren’t successful in kicking a stubborn bug. For most of my childhood, we stayed out of the doctor’s office with the help of things like vitamins, supplements and preventative care during travels and the winter months. On the whole, we were a pretty healthy family. That is, medically speaking.
People don’t typically carry on normal life when they are running a dangerously high fever or experiencing debilitating physical symptoms. If they have the opportunity and the means, they seek the needed medical help and quick. However, for an astoundingly high percentage of people, mental and emotional health is a different ball game. The things that we carry around and pass on and experience can go so long without being addressed or healed. Many times we don’t know how to find help and care for ourselves or our loved ones.
In fact, in our family, there was almost no understanding about mental health professionals and the resources that exist for assistance. What scant and sometimes hazy positions could be found on the topic amongst the extensive conservative christian worldview I was brought up around, was “therapy” and “counseling” led to two things: 1) a secular way of thinking that led away from God and 2) medication. Both were seen as bad choices. These things went against what was “natural” or “right” and the subject went on being woefully underdeveloped in my mind until my twenties. Although my family was not in the extreme subset that is against all medicine and we used it when needed, in this context it was down right out of the question and viewed as one of the most shudder-worthy of last resorts. Any personal, emotional or mental issues were all actually spiritual issues and therefore, prayer and scripture study were the only appropriate options. I can personally say that I was deeply harmed by this school of thought which helped hold me prisoner until it ultimately drove me out the door to seek and learn about other viewpoints. Then, with the help of scandalously non-theological in-depth therapy, I was able to learn about all the ways I had actually been medicating.
Disclaimer: Pills have their purpose and I’m personally so thankful that we have advanced medicines and complex treatments that save countless lives all the time in myriads of ways. But whether you are zealously anti-medicine or regularly take needed prescriptions, it doesn’t really matter for this particular conversation because that’s not the core of what I’m talking about.
In a nutshell, what I want to share with you is that I’ve learned that people are medicating every day, all around us. I’m talking about food. Sex. Work. Social media and technology. Exercise. Honestly, just about anything you can think of can be used “to medicate”. These are what is commonly referred to in the therapy world as our “medicators”.
Trauma and painful experiences leave us with situations or memories that are complicated and hard to work through. It’s truly amazing to see how much humans can endure, but our initial coping mechanisms that help us survive in a moment (or sometimes over years) of trauma, can end up being roadblocks that keep us from moving forward with our healing once that abuse or trauma has ended. For me, my trauma was a chronic and long-lasting manipulative situation that I had to build up many nuanced coping mechanisms to survive. Much of my therapy has been working to dismantle those unhealthy responses because they were no longer helpful or needed once I reached a safe place away from the abusive situation.
But hang on. We need food. We need exercise. Obviously, most medicators aren’t inherently unhealthy. Sometimes the same things can be a type of therapy or something that helps us recover and move towards health. Again, medicators aren’t things to demonize or condemn. And a lot of times our dependance on them is born out of an automatic response to something threatening or difficult. But medicators don’t help us get down to the heart of the matter or move us towards mental and emotional health. So what makes something a medicator?
I found my answer to this question in dealing with something I truly love and is a huge part of who I am: music.
Music was/is something I use and use often. It is straight magic to me and has been part of my life since I can remember. Many of my most amazing experiences and accomplishments have been connected to music but it’s also been tangled up in some of my sharpest pains and wounds. When I left my abusive home, I left most of my music behind me for a while, both literally and figuratively. When later in my therapy I was learning about medicators, I distinctly remember wrestling with the question: is music a good or bad thing for me? I KNOW I used music to cope for years but instead of something unhealthy, it felt like the only therapy I had available to me.
With time, this is what I was able to understand: if I use it to avoid, distract or numb, it’s a medicator. If it’s something that I use to express, feel or articulate, it’s a therapeutic tool. I’m certainly no expert and this is oversimplified, but I found it to be a very helpful way to look at this subject. Music was a useful therapy for me at times but it couldn’t provide all the help I needed to get healthy. And the times it failed me led to my darkest places. When I didn’t eat food so that the constant physical sensation of gnawing hunger in my stomach would literally distract me from what was going on around me, that was medicating. When I dove into endless to-do lists and found ways to keep chaotically busy, it was so that I wouldn’t have time to sit and feel my feelings and listen to what they had to say. When I tried to deaden, dull and desensitize myself into dark and heavy silence, all I was doing is numbing myself into depression.
Over time, professional counseling has introduced me to many new helpful tools and as a result, music is no longer burdened with being one of my only therapeutic outlets. I’m continuing to learn more everyday about how to be the healthiest version of myself.
If you want to learn about your medicators, check in with yourself; go through the things you do and ask “Am I using this to numb or to feel? Am I doing this to distract or to express? Does this help me to avoid or to articulate?” I know I still sometimes feel the pull of some activity or habit that seems easier to fall into rather than wading neck-deep into unknown emotions or head up the steep hill of starting over. But with time and support, you can start to make the healthy habit the natural one. Choose better tools and get a bigger toolbox. That’s one of my goals and I would love to encourage you in your goals too.
As I finish up this post, I need to admit I feel in danger of being preachy. I’m not trying to set myself as anyone’s teacher here and again, I’m not an expert or a professional but I cannot overstate how much this stuff has helped me. I want to share what I can with whoever I can. I believe in lifelong learning and sharing. A lot of people have asked me specific questions and inquired about details of my story. I guess this is a way of responding and continuing to be open about what my journey has been like. Thank you for letting me figure this out as I go.
– Jessica Fisher