Coping Mechanism is a column by Mackenna Manidis exploring the care practices of creative people she finds inspiring.
The first time I met Katherine Leon, I was blackout drunk at a house party, attempting to drown whatever boy problems I was having that evening. She lived in the house in front of a friend of mine, but I’d only ever heard about how magical and funny she was, we hadn’t met. That night, I was so excited to meet her that I screamed her name at a volume I didn’t even realize I was capable of as she was exiting her car in the driveway. Startled, she tossed her phone out of her hand directly into a wall and the screen immediately shattered. Horrified, I offered to pay for the repairs, but of course he didn’t accept. She should’ve — but that’s just not Kath.
Our initial meeting was my first glimpse into the spirit of the most gentle friend I’ve ever made. A first generation American raised by a Catholic mother from the Philippines and a Catholic father from Mexico, Katherine has always lived a culturally blended life, one where the idea of taking care of yourself isn’t something families typically discuss. “I think initially for me, the idea of self-care practices were common sense things — taking breaks, listening to music, watching comfort movies,” she explained over drinks one night this month. “Naps, food, friends. My brain didn’t really ever register anything real, you know, like therapy, because I grew up in a culture where mental health was non-existent.”
To cope with the turbulence of adjusting to life in the United States, religion was the glue in her household growing up. “The answer to so many things in Catholicism is just to pray about it, you’ll be fine,” she remembered. “Finding a way to attribute my anxiety or dark feelings to my own actions became second nature.” Developing a way to cope by placing all of the blame squarely on her own shoulders, assuming full responsibility for what happened in the world around her created even more anxiety. The biggest habit she formed in her youth, one that almost swallowed her whole, was an obsessive need to keep her family safe in their home. “As a kid, I would have to lock all of the doors leading into my house every night,” she said. “I couldn’t sleep unless I walked away from them maintaining that eye contact. I would spend a half an hour every night staring at locks.”
With accountability as the backbone of her upbringing, the concept of personal responsibility has colored most of Katherine’s adulthood. She has a history of taking on the world — a job in Los Angeles interning for a popular late night show while still living in Orange County years ago, photographing comedy shows after work, going home to stay up late and edit said photos, running on a scary low amount of sleep. Currently, Katherine works as a part-time live show producer at UCB and a part-time department assistant in the Communications division at Otis College of Art and Design, finding a balanced way to incorporate her creativity into both her career and free time.
Though she’s since made leaps and bounds schedule-wise, making time to take care of herself and growing out of the habit of burning the candle at both ends, Katherine also began taking her power back by relocating to Los Angeles from Orange County. When asked about her sudden uprooting about four years ago, she remembers how intimidating it seemed at the time. “The idea of going through a huge change to almost force yourself to reevaluate your life is something that I’ve never really understood past insisting on cutting my own hair or moving,” she said. “In the times I feel like I truly, desperately want to leave, I fall back on knowing if I choose to do so, I can always come back.”
The stress of relocation, even from a short distance, is one that’s all too familiar to me. Although my move to Los Angeles was only from about a hundred miles away, being alone in such a big city can be scary. The pang in my heart for family or familiarity is frequent, even though I’m having the time of my life. When I asked Katherine ways she helps to ground herself in these times of uncertainty so that she doesn’t make that leap, she gave me a list:
Keep making things and support others making things.
You’re allowed to keep things for yourself.
Share your stories.
Surround yourself with good people.
It’s okay to care about things.
“I was, and still sometimes am, scared no one will remember me or what I do,” she admitted. “I had a really good talk with a friend recently who reassured me that just because a phase in your life is over, doesn’t mean it wasn’t good or significant or that it didn’t happen. It’s a chapter or a season; beat the game and start over.” The idea of beating the game and starting over is something that resonates with me more and more deeply the older I get. Being a woman and passing milestone ages where others would typically be getting married, starting to have kids and buy a house, and to not be doing any of those things, I start to feel the hot, sick fire of comparison burning in me.
But by deciding to look at my life as a series of episodes instead of one giant unachievable goal — a marathon instead of a race — I’m accepting that what’s important is the pace. Slowing myself down to check in with my heart, make time for my loved ones, and taking pages out of Katherine’s book by following the lead of my own feelings, not where I theoretically should be at any given time, helps to melt the feelings of inadequacy. I can only hope that everyone has a Katherine in their life to remind them of their core. Mine is pretty lovely.