In 2011, I had my very first full-time teaching gig: making second semester seniors read literature and write papers. I was woefully unprepared, having received their reading list two days before the semester began and (bonus) having read none of the books. No material, a bare-bones course outline, and no oversight. And a couple of surprise electives were thrown in there too.
I felt about as terrified and despondent as you might imagine. Over the first twelve weeks, I had panic attacks, worked non-stop, and barely ate or slept. I made a ton of mistakes, and through them, I learned how to better manage my workload and the over-it 18-year-olds who were already making college plans (or planning to sell drugs instead of go to college). Things slowly got better.
During the hard learning curve period, I had to find some coping mechanisms. Coping is not curing; it’s what we do while we work at making things better, or while we wait for things to improve when we have no control. Coping mechanisms are hopefully healthy activities we turn to to alter our mood in the short term. They make an immediate impact. During my hellish first months of teaching, I found a few coping mechanisms that surprised me: I listened to opera, I started coloring, and I started playing The 10th Kingdom on repeat.
Let me explain. I had never listened to opera before. I had zero interest. But I had downloaded some album with 100 well-known opera songs or whatever for 99 cents, and one day, I put it on while I was grading a mountain of short answer study guides (big mistake, new teachers). For reasons I still don’t understand, my stress level dropped immediately. My mind slowed down, my body relaxed, and I suddenly felt like I could eat that elephant one bite at a time.
The coloring happened because the 6th graders I was teaching Journalism had some extra-time-activities that I happened to partake in. This was just as adult coloring books began to emerge. I couldn’t understand why coloring was so soothing, but here we were.
And The 10th Kingdom? That will always be a mystery. All I know is I played it a dozen times that semester, always in the background of my work at home, and it truly helped.
In recent years, I have passed through some painful experiences where few distractions offered consolation. TV was purely numbing, hands-on activities like cooking and crafts only gave me more quiet time to ruminate, and I didn’t have much patience with any kind of time commitment, even if it was just a 150-minute movie. In particular, a job loss and then a breakup took me through a long phase of grieving. I don’t remember how it happened, but I started reading poetry before bed. First it was Rumi, then it was Elizabeth Bishop, and then Walt Whitman. I started reading a couple of poems aloud before bed. Why aloud? I read much more slowly when I read aloud, and I absorbed the words better. It also allowed me to better appreciate the beauty of the language; after all, these writers are artists. I took this poetry reading with me into the pandemic–into the quasi-lockdown, another job loss, missing my friends and social life, and into a whole lot of life change. As coping mechanisms go, this has been a solid gold one.
As you’re reading this, I imagine you have encountered these rough times where solace is hard to find. Or maybe it’s focus that’s missing. Maybe simply comfort and warmth. I hope you find your coping mechanisms–strange, random, but effective. Maybe it’s worth trying those soft pretzel recipes, clog dancing YouTube videos, herb gardening, or riding your bike at lunch time. Maybe it’s time to make 100 paper cranes out of the random paper in your house, one per day until life’s hard edges have softened.
Coping is a temporary exercise; soon enough, circumstances change or pain fades, and happiness finds you again. Until then, rely on geocaching, watercolors, or yoga with your dog, and pass along your encouragement to the next soul who needs it.
Reality Changing Observations:
1. Do you already have a reliable coping mechanism? What does it do for you?
2. What are some unhealthy coping mechanisms that you turn to? Why are they ultimately not good ones?
3. Write about the hardest season of your life. How did you feel during? How did you get through it? How did you feel afterwards and since?