Degrees of erasure

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If you follow any PhD-related Twitter threads, you’ll know that the mental health of PhD students is a hot topic. It is not new news that we are a relatively unhappy, struggly bunch. I don’t think this is specific to doing a PhD, with the challenges of being in ‘academia’ receiving as much if not more attention. Guidance abounds on how to manage both the PhD and academic life in ways that don’t pose serious risks to one’s mental health. Balance and all that. Common sense stuff, really, although harder in application than in principle. But because I can be somewhat contrary here, this is a post about how to manage doing a PhD in ways that will almost guarantee mental illness. Consider it a message of foreboding, a sort of DO NOT GO BEYOND THIS POINT sign hanging wearily off a tree in the darkening part of the forest.

First, an analogy or two. Until I submitted my PhD at the end of last year, I was part of a PhD group (support group, if you will). Some of the discussions we had in this group were around the value of metaphors in capturing the experience of doing a PhD, or different parts of it. Writing a thesis has been compared to baking a cake, or moulding a sculpture. There are bits of it that have been described as a swamp of sadness. It is no secret to those who know me that my PhD experience was awfully awful. The best way I have been able to describe the lived experience of it is by comparing it to a civil war. While most of me was held up in a prisoner of war camp, detained in solitary confinement and tortured by the other most of me, the remaining bits were running around outside torching all the lovely buildings and bombing all the lovely parks that had taken so many years to cultivate, leaving nothing but a wasteland in their wake.

And, on the day that I submitted the corrections for my PhD, allied forces arrived and rescued me, releasing me back into normal society and my regular life. There was much celebration and jubilation in the streets. There was a welcome home parade. There may have been trumpets. But when you’ve lived in a torturous kind of solitary confinement for so long, life above ground, in ordinary society, is too bright and loud and foreign. And when all the structures you used to have to live in – those lovely buildings and lovely parks – have been burnt to the ground, you no longer have a template for being human-in-the-world. So while those around you celebrate, you wonder if there’s a way of getting back to the camp, where existence was tortured but familiar. Where you knew how to be in a way that now feels entirely lost to you.

Ambivalent feelings post-PhD are, I believe, quite normal. What I have noticed, though, is that there seems to be at the very least a tangible sense of relief. Having spent many months, and sometimes years, shackled to your PC in trying to do this One Thing, the freedom of no longer having to suspend your life to work on that thing is surely exhilarating. But what if completing your PhD is subjectively not the happy achievement that everyone assumes, understandably, that it must be? Although not explicitly said, the conversations I imagine people are silently having with me go something like, “So, you were miserable while you were doing your PhD, and now your PhD has gone away and you have finally got the degree, and you’re still miserable?” I wish I could say that the degree-awarded letter I received a few days ago made a dent in this. It didn’t. If anything, it made me feel worse: guilty for not feeling joy, for not recognising and embracing the privilege that working towards and obtaining this degree is. For not feeling proud and clever and capable – all the stuff that, surely, a Dr-somebody should be.

Instead, I find myself sitting in a burnt out landmine, wearily asking Google why I’m feeling this way, warily writing this post. Could this be burn-out? An understandable kind of post-traumatic stress reaction that has been identified as somewhat common, physically, mentally and emotionally? Have I broken my body by sending so much adrenaline and cortisol up into it to sustain the kind of pace that only a constant fight-or-flight response could sustain? Or have I broken my work self, now swinging to the opposite extreme and having the reaction of a petulant child whenever adult-me tries to get me to work? I do seem to only operate on two modes of self control more generally in my life: utter extreme or none at all. I’m either all in, all the time, denying myself any other way of being or being in the world, or I’m all out. At the moment, this all-out pretty much just looks like an amoeba that flops about from minute to minute and day to day, with one small thought bubble above its head: eh. On the inside, the self-disciplined (read: torturer) bit of my self may have lost its weapons and its power to flagellate amoeba-me into actually Doing Things. But it still has its words. And those words are used with powerful effect to paralyse the floppy amoeba into further self-hatey floppiness. It’s a bit of a cycle, and it’s particularly vicious.

When the only way you have been able to Perform and Adult for the past year or so is by locking yourself in a torture chamber and waterboarding yourself, this a problem for performing and adulting going forward. This, the mean voices tell me, is not some understandable psychological, physical, emotional reaction to what was essentially a year of self-annihilation. It is pure laziness. It proves that all the notions that you had during the PhD that you are in fact not capable of doing such are true. It has not left you with the skills they say a PhD should equip you with. In your case, this has all just been one long ruse (impostor syndrome, on steroids). Sure, there was persistence and perseverance under the most extreme kinds of awfulness. But all that means is that the degree you obtained was not in fact in (insert topic here), but rather in sheer, inhuman self-discipline and grit. And in doing so, you managed to break said self-discipline and grit, along with any other bits of you that had started to actually feel like they belonged in the world. So, here you are, five years later, in all ways less-than than you were before.

