One of the many blessings of being Program Director for NAMI Westside LA is the opportunity to speak directly to middle and high school students about the importance of prioritizing their mental health. I’ve been able to do this over 200 times as a lead presenter for one of NAMI’s signature programs, Ending the Silence, and close to 100 virtually during the pandemic alone. You can probably do the math in your head for that one: that’s a whole lot of blessings!
Our ETS presentations cover a range of topics, from stigma and warning signs, to learning how to be a good friend and how to ask for help when you need it. But my favorite part of the conversation is when we talk to the students about positive coping strategies.
For the uninitiated, positive coping strategies can be thought of as the fuel we use to fill up our emotional/spiritual/mental health gas tanks. I can’t tell you how cool it is to watch a roomful — or Zoomful — of students light up as they start sharing about all the things they do to light themselves up. Hanging out with friends, writing in a journal, playing video games (in moderation!), reading, cooking, hiking, painting, meditating, binge-watching Netflix, sometimes meditating while we binge… These are all examples of the positive coping strategies we can turn to when we’re having a rough day. Or, in the case of a pandemic that induced trauma on a global scale, a rough year.
I want to share briefly about a positive coping strategy of mine that has been indispensable in helping me cope with the panic, sorrow, and uncertainty I felt during this historically challenging time: making music with my friends.
It hasn’t been easy. After all, as Willie Nelson could attest, making music with your friends… on or OFF the road (where I tend to do do my music making)… generally entails being in their presence. That turned out to be a real challenge when you’re also trying to adhere to public health guidelines advising against in-person gatherings. But it just so happens that a few pockets of my friends felt the same way as I did as the lockdown walls were closing in — no way we’re getting through this without playing.
And so we played. It’s taken a lot of care, a lot of COVID tests, and a lot of bundling up while playing outside six feet apart. In the case of my college band, it also required a willingness to stretch technologically, which allowed us to enjoy a prolonged reunion without any of us being in the same room or same state. (Now maybe our college will finally let us play at the next reunion!)
My friends and I gladly met those challenges because we had to. Or at least that’s how we felt. One of my friends calls making music “heart medicine” and I couldn’t agree more. A year filled with unbearable loss and suffering would’ve seemed even more unbearable without our medicine. And like many positive coping strategies, this particular brand of medicine does NOT require a doctor’s prescription to fill!
It’s worth noting that not one of my friends is a professional musician. We play purely for the decidedly amateurish and human joy it brings us. Playing together while the pandemic wore on enabled us to channel our anxieties and fears into a creative outlet, and experience the kind of connection that reminds you how much there is to live for… and to keep playing for.
So we played on. I found new meaning in the old Grateful Dead lyric, “the fields were full of dancing, full of singing and romancing, the music never stopped.” I was heartbroken that those fields had to be emptied out, but man, was I grateful to my friends for making sure the music never stopped.
As of this writing, it’s been a little over a year since this shocking disruption to the force blindsided us all. Now finally, mercifully, with shots in arms and the first glimmers of a new normalcy peeking around the corner, it appears the end might actually be in sight. I’m as happy as the next human about this forward momentum, and can’t wait to see the fields filled again with singing and romancing. I have to admit, however, I also find myself battling a slight wave of #fono (Fear of Normal) as normal life — whatever that is — slowly re-approaches. After spending more than a year adjusting to the unknown, now suddenly we have to face our fears of the known.
You know what that means, right? It’s high time we all dust off our lists of positive coping strategies again. And maybe discover some new joys to add while we’re at it. That’s my plan anyway. With a whole lot of uncertainty on the horizon, the one thing I know for sure is that whatever lies ahead, I can count on the music to carry me through.
‘Cause that’s what a good positive coping strategy will do.
My friend Rose and I gathered recently to play a few tunes, including Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend.”
The song has particular meaning for me because it captures perfectly how I feel about my NAMI Westside LA family. Ever since the day I walked into my first family support group three years ago, I knew NAMI Westside had my back. I’m so grateful now to be part of the team that helps provide the unique blend of support, education… and friendship we offer our expanding community. Winter, spring, summer or fall!