Life lately: coping mechanisms for a bizarro month

March has been a cursed month for me since 2018, when I came down with a bad case of bronchitis that nearly mutated into pneumonia. In 2019, I went back into therapy to cope with grief. In 2020, The Obvious Thing happened.

And of course March would not spare me this year. There was a mass shooting near my parents’ house. My grandfather’s condition worsened, and he passed away today. The atmosphere at work was particularly challenging and I spent a lot of time questioning what I wanted to do next. For most of the month, I ate less and slept more, preferring to spend most of my free time comatose under the blankets. Give yourself grace, the self-help experts would say, and I wondered, is this what it means to give myself grace? To curl up in bed and watch Ted Lasso for ten hours straight?

I’m better now. But I am not looking forward to March 2022.

What have I been up to recently? In March and April, I took two train trips within Switzerland, one to Gruyères and one to Lungern and Brienz. I feel both grateful for the easy access to mountains and nature that Switzerland has provided, and antsy about feeling “stuck” in this small country.

Much like the rest of Europe, vaccinations have been slow here. The government has promised that we will all have access to a vaccine by… er, July. Maybe. Meanwhile, my parents are already fully vaccinated in Georgia. My coworker, a fellow American, flew back to the States last Thursday and got her Johnson & Johnson shot on Friday. (“They were literally looking around the pharmacy for anyone to give a shot to,” she says.) I’ve heard of other Americans and Brits doing the same.

Painting

I have taken up painting. I went to a Swiss shop called Caran D’Ache in Old Town and bought paints, brushes and a palette. Later, when I told my French teacher, who is an artist, she was impressed. “Caran D’Ache makes some of the best paints in the world,” she told me. “Their colors are so rich!”

After trying out the paint, I would have to agree. It goes onto the paper so smoothly, like spreading soft butter on a piece of toast.

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My first painting was a self-portrait of me at around age 6, sitting in a duck-shaped paddle boat on a lake in Beijing. I was very strong as a child and could paddle the boat independently.

My second painting was a recreation of a scene I captured in Milan, Italy last summer. I don’t know if I’ve found my niche yet, but I really enjoy painting humans.

Painting really is very therapeutic. I find that it allows me to concentrate and be content with the stillness, even when there is nothing external to distract from the anxious noise in my head. It almost feels like a form of meditation.

Therapy

I went back into therapy, and words cannot express the amount of relief I have gained from talking to one person for just 50 minutes.

It was hard to find a therapist in Switzerland who was accepting new patients. I did a lot of googling and basically reached out to every single therapist who was 1) a native English speaker and 2) not a practitioner of somatic therapy. (Somatic therapy is the type of therapy that has you work on breathing and feeling your physical presence, which I have tried before and do not find helpful for my personal situation.) I also ruled out someone who had a whole page dedicated to astrology on their website.

The issue of therapy shortage isn’t unique to Switzerland. There has been a huge surge of need for mental health counselling services as a result of the pandemic, and I read that in the US people are waiting 6 months just to talk to someone on an app (can’t remember whether it was Talkspace or something else). I ran into a lot of walls, and people kept referring me to other people who referred me to more people who were unavailable.

In the end, I found two potential therapists. I met with one in person last week, wearing masks, and am meeting the other this week. I’m looking forward to getting to know their styles and hope one of them will turn out to be an especially good fit.

Therapy is expensive at 120 to 150 francs per session, and it’s not covered by insurance. Compare that to my in-network therapy in DC, which had a co-pay of only $10.

I also downloaded a free app called Woebot, which is an AI chat bot that has been trained in cognitive behavioral therapy. I thought it would be dumb texting with a bot, but it actually feels kind of nice, like having a friend check in on you every night.

Learning new languages

One night, when I was feeling like an animal in a cage, I purchased an online German course from the Goethe Institut. I have no background in German and no real reason to learn it. As I explained to the first therapist I met with, “I need to have things that I can have control over. If I buy German classes, I will get German classes. If I buy train tickets, I will get to take the train. It’s my way of trying to cope with all the big things in life that I have no control over.”

Anyway, the German classes are going well. They are self-guided; 18 chapters, with about 3-4 subchapters each. I work through one subchapter every evening, which takes 30 minutes or so. I have so far completed 2 chapters, or 10% of the course. At this rate, it will probably take 2 months to finish level A1.

I’ve also started studying Russian, a language that I have even less reason to learn. Maybe for when I eventually get to travel around Central Asia? It’s really hard, especially with a brand new alphabet to learn, which is why it’s also kind of fun: it stimulates and exercises a rusty part of the brain in a way that French and German don’t.

I have kept up 10-15 minutes a day of studying for about 25 days at this point. I can say things like this is my office and the horse eats apples. Very useful!

And of course, French classes continue in the background. Three hour a week of Lingoda, plus another hour of 1-on-1 conversation. My French teacher remarked last week that she’s noticed an improvement in my vocabulary and mastery of more complex grammatical structures, which was really heartening to hear.

Overall, I’m feeling better. The weather is getting nicer, and we are not technically under a lockdown anymore, so I’m hopeful for better days ahead.

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