But, say some of the softer, much quieter voices, what about depression? Isn’t there the possibility that the kind of year you have just emerged from took a toll much deeper than a few weeks’ break over the Christmas vacation was ever going to resolve? In some ways, that would be the best-case-scenario conclusion to reach here, the one where I am now in the familiar, biologically-driven cycle of a depressive episode. The PhD, for me, was something of a trauma and I managed it in the least constructive way possible. This would certainly qualify as a trigger for an episode of major depression. I was due for one anyway. But here’s the thing. Depression magnifies all the worst things you already believe about yourself. So it can be hard to know when you’ve crossed that line into an Actual Episode, or whether this is just you being your usual dark and twisty self. My best indicator is usually losing the ability to function, where getting up and getting dressed and going to work – let alone doing any of the work that feels suddenly entirely overwhelming – takes superhuman effort, which only occasionally results in me being able to actually get up and get dressed and go to work. Or go anywhere, really. And right now, I am still able to do this most days. I’ve just managed to pull off finishing a whole PhD, for goodness sake. That qualifies, I think, as quite high up on the functionality scale. And tends to complicate the whole is-this-an-episode-no-it-can’t-be-just-pull-yourself-together narrative.

And then: there are questions of purpose, of what value I contribute to the world. For a very long time now, the only purpose I had was to complete this torturous PhD. But doing so has not made me feel any cleverer or better or more worthy. And if, while completing this PhD, I managed to burn down any other small bits of me that might have been useful in the world, what I am left with? The lack of purpose and the what now? do seem to be somewhat typical of the post-PhD experience. But when your entire self becomes wrapped up and defined by this thing, at the expense of all other things, the post-PhD is not simply a case of finding other things to do, other ways to fill and spend one’s time, reconnecting with the bits of yourself that had to go silent while you worked intensively on this thing. You know, the pragmatic stuff, like resting and reading and going out into the world and eating cake and Being Social. All of which might start to mirror, again, the lost or neglected bits of yourself back to you. It’s also about trawling through the burnt out rubble to begin to put the structures of your self back together again. Spraying a bit of graffiti on the smoldering buildings to pretty them up a little until the hard labour of reconstruction is complete. A task that, in the face of depleted energy and depleted everything, feels impossible to get off the ground.

So where does this leave this newly-doctorated me? This one, Google was less helpful with. I wish I could easily say or see that this is clearly depression of the familiar and biological-imbalance kind, which gives me a familiar plan for treating it, hoping that perhaps this imbalance is what causes me to spend so much of my time wanting to stop existing. But what it if is not that? If what all the mean voices are telling me – that I am fundamentally disordered and useless and incapable of regular human things – are true, how do I push forward in spite of that? Especially in the face of the bright and shiny new doctor title that is supposed to represent the opposite of those things. Writing this post seems to have been the only Proper Thing my weary brain has been able to do since submitting my PhD. And I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about why I felt compelled, first, to write it, and second, to Put it Out There in some public way. Laying bare the poor-me tale that follows. Writing these posts have often been a way of helping me to make sense of the experiences I have. Writing them in something of a public forum allows me to write for a benign, if silent, audience, which is what makes it possible to write them at all (the mean voices in my head would never allow for it to be written just for me). There is also always the hope that my own n=1 experience might hold resonance for someone else, that even one small bit of this might help someone else feel less alone in their struggles. But if I’m honest, this time, I’m writing this one to the benign audience, for me. In the hopes that I’ll be the person who feels less alone and less oh-my-god-what-is-wrong-with-you-you-are-so-dis-ordered, precisely because some part of this might ring true for someone else.

 

[Image credit: https://fineartamerica.com/profiles/mario-sanchez-nevado.html]

 

 

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Becoming the Human-est.

girl_and_cat_in_the_window_girl_and_cat_on_the_w_postcard-rd21049565fcd496baa2914dcf1784727_vgbaq_8byvr_324Last week I attended the inaugural lecture of my boss. This was a milestone for him, marking his promotion to full professorship. The first part of the lecture was a surprisingly personal account of who he was and where he’d come from. Academic, leader, introvert, bibliophile, son, husband, gadget geek, who has, over a relatively short period of time, collected an impressive array of higher degrees. The highlight of the lecture for me, though, came in the acknowledgments bit, when he thanked his cat for the joy she brought into his life. It was a very human account of a very impressive road to this achievement. And it gave me pause. My boss is only a few years older than I am. Like me, he loves his cat. Unlike me, he has reached what some might argue to be the pinnacle of his academic career, on top of being in leadership in our faculty and embarking on his nth (8th? 10th? 11th?) degree this year. And here I am, struggling through what seems to be a futile effort to get my PhD, starting out in a new direction in academia, with less than 5 publications to my name.

In my last post I wrote about the instant gratification monkey, a constant companion of mine. I also mentioned but focused less on the mean voices in my head, and before that wrote about the dark and twisty places I too often fall into. Since attending the lecture, I have been thinking a lot about what combination of characteristics – personality, intellect, upbringing, habits, learned behaviours, life experiences – make it possible for a person to take the opportunities available to them and achieve great things. In both my professional and personal environments, I am surrounded by remarkable people – remarkable in all sorts of wonderful, funny, kind, brilliant and quirky ways. Some of these remarkable people also have PhDs, and long lists of publications, and impressive teaching and research portfolios, and successful grant applications, and world renowned reputations. This is typical of my place of work and in many cases is the benchmark for professional promotion and, inevitably, self comparison. While I recognise that probably all of these people experience or have experienced imposter syndrome at some point in their careers, their CVs speak for themselves. So, have they just mastered their instant gratification monkeys, or learnt to temper their mean voices and stay out of their dark and twisty places? Or did they never have them? Or, is the answer something in between, where the relationship between mental resilience and success is more of a squiggle than a straight line? (I would really like to ask them these questions but doing so would be tantamount to confessing that I have dark and twisty monkeys that keep me from doing the Impressive Academic Work that I’ve been employed to do).

