By: Marilyn L. Davis
My Armor Protected and Trapped Me
“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” ―Brené Brown
Before I went to substance abuse treatment in 1988, I felt guilty for all the harm I was causing my family. I disliked being a liar. My behaviors embarrassed me. But most of all, I felt ashamed that I’d given my children back to their father.
Alcohol and drugs created the problem, but alcohol and drugs numbed the feelings I didn’t want to feel. In some ways, they helped defend me from me while killing me.
I wore my defense like a thick coat of armor, believing I could protect myself from unkind words and comments on my behaviors. If I could find a way to be protected from those words, I thought I could create the illusion of being okay.
Yes, the armor deflected some criticism, but that protection also meant that the armor trapped those negative feelings inside.
I just wanted someone to tell me how to take off my armor and heal, but I could not and would not hear the care and concern when people talked about my addiction.
Trapped With Only My Negativity
I could not dissipate those feelings and was alone in my armor with them. It was an insidious trap.
Most of us are semi-delusional from our substance use. We do not understand that while we think we’re protecting ourselves in our armor, we prevent ourselves from receiving help.
Many people do not understand that we are not all using to fill a void; some of us are using to dull the too full feelings – guilt, remorse, recriminations, and shame.
Nor was I using to hurt people more. I didn’t think about their pain; I was too caught up in my pain and doing anything to protect myself from the truth. I only heard condemnation, which in turn added another layer to the armor.
Underneath the defenses, I was in emotional pain. I felt fragile, wounded, and vulnerable to comments but did not understand that this vulnerability would be my salvation.
Breaking Through the Armor
People in my life would bravely comment on my use, knowing that they would receive a scathing remark from me. Some of my excuses were probably ones you use, too.
- “If you felt like I do, you would drink and use drugs, too.”
- “When you feel like I do and have my problems, you’ll see things differently.”
- “If you. . ., followed by anything that would change the focus of the conversation.
Yes, I felt protected by my armor, but it also meant that no one trying to help me could reach me. When I got into treatment, that seemed short-sighted and at odds with my statements that I wanted to get better.
It wasn’t until I realized that if I cooperated with people trying to help me, I could help tear down my defenses.
Shattering My Defenses
Five caring people staged an intervention on September 30, 1988. For once, I did not erect the shield of denial and deception. I just asked them what I needed to do.
They all appeared relieved that they didn’t have to confront me, that I was finally willing to be vulnerable and let others tell me what to do. They told me that I had to enter treatment that night, which I did.
The preferred treatment method available thirty-two years ago was to “peel the onion” and expose the addict to all of their denials. There is nothing more demoralizing than having six to eight people ripping off whatever defenses they perceive we are using.
Even as I told the intake worker that I only wanted to get better, she dismissed these comments and asked me how much I still wanted to use.
Nor did she seem to care that I was in withdrawal.
My first group consisted of questions about my behaviors. With each subsequent admission, I felt my armor crumbling and, in turn, felt more exposed, defenseless, and helpless. I’m surprised in retrospect that more of us did not explode or implode in this seemingly hostile environment.
A Kinder, Gentler Way to Get to the Truth
Over the years, I’ve gotten comfortable with talking and writing about what I did. Not because I’m proud of my actions, but because I know when I admit my shortcomings and mistakes, it opens the door for others to recognize and concede theirs.
Today, I think there is a gentler approach; we can encourage people to remove their defenses and allow people to experience vulnerability in stages. How might this approach prove invitational to someone struggling in early recovery? By letting them know that others have committed the same kinds of horrible acts, changed, made amends, and now live better lives.
I’ve created a truth for myself over the years. There is nothing new under the sun; the experience wore my face one time, and yours another. In other words, there is someone, somewhere, who shares the experience and the way out.
When I chose to expose my story, I found others with similar life experiences. However, they are not all women, mothers, Caucasians, and not all about my age; many were dissimilar on the surface.
In that moment of being vulnerable and telling my story and asking for guidance, I found men, women, young people, older adults, and various methods that would help me find:
- Ways to make amends
- Alternative behaviors, thoughts, and feelings
- Renewed interest in living
- Ways to Tear Down the Defenses
I realized that staying in that trapped armor; I would never experience healing. As long as I wore masks to hide the pain, I could not get any better, and that seemed genuinely sad. Did I feel exposed? Yes, but it was a conscious choice to become vulnerable to healing.
I’ve always valued this passage from The Love Mindset by Vironika Tugaleva: “It is almost as if we are all playing a big game of hide-and-go-seek. We all hide, expecting to be found, but no one has been labeled the seeker. We stand behind the wall, at first excited, then worried, then bored, then anxious, then angry. After a while, the game is not fun anymore. Where is my seeker? Where is the person who is supposed to come to find me here in my protected shell and cut me open?”
Allow Someone to Help You Remove Your Armor
I knew that no seeker would come in precisely the way I wanted, but each person trying to help me was a seeker. Staying in that walled-off, armored place, I felt lonely, frightened, and prone to relapse.
The armor felt like protection yet could potentially become yet another prison and keep me from healing. Recovery allows us to be the seeker, to dispose of the armor, and remove the masks.
In our vulnerability, we prove our courage to heal; by asking for and receiving guidance from others who have healed.
It feels vulnerable, but when you remove the armor, tear down your walls, and drop the masks, it gives others a chance to help you heal.
Writing and recovery heal the heart.
Marilyn L. Davis is the Editor-in-Chief at From Addict 2 Advocate and Two Drops of Ink. She is also the author of Finding North: A Journey from Addict to Advocate and Memories into Memoir: The Mindsets and Mechanics Workbook, available at Amazon, Books A Million, Indie Books, and Barnes and Noble.