What’s your coping mechanism?
When presented with an unavoidable obstacle or drastic change in the environment, how one reacts relies primarily on their established coping mechanism. The greater the challenge, the response. There are many coping mechanisms out there, each as unique as the individual. Coping mechanisms allow a person to retreat into feelings of safety and distance themselves physically, mentally, and even emotionally to whatever is troubling them. Coping mechanisms help us work through a variety of situations and emotions, as mild as stress from a hard day at work to as drastic as the grief present following the death of a loved one. They can also change and adapt with us as we grow. When faced with trauma, this psychological mechanism helps us move past feelings that would otherwise hinder us. For many of the general population, our coping mechanisms stem from an activity or pastime we enjoyed in our childhood, a time where things were simpler, so to say. Regardless, examples are far and wide including exercise, knitting, watching your favorite show, spending time with a loved one, cooking a nostalgic meal, each is as unique as the individual.
Once our coping mechanisms help us process the emotions we deal with, we are then able to piece together the events that have occurred, building a foundation on which we can continue moving forward with our lives. Narrative Medicine: Honoring the Stories of Illness by narrative medicine author Rita Charon states that the telling of our story is a coping mechanism in itself. The process of actively recalling the pain and anguish experienced is very daunting. No one wants to reopen wounds that have since closed, or at the very least scabbed over. However, Charon argues that in order to “hear one story in light of others…”, one must think back and “identify metaphors or images used…, tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty…, (and) identify the unspoken subtexts…” (4).
For Hannah Grace Drawdy, the year 2020 has been about dealing with external events just as much as internal. In January of this year she came down with a mystery illness that causes tachycardia, gastric upset, as well as many other less than desirable symptoms. Appointment after appointment, specialist after specialist yielded no results, only more frustration. Soon after COVID-19 patients flocked to the already small and understaffed hospital located in Hannah Grace’s rural hometown. In comparison to COVID-19 Hannah Grace’s health problems were deemed nonessential so to say. The surgery to fix her diaphragm pushed off time and time again until it was delayed inevitably.
In addition to the stress of her mystery illness, Hannah Grace’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in late spring. Being the eldest of two daughters, it was Hannah Grace’s responsibility to step up and take care of her family as they entered this new life of uncertainty. With her mother now immunocompromised and her own health problems to worry about, she decided to study from home this fall semester taking all her classes online. This way she could be there for her mother as they navigate chemo and radiation appointments, as well as for her younger sister who now had to attend elementary school through Zoom.
The external stimuli and responsibilities were piling up one after another, and in order to get a handle on her ever-changing reality, she defaulted to one of her favorite childhood pastimes: reading. As Hannah Grace grew older and entered college, the time she put aside for her favorite hobby diminished until her books were left untouched, collecting dust on her bookshelf. After beginning the fall semester at home, she soon realized that “me time” was a vital necessity. Yes, she had people relying on her, but what good was she to them if she was mentally drained and physically exhausted? Her coping mechanism shifted as her circumstances did. Hanging out with her sorority sisters was no longer an option, she had to find something to occupy her mind whilst also transporting herself away from whatever was overwhelming her. Her books provided her the escapism she needed to rejuvenate and regain the strength to take care of her loved ones. Additionally, reading stories helps one think about their own narrative, about how their own life events or pieces can fit together into “something that made provisional sense, enough sense, that is, on which to act.” (4). In the end, what is the purpose of a story if not a method by which the writer can convey a concept to the reader or audience?
Stories and coping mechanisms are vital in the aftermath of drastic change, working hand in hand to help process the trauma or negative feelings brought up. They allow us to express emotions that are otherwise unarticulated and to also do so in a way that they no longer linger on the inside biasing present and future decisions. The process of writing stories provides a coping mechanism in which the narratives are written are as beneficial to the writer as the reader. Hannah Grace, and many others, use reading and escapism as a method of coping. However, more than that the stories they read help them learn to articulate their own stories. Regardless of whether the telling of stories is written or verbal, the outcome is the same. People have the opportunity to sift through all the external and internal factors so that they can find and interpret what their own story is. For this year especially, there were many events that could have presented obstacles and challenges but by processing and telling our story we are able to clear out the muck blocking us. Charon highlights that the importance of both story writing and storytelling is to enable “all to recognize their common journey.” (12).