I’m guessing it’s probably naive to imagine that there is some formula to all of this that, if correctly applied, you could find your full potential at the end of the rainbow. Then again, I find myself oscillating between wanting to find a way to reach this so-called potential, and being tired of trying to be Clever, or Amazing, or Impressive (I’m fairly certain that wanting to spend 80% of one’s time lying in bed with one’s cats and a binge session of series did not make it into the Habits of Highly Successful People). And yet…with all the things wrong in our world right now, I feel I have a moral obligation both to make the most of the opportunities I’ve been privileged enough to be given, and to use those to contribute something back to the world in a very real and pragmatic way. But here I am, still trying to decide who I’m supposed to be and what I am supposed to be doing with my life.

In Grade 2 of primary school, some people came to our school and asked us to take some tests. On the basis of these test results, they invited me to attend an after school programme for gifted children at a local university. I have some serious doubts about the accuracy of those assessments. Nonetheless, a little later in my school career, I started to realise that it was relatively easy for me to get good results if I put in the effort and, inadvertently, I took on a strongly academic identity. Academia became the one space in my life where I could mostly feel, in quite a measurable way, that I was doing something right. And, if I could it do it well, I decided I should do it the best. Because maybe then I could make A Difference in the world. I became top of my class. I graduated from high school as Dux Scholarum. I graduated, with each degree, with some form of Cum- or Summa Cum Laude. And then I moved into a high level, permanent position, in a very different field, at a new university, and realised that the odds of being The Best here are strongly stacked against me (refer to aforementioned remarkable people). I am also, simultaneously, trying to navigate my way through a PhD. In my experience, there is nothing that makes you question the value of your existence every day quite like working on a PhD does. I have already spent more than the allowable amount of time on my PhD, so I am not going to be that wunderkind who completes in record breaking time. And with each month that passes, the inverse relationship between quality and make-it-stop-I’m-so-over-it-now desperation to get it done increases. So it’s becoming increasingly evident that my PhD is going to be Done. Not The Best. Not Prize Winning. Not Keynote Speaker Worthy. Just, Done. Maybe. Which is really great and everything, having a PhD. But, I’m not sure it’s going to graduate me into being a better person, capable of doing that real, tangible good in the world. (And I don’t live in Finland, so I’m also not going to get the cool PhD sword at graduation).

Perhaps, then, I’m starting to let go a little (with some relief) of aiming to be The Cleverest. I thought I could maybe try to be The Most Balanced instead. While I can’t speak for all of the impressive academics at my university, the ones I know also happen to be genuinely nice people. And they’ve managed somehow to achieve something of a balance between work and home life, between the personal and the professional, in a way that belies that all-or-nothing approach that I can’t seem to escape from in my life. I’m guessing, though, that trying to be the best balanced person might be a bit of an oxymoron. It is also never going to happen. The idea of it is appealing: future me is a hard working kind generous fun-loving outdoorsy healthy meals sunshine and exercise sort of person. The execution of it is more challenging: present me prefers days filled with closed curtains, bed, pyjamas, books and series. I’ve briefly considered trying to be the best at other things. I tried being The Thinnest for a while, but being the best at that sort of thing typically ends in intravenous drips, and I managed to stop short of that. I suspect the dark and twistiness rules me out of consistently being the greatest friend or family member or partner. And I’m certainly never going to be the Fastest in the running category (or even merely the Runniest). I think I could probably audition for role of Best Cat-Owning Person in Pyjamas who Writes Witty-but-Self-Indulgent Blogs. But I already know way too many fabulous bloggers (who also sit at home in their pyjamas with their cats) to feel like that could be my niche. Plus my boss has proved that you can actually be brilliant and cat-lovingly human. So I am back at square one.

Apparently the in vogue thing right now is to be Human. You know, the sort of life philosophy that goes something along the lines of, you are enough just by being. Firstly, I’m pretty sure I have no idea what that means. And secondly, if you don’t have a point, and if your goal isn’t to win at that point, then what is the point, exactly? Perhaps the point is just to get through it all intact. I suspect we’re mostly all just trying to make it through intact. And when one’s thinking typically leads to somewhat unkind places, doing less of it through doing more seems like an obvious remedy. I think part of the answer might be in there somewhere. Less thinking. More doing. (Yes, if you’ve read the last few blog posts, there seems to be a theme to the moral-of-the-stories here. You’d think I’d have got it by now). Although it goes against every natural instinct I have, I am trying to not get caught up in analysing all this stuff so much (and then subjecting my tiny but loyal blog readership to it). I think this means waking up every day and, instead of trying to figure out who I am supposed to be, just getting out of bed, putting on pants, driving to work, doing the stuff, celebrating a colleague’s birthday, going for a run, eating supper with my partner, snuggling with my cats. If life is a picture but is lived in the pixels, these daily things are perhaps the things that define who we are, or at least what life is. I am not sure I can quite get my head around that yet, and may still be chasing The Best Grand Identity for a while. But it would be really nice, one day, to feel like who I am right now, in this and most other moments, is really enough. So I am experimenting with being compassionate…about who I am and who I might aim to be, and being okay enough.

On learning to be present (or: Present Me realises that Future Me does not exist).

