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? Continue reading

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How do you find the time?

In graduate school, I took up crafting — knitting, sewing, embroidering, quilting, making magnets and sock monkeys and jam? I tried them all. I’ve always liked working with my hands, and the grass roots, eco-friendly nature of the DIY movement was really appealing to me. I also enjoyed learning more about what have traditionally been women’s activities. Embroidering science quotes on pillows felt subversive and oddly empowering. I made me feel closer to my grandmother. It gave me something to do. It was a creative outlet. I met new people, and saved money on holiday gifts. My grad student friends and I would meet for weekend stitch-n-bitches and support each other through tough times.

Crafting also helped my mental health. Watching an episode of Buffy or Alias at night to unwind, I’d find myself unable to relax until I discovered that crocheting silenced that persistent little voice saying “Why aren’t you working?” Because I was working! I was making something! My overachieving neurotic brain was just as satisfied by stitches as by words. I was able to relax, and concentrate on Sidney Bristow kicking ass instead of the pervasive feelings that I wasn’t good enough.

When I started my faculty position, I stopped. I don’t know why. It wasn’t intentional, it’s just that self-care is one of the first things to go when you’re busy. Continue reading

It’s not going to stop ’til you wise up.

Long-time readers may know that I’ve struggled with health problems in the last couple of years, mostly related to a self-destructive uterus. It’s mostly controlled now, and I’m no longer debilitated by pain or anemia.

But three separate times in the last two years, before my condition was effectively treated, I’ve had to take opiates for the pain.

I was recently looking at some photographs taken of me from one of those times, and I was struck by how different I looked. I looked…this may come as s surprise, but I think I looked beautiful. Relaxed. Happy. I was smiling the way a  young child smiles, unselfconsciously.

And I knew, instantly, that it was the drugs. Continue reading

I don’t like me when I’m angry: rage, sustainability, and activism

The first time I went to a therapist, it was because I was angry all the time. It was during grad school, so there were plenty of sources of stress in my life, but what worried me most was the anger. I was fighting with my family. I had a short fuse about everything — random interactions, small infractions, selfish people, rude people, clueless people. Socks left on the floor. Empty ice trays. Inane administrative red tape. Mistakes.

At the end of our first session, I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. In my case, anxiety and stress were translating into anger, especially at small things I couldn’t control. My therapist and I spent the next several weeks coming up with a set of tools and practices to process my anxiety in more healthy ways, which would turn the dial back from anger to calm. Each week, I would have different homework, as I slowly built my tool kit. The first week, I was asked to take a break from venting.

I was surprised, because I’d always thought of venting as healthy — it’s a way to process and release steam, like a safety valve (which even the name implies). But when my therapist asked me, “Do you ever feel better after you vent?” I realized I didn’t. Venting would wind me up, rather than cool me down. Instead of venting, he said, try just stating how you feel about something, and leaving it at that. That was six years ago, and I’ve found that letting go of venting has been one of the healthiest things I’ve ever done.

And then, I started this blog.  Continue reading

Mental Health in Academia

The academic life is a never-ending stream of new challenges that can trigger or exacerbate anxiety and depression. We’ve talked about some of those stresses here at TSW, from dealing with toxic mentors, to the job hunt (which could trigger Job Market PTSD), to the timing of starting a family, to feeling like you are falling behind even once you have your dream job. Mental health issues seem to be rising in academia and can seriously affect academics’ productivity and success – an insidious negative feedback loop.

The only way to break a ‘hidden epidemic’ out into the open is to talk about our experiences and acknowledge the pervasiveness of the problem. We are starting to talk more openly about mental illness in academia – even if there is a culture of acceptance around those issues. I’m not a psychiatrist, psychologist, or any other kind of doctor trained in diagnosing or treating mental health issues, but I can talk about my experiences as a way to continue the conversation. Continue reading

Fit for the field, fit for me

I’m out of shape. Like many people during graduate school, my health often took a backseat to my work. I made some progress on this during my postdoc, but the first year of my faculty position has seen me backslide. I stress eat, I forget meals and then make bad choices as my blood sugar tanks, I grab something quick and easy to eat when I’m short on time, or use food and alcohol as a soother for a stressful day, and the gym is one of the first things to go when my schedule gets tight. I have a driving commute, and I sit in front of a computer all day. All of these things add up to too many calories and too little movement.

As a consequence, I’ve gained weight. My cardiovascular health has declined, and I get winded much more easily with just a little exertion. I have less energy overall. I’m more stressed. My body and joints ache. I get more migraines. I know that I feel better– physically, and about myself– when I’m active and making good food choices. I know that I have more energy, less pain, and can better manage depression and anxiety when I’m active. Somehow, this knowledge hasn’t been enough to motivate me to change my habits, to make better choices, and to make my health a priority. Continue reading