OK, I made up that ten-times-worse number.
Maybe a new teaching job is five times more challenging, or perhaps it’s one-hundred percent more anxiety-inducing than standard career moves. Quite possibly the agony of being a first-year teacher all over again increases a person’s stress level so exponentially it cannot be measured using standard algebraic equations. I might need to study Calculus to explain the reality bend I’m experiencing.
My levels of anxiety and fatigue recently spiked to previously unknown levels. As a result, I began a quest to understand and address an enemy that is invisible but ubiquitous.
This is my dispatch from the front lines of the war on stress.
Not long ago, about one month into the school year, I found myself tapped out from the demands of my new job: new colleagues to get to know, new rules and procedures to follow, new surroundings to navigate, new students to understand, new classes to master.
I was working 60-70 hours per week without ever feeling caught up on my to-do list. On the contrary, every day of hard work only seemed to put me farther behind. One step forward, three steps back.
I’ve been in this situation before. Having changed teaching jobs more than once after marrying and moving cross country twice, I could write a book on how to survive the first year in a new position. Well, honestly… no, maybe not a book. More like a cliched internet meme accompanied by a picture of boxer Rocky Balboa doing chin-ups! It would go like this: Gut it out, push through, fake it till you make it. Cue the music.
One day I had what I’ve come to recognize as a full-blown anxiety attack – something I’d never experienced before (although I’d had a mini-version a few days earlier, I now realize). My chest clamped down, as if a huge weight sat on it, while inside my adrenaline went haywire – surging like it would if my child’s life were in danger. The combination of inward pressure exploding out and an outside vice clamping down made it hard to breathe. My heart raced.
I was scared, and I didn’t know what to do. Instinct took over. In the middle of a Tuesday afternoon, I reached out to four friends via instant messages and texts. No big deal, right?
These were people I either hadn’t seen in more than a year or whom I’d never before reached out to in a way that wasn’t related to work or the friendship of our kids. But they were people I respect, trust, and care about, even if I don’t always make time in my busy life for keeping in touch or getting together.
Somehow, I didn’t let self-doubt stop me. I didn’t second guess or overthink it. I just stuck out my arm like a drowning person. Strangely enough, I gathered my courage from a lesson I’d just taught in my junior English class.
Only the day before, we’d been discussing Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey in relation to Beowulf, the epic poem of monster slaying and good versus evil dating back to 700 A.D.
Scholar Joseph Campbell spent a lifetime studying similar myths from various time periods, from all over the world, and chronicling their commonalities. His classic book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, set out the archetypal pattern of a hero’s story – the struggles and means of triumph all heroic stories share.
“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek,” Campbell once said of a theme he found repeating across vast differences of time place, and culture.
Looking at Beowulf through this prism allows us to see how it connects to the Star Wars films, for example, or a Disney movie such as Big Hero 6. More importantly, studying Campbell’s “Monomyth,” as he called it, lets us look deeply at what it means to be human.
In Campbell’s cycle, a hero starts in the Ordinary World, receives a Call to Adventure (which he might at first refuse), finds a Mentor, is granted Supernatural Aid, discovers Allies, suffers Setbacks, and ultimately finds himself in the Belly of the Whale, so to speak. A low point. Near death.
More trials ensue, and more Reconciliations and Atonements occur, but in the end the hero returns with an Elixir of some sort, a boon for his people.
“It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life,” Campbell said in a 1988 television interview with Bill Moyers on PBS. “Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.”
That Tuesday afternoon of high anxiety, I understood that I was in the belly of the whale, the abyss, and I knew to reach out for allies. I’d already experienced my supernatural aid: Having watched several video clips of Joseph Campbell in recent days while preparing for class, I’d felt he was speaking directly to me. He said: “Follow your bliss and don't be afraid, and doors will open where you didn't know they were going to be.”
I felt blessed when all four of my friends responded immediately to my call for help. I’ve since met with each one for long, meaningful, heartening conversations – all different but illuminating in their own ways. It was hard to express my gratitude to them for the relief I felt in making genuine connection. Maybe this is my attempt at conveying that now.
Next week in Part 2: One Elixir I’ve Discovered