92768b6fb5d15f42f14d28bd4cc2436bFuture Me has been writing this post for about a year now. Or rather, Present Me has been imagining Future Me writing and finishing this post for about that long. And, inevitably, someone else went along and wrote my post for me, before I managed to transfer it from my head to paper. I accidentally stumbled across this post about why procrastinators procrastinate today. And it is quite literally the best and most true-to-experience post about procrastination I’ve ever read. The basic premise is this: In all our heads, we have a rational decision maker. This is the part of ourselves who sets out with purpose to Get Stuff Done. But in the procrastinator’s head, alongside the rational decision maker, there exists an instant gratification monkey. While the monkey does what monkeys do (“eat when you’re hungry, sleep when you’re tired, and don’t do anything difficult”), the rational decision maker has no idea how to manage its monkey, and things very quickly get out of hand: “It’s a mess. And with the monkey in charge, the procrastinator finds himself spending a lot of time in a place called the Dark Playground” (you’ll need to read the full post to find out about the Dark Playground. It’s a place with which I am too well acquainted).

Tim Urban, author of aforementioned brilliant blog post, also wrote a follow up – equally wonderful and helpful – post on how to beat procrastination. There is lots of insightful stuff in this post. But what resonated with me most is that “the root of the problem is embedded in (her) Storyline and (her) Storyline is what must change.” My particular Storyline is tied up with the terribly adversarial relationship between my Past, Present and Future Selves. And, of course, Mr Urban has written about this too. In his follow up post about the procrastination matrix, he captures the notion of Present Tim and Future (much more capable) Tim. Which is basically the (other) post that I have been meaning to but never got around to writing (probably because my life is in a constant feedback loop consisting of this: Present Me goes on Facebook to avoid the tasks that Past Me left for Future-now-Present Me, while acknowledging that Future Me is going to be seriously pissed at Present Me for spending the past hour on Facebook, and will in turn spend another hour on Facebook to avoid the work that Present-soon-to-be-Past Me is now not doing. Damn you, Past Me).

Here’s what Tim says about it: “Future You is a procrastinator’s most important ally—someone who’s always there and always has your back, no matter what. I know all about this firsthand. Future Tim is an amazing guy…Future Tim also has a discipline and balance to his lifestyle I could only ever dream of. I’ve never been much of an exerciser—but Future Tim belongs to a gym and does all the jogging for both of us, and I love how into cooking healthy meals Future Tim is, because I personally don’t have the time. Future Tim is the kind of guy we all want to be like—I suggest getting to know him yourself, which you can do by buying his books, since he’s a prolific author.” Like Tim, Present Me is too busy dealing with the f*#king instant gratification monkey to Do All the Things. Which is okay. Because Future Me is totally going to be all over Doing All the Things. But there’s a catch. Future Me has one fatal flaw. And this is that Future Me does not exist. It’s probably appropriate (though likely somewhat developmentally delayed) that, as I near middle age, I am realising, like Tim, that Future Me is an illusion. Or at the very least, that Present Me and Future Me are never going to meet up. This puts Present Me in something of a predicament. It means that Present Me is going to have to learn to Get Things Done.

When I first started working on my PhD, I had a friend who I would spend PhD mornings and PhD evenings with. Our running joke was that we were a PhD (read: nerdy) version of Thelma and Louise. The gist of this was that she was Thelma – driven, hard core, take-no-prisoners – and her approach to working on her PhD mirrored this. I, on the other hand, was Louise and was far more content making daisy chains and dancing around in meadows than forcing myself to sit down and work on my PhD. As long as we were in the same room together, we were mostly okay. I would work; she would occasionally allow herself to take breaks. But any time Thelma stepped out of the room – for a bathroom break, for example – Louise would go back to daisy chains and dancing. (Incidentally – but perhaps not surprisingly – this friend also went on to produce three children and a PhD in the time it took me to write three pages. She has now submitted her PhD and I am still trying to decide what I am doing my PhD on, or whether I am doing a PhD at all).

All of this really amounts to employing different terms to speak about the same thing: what Tim Urban calls the instant gratification monkey, the rational decision maker and the panic monster, Freud called the Id, the ego and the superego. In my PhD friend’s and my terms, Thelma is the superego (a.k.a panic monster), and Louise the Id (a.k.a instant gratification monkey).

I have previously written about procrastination and my realisation that, somewhere in my late 20s, I broke my self discipline (a.k.a superego / panic monster). The challenge I faced then, as I do now, is to find a way of getting the pendulum of self discipline to swing back towards the centre. Or, in other words, finding a way to settle more comfortably into my Present Self, and not spend so much time casting blame onto Past Me or casting responsibility onto Future Me.

You may have picked up by now that I have developed a little crush on Tim Urban. And here’s another reason why: a frighteningly how-did-you-get-into-my-head post titled “Life is a picture but you live in the pixels“. That greener grass that I wrote about? Those mundane steps you take to get there? Yes. That. Apparently that green-grass-life-is-good picture is made up of a hundred little every day pixels. Life, as it happens, consists of a whole lot of Todays. What this also brought home to me, though it is hardly revelatory, is that it is always going to be Today. And that means putting one brick on top of another until, one day, that metaphorical house I have been dreaming of is finally built. It means not taking the path of least resistance and giving in to the instant gratification monkey, or leaving it all to Future Me. Ultimately, it means changing my Storyline. So tomorrow I will start to work on adapting my Storyline. But tonight…Facebook.

