Got Crutches?

Crutch (Merriam-Webster dictionary definition):

  1. a support typically fitting under the armpit for use by the disabled in walking
  2. a source or means of support or assistance that is relied on heavily or excessively
What’s your crutch?

My father had surgery the day after Christmas and spent the initial days of recovery in bed, then in a wheelchair, and then on crutches when he returned home. Eventually, he used a walker for about a week, until he could move around on his own.

Now, after months of physical therapy, perseverance, and sheer will power, dad shuffles around like a champ.

On occasion, he uses a cane I got him, primarily while at the grocery store or post office. I think he uses it as a conversation starter, but his loved ones take heart in knowing that he has backup, especially while the sidewalk is still covered in ice and snow.

In this case, the crutches, and other assistance, have played an essential role in my father’s recovery. If, in three years, or even eight months, he were still using them to hobble around, I would wonder about his progress and worry about his overall well being.

Perhaps a family intervention would be warranted. Luckily, he is motivated and fiercely independent, so that won’t be necessary. If we do stage an intervention, it will be for something besides over-reliance on his physical crutches.

While he has jettisoned the walker, dad relies on invisible crutches to get through this challenging phase of recovery. Like most of us, he has used them to navigate through the harshness of life.

Invisible crutches are harder to identify and differ from person to person. They can serve a purpose, but ultimately outlive their usefulness.

Invisible crutches? What might those be? A superpower, special weapon, futuristic device?

Nope.

Invisible crutches are those sneaky, less obvious patterns of behavior that start out as helpful support, but can gradually become destructive. They often have addictive qualities that result from unconscious conditioning.

These pesky assistants can manifest as go-to activities, substances, relationships. Sometimes they started out as healthy or necessary coping mechanisms that, over time, hinder long-term growth and well being.

Yes, denial and avoidance both qualify, and there are myriad others.

Here’s a start:

  • Alcohol
  • Approval
  • Drugs
  • Exercise
  • Food
  • Sex
  • Shopping
  • Social media
  • Tobacco
  • Work

Any of those sound familiar? Keep in mind, none of them are inherently bad or unhealthy. Any virtue in excess becomes a vice. A glass of wine for one person could be a helpful social lubricant while it’s the bane of another’s existence.

What are your invisible crutches?

OK, I’ll go first. I have a few, but my favorite is sugar.

Original, eh?

My husband finds my sugar addiction innocuous, even adorable. What’s one little cupcake? Or a box of macarons? They’re so sweet, saccharine, harmless. Billions of marketing dollars wouldn’t lead us down a destructive path…

Some days Bridget Jones is my spirit animal

The amount isn’t necessarily the dead giveaway. I’m not overweight. I don’t have diabetes. I don’t down pints of Ben & Jerry’s in one sitting (anymore). I’m not an alcoholic–the booze for me holds only as much interest as the sugar I can extract from a cocktail.

What goes on inside my head is the key factor, and no one but me can see it.

  • The blind grasping for comfort and numbness
  • The lack of reason employed during these autopilot sequences
  • The avoidance of the issue or problem or emotion in favor of sweet escape
  • The dissociation from the present moment and potential consequences

All of those things are invisible to the naked eye. To the outside world, I’m enjoying a treat, perhaps a well-deserved one. It looks as though a grown woman is acting like an awestruck child who takes delight in a frosted brownie.

But at the root of that fleeting joy is a potentially destructive impulse, one that perpetuates self-sabotage and personal growth. The invisible can take up a lot of space.

Who knew that a peanut-butter cup wielded such power?

Sugar thoughts

Over time, I have learned to manage the sugar impulses more effectively. Experience, trial and error, and good therapists have helped me slow down, introspect, and check in on my emotional state.

Gradually, day in and day out of doing the work–baby steps, not quantum leaps–I have evolved from the insecure teenager and avoidant young woman of years past. Make no mistake, insecurity and avoidance still accompany me wherever I go, but they are no longer in the driver’s seat.

The impulse to grab the invisible crutches remains, and on occasion I succumb to it. But less frequently and for a shorter period of time. Once in a while, when reality feels overwhelming, I opt for oblivion.

Karen Kilgariff, who cohosts My Favorite Murder, one of my favorite podcasts, said this at the end of episode 51, aptly titled “A Little Bit of Oblivion”:

“Everybody copes in different ways. My therapist said to me one time, when I had quit [drinking] and I had quit sugar, I had quit this and that. She goes, ‘Well, you gotta do something because everybody needs a little bit of oblivion.'”

Although the focus of My Favorite Murder is true crime and murder stories, Karen and her cohost, Georgia Hardstark, openly discuss mental illness and their own struggles with anxiety, depression, and emotional crutches. Episodes are peppered with valuable morsels like that quote.

The next time I mindlessly grasp for the sugar, I will likely pump the brakes. With greater presence of mind, I hope to either opt for a healthier alternative (like a true-crime podcast) or shrug and remind myself that everybody needs a little oblivion, especially when real life in a pandemic is fucking bonkers.

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