How I found psychological safety

Written by Elspeth Roake

Rock Botton: Perhaps you’ve been there, too. What it’s like down there, only you will know. However you landed in the pit of darkness, pain, hopelessness, or desperation, it probably took some time. For me, it was a slow and slippery decent, reaching for anything to break the fall. Somedays, I thought I had scrambled up a few feet, only to find myself plummeting once again.

My decline, and eventual landing, was characterized by one dominant sensation: the feeling that I was not safe. Not in a physical sense, but in a psychological one. Suffering from depression was the first step on the way down. My mind was not a safe place. I felt as if I had no control over my thoughts and emotions. They attacked and overwhelmed me on a daily basis. To hear myself, I had to scream. The pain this generated frightened me constantly. I hid in the pockets of safety my environment provided, but it was never enough.

The isolation that often results from mental illness made me feel several steps removed from life around me. I was too different to join in. Surely, no one could understand what I was going through, and therefore, no one could help. I did have supportive people around me, but I feared I was becoming to difficult for them to put up with. The external world felt as unsafe as my internal one.

In reaction to my lacking sense of safety, I would cut myself. It provided me with a physical manifestation of the pain, which was far easier to comprehend and heal than its psychological counterpart. But in the long run, hurting myself was no way to feel safe.

I hit rock bottom when my final ties to safety were severed— I was away from home, severely depressed, and had an argument with the one person who understood me. I was in the process of hurting myself badly, when I realized I wanted to be saved. And if this were true, that meant believing that safety was still an obtainable construct.

This is the point at which I began seeking safety in a different way. Firstly, I started going to therapy. There is something both boundaried and liberating in the hour of time that is yours alone. I was heard, understood, and validated. There is safety in the complete lack of judgment. The screaming inside of me quieted. The relationships I had began to normalize, as I was able to confine certain aspects of myself to therapy. This left me free to participate—I was no longer an outsider looking in. Having meaningful connections is one of the toughest lifelines I can imagine.

I discovered the work of Bessel van der Kolk, whose research focuses on how people adapt to difficult or traumatic situations, and how this affects the brain in terms of attachment patterns, thought processes, and emotional experiences. Hearing there is a neuroscientific basis for how I thought and felt was quite empowering. This discovery, combined with a skilled therapist, gave me a good deal more understanding of, respect for, and control over my emotions. They no longer seemed threatening. This sense of agency gave me the greatest feeling of safety there is.

Once I could think more clearly through the decrease of pain, I was able to start taking practical steps towards creating a safe external environment for myself. I know that I like consistency, so at work I cut back on traveling and arranged my schedule for maximum predictability. I am always happiest around animals, so I make sure I am constantly surrounded by their presence.

I enjoy spending long hours at work, but I make sure I also have time to write. Writing has been my mode of expression for as long as I can remember. It organizes and focuses my thoughts, and provides me with the opportunity to give my emotions a voice and transfer them to a place where they aren’t as destructive. Words are my connection both to myself and to others. Spending time at home with my rabbits, writing, or simply relaxing, is a very safe place to be.

Most recently, I started volunteering at an adolescent psychiatric facility. With newfound strength, I can find meaning through helping others. I wrote and published a book, Safe, in which I share my story. For everyone out there who has hit rock bottom, or is currently fighting their way out, I hope giving a little thought to what makes you feel safe might help you in your journey.

And so I finished my ascent from the low point in time and space that was categorically unsafe. Now I can start building a life, using coping strategies as structural components, upon a foundations that will last. My foundation is made of safety.

 

Watercolour by: Layers

 

Elspeth Roake spent her childhood on the move, between Canada, Germany, and California, before settling on the East Coast to receive a B.S. in psychology from Vassar College. She has twenty years of experience in the horse show industry, and currently lives with her bunnies in New York State. For more information on her book, “Safe”, visit her website elspethroake.com


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