Your Defenses don’t Define You

By Cassi Cox

I keep seeing these trends of millennials like me making tiktoks or writing letters to their younger selves. I see the appeal, but what is done is done, ya know? 

Instead, I thought I’d write for those coming after me. Those carrying the torch. The ones that I can already tell will make this world better. A more apt reflection of Jesus, a more loving, less self-centered place that truly embraces the greatest commandments of loving God and neighbor as oneself. 

A few weeks ago, my sister made a TikTok. She was essentially dedicating the song “Surface Pressure” from Encanto to me. Some of the lyrics include:

 “Pressure like a drip, drip, drip that’ll never stop, whoa

Pressure that’ll tip, tip, tip ’til you just go pop, whoa-oh-oh

Give it to your sister, it doesn’t hurt

And see if she can handle every family burden

Watch as she buckles and bends but never breaks”

You see, we have quite the dysfunctional family system. It’s become a multi-generational cycle and at this point the number of child protection investigations that my family unit has experienced has reached multi-dozen numbers. Addiction, abuse and exploitation have devastated our family. I currently have custody of 4 children that are part of my family unit but not mine by birth in addition to the 4 children I have given birth to. We were approached by another case manager about taking 3 more, but the Department of Child and Family Services said “No, you can’t. You are beyond your limit.” 

There were…like…a lot of stocking for Christmas. Ours, plus our four, plus our baby girl we lost in a late missed miscarriage, plus our four bonus kids.

My husband agreed. 11 children would have been too many. We can’t care for any of them well if WE are overwhelmed and overrun. But you see, there are so many children in this family. They are bright, incredible children who didn’t sign up for this. They didn’t ask for addiction, abuse and neglect. They didn’t ask to be in the midst of domestic violence, to know how meth is consumed and to have a better understanding of sexual expression than is appropriate of for any pre-pubescent child. 

Despite the awful circumstances they have lived in the midst of, they shine. They have developed numerous defense mechanisms that have served them as they navigated all of this. 

It’s taken me a very long time to learn though, that the skills we develop to keep us safe and thriving in toxic and dysfunctional environments don’t help us so much once we escape. We learn to steal because our parents sell their food stamps for drug money and our siblings need to eat, but once we are older, stealing leads to broken relationships and jail time. We learn to lie because we are told we must protect our abusive adults at all times, but when we escape, lying only serves to break healthy relationships and enable those relationships that mimic the ones we grew up in. We dissociated to escape violence, sexual assault and abuse but once we escape dissociation can continue. When we keep dissociating, we don’t thrive in work, in school or in relationships because the second we experience any trigger we retreat. 

I have discovered that escape was the easy part. It was easy to get out, to walk away, to say “NO MORE!” What was hard- really hard- was unlearning every skill that I used to survive the ongoing, every day trauma of survival. This unlearning is an every day, uphill climb. 

Recognizing that I refuse to be vulnerable. 

Realizing how few people have ever seen me break. 

Grasping the depth of my difficulty trusting people

 Looking back at past romantic relationships and realizing that I thought love was the “good parts” of the toxic relationships that I witnessed growing up. Now I have come to understand that those relationships were never healthy. Those relationships were always toxic and mostly abusive, and I was just seeking to emulate the “love bombing” stage. I actively ran away from what was healthy and loving. It terrified me. 

Recognizing that I protect and fight for others to the detriment of myself. I have actively placed myself in the path of harm my entire life to try to protect others with no regard for myself. This is not sustainable. It is dangerous and harmful. When channeled and used appropriately, this drive can make me a very effective advocate. Without boundaries and awareness, it can make me a martyr. I am still working to recognize that I MATTER TOO. 

I am writing this now because I hope that our next generation finds it. I hope that other survivors see this. 

If you haven’t escaped yet, but you see yourself in some of these defense mechanisms, I see you. I see you doing things you don’t want others to know about because you have to survive…but look at you. YOU ARE SURVIVING. 

If you have escaped, and you still see these defense mechanisms in your life, congrats! I am so glad you got away from that abusive, toxic situation. It takes a long time to sort out how these things that helped you survive aren’t serving you well anymore. Keep going, and remember- you developed these things because you were surviving. That’s no reason to get lost in shame. There is no shame in survival. 

If you are like me and you have recognized how so much of who you are grew out of your responses to your toxic and dysfunctional environment, please don’t lose hope. WHO YOU ARE IS GOOD. You were created in the image of GOD, beloved and chosen, called by name. Work with your therapist, your counselor, your people. Take a step back and look at the skills you used and draw some boundaries around them- that is the process I am still involved in. Is it bad to be strong and to “never break?” well, maybe never. However, there is nothing wrong with being someone who can handle a crisis, who is strong and capable, and who is selective regarding those getting to see the vulnerability. Is it wrong to fight for others? Of course not! But don’t lose sight of yourself. Remember that you matter too. Take the time to look at the defense mechanisms that you have used and draw some boundaries. 

You, friend, are good. You are capable. You are stronger than you know. 

Be Bold. Live Out Loud.

CC

You’ve got this. Find your Roar.

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