On getting what you wish for.

il_fullxfull.279536639So, it’s been a while. Over a year, since I’ve been here. And, despite my strongly stated aversion to change, pretty much everything in my life has changed.

A year ago, I had just emerged out of a particularly bad episode of depression and, technically, should have been happy. Anyone who knows me well might have been able to tell me that this could have been a slightly unrealistic goal for someone whose standard operating system looks and sounds a lot like Eeyore. Having spent 37 years with my Self, I am aware that I am, well, a little Dark and Twisty*.

At the risk of stating the obvious, my view of the world is strongly coloured with cynicism (it sort of goes hand in hand with the Dark and Twisty). But in my ongoing conversation with the Universe, I decided to send out a few messages about how I would like my life to look. And I decided to give it a visual aid to help it unfold this life before me. So I made (shudder) a vision board. The gist of the board was this: If I could just live in that city, and work in that institution, and be in a relationship, and be doing the running and dancing that I love, and get the chance to read and write and publish, then I would be the Person I Want to Be and that person will of course be happy. I will have arrived at my Self and in My Life.

Then the Universe decided to come to the party. (Or to throw a party at my expense. I’m still not sure which).

I applied for (and got offered) a job at the institution I wanted my Self to work at, in the city I wanted my Life to be in. I was also, despite all my beliefs and expectations to the contrary, equipped with the necessary emotional resources to overcome my crippling fear of change. I took the job. I packed up myself and my cats and all the parts of my Life and Self, and moved to this new city. The acute loss that I felt at leaving some of my very important people in my previous city was somewhat mediated by moving closer to some of my other very important people. The suburb I moved to is so delightfully free of hills (or any incline whatsoever, really) that I am for the first time able to run a respectable distance without actually stopping (or dying). The job that I have taken up allows me to be both an academic who can read and write and publish, and an administrator who can make lists and file things and channel all my obsessive compulsiveness into work I get paid for. The dancing is still a work in progress, but this is certainly a city in which there is no shortage of creative opportunities and probably all forms of dance you can think of (and some you can’t). And along with the cottage that I rented came a landlord who I fell so easily and so surprisingly into a relationship with that it felt as though the most inevitable and natural (and wonderful) thing in the world. (Note to self: Missed opportunity for a blog post here, fabulously titled On Landlords and Landrovers).

If you asked me a year ago if I was the sort of person who thought that if I just lost weight or got a better laptop/ wardrobe/ car or could finally meet (okay, kiss…okay, marry…who are we kidding here?) Colin Firth or had some or other such thing happen to them, then I would find happiness, I would have laughed. Probably scathingly. I am, after all, a psychologist. And a rationalist. (Also, a cynic). But one of my self knowledge lessons of the year has been that I subscribe strongly and irrationally to the belief that the grass is always going to be greener somewhere else…usually, some future place that I imagine I will reach and, when I do, the grass has moved or the field beyond this one is actually an even brighter green.

A vision board may be a handy psychological tool to work towards where you want to be. But what a vision board doesn’t tell you is, firstly, that you’re going to get to that place, do all those things, or have them, and still be your (mostly) same Self. And secondly, that you actually have to take all the little, mundane, hard and consistent steps to get to that place (e.g. being a runner requires that you actually run) and that you have to KEEP DOING THEM. I am beginning to strongly suspect that I wanted to get there, and then retire. Kick back. Relax. (Much like Allie Brosh spoke of wanting to win the trophy for being an adult, and then go back to perpetually surfing the interwebs). See, I’m really good at imagining. And planning. But when it comes to actioning, I’m a little less enthusiastic. I can sit in my head and think about who I want to be, what I want to do. But once I’ve externalised that in the form of a list (because having lists of who you need to be and what you want to do is a very satisfactory, brilliantly passive exercise), I want to just sit on the couch and watch series. I suspect this has something to do with a less than amicable relationship between my past, current and future selves (wherein my current self believes that my future self is a far more capable, fabulous and willing individual who will actually want to Do All the Things, and my future-now-current self is perpetually pissed off with my past self…but that gem of self knowledge is a topic for a post all of its own). Perhaps this is mere laziness. Certainly, the meaner voices in my head call it laziness. But going on previous experience of what I have apparently achieved in my life, I am not sure this is (always) true. Perhaps it means rethinking who and what I think I want to be. Do I really want to be a runner, when how much I love actually running is not at all? Do I really want to be an academic when that means spending most of my day inside my head trying to produce clever things out of it despite what all the mean voices say about not being very clever at all?

Change is very unsettling. It is also an opportunity to reassemble your Self and your Life in a newer way. Leave out the bits that you don’t like or that aren’t working for you. Unfortunately, in times of change you (and by you I mean I) tend to hold onto the bits that are familiar. My poor Self took fright and, in the face of all the change, began to employ old coping mechanisms. Control and order and routine (hello, OCD), and attempting to mould myself back into an old prototype of my Self, using my trusty yardstick of perfectionism to measure that self against. So I got everything I wanted but – surprise! – I am still the same old person. A person made up primarily of Dark and Twisty bits, who is always going to be at risk of falling into Darker and Twistier places in herself.

