A little over 20 years ago, I joined the Marine Corps.
Yeah, most people make that face when they find out. I know it does not seem terribly likely. It is, however, 100% true.
What can I say? At age 18, I desperately needed the structure and discipline of the military. To be utterly frank, I needed my butt kicked as well. I have never regretted the decision to join the military even though service-related injuries have been problematic at various points over the years. What I learned through enlistment and service formed a good deal of who I am today.
I find that I am calling on a lot of the ideas and techniques I learned so long ago to help manage my stress, anxiety, and depression during the coronavirus pandemic. For those of you who do not know, Marine Corps boot camp is…. intense. It is also rather long – around three months. The different branches of the military serve different purposes, so their training varies. Some specialize in training civilians to function well in a wartime environment. Others focus on creating a certain kind of person. The Marine Corps is of the latter persuasion. They are not training recruits – the goal of boot camp is to transform a grubby, grumbling, apathetic teenager into a Marine. It is quite a process.
The challenges of the environment a Marine Corps recruit finds themselves in plus the length of boot camp can be crazy-making. There are a few tools, techniques and perspectives that helped me get through boot camp that I find myself calling on now. Don’t worry, they don’t involve tons of push-ups in a sand pit full of fleas (unless you’re into that sort of thing). I do think they help make tough times more manageable, and I want to share them with you.
Make it all smaller
There was a saying in boot camp – ‘chow to chow and mail call to mail call.’ What that means is to think of time in much smaller chunks. Do not worry about making it through boot camp. Do not worry about making it through the week. Think, instead, about making it to the next meal. For us, now, that means not spending a lot of time and energy on spinning our anxiety wheels about the coming weeks or months. None of us know what that time is going to hold. You know what we do know? What time lunch is. Focus on making it that far. Then focus on getting to dinner.
Let the goals become smaller as well. The Marine Corps has certain physical requirements one must meet to escape graduate boot camp. At the outset, those goals can seem utterly unattainable. Again, we were counseled not to even think about them. Just focus on getting through the next task: the next set of crunches, the next run, the next inspection. Focus on the smaller steps in your own life. Focus on getting your teeth brushed, your kids fed, the next piece of work whether that’s remote work for your business or doing the dishes. Make it all smaller. Ignore the big picture for now. The big picture is made up of these smaller moments and it will take care of itself.
Human connection is utterly vital when we are going through something tough. My mother was a lifesaver on this front when I went through boot camp. She organized my friends and family so that every single day, there was a letter or postcard waiting for me at mail call. These moments of connection carried me through. When Mom found out that another recruit was not getting any mail at all, she started writing to them, too. (Yes, Mom is amazing. Being the child of a real-life superhero is weird sometimes.)
We have access to social media and various messaging apps. We have email addresses. We even have physical addresses for some of our friends! Use them and use them in a specific way. Rather than mindless scrolling and smaller interactions, choose one friend or family member every day to have a more in-depth conversation with. Write a longer message, send a video on Marco Polo, start a chat, actually make a phone or video call, or otherwise engage in deeper and more authentic connection. One of my closest friends and I have a daily check-in: we honestly talk about how we are feeling (even if it is terrible) and name three things we are grateful for. Although getting ‘likes’ on social media can feel good, it is not as nourishing as a real conversation with someone we love. Think of that like potato chips versus a hearty meal. Go for the meal instead. Connect on a deeper level. Let Mail Call get you through the bad days.
My family is from the northeast (New York and Philadelphia) and I grew up in Maryland. My childhood travel experiences were limited to the northeast for the most part. I went to boot camp in Parris Island, South Carolina, during the summer. It was the first time I spent any reasonable amount of time in a southern state and, most impactfully, it was the first time I saw Spanish Moss.
I love the way Spanish Moss makes trees look like they are dripping with faery veils. When we were outside marching, running, or otherwise being trained, I would focus on how beautiful the Spanish Moss looked. If we were out at dawn doing pull-ups, I would focus on the glorious way the sun was rising over the island, or the birdsong in the air. Despite what was happening in my immediate vicinity, there was almost always something beautiful I could tap into.
