1. A person who survives, especially a person remaining alive after an event in which others have died.
2. The remainder of a group of people or things.
3. A person who copes well with difficulties in their life.
4. In Law: A joint tenant who has the right to the whole estate on the other’s death.
In American culture the title of survivor is often worn like a badge of honor, to have survived is to have somehow beat the odds and won at something in life that you otherwise should not have. However, beyond the celebratory graces of “surviving” people rarely delve deeper to examine or learn for themselves what it in fact means to survive. Is surviving the end or just the beginning?
In our culture I feel too often survival is seen as the end. You made it and that is that, but through my journey I have learned that survival is often just the tip of the iceberg, the start of the journey or the re-birth.
Survival means different things to different people, depending upon demeanor and what exactly it was that you survived. For my partner it meant literally coming back from something that medically speaking could have killed him, but also forming a new life from the rubble of who he once was while not being defined by a disease and/or condition that caused this need for survival.
For me, well that is trickier because until very recently I would not have considered myself any sort of survivor, but as I have wandered down the aisle of self-discovery and awareness I have found that for the majority of my life, survive is exactly what I did.
Consequently, in my situation I think that surviving ended up enabling me to never actually figure anything out about myself. From a young age I learned to survive but I did not learn to thrive, which in my mind is the continuation of survival. Thriving is the end of the road, having overcome the odds, picked up the pieces and truly, genuinely, moved on past the survival stage.
I never could have known it at the time, but when my mother passed away shortly after my 16th birthday I was forced into this survival mode. No one explicitly taught me anything and I certainly would not have called it that, but that is exactly what it was and until very recently I do not think I ever learned to let it go and leave it behind. It was my comfort zone. I knew how to survive.
Initially, after any traumatic event it makes sense to go into survival mode. You simply have to just put one foot in front of the other and get it done. However, perhaps because I was so young and my brain had not yet developed or maybe because I thought it was normal, I never learned how to move past this zone.
My life became one big survival mode and most of my life choices fit into this mold. I pursued a career in crisis public relations where literally everyday you focus on what fire needs to be put out, then move onto the next. I never looked at anything as even semi-permanent, not relationships, moves, careers, everything in my mind was what I was doing to get through to the next thing. I never thought about there ever being a point where that survival mode ended and my dad, whose approval I have always wanted more than anything in the world, subliminally supported and encouraged this without ever knowing it. First it was through his just get a job mentality and take it, the economy has crashed you need a job, so I applied for every job under the sun and I took the first one that wanted me. Check. I hated it and where I was living so up next, make it through while finding the next job, move back home while you accomplish this, one foot in front of the other.
I never once stopped for long enough to ponder what I wanted, where I was going or even what the heck I was doing. I fell into relationships that happened to coincide with some part of my life only to find myself ending them when inevitably it was onto the next, city, career or job or being shocked when they ended them when in reality I was never actually there with them in the first place. I could only focus on putting one foot in front of the other and making it through.
I actually think I feared anything that would make any part of my life seem anything more than temporary because I only knew how to survive aka make it from one step to the next. I could not possible think about what it all meant and where I was going.
Even when I finally got the courage to leave my last corporate job that I hated it was only to run back to what felt like my sole option. The only other career I had attempted, teaching. I could not see that maybe if I thought about it for long enough or allowed myself the space to envision the life I wanted that perhaps there was something I was genuinely passionate about that could become my career.
In the midst of going back to school for my teaching certificate I met my partner, Matt. At this point in my life I was slowly learning what I wanted personally. I had not yet figured it out professionally, that would come years later, but I can genuinely say for the first time since college I was happy, genuinely, unapologetically, happy.
A few months later my partner suffered a major stroke and I was thrusted back into that survival world. On the best of days all I could do was put one foot in front of the other, as we awaited test results and debated whether or not surgery was necessary and what life would look like for Matt from this moment forward. There were days where surviving was a feat for both of us. I talk to my closet friends now, who I was speaking to almost daily when Matt was going through this, and they say at that time all I could tell them was precisely what was happening. I fully think that was because there was no room to process, it was just pure black and white, yes or no, do or don’t. Then when he came home we needed survival mode because again it was all we could do to get us through the countless doctors appointments, therapies, blood work, and basic needs of life (eating, drinking, sleeping). Recently I remembered that we had this giant calendar in our kitchen and we would ex off the days, as if we were counting down to something, which I think initially we were. First the surgery to replace Matt’s skull, then his intensive speech therapy program in Chicago, but after that I think that countdown was nothing more than a therapeutic routine or maybe even subliminally the thought that maybe the more time went by the closer we would be to Matt’s recovery and inevitably what the rest of our lives would look like.
In the midst of this I resumed my teaching program, but something fundamentally had shifted in me. I was beginning to see that I need to be able to find and reach the light at the end of the tunnel. I could not just keep counting down the rest of the days of my life, trying to reach some undefined endpoint.
Ironically, teaching is the first time I realized this survivor mindset and how it serves no purpose longterm other than to perpetuate lifelong yearning for something not yet obtained. In the elementary room classroom it is customary that both students and teachers count the days they have been in school, the days until a break and the days until the end of the year. This serves dual purposes. First, it is a simple Math activity that inserts Math into everyday life, but secondly it gives students and teachers something to look forward to and this right here is the flaw in my mind. We are instilling in children that survival mindset, that they should just get through this year to the summer and all will be great, while this is neglecting the idea that shouldn’t children want to go to school, to learn, to interact with peers, to grow and furthermore shouldn’t teachers want to be there watching all of this happen. After all, is that not why we become teachers? For me I absolutely saw the draining aspects of teaching, but the best teachers were not the ones thinking 3 more days until Presidents Day and a day off, but the ones that showed up everyday passionate and actually missed their students when they were at home. I realized that I had sought out teaching because while I loved kids and still do, inevitably this career again allowed me to continue my survivor mindset that trauma had taught me so long ago.
I wish I had seen all of that then. However, when I decided to leave teaching it was because I did not feel passionate about it. I thought that America did not need one more disenfranchised teacher teaching just to do it.
Over the past year and a half I have been trying to understand what happened to me over the past two years, where I was going and why it took me so long to get here. I realized that soon after the health crisis with Matt, my brother had a mental health crisis that I was once again thrust into helping him survive. Then a year later he abandoned me and that right there, at one of the worst moments in my life, is when I began to fully leave behind that survival mode.
Through my estrangement with my brother I started to lean into who I was and what I was doing. I did a lot of self-analysis and reflection. I saw how many of the choices I had made were direct reflections of the trauma I had experienced and the survival mode I had to exist in, but I also started to learn how to break free of them.
I sat down and started genuinely thinking about what I wanted to do, where I wanted to be, who I wanted there with me and let go of all the baggage I had been carrying around for so many years. I learned to stop thinking about my successes and failures in the terms of other people and to stop letting relationships with others define me. I could not help the whole world survive, I was barely helping myself by just going through the motions.
I began to really envision my life and how happy I could be. I did a whole lot of work to find out what it was that I was passionate about, now, after everything. What really set my soul on fire? How did I want to spend my days? How would I start my new journey to thrive, not survive?
I do not have all the answers yet and I am sure some I may never have, but I am thinking about them for the first time in possibly 15 years and that is progress. Every single person has gone through some type of trauma in their life, whether it be big or small and we all need to think about what we do every single day to not only move past it but to truly live. We need to stop getting stuck in these survival patterns of making it to the weekend, the summer, the next job or move and to STOP, appreciate where we are at, think about where we are going and develop a passion for life shifting the perspective to thriving from surviving.