There are few things in my life that I feel my education has prepared me for.
I should be more specific. Everything I really needed to know skill-wise, I learned in high school. When I have to reach back into the recesses of my memory to pull out what the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act did (it raised tariffs on thousands of imported goods into the US in the 30s) or remember what the derivative is about (it calculates the area under a curve) or pull up “ROYGBIV” for the crossword puzzle (it’s an acronym that helps you remember the order of the colors of the rainbow in the arc but really it references wave lengths as they interact with a prism), I think about high school. We did all of that there. And much more (don’t even get me started on my time as the Latin scholar Orion…Salve Magister. Salvete Discipulae). On my days, I’m impressed I can even recall that these things exist. Job well done, Beaumont School.
College was much more a social experiment and coasting on the coat-tails of my excellent high school educational experience. College was an incredible breeze academically; socially, though, whew. It was a whirlwind. We were Marquette and it was great. And graduate school…well, that was just a tableau of heady conversations capped off by one of the hardest, most solitary experiences I imagine I’ll ever have. But in the creation and sheer willing of that document, my dissertation, I think I uncovered one of the greatest gifts I’ll ever be given. I’m going to call it a coping toolkit.
One of my favorite sociological concepts is the “cultural toolkit” (thank you Ann Swidler) mostly because when you think of concepts in terms of tools instead of analytical frameworks or paradigms, it’s so much easier to actual use them effectively. Tool boxes are handy, compact, and full of solutions to problems you’ve got. Like Mary Poppins’ carpet bag. Or if it’s my tool box that I got for Christmas a couple years ago, it’s full of pliers, a hammer, some industrial grade scissors, a variety of different-headed screwdrivers, a measuring tape, and 47 Allen wrenches leftover from Ikea projects that all pile haphazardly at the bottom of the main compartment along with assorted hardware that never seems to have had a home in the first place. All of this rests dutifully in my closet while I use butter knives and pen caps for most “household maintenance.” But the coping toolkit was forged out of my own blood, sweat, and tears under pressure the like that turns coal into diamonds. This one I keep close at hand and for good reason: it gets me through the tough times.
Honestly, I didn’t know the powers were transferrable to real life problems until recently. I’m happy to report that this may be the greatest grace higher education has bestowed. So, it sounds so basic but my coping tool kit includes:
1) A compartment of little mantras including just keep going, everything will be fine, don’t panic, and sometimes questions like What in this situation can I control?, What’s the most immediate priority?, and How big is this problem really…be honest…no really.
2) The next compartment is full of things I know I need to do to get to the point that I can think clearly again. These include yoga, physical activity of any kind especially taking a walk, turning off the tv, eating something healthy, and doing something creative like playing the piano or practicing singing.
3) Another compartment holds all of my most trusted advisors: people I know I can call to talk through the situation no matter how dire.
4) I’ve built a large compartment devoted to strategies for how to get out of a jam of any size: set a time limit and do something toward fixing the jam for that time, jump to another section and start there, set a reward that is not to be had until the goal is accomplished, talk yourself into it, take a stretch break at least once an hour, set a time limit for how long you’ll work even if you’re in a groove. Have a good cry. Etc. This is the most populated, chaotic compartment. Getting out of jams is a messy business.
There might be a couple other knick-knacks tucked away in those extemporaneous pockets on the outside of the tool box but this is the main contents. Now, these could be very writing specific but I’m finding them useful for the situation in which I find myself presently (recovering from a taxing job and finding a new, better job). Today I was feeling a very typical “free floating anxiety” feeling–you know the one–I’m worried about something but I don’t know what…I mean I do but I’m doing everything I can do…but I still feel anxious and I’m starting to get a headache but I’m not hungry and I’m feeling generally crappy. This feeling is a gateway for me into a dark place, so I turned to my toolkit and drew one thing from each compartment. This was my conversation with myself:
Okay…don’t panic...I’m not really feeling like it but I should go for a walk, even if it’s just for 20 minutes…It’s hot outside but there is still sort of fresh air out there…you’re muscles will thank you [talking myself into it]…While I’m out there maybe I’ll call Paul and just say hi*…then when I get home I need to make a protein shake and then I can carry on my current life as a human cat. Everything will be fine.
*One of the greatest things about having well-trained trusted advisors is they get to know you and your triggers. As it turned out, Paul called me on my walk just to check in because he knows I’m working at home and spending a lot of time by myself which often leads to…free-floating anxiety.
All of this sounds stupidly simple when not in the grasp of an emotion that makes everyday, reasonable things seem completely insane. One of the reasons the tool kit works is because over time, the use of it becomes a reflex to conditions that are deleterious. Like those who get auras before migraines (I suffer with you and I’m sorry) or who can feel a diabetic attack coming on…or who can smell rain before it actually arrives, the conditions for me heading down into a deep, anxiety-ridden spiral are almost always the same. It rarely sneaks up on me (although sometimes it does). It took me years to see them for what they are but I now know them so well that the tool kit is right there and even in a panic moment, although what is actually best seems like the worst possible options, I know enough to trust the tool kit. It will work if you use it.
Talk about a great learning lab of life. That dissertation might be 250 pages of crap but it did teach me how to deal with the most painful and destructive moments of self-doubt and anxiety in a way that actually made me stronger….and that I can use in real life.
It was an expensive lesson…but ultimately worth it.
And today it produced this picture…which I never would’ve gotten without that walk. Silver lining.