Rev Carl Gregg calls this practice savoring. When you encounter a moment of beauty, focus on it. Lean into it. Savor that moment. Stop what you are doing and just be present. Enjoy the way the sunlight is passing through a prism in the window to make a rainbow on the wall. Savor the way the steam is rising from your cup of coffee. Luxuriate in the soft fur of your cat. Find small moments of beauty and pleasure and lean into them.
Let failure be fine
This one is tough for those of us with perfectionist tendencies and I wrestle with it to this day. It is a worthwhile fight, though. In boot camp, we were expected to fail at things sometimes. We were expected to mess up formation movements, fall off obstacle course structures, forget the new procedures we were learning, drop things, make mistakes, and otherwise go all Wreck-it Ralph at the worst possible moments. Having a bad day does not mean that you are a failure. It means that you are learning. After a mistake or failure in boot camp, we would be counseled (admittedly at an intense volume sometimes) in how to succeed the next time. So, screw stuff up. Then, shrug your shoulders and remember that you are learning. We all are. We will do better next time.
Channel, redirect and transform
Your witchy ways will serve you well here. I can’t remember whether this was instructed or not during boot camp (it’s been a couple decades) but turning emotional energy into physical exertion is a great way to come back to a balanced state of mind. In boot camp, I would turn the fear, anger, confusion, and loneliness into movement: exercise, cleaning, getting perfect creases in my uniform, etc. Fueling tasks and physical performance with the chaos inside me resulted in less internal chaos and good physical results. I use this practice to this day. When I’m having a down day and the emotions and worries related to this pandemic are keeping me from engaging with the world in the way I wish to, I switch to movement. I grab a shovel and work on my garden. I clean things. I take the dog for a long walk. I take all that excess emotion and turn it into physical movement. Use your magick here. Let the fear flow out through the bottoms of your feet while you walk. Push your frustration into the earth with every turn of the spade. Scrub the anxiety off you with every scrub of the sink. Rather than hanging onto the discordant energy, channel it.
At night, when you go to bed, let go of the day. Good, bad, or otherwise, it’s over. Most days in boot camp followed similar patterns, but we were kept largely in the dark about the exact schedule, exercise regimen and tasks ahead of us. Allow the uncertainty to just be. We do not know what tomorrow will hold and worrying about it won’t make that information suddenly appear. Let go. Surrender the day and your concerns to the Gods, the Universe, the Divine All, whatever form works for you. Feel how good it is to just stop. Notice how soft your mattress is, how your blankets are perfect for snuggling up. Just rest. Close your eyes and even if you have problems drifting off, enjoy allowing your body to surrender to ease, rest, and relaxation.
Get back up
One of the most valuable lessons I took from boot camp was about strength. Strength is not just your ability to power through something. True strength is resilience, and resilience can be learned. The strongest Marines were not the largest or most heavily muscled women in my platoon (Marine Corps boot camp was segregated by gender when I went through). The strongest ones were the Marines who would get back up after being knocked over. They were the Marines who would walk when they could not run anymore. They were the Marines who would motivate, inspire, and cheer their platoonmates on even when they themselves were struggling. They had the grace to accept help when it was needed and offer help when they could.
Getting back up is not always pretty. It means dusting off and getting up off the floor to try again. For us right now, that might look like taking your first shower in a few days and putting on clean clothes. It might look like taking out the trash. It might look like dedicating 20 minutes to answering overdue emails. It might mean multiple rounds of falling down and getting back up again.
I have really bad days sometimes. One of the more challenging forms my anxiety disorder takes is something called being ‘locked in.’ It is a mental fugue state where I literally cannot make myself do anything. It feels like a weird form of mental paralysis that, when it hits, generally means I spend the day lying in bed.
The resilience I learned from boot camp means that I do not self-punish about my locked-in days. Instead, my mantra becomes ‘I will try again tomorrow.’ I know from experience that I will not stay knocked down forever. I know I can get up again. So, I just remind myself of that and then try again the next day, or when the locked-in passes.
This is tough. No beautiful language, reframing or thought exercises will change that. However, tough days are not endless, and we have some tools to help us get through. Chow to chow, mail call to mail call. Find beauty where you can and when you take a tumble, it just means you’re learning.
We’ll try again tomorrow.