Last year sucked for me in an epic way. Health problems and personal losses, compounded by a long-distance spouse, made me realize just how tenuous pre-tenure life is. When your everyday status is “barely treading water,” there’s no leeway for life to throw curve balls*. I was already overcommitted and doing too much service. Then I hurt myself. My dad got cancer. I had a string of demoralizing events. I ended a couple of long-term close friendships that had become toxic over the years.
I got behind. A lot. And I felt like I didn’t have much of a safety net yet in my new job, so I didn’t ask for help. I avoided the things that were stressing me out. I stopped taking care of myself, partly because of my injury, but partly because I just couldn’t muster up the energy. I dropped balls. A proposal never got submitted. A paper was late, and another one stalled. I didn’t make progress on a workshop commitment. I missed a couple of reviews.
I felt like a failure, and this just exacerbated my anxiety and depression. Lack of progress on my health goals meant pushing back trying for a baby by another year. I regretted not having gotten my reproductive act together sooner, before I lost my dad. I felt like I had no one I could talk to about any of this. I didn’t want my mentors to think I wasn’t worth the time they’d put into me. My family was already suffering and didn’t need me to worry about. I didn’t want to lean too much on my friends or my partner. I felt so self-conscious about not being invincible.
I made a lot of mistakes in the lead-up to my Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Year that set me up to have a harder time than I needed to. And then I made poor choices in how I handled (or didn’t handle) what life threw at me. Once you’re in a hole, it’s hard to get out. Much harder, I think, than avoiding the hole in the first place. So what should I have done differently?
For starters, I should have left space for life. I shouldn’t have taken so much on in the first place. I was barely juggling all the balls, and already on the verge of dropping some, before life happened. If you’re in a position now where you think, “I don’t know what I’m going to do if anything else gets added to my plate,” that’s a bad place. Stop right now and assess. Make a list. Cut the bottom half of the list off. That stuff just isn’t worth it on the best of days, and it becomes downright inconsequential when life happens.
I should have been taking care of myself before things got rough. I didn’t have good habits in place to prioritize self-care**. I didn’t have a therapist, a meditation or journaling practice, a gym routine, social safety networks, a pampering budget, or a healthy way to process. These are all just basic preventative maintenance for the body and mind. If you’ve already got good habits, it’s much easier to keep them going in a crisis. If you’re already in a hole, starting a new routine is really tough, but should be one of your first priorities.
When things got bad, I should have put balls down gently, rather than dropping them. You don’t have to tell everyone what you’re going through, but a few trusted people should know. It’s okay to ask for help. It’s okay to tell people that you’re missing a meeting for a family emergency, rather than just skipping it and feeling badly. It’s okay to reach out to collaborators and let them know what’s going on. Take a hiatus from editing or reviewing. Tell your students that you’re going to have to be flexible this semester. Don’t let your fear of being looked down on keep you from being honest about your situation. You don’t need to share all the details, but don’t try to act like nothing is happening, either.
If I had it to do over again, the second things got to be too much, I’d have started renegotiating obligations. I ultimately ended up missing several working group meetings, didn’t get a grant proposal out that I wanted to, missed an invited paper deadline, and turned in a bunch of late reviews. None of the people affected by my actions knew what I was going through. And don’t keep asking for extensions if you know in your heart you won’t make them. At a certain point, you just have to turn down invitations, apologize gracefully and back out of collaborations, or see if you can work out a new deadline. You may disappoint people once, but it’s better than disappointing them over and over again.
Once you start to let go, you’ll actually feel better. My colleagues were universally supportive and understanding when I had to back out, scale back, or say no to an invitation. And I was happier, too.
I’m still not caught up from last year. I have a backlog of papers to write. I’m pushing back against the feeling that I need to work twice as much to catch up. Instead, I’m trying to put in good, solid hours while avoiding burnout***. I’m working on improving my general attitude by committing to my physical, social, and mental health, even when I don’t feel motivated.
The hardest part about being in a hole is that you feel like you, really need a “win” to get out. The win is like a rope; it’s a quick exit from a dark, lonely place. That line of thinking is a trap, though, because the rope is totally outside your control. That “win” — a funded proposal, an award, a new relationship, or some other really great news — may never come, but that doesn’t mean you should give up. The only surefire way to get out of a hole is to climb out. Ropes are great, but you don’t need them. A little boost or an outstretched hand from a friend or loved one helps. But sometimes, it’s just going to be a long, tough, slog of indeterminate duration. Come up with a playlist of Power Songs and get to work.
I’m inching closer to the edge of my hole. I’ve given up waiting for a rope (though I won’t say no if I get a call from NSF). I have had some help along the way. But this last distance, I climb myself. Every hour I spend at the gym instead of crying on the couch, I make progress. Every solid hour I spend on a proposal or manuscript I’m excited about, the easier it gets. For me, the work and routine and self care help the most. The venting, alcohol, ice cream, and crying can all be perfectly valid ways to cope with being in a hole, but they’re not what’s going to get you out in the end. I’ve found journaling, therapy, time tracking, dedicated writing time, regularly scheduled socializing, and walking have really helped me.
And lastly, be kind to yourself. While it may feel like you’re the only person failing at life, you’re not. You’re in good company. The landscape is full of holes, because life happens to everyone. There’s more support out there than you may think. You’re going to make it out.
Have you been in a hole? How did you get out? Feel free to share your story or leave suggestions for others in the comments.
*Warning: This post mixes metaphors.
**I’m talking about healthy and routine self-care here. While binge drinking and overindulging on Buffalo wings might feel like self-care in the short-term, they’re not necessarily the best of long-term habits.
***This was totally supposed to be a time management post but took a different turn, so look for that next time!