So what do you do when you get what you wish for? More specifically, what do you do when you end up arriving in the Life you wished for but your standard operating system is still Eeyore? Do you flagellate yourself until you damn well appreciate and love every moment of your life (tip: I’ve tried this experiment. It doesn’t work). Or do you write a blog post about not just making peace with but trying to embrace your Dark and Twisty Self in a way that allows her to assemble these new and shiny bits into a wonderfully dark and twisty Life? I am learning that this involves less planning and more doing, less future self and more current self, less visioning and more living. Less perfection and more compassion. And, still, many hours of sitting on the couch watching series. We don’t judge here (anymore).

*with thanks to BFF for coining the phrase as it applies to me

Expiration.

flower-among-the-ashes-01This weekend, I bought myself a new kitchen. By which I mean, I went out on Saturday and bought a new stove, a new fridge and a 5-in-1 Kenwood Chef food processor. And on Sunday, I went out and bought a new toaster and new microwave to match the new fridge and new stove, as well as a whole lot of essential accessories. Then, due to subsequent lack of suitable storage space, I placed an order with a local woodworker to make me a freestanding kitchen cabinet I’d seen and fallen in love with.

There are a number of reasons why the events of this last weekend are noteworthy enough to write a long overdue blog post about. People close to me would tell you that most notable is the fact that I don’t cook. I have been living in my home for nine years now, and the primary function of my kitchen was as a storage space for my four main food groups: chocolate digestives, wine, cheese, and highly processed carbohydrates. The only cookbook I own speaks to my general aversion to cooking, and I have mostly lived and eaten by the philosophy that, if it takes me longer to make it than to eat it, it’s really not worth the effort.

But the reason I am writing about my hedonistic display of capitalistic excess this weekend is because of what it symbolises in my life right now. Hang on. This is going to get deep.

Three months ago, I wrote about being in the throes of a depressive episode. Before that, I had written about my choice to come off a particular type of anti-depressant medication (SSRI) because its effects felt too high a price to pay for living a life un-depressed. Over the next three months, things got unimaginably worse. Friends and family and medical professionals began, gently, to suggest that I go back onto the SSRI I had fought to get off. Surely, surely, they said, it can’t be worse than this? And it was true. Being on the SSRI and feeling like a robot – which is to say, not feeling anything at all – was of course better than feeling every kind of torment imaginable. But even in the depths of it all, I had the sense that making the choice, then, to go back onto the SSRI would be a profound disservice to my future self. I was certain that, for me anyway, feeling too much, too painfully, was better than feeling nothing at all.

And then, six months after it all started, it all ended. The suddenness of the Getting Better, while welcome, was a little alarming. I started (yet another) new medication one Monday. The next Monday, I was still sitting in my bedroom counting pills out onto my bed, checking, again, if I had enough to kill myself. Just in case. And on Wednesday that week I woke up and thought, I don’t think I want to die anymore. This kind of rapid recovery is not typical in major depressive episodes. The coming out of it is usually more gradual, until one day you wake up and realise that you have had more good days than bad in the last month. But this time, for me, it was that sudden. From that day on, I have rather loved being alive.

It would be too easy to say that six months of my life have been lost. It’s certainly true that I woke up in May 2014 and felt like I’d last been outside, into the sun and into the world, in November 2013. But I don’t think you can go through something like this and not come out on the other side changed in some way. A common refrain I repeated to my therapist over those six months was that I didn’t want to go ‘back’ to my life or myself. And he, being the most excellent therapist, would say, “Well of course you don’t want to go back. Depression can be a sign that things need to change. You want to go forward, to a different kind of life.” (My paraphrasing may not do justice to his wise delivery). I think in part I meant that I did not want to go back to life on the SSRI. One where I was fine, and fully functional, but not quite alive. But I also meant that I did not like how I had been living my life, and often times who I was in it. I was also convinced that, after 36 years of living this way, it was impossible for me to change.

It has been about a month now, PD (post depression). I am no longer depressed. But here’s the really amazing part: I am feeling things. Regular emotions, like a regular human being. Frankly, I thought I was incapable, that I lacked the emotion gene. And then I started being moved by things; moved towards sadness and moved towards happiness and, in being so moved, moving towards people in my life, being able to really engage with them for the first time in over a decade. Every day, I feel a little amazed by this. And, yes, a lot grateful. This is indeed my different kind of life.

So, this weekend. There have been many times in the past few years when I have wanted to go out and buy new appliances, or new furniture, or new decor for my home. I have always found a way to talk myself out of it. (“You don’t really need a new fridge.” “There are people worse off in the world than you who have bigger needs” etc.). Here’s how my thinking went in the lead up to this weekend: I want to eat more healthily. I need to get a smoothie and juice maker to hide vegetables and fruit in delicious tasting drinks. I need a food processor, too, for hiding aforementioned in soups and stews. I’ll need to get a new stove to cook said soups and stews and secret-spinach-and-carrot-brownies properly. If I’m going to be doing all this cooking, I’ll need a new fridge with a freezer bigger than one tupperware to store all the food in. Hence the binge purchase of what is basically an entirely new kitchen.

