There was a time in my life that I didn't have emotional regulation. Talking about this in our culture is rare. What is emotional regulation? Does it mean I get to choose how I feel?
When I didn't have emotional regulation I reacted to things. I felt unsafe because for a long time in my life I was, so I learned to protect myself by freezing and dissociating from my body. When I grew up, I had spent so much time pushing emotions into my body like a stuff sack, the seems started to rip. I was so full that every little feeling would cause me to burst.
Once I got in a fight with my boyfriend and I was yelling. Not yelling, but screeching. I felt so mad I picked up a plastic tub of wrapping paper next to me and threw it at him—hard. I remember feeling like I was watching my body and couldn't stop it. I was completely out of control of my actions. I screamed more and punched him in the arms. I don't remember anything else, it is just a blur of intense stress and panic feelings. Afterwards, I was shaking and out of breath.
The neighbor called the police and when they came to talk to us I was outside smoking a cigarette. They were right to do so because it had potential to be a dangerous situation. I remember I was so embarrassed and angry. I hurt so much and I knew I had overreacted. I just didn't know how to respond differently.
I could have been a person who really hurt someone else. What if there was a child in our home? What if a weapon had been beside me instead of a plastic tub? What if one thing was different in this situation that could have turned it into a much worse outcome? I would like to think I wouldn't do that, but the truth is, I have no idea what could have happened. None of us do.
The person who acted that way feels so far from who I am it was very scary. It still feels that way. The important thing is that is not who I was or who I am. I had never been physically violent in my life before that. I also worked with children and taught them skills to problem-solve and be kind to one another. I volunteered in my community. I was not a violent person, until the day that I was.
Why am I sharing this? Please understand, it is never easy to be vulnerable. It is because I am going to tell the truth about my journey to recovery, even if it feels those uncomfortable ways.
We have this idea that we turn eighteen and suddenly have all the skills we need to be an adult, as if we learned about social-emotional intelligence in school. We don't. It isn't part of the curriculum. We don't talk about people who have felt violent and changed it. We talk about them as people we would never be. We would never be violent, or abusive, or addicted, or whatever other labels we use. How do people know recovery is possible when we don't talk about the process of recovery? Or that they are not alone if we don't talk about the difficult experiences we have together?
Violence is not caused by mental health illness. There is no evidence that shows that to be true. In this situation I would have been diagnosed with complex PTSD and an anxiety disorder, but that isn't what caused me to be violent. The cause was that I didn't have emotional regulation skills. I had practiced being unsafe and hypervigilant for most of my life. I learned that I would be hurt if I did not protect myself, so my reactive state was a resourceful place to be for a long time. Knowing I was safe and could pause and respond differently was abnormal to me. This is the work of recovery and this was what I needed to free myself and take my control back.
Violence has many factors; we aren't taught to know how to respond in a healthy way to our emotions so we explode and feel powerless and out of control. We might use substances and they cause us to think poorly. We may watch violence in the media. We experience abuse in our homes or bullying in the world and we learn by observation. We could take medicines that have side-effects. We could have been taught low self-esteem. We may be influenced by our environment in all these ways. None of these factors are caused by mental health illness.
The important part of this story is that I had work to do. It was my own internal work, but as you can see it affected my close relationships, and then the world around me. Recovery doesn't just involve us, but reflects projects into our communities. It changes how society works first on a small scale, then eventually on a large one.
We don't recover on our own. It's the kind of brave and big work that takes a tribe of support; friends, professional coaches or counselors, family members, and pets. To be able to get help, we have to risk going through the shame and stigma. We face the belief that what we have done deserves punishment instead of accountability. We are courageous to take personal responsibility to become who we really are, which is not violent or addicted or broken. It's loving, compassionate, and adaptable. The nature of humans is empathetic and kind. We can get back to that even if we were put off course.
I share with you this piece of my journey as a testament to say violence lives in us all when the circumstances come together. I share this with you because making mistakes is human and sometimes our mistakes are tragic. We can still learn to do differently. We can stop cycles of violence. We can teach our kids to understand and respond to their emotions better. We can recover from it all if we take the chance to learn skills like emotional regulation.
If you feel the stigma and shame of your emotions controlling you and your life, you have done something you are scared to ask for help with, or you feel like you can't get away from the trauma you've experienced, reach out for some coaching. I know this is not who you are. I know you can learn to do differently. I know you deserve to be free from the cycle. You can recover, too.
Here is a short video about how we use mental health as a scapegoat for violence and how that creates stigma, stops us from understanding mental health, and distracts us from working on the real causes of violence.