On fighting demons for my PhD
I sit here today, writing and writing. I am fully aware of my lack of blogging over the past few weeks and I fully understand why. I have decided to isolate myself whilst writing this, mainly as it might make me upset, and sitting in a library full of people (instead of my office where I have cried many times) helps to keep things under control. The library also gives me a break from my work setting and I know I can return at any point. I just choose to have this time on my own.
I have been unsurprisingly a little under the weather quite recently, brought on by (you guessed it) working too hard!! After three hectic months of working and being busy, I finally had to stop. My body told me that I needed to rest and I ignored it. I ignored it to the point where I had to literally force myself to sit on the sofa and watch TV so my lovely, fun Easter weekend was filled with rest, rest and even more rest (and daytime TV which is mind-numbing). I knew I needed to rest not only because I could not focus properly on what I was doing, but because I was feeling so run down and tired. That is not like me. I can normally be up at 7am and keep going until bed time but I was finding that my afternoons were becoming a chore, and by 3pm I was often nearly falling asleep at my desk (funny for some, but not great for my work). So I stopped. I stopped working. I took a break. A sensible person takes a break, right? That is where it all started really.
Once I stopped working, I realised that I needed to take better care of myself so that my PhD work would flourish again. I therefore decided to book a dental check-up (as it was due) and a doctor’s check-up just to see if everything was okay. Medically I was great… no issues, but I did need some dental work done which is the main reason for why my work productivity died a horrible, horrible death in my eyes.
I will not go into too much detail about what happened at the dentist, but you can find out here. It wasn’t pretty. I ended up having three appointments (one check-up and two to correct the errors). I was in a pretty bad state – swollen face and a burned lip meaning I did not want to go out and about, nor did I want to come into contact with anyone else as I was feeling self-conscious. I had had days and days of shooting pains in my teeth, up the side of my head and in my ear, but the dentist just kept treating instead of listening to what I was saying. He finally realised that there was an initial error with treatment and I needed help to get this corrected. That is where it all went wrong. 45 minutes in the chair, anaesthetic, lots of pulling and tugging, and I was in pain before he finished off the treatment. However, during the last stages, the dentist accidentally slipped with a metal rod that had just been heated with a lighter (to make it sterile) and what do you know? I got burned. Again this was not nice. I had to take time out of my PhD working day to attend to the dentist and then more time to recuperate once he had done the work. To me, this set me back big time and I felt like I was working backwards not forwards.
To add more fuel to the fire – Chris left. Well, not in the sense of leaving for good (I think after 8 years, if we were going to part, we would have done it my now… and anyway, we need to plan this wedding), but he was sent away for work to a place where he could not get home often and he was required to work shifts (meaning I could not go and visit either). This means I am on my own. I am on my own during my PhD journey and I am on my own at home. I had thought that it would be a nice experience being on my own (as he was away vising home last week), but I could not have been more wrong. It’s like everything you had hoped for and worked for taken away in a flash and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it at all. Luckily, Chris has been able to call frequently, so in-between working at my desk and meetings, we can chat here and there. But it’s not the same as having someone at home and someone to share your life with. I know everyone says that it’s okay, and making sure that you are surrounded by people (friends, family, colleagues, etc.) will help. But for me, up until now, it hasn’t. I have ressalised that having a bit of a life every now and then is good and can help you mingle with others so that’s what I plan to do.
You might start to ask why this is all relevant, and why I am blogging about the other stuff in my life that doesn’t involve my PhD? Well, in fact, they do. When home life and uni life are not a fabulous match, or something is taken away from you, you crash and burn. Not only do you crash, you have to fight to get back up, and quite often this needs a little bit of help. For me, it was the point where I felt I could not get back up, the point where I felt I could not work when in fact all I needed to do was get a life and get some help.
The point I am trying to make is that at some point, everyone needs help. I used to be the person that support students through the toughest times, from feeling stressed and anxious to wanting to harm themselves, and I used to question how they felt so bad. Well, now I know. It’s not a case of XYZ has happened and then you fail. It’s a case of X, then Y, and then Z happened and you fall. It’s all built up and often it all becomes just too much and you tip over the edge from being happy-as-Larry to being someone who is in absolute despair.
But, for me, knowing that you have fallen and acknowledging that you need help is the best thing that you can do. Not only for your own health and well-being (and sometimes safety – not in my case!), but for your own piece of mind. You may remember back in January when I blogged about stress control and pretty much said the same thing. However, there is a slight difference here. It might not be things stressing you out as such; it might be emotional or psychological (or dental!!) pain you have gone through that has brought you down. There might be a number of little things building up (such as being upset for a partner leaving suddenly) and it only takes that one thing to send you over the edge of happiness and then it’s too late to pull yourself back.
The most important thing (in my opinion) is to get the help you need. I approached my director of studies as she seems to do really well at calming me down. However, I knew that there are some things that she simply cannot help with and some things that no supervisors are qualified to do, and for me she knows this too. So what I did was simple. I asked for help from people who can help and people who are qualified and people who can make the best of a bad situation.
So what I am trying to say is simple…
We all go through times where we feel like something has brought us down or we have been left behind. DO NOT LET THIS DEFINE YOUR PHD. More importantly, when you feel like these things keep going and going on, and you just can’t do it anymore – stop. Stop and tell yourself that you can do it. Stop and tell your supervisor you need help. Stop and ask someone else for help and don’t be shy to.
I have great respect for people who have gone through the bad times and then got to the good times as they are the ones who have acknowledged that they need a little push in the right direction to bring themselves back to the top again. They are the ones I admire.
So for now, I have decided that I won’t be blogging about the kind of help I have asked for or the content of these discussions, as these are personal to me. But what I can tell you is that I’ll continue to blog about the good times and even the bad times that a PhD brings, no matter how soppy it may be.
Lyndsey Middleton (@Middleton_Ly) is a part-time, final year PhD student at Edinburgh Napier University. This story was published on April 8, 2016, on Lyndsey's blog (available here), and has been republished here with her permission.