Then I started thinking about it a bit more. About seventy percent of everything I have in my home I inherited as hand-me-downs, from my parents and my sister and various other family members. The other thirty percent is largely made up of things I got when I was an undergraduate student and first moved into digs on my own. So my pre-weekend stove was a little tabletop two plater that had two settings: burn or under cook. My pre-weekend fridge had a freezer that could fit one box of fish in it, which it would then rapidly encase in mountains of ice. And my pre-weekend microwave was, I’m almost certain, the first microwave ever sold in South Africa, which my parents must have bought when I was maybe ten years old. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t supposed to be making those zapping noises whenever I warmed something up in it. And here is my shameful confession. Upon purchasing a new kitchen, I then set about doing a monumental winter spring clean of everything in my kitchen cupboards and cabinets. Aside from being deeply satisfying, it was also deeply alarming. Some of the food I threw out had expired in 2012. Some in 2010. And some in 2006. 2006! For someone who claims to be OCD, this will not do. To be fair, I really don’t think that dried herbs and spices should be allowed to expire. But apparently they do.

This blog post has been swirling around in my head for a few days now. I knew that, before I could write it, it needed a name. When winter spring cleaning my kitchen this weekend and throwing out expired food, it came to me. Expiration can mean a couple of things. Death is one of them (and the first one I thought of, naturally). There has been a kind of death over the past six months. A sense of dying and a sense of coming alive. Expiration also signifies a coming to an end. I have a strong sense that an old, familiar way of living and being in the world has come to an end. It no longer serves me. It needed to be thrown out.

But perhaps most meaningful to me, in this moment, expiration is the exhalation of breath from the lungs. In relief. In release. In settling into the present.

One of the other things I wanted this post to do was find a way to thank the truly remarkable people who have shown up in the gentlest physical and virtual ways over the past few months. I quite literally was shut up in my house and in myself for six months. And I have never felt so connected. It really is true that in the darkest of times, the real treasures show up in your life. Every single day, unceasing in their support. How does one say thank you for that? I decided that this post, about this kitchen adventure, was the best way I could do that. What better way to say thank you for holding me onto life than to live my life with as much joy and relish (and a dried spice or two) as I am now, gratefully, able to experience.

Still-Depression.

cracked_depression_pt_2_by_dankex-d63q1xcSo here’s the thing about coming out about experiencing depression. Or rather, about being in the throes of an ‘episode’. (Such an innocuous word, episode. It should at least be dark and black and infused with the imagery of the lived experience of an episode). The shift in perceptions of depression as a medical illness has generally been a great improvement on widely held views that depression is a weakness, a made-up all-in-your-head-pull-yourself-together flaw. A choice, if you will. I have seen palpable relief in friends and patients who are fighting against their ‘weakness’ when I’ve suggested that depression is much like diabetes (for example) – a chronic condition that needs treatment to be managed. While this doesn’t absolve a person of the responsibility of getting help and doing everything they can to help themselves, it does remove the sense that this is somehow their fault and, if they just tried harder, they’d stop feeling so mad/bad/sad.

But, through this latest episode of mine, I’ve realised that the depression-as-medical-illness perspective can hold its own dangers.

First, we tend to think of illness as acute, not chronic. Like a bad case of flu or gastro, there seems to be the perception that you take your depression to the doctor, get a prescription and in 10-14 days, give or take, you’re well again. Notwithstanding the unlikelihood of stumbling upon the right medication first time around, depression typically doesn’t resolve itself in a few weeks. This is difficult: not knowing when (let alone if) you are going to start feeling like your Self again. More difficult: the expectation from well meaning people in your life that you should be Better now. It’s been a month, right? 6 weeks, right? Two months? You’re doing Better, right? If it’s tiresome to keep getting the “I’m not okay” response to your “How are you?” question, please try to imagine how it feels to live that not-okay, every day, for a month, two, three… Most difficult: the suggestion, implicit in that question, that you are obviously not trying hard enough to Get Better. Depression is hard to deal with. So is a depressed person. It’s easier, sometimes, to pretend it’s not happening (anymore). If you happen to be the depressed person, you don’t get that luxury.

As useful as the depression-as-chronic-illness can be, it somehow doesn’t quite portray the transition from physical to mental suffering. Depression is (largely) unseen. Its blackness unfolds inside you, makes the unreal real, the irrational rational. The very part of you that can rally your physical and emotional resources is the part that is broken. No matter how I’ve tried, I’ve yet to adequately articulate the experience of living with and through this illness. How do you explain an illness so tortured that, instead of fighting to live, you fight to die? In my experience, at least, this is difficult – impossible in some cases – for people who care about you to come to terms with. Confessing such an awful truth is pretty much taboo. And so you live with the thoughts and feelings in silence, alone. You get out of bed, you get dressed, you might make it into work. You look normal. Your chest is clear; your leg’s not broken. But this illness is still there, unrelenting. What would depression look like, I wonder, if it was no longer invisible? If we could see the torment reflected on a person’s skin? Would it evoke more empathy, or more fear?

I have a close friend who broke her leg last month, and was booked off work for 6 weeks (and counting). The experience has been a difficult one for her – a fiercely independent, vivacious person, highly invested in work and relationships, now housebound and ‘out of action’ because of a broken bone, a cast and crutches. I’m sure I’ve never fully appreciated how physically incapacitating a broken limb could be and certainly not what an emotional blow it delivers. I was struck, though, by even my own perception of how legitimate her injury was. Of course you should get booked off work for 6 weeks (and counting) because you cannot walk. Of course you can’t go to the shops to buy milk because you cannot drive. Of course it’s okay if you can’t make it to my supper party because it’s too difficult to move around. Insert “depression” for “broken leg”, however, and perceptions shift (mine included). The difference, for me anyway, is that it is my whole self that is (hopefully temporarily) broken. But it’s not quite so acceptable to not be able to work or go out and buy bread. And it’s definitely not okay if you keep turning down invitations, or don’t have the emotional energy to “keep in touch”.

