New Achievement Unlocked: Desk Sobbing

This is something that happened to me a few weeks ago, so I thought I would share it. The last weeks of a PhD, as it turns out, are incredibly emotional. I expected stressful, difficult, tiring – all those things, but I did not expect the sudden drops into despair and misery, or that the guilt thing could get any worse than it was already…

A new PhD low has been achieved. This evening, I found a dark hidey spot under my desk, and I sobbed. I cried harder than I have in a long long time. What had happened? Simple really. I was asked if I wanted to go out to dinner in a few days. See, the tears make perfect sense, right?!

It was that Guilt bastard again, pouncing on me immediately after such a kind offer had been voiced. The presence of the Guilt means that you cannot win in such a situation. If you say yes to going out to a lovely dinner, you have the overpowering Guilt that you won’t be working on your thesis during those few hours. If you say no, that goes away, but you have other Guilt, punishing you for not spending time with family and friends.

It’s a ridiculously powerful, totally isolating feeling. I cannot imagine what my other half thought when he found me, red-faced, damp and snotty, curled up under my desk. It’s a wonder he didn’t just leg it. I just felt like I couldn’t win. And yeah, at the end of the day, it’s only a couple of hours out of your life, whatever choice you make. And it’s a pretty banal choice, at that. But when you’re in the last weeks of a PhD, how you spend your time becomes really, REALLY important to you. Well, insomuch that you must be at your desk AT ALL TIMES, or your old friend Guilt rears its ugly head again.

And this isn’t the only time I felt like this; it’s merely the most extreme. A couple of months ago: “Shall we go to Amsterdam for a long weekend?” – Total panic. Utter, complete stress, similar tears… And of course I went, and it was great, and it was a break I really needed. A few weeks ago: “We should really book our train tickets home if we’re going.” – Mind chaos. Should I go? Should I stay in London where I have my study set up nicely and all the books and papers I could want? And of course I went home, spent a much-needed weekend back in beautiful Norfolk, and discovered a much better working setup as a result of the tiny desk I had at home. I returned with a fresh mind, a full belly (thanks to Mum’s delicious homecooked dinners… and lunches… and snacks), and a laptop full of thesis words.

As it happens, I decided not to go to dinner, and on this occasion it was the right choice; I got lots of work done in those hours, and I caught up with said friends and family later instead. The trick is to balance things so that Guilt is at its weakest, though this is something I’ve only recently gotten the knack of.

The end of this PhD has just given me totally weird and extreme reactions to things. It makes sense; you’re tired, constantly stuck in your head working on your thesis even when you’re not physically ‘working’, you’re isolated, working at home. Put it that way, and it’s amazing we function at all. Things aren’t all bad, though. The crazy emotions come a’plenty in the opposite direction too. More on that later.

But I tell you what, crap as this situation was, I found a cracking hiding place – so good that Josh thought I’d actually left our tiny flat. I’ll be using that one again!


I feel the need to note that I am genuinely okay. Just a weird, emotional blip – albeit one of many, but a quite funny (in hindsight) one I wanted to share. But all’s good here now!

If you related to this post, you might also relate to Taming Monsters or The Fear. What upbeat post titles I have.

In The Zone

My last blog post was pretty gloomy, and led to lots of people asking if I was okay. That wasn’t the intention of that post – but thanks to all those lovely people who reached out!

Good news is that things are going much better. That bit of Fear really gave me a kick up the proverbial and made me just sit down and do stuff. So now I’m what I like to call ‘In The Zone’, which has many benefits, but also its problems.

For me, being In The Zone is being (reasonably) focused, able and willing to get up, sometimes go to the gym, get breakfast, sit down at my desk, and being prepared to stay sat there all day. And often most of the evening. And then doing the same thing the next day. And the next. And over the weekend. Even the Bank Holiday weekend (I’m not bitter about that at all.. nope).

And really, that’s probably what most people expect of a PhD student, that constant pressure to be constantly working which I’ve fought against for the last almost 4 years. I’ve tried hard to keep my evenings and weekends free, but now it’s crunch time, and stuff needs to get done, so something has to give.

Sacrificing my free time isn’t one of the problems I was talking about, though – I always knew that would need to happen at some point. The problem with this phase of working is getting too stuck in your own head. You’re in there, just you, all day. I work mostly from home these days, so apart from the other half getting home in the evenings, I rarely talk to an actual face-to-face human. So you’re trapped in your own mind, talking to yourself (sometimes out loud), focused on the task at hand, and just working. And this is great! You get lots done, you feel good at the end of the day, so good you often continue working.

But it’s very easy to stay up there, in your head, when it’s time to come out. Like when your other half gets home and tries to have a conversation, and you respond with mumbled, half-formed sentences (sorry, Josh). Or when you meet friends at the pub on the one occasion you let yourself free of your study-prison, and all you can do is stand there wide-eyed and smile manically at the many people and noises and colours of the world outside (sorry, friends). It can be really hard to dismount your own brain for a bit and engage with the world, especially if you know it’s only for a few hours until you have to work again. But it’s important to try. Last night I gave myself an evening off to recharge and went to the Science Museum Lates, which also served to remind me of all the cool science and sci-comm going on out there, and why I kept at this sodding PhD.

So although The Fear was pretty scary and really not welcome at the time, through writing about it here and getting lots of lovely people saying lovely supportive things (along with a long weekend in Amsterdam), it has been enough to push me into what is rightly the most productive part of my PhD. But if you find me wandering around in the outside world, muttering spidery-sounding words and cowering from the bright sunlight, please shoo me back to my study.

 

The Fear

Aside

It’s nighttime. It’s here again. That hard, swirling knot in my chest, tying itself up and up again in endless ways, and me along with it.

The panic, the fear, the guilt. Panic of so much to do. Fearing it won’t, it can’t get done. The guilt at not having done more already.

It hurts, almost. I retreat into my head, trapped in an endless cycle of fear, forceful calm, then hopelessness. My heart is beating fast.

How do you stop it? What makes it go away? I’ve felt it before, many times, but I can’t remember just how and why it ends. I’ve a terrible feeling it’s just… Giving in. Stopping caring so much. How many times can I give in a little and let go, stop worrying, and still produce worthwhile work? How many times can this happen before I give up?

Reading this over in the cold light of day, it seems so dramatic. It’s just a PhD, just a thesis, just one document. How can it cause this much grief? Those who haven’t been through a PhD or similar may not understand – hell, even I don’t really understand. And those who are tough and organised and smart and confident (do these people even exist?) may not relate, either.

It’s subsided now. I feel almost silly for having felt that way, having written those words. Sort of ashamed.

But it’ll come back. And with deadlines looming, I know it’ll get worse before it gets better. I know I can hold on until the end. Push through, get it done. But will ‘it’ be enough? I guess only time will tell.


Also see: Taming Monsters & Fears of Failure