Coping mechanisms take many different forms. They are necessary when dealing with the aftermath of traumatic events. Below is an excerpt from my autobiography where I describe how I coped as a child, and in my early adult life, with the effects of sexual abuse. This post does not contain any graphic descriptions of abuse.

“I have already mentioned one of my survival techniques in this chapter, namely, OBEs (out of body experiences). This is a very effective way to deal with traumatic events but to remain in that state means developing some form of psychosis. In an effort to remain sane I relied upon the following coping mechanisms: denial, overwork and food.

Denial has two aspects to it – one involves knowing about the trauma endured but claiming that it has had no negative effect on me what-so-ever; the other is repressed memories which is an extreme form of denial. The latter I had no clue about until the recollections began but the former I did knowing very well what I was doing. One of my high school friends once asked me if the abuse had had any detrimental aftereffects – my response was, “No, I’m fine.” Then I got on with whatever work I needed to do.

Overwork sometimes came naturally to me because I like being productive but there was also pressure to do more around the house or to look after other peoples’ children etc. These tasks were ways for me to avoid my feelings. I would become so exhausted that I didn’t have the energy to deal with my ‘stuff.’ There was also the time factor – if I kept going, filling up every minute of the day then I simply didn’t have the space to heal. If I had vacant moments when painful emotions would start bopping to the surface, the easiest, most accessible form of avoidance via self-medication was food.

Ahhh…food glorious food…it’s not merely required to remain alive, it is also a great source of pleasure and a very important part of my culture. Food keeps Greek families close, is an important part of any celebration and is often given as a gift when visiting others or offered when people come to visit. It has almost always been associated with love, warmth and safety – the only exceptions to this would be the food or drink served at funerals, in hospitals or by the Dvos (an abbreviated pseudonym for two of my abusers) when I was drugged. 

There are certain types of sustenance that cause very specific biochemical reactions in the body so they act like pharmaceuticals (both the legal and illicit varieties) – the difference being that using food as medication is far more affordable and immediate. The foods I was most addicted to were dairy products and sweets. Dairy had a numbing effect. It slowed everything down in the digestive system and made me drowsy – this is why a glass of milk before bed is recommended as a cure for insomnia. I recall eating cheese at almost every meal and even making several grilled cheese sandwiches as a snack between meals. Dairy helped to calm me down when I felt anxious or restless. On the other end of the spectrum, sweets gave me energy and boosted my mood when I felt tired and depressed. Sugar increases serotonin levels in the body – a feel good hormone. My niece who absolutely loves dessert foods once described them as being “as sweet as a mother’s love.” I believe that my over consumption of sugar also alleviated my fears over the years by allowing me to feel the love that was absent from my childhood.

At some point, these coping mechanisms no longer work or are given up/reduced for health reasons. When I did the latter in my late teens, my buried emotions rose to the surface and so the healing floodgates opened…”

Helen