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Load-Bearing Problems

Updated: Nov 30, 2022

CW: this post discusses loosely described physical and emotional abuse, trauma activated memory loss, self harm, smoking

Have you ever been in a session with a therapist or talking a mental health thing out with a friend, and you encounter this... Thing... In you. An anxiety, or a fear, or some self framing, or some coping mechanism, something, and touching on it makes you feel shallow and wobbly, and like confronting it might make you shut down? I certainly have, and I imagine at least some of you have too. I like how this comic that's been making the rounds frames those uncomfortable anxieties as load-bearing anxieties. It's not the first example of describing a mental health thing as load bearing, but it's one that's catching some wind now. Let's talk about it.

A comic by featuring a non-descript person speaking with their bearded therapist. The person says, "Actually I'd rather leave that Anxiety alone... I think it might be load-bearing."
Comic by

I don't know about you, but I have a boat load of trauma, and a lot of my load bearing madness* comes from that. They're things that formed in me in response to harms, ostensibly to help me survive or keep me safe. There are plenty of those that aren't load bearing in me, still inconvenient, but sometimes I've come across something that is too tender, holding up too much, that poking at them isn't super safe. 

For example (I'll gloss the details), I was talking with my therapist about this Event from my childhood that left some scars on me. Yelling, hitting, stuff like that. It felt cool to finally talk about it and we made a plan to dig into it, but after I left the session I felt shaky. And I only got more shaky the next day. And the next. I talked with my brother about it, because he was there and maybe his perspective could help. He pointed out a lot of points in my remembering of events that I had clearly spackled over, and in doing so showed me how underneath that I'd clearly put up some intense reinforcements under that, to cope. For the next several days I was a wreck. Couldn't do anything. 

I got to my next therapy session already anxious about the topic, and my therapist and I both agreed that, like, we need a different plan. We focused on other things instead, so that that part of me could settle. I decided that if I was ever going to dig out that rot, I'd need to build supports around it first. Real, helpful, solid supports, not just the patch job that me-at-the-time put up to keep me from falling apart (thank you, Past Me, for doing that though). I'm still working on that. Might be for a long time. I still need to step away from it sometimes, too, because it's big work, and sometimes it can leave things shaky, but it's something I want to do so I keep coming back to it.

Sometimes building supports can look like healthy relationships in your life. Sometimes it's learning new coping mechanisms when you can. If you have self-harmful coping mechanisms and habits, sometimes they're so structural that harm-reduction is more important that replacing them. For example, when I got a bad concussion, I started smoking. A few puffs now and then, because the nicotine helped with the brain fog. Eventually it was a full blown habit, for brain fog and other things. Eventually, it helped to replace even one cigarette a day with a stick of gum; the smoking was too structural to just cut out, but building something else made things in me just a little stronger.

If you're seeing a therapist, or in some peer support group, or talking to a spiritual advisor about the struggles in you, I'm sure you already know that it isn't some magical process that takes the problems you're having and outputs happiness and contentment into your life. They can't take your madness and transmute it into clarity. They can help you make sense of things, to build happiness and clarity, to build it reinforce supports in your life. 

If you hit on one of those very structural anxieties, coping mechanisms, beliefs, or else, that's okay. It may suck, or hurt, to brush up against, but even knowing it's there is a very cool thing to have. Acknowledging these things is huge, important work, even if we never take that work further. If you take even the smallest baby steps to build new supports, that's also amazing. This is hard work and it's not for everyone. If it's work you want to do, do it, and do it at a pace that leaves you safe. You've got this. 


*On "madness": I don't love talking about mental illness as a thing, in the terms of illness. I do talk about in those terms, because that's what people tend to understand, but it's not the framing I like. Instead I prefer the terms "mad" and "madness", loaded as they can be, and work to reclaim them as terms for myself. Talking about illness frames it as a Wrong Thing, and while my madness can be disabling, and further that society can disable me via lack of accommodation for my madness, I consider it a piece of me for better or worse. I can find both strength and despair in my madness, while I only find pathology in illness.

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