I am not okay. Not right now, anyway. I’d very much like to be okay again. I’m doing what I can. I get out of bed (most days). I eat. I try to maintain some form of connection to the world out there. On really good days, the 8 long hours spent in front of my computer result in something productive. And I try, with the support of some extraordinary people, to push back against this illness. I’m trying, hard, to Get Better. Part of that, for me, means trying to talk about the experience, no matter how scary or shameful it feels. Perhaps – perhaps – it will make depression a little more visible.

Un-Depression.

meiroun-frame-3This is a post about depression. You’ll notice how I highlight this upfront, in the title. This is deliberate; a sort of disclaimer, if you will. It tells you right away that the content of the story that follows is not going to be pretty. It warns off anyone coming here for a nice cup of tea and pictures of daisies. But, if the title has done its job, you’ll realise that this is also not really a post about depression. It’s about the price you pay to live a Life Un-depressed.

There are a lot of really great personal accounts and metaphors about depression out there. I particularly like how Allie Brosh, Andrew Solomon and Matthew Johnstone have managed to capture the experience of it in ways that, hopefully, both depressed and un-depressed people can relate to. What I think many of these narratives don’t quite capture, though, is how impossibly part of your Self depression is. Like a virus, it infiltrates your cells, blackens them and reflects the worst parts of yourself back at you. It becomes impossible to tell the difference between what is real and what is depression. It’s all sorts of awful.

All sorts of awful is where I’ve been these past few months.

The thing about recovering from depression is that there is no one-size-fits-all. Some people have spontaneous remission without treatment. Some go onto a course of medication and / or psychotherapy and get through the ‘episode’, which might be the only one they’ll ever be unlucky enough to have experienced. Some, like me, will cycle in and out, from one episode to the next, emerging eventually with the knowledge that theirs is a chronic condition for which, much like diabetes, they will need to be on medication for the rest of their lives. If, like me, you’re one of the lucky ones, you’ll find an anti-depressant (likely after many hit-and-miss attempts) that takes the depression away. I stumbled upon my particular brand of drug – selective serotonin reputake inhibitors or SSRIs – a decade ago. I got Better. I stayed Better, for over ten years. Until I decided, last year, to come off SSRIs. 

Every anti-depressant affects every person differently. SSRIs, in their defense, have a fairly good reputation for being effective for many people. They also have a reputation for a rather significant set of side effects (more on this later). It was because of these side effects that I tried to come off them (resulting in a pretty trippy few months), and was put onto a different class of drugs. Evidently, this new drug did not work. My neurotransmitters wanted their SSRI back. Faced with a severely depressed patient, my doctor put me back onto my trusty SSRI. I protested against this, but at the time I was not in a position to put up much of a fight.

And here, finally, is the point of this story. I am lucky to have found a drug that works for my depression. I am less lucky to be one of the people who is particularly affected by the drug’s side-effects. And so I wonder: when you take anti-depressant medication, does it make you become more of yourself, or less?

A lot of medications have side effects. Headaches, nausea, dry mouth, insomnia, somnolence… an endless list, really. But mine are not physical side effects. Physical side effects, quite frankly, I could live with. There are a number of delightful terms given to this particular melody of effects: emotional blunting, SSRI-induced indifference, frontal lobe syndrome. The offshoots include detachment, apathy, numbness, indifference, boredom, anhedonia, and lack of interest in anything and everything. Unsurprisingly, these are not among the endless physical ‘contraindications’ listed in the box insert. They are seldom spoken about in doctors’ offices. The idea seems to be that if the SSRI makes you un-depressed, the rest you can live with. As if living like that is really living.

Please don’t misunderstand me. Being depressed is intolerable. No one would choose not to get better. But living a robotic, colourless, emotionally void life is, I think, a very high price to pay. I’m willing to bet this is true for a great deal of people. What astonishes me, though perhaps it shouldn’t, is how little has been published about this price. On the web, anecdotal evidence abounds. Message board upon message board has pages of posts and comments about the experience of becoming less alive on SSRIs. But scientific, empirical research (the kind that is taken seriously by the medical community) documenting these effects? A virtual void. If you’re fortunate, you’ll get a doctor who has seen enough of this in his or her patients to pay attention to these complaints. Although, so far, none have been able to tell me exactly why or how these drugs have this effect. I’m guessing this has something to do with the fact that medical science, for all its astounding advances, still can’t quite say exactly how or why anti-depressants work at all – or why one person’s miracle drug is another person’s nightmare. There are theories, of course. But I’ve yet to hear or see conclusive evidence.

How does one make a choice like this? A reverse Sophie’s Choice, if you will, where neither option is desirable. I of course have the option of trying one of the anti-depressants from the vast range of non-SSRI alternatives, and I am now working my way back to being off SSRIs. Trying, once again, something new – a drug that works on different neurotransmitters all together. But because my depression seems to be serotonin-based, there is the risk that this new drug will not work. Then, once again, I will have to choose between depression and the life-altering effects of SSRIs.

It’s an impossible choice. But the risk is worth taking: I want to see how much more of my Self I can become.