Getting out of a hole

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!

18 thoughts on “Getting out of a hole

  1. Wow, this post left me breathless. It iis a perfect example of how honesty and vulnerability can be employed to help others.Thank you so much for this.

  2. Your story, sans cancer, is also mine. My year was made worse by having a superior throw me under the bus and proceed to run over me. I got tenure, but the price was worsening of my fibromyalgia, weight gain, and depression. I’m working to get out of my writing hole and my mental hole. It helps somewhat to not feel that I’m alone in the hole. I’d rather be whole.🙂

    • Congratulations on the tenure, but I’m sorry it came at such a price. I wish you the best of luck in climbing out of your hole. I’m with you!

  3. Can a new relationship be called a “rope”? I feel like in my situation, a new relationship would be a rope … but for the wrong reasons. It would deviate my attention from my goals and I would prefer to not have that distraction.

    Personal time is definately an important foundation in the work/life scheme, but spending that time to relax, recentre, reevaluate and most of all, reflect on my progress and realign if i have deviated.

    Spending time with friends, walk along the beach, yoga, gym ……. anything but a new romantic relationship. Love, lust and the excitement that comes with new romantic rendezvous will very quickly consume your work and personal time.

    Friends are my lifeline, my relax time and my vent from the busy work, study and life goals grind. If your someone that can control the chemistry involved that consumes you with new relationships by all means go for it, its not for me though, I get much too involved and my life changes to suit a relationship and plans go out the window.

    Good to see your out finding your way out of the “hole”, Ive personally been down some deep, deep holes that included depression and suicide attempts. Friends got me through and keeping busy keeps me out of trouble.

    “Good things come to those who wait”, Not true, keep up your hard work and it will all pay off in the end. But as you said it’s hard. Friends and family will get you through. Congratulations on your progress to date and congratulations to your success in the future.

    • I think some people think of them as one — an external validation. It’s easy to get in the mindset that something good happening to you will make everything better, like a magic bullet.

      I don’t necessarily agree that having a romantic relationship will consume all your time at the detriment of your work, though. I think that’s a trap that keeps people from having kids, pets, friends, relationships with their family, or other relationships that can make life worthwhile. But your mileage may vary. If you’re in a good, healthy place, I wouldn’t close yourself off from love. But maybe it’s something that you navigate along with everything else, and maybe with a therapist.

      And thank you! And congratulations on getting out of your hole, too. Solidarity!

  4. “While it may feel like you’re the only person failing at life, you’re not. You’re in good company”

    Hard to believe in that when you are in that rabbit hole, isn’t it?
    I am in that rabbit hole at the moment, and really struggling to get out. The only thing that keeps me trying is that there is an “out” possible. I suppose the only practical advice anyone can give is “this too shall pass”.

    • It’s true. I think it will help if more and more people speak up and talk about their experiences. Maybe a support group for local women academics? Or group therapy?

    • I like to think of it as balancing acute versus chronic issues. Sometimes the chocolate gets you through the acute needs, but the chronic needs require something else.

  5. Thanks so much for the honest and insightful post! I feel like I just got out of my year-long hole after personal loss and health issues. The things that helped were (much of which echoes your post):
    -The first thing I did (with the encouragement of my therapist) was tell my advisor that I was going through a hard time and needed to push my dissertation deadlines back. It was incredibly hard to do. Much to my surprise, my advisor was understanding and supportive. I took two months off and still managed to finish my dissertation and land a job by the end of the school year.
    -Good therapist and psychiatrist (I had to change psychiatrists because the first one was not helpful)
    -Exercise. This was a hard habit to build. I started with the goal of 150 minutes per week. I tried LOTS of different kinds of exercise (Zumba, running, indoor and outdoor biking, rock climbing, racquetball, dance, home workout videos, yoga at home and in classes) to try to make exercise more interesting instead of a chore.
    -Making sleep a #1 priority. The internet is happy to give you 100 ways to improve sleep. I tried a lot of things that didn’t work, but enough that did.
    – I joined an online dissertation writing group, which help provide structure and get me out of isolation. But more importantly, because the group was anonymous, I could share my vulnerabilities and failings and was well supported by what ended up to be lovely and encouraging group-members.
    -Doing a social activity at least once a week. This was hard–I was fairly isolated in a new city. I started with Meetups.
    -Forgiving myself for the off days. Some days I didn’t work, didn’t even get off the couch. Allowing these days to happen and just try again the next day helped relieved me of guilt, shame, and discouragement.

    Thanks again so much for the important post! And good luck with the final climb. You can do it!

  6. I’m deep in the hole. I lost my dad two weeks ago. I have a proposal due in less than 12 hours that I’m barely started on. I’m starting a tenure track job in 4 months that I worked so fucking hard to get, but it’s 3000 miles away from my husband. I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing. I’ve been on leave the past few weeks while my dad was in the hospital and I’ve already let so many people down – my students, my collaborators, my husband. If I drop any more balls I don’t know what will be left.

    • I am so, so sorry. It’s hard. For me, it was easy at first and then become unexpectedly hard at random moments. I was unprepared to find I wasn’t processing things as much as I thought I was. Therapy is really, really helping.

      Drop the proposal. Give yourself permission to defer it to another time.

      You’re not a fuck-up. You’re handling life in a perfectly reasonable way. Hang in there. I hope you have a good support network.❤

      • My dad died unexpectedly last November (the 2nd year of my TT position) immediately before a few proposal deadlines. Everything was awful. It still isn’t good. If you need someone to talk to or vent to or whatever, you can email me.

  7. This post articulate so many of the thoughts I’ve been terrified to voice out loud, even to my partner. That bit about pushing back getting pregnant – I stay up at night thinking about that. You’ve really helped put a lot into perspective. Thank you for writing bravely.

  8. I definitely know this feeling. Not wishing to be too glib, for me the answer was drugs. I wouldn’t be melodramatic enough to say they saved my life, but they almost certainly saved my job and my marriage. I was in a very similar place about two years ago. I had been suffering from a combination of depression/anxiety about work (not enough papers, worried about funding, needing a fellowship for salary and generally hating science which is something I had never experienced before). Then my mother passed away from cancer too. I went back to work thinking it would be the best way to get through it and essentially fell in a heap several months later. In all of this the worst feeling was that I was ignoring my family and being a terrible husband and father. I just had very little emotion and energy left. I did finally find the courage to talk to one of my mentors who I knew had been through something similar. His advice was to try talking to a GP about SSRIs. We had both found counselling to be of little use to be honest. After a rough month to start with on cymbalta I turned a massive corner and just felt like a completely different person. I could actually get out of bed without panic attacks about how much work I had to do. Not saying it is the answer for everyone, but I also think people are often too quick to dismiss it as an option. For me nothing else worked. A couple of years later and I couldn’t be happier.

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