On transitions: Everything at once
In writing, transitions have always been the most difficult for me to master. Ok maybe not even master, but just be competent at. It’s like I can’t ease into the next paragraph; I just want to jump right in to the next thing. Maybe it’s easier to drop the former subject and grab onto the new one instead of connecting them in a continual thread. I’m like that at social events too – no transition from me being at a party to me leaving. One moment I’m there, the next I’m gone. If I happen to see you on my way out I might say “bye”, but I don’t like that uncomfortableness of preparing to leave. I don’t like the pleas to stay just a little longer, the false promises of making plans soon, the social awkwardness of a long Midwestern goodbye. Transitions make me sad – I’m looking at the present turn into the past. I’m preparing to face an unknown future that is rapidly approaching. Transitions are purgatory on earth – stuck between two states, atoning for my past sins in order to reach a brighter future.
As someone who has dealt with long-term depression and, more recently, anxiety too, transitions can take a toll on my mental health. Even positive transitions, like finally finishing my PhD program, can trigger a depressive state. Transitions make me tired. I feel like I’ve done nothing, but the emotional weight of it all seeps into my bones and adds lead to my eyelids, and obscures my thoughts in a layer of fog. I could sleep for days. I daydream about the next time I can lay in bed and not think or deal or be responsible.
Recently, I’ve joked that I’m not only starting a new chapter in life, but basically a new book. I defended my PhD on June 25th, got interviewed, and was offered a post-doc position shortly after; took a vacation to Puerto Rico immediately before starting my new position on September 4th; ended a 6-year relationship; started living alone; and turned 30. It hasn’t even been 3 months since my PhD defense and all of this happened. A mix of positive and negative transitions, each one uniquely stressful.
Starting a new job while going through a major breakup and having to deal with occupancy changes, the loss of one house member, and the search for new ones is not ideal. I can’t say, “Hey can we postpone my start date so I can spend a few days crying and eating pizza and figuring out my personal life before I embark on a journey to write grants and do research on an almost entirely new subject?” Likewise, I can’t pretend my personal relationships are great until I get settled in to my new position. Nothing is stable right now and yet I am pretending so hard that I can do all of this. I cry alone. I don’t like to tell people I’m struggling because then it’s more emotional work for me to explain everything all over again and subsequently comfort them to let them know I’ll be ok and to not worry.
Oh and when I thought I was at my limit of what I could handle, overwhelmed but still under control, a bunch of family drama hit – on both my maternal and paternal sides. I feel like I’m the family voice of reason, so once again, I put my emotional needs on hold to advise on one life coming to an end, a few more lives in sudden upheaval, and normal teen hormone drama. More transitions. Why can’t anything be stable? Just for a minute? A week? Why can’t I rest?
My dad used to tell me that he respected my sense of balance between work and personal life. I really think I’m just on a see-saw and he catches a glimpse of me when I’m at the brief equilibrium between up and down.
I have learned some mental health coping skills, though, and I feel like I am handling whatever my life is right now better than I would have in the past. I say “no” and cancel plans when I need alone time to rest. I make plans and have fun and socialize when I feel like I can’t be left alone with my thoughts. I try to be more vulnerable about my feelings. Try. It’s not easy because I’ve built up such a thick wall of ice around my emotions, but I guess we did just have the hottest summer on record. Again.
And I feel whiny writing this. As cathartic as it is, I feel too self-indulgent. How are my problems of getting a PhD and starting a new job and getting to stay in the house I love with my cats anything to complain about? Other people have ACTUAL problems and I feel that I deserve rest and relief! That’s the thing though – I’m trying to learn to take care of my emotional state and what I know I can personally handle, but also be aware of the struggles of others. It’s ok to not be ok, but you have to remember that truth applies to others as well. In some ways I think I like being the confidant because I like knowing that even when I feel helpless and alone and scared and I just want to disappear into my bed, I’m alleviating those feelings for someone else. And when people trust me, it helps me realize that I can trust them back and I can ask for help when I need it.
I wanted to write this to sort through my own feelings as well as provide some comfort to others going through similar situations. If you read this entire blog and liked it even just a little bit, you can thank me by doing something nice for someone. We’re all struggling on some level and we all wear masks. So just be nice, and do kind things. Unless the person is an alt-right Nazi or similar, then punch them.
Dr. Anna Boegehold (@anna_boeg) is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. This story was published on September 20, 2018, on Dr. Boegehold's blog (available here), and has been republished here with her permission.