It's the most wonderful time of the year... ?
Why my Christmas holiday made me anxious, withdrawn and depressed and what I did to start writing again. I love Christmas. I love the feeling it gives me. I love the memories it evokes. I love the time together with family and friends. I love the food. I love the cooking. I even love the washing up after Christmas lunch cause that’s where you get the good gossip that won’t be aired in front of Nanna. You know what I’m talking about. I love carols being sung on TV by ‘who is this person?’ television personalities. I love Christmas lights. I love local community gatherings. I love contributing to Michael Bubles royalty payments. And this was a special Christmas. It was our first Christmas with Bub. Our first Christmas to share the delight and start some new traditions. I’d done everything I could to set myself up for a wonderful Christmas holiday. I’d planned ahead, shopped online and had gifts sent, scheduled in time with loved ones but not over committed, so that we could actually enjoy the time together. We had a great house all to ourselves (no crowding in with family members or stuck in a small hotel room). The weather was heavenly and everything went according to schedule. We couldn’t have asked for more. But I came home feeling disconnected from the whole experience. No energy to spring into the new year with. Withdrawn from my nearest and dearest. And I’m not completely over it. The truth is we were burnt out going into the trip from moving and house buying and moving again and unpacking. And I was desperate to give us all an opportunity to exhale. And I did... for house stuff. But I sure as shit wasn’t going to let my PhD self take a break. In my mind I was already so behind. I had too much to do. I had to be effective and strategic and use the time wisely to get back on track... maybe even get ahead. Sure, this was a chance to see family and friends and enjoy Christmas but it was also 10 days where I wasn’t alone with the baby so surely I was going to be able to get more one. With this enthusiasm and determination front of thought going over for our Christmas break with family on hand to help look after Bub and my own office to knuckle down in do you want to know how much writing I got done? Zero. Nothing. Not one word. I didn’t even crack the laptop open. And the more the days went on the harder it got for me to start. I was stuck. Worse than that. I was paralysed with fear and mute. Unable to ask for help. Or even articulate what was happening. And while I didn’t get any writing done I certainly got more than my fair share of worrying in. I was so worried about not being able to finish my goals I never even started on them. And so I stopped talking about them, hoping no one would ask about it. And then on the rare occasion that someone did, I shut it down. Flicking the attention back on them, or to another topic. One time I was down right rude about it. Sorry Mum. And that just isn’t me. I love talking about my research. I’m excited by it and proud of it and I am at a point now where I actually have some results to talk about! These feelings went on for too long, and have hung around like a bad fridge smell even after we’ve been home for a couple of weeks. So I had to ask myself, in my best Carrie Bradshaw head tilt voice over way...
Why was it that having a holiday made me anxious, withdrawn and depressed?
From what I could gather it wasn’t just one thing. It wasn’t just that I was behind schedule or that I hadn’t met a goal. It wasn’t just that my comparison to other students had me coming up short. It wasn’t just that I wasn’t meeting my own expectations. It wasn’t just that I was angry with myself for not having done more before this trip. It wasn’t just that I was resentful of my partner being able to go off to work to get his work done. It wasn’t just that I was tired of all the time and energy house stuff was taking. It wasn’t just that I felt guilty asking for help with Bub or house stuff. It wasn’t just that I didn’t feel I could talk about it. It wasn’t just that any time I was asked about when I was going to do some writing I got teary and felt out of control. It wasn’t just that I couldn’t see any solution other than take more time. Or give up... It was a combination of factors that clashed at the same time and I had been coping with for too long without addressing any of them.
And the thing is coping doesn’t cut it. Coping is not how you visualise your parenting style. Coping is not your trusted buddy that is always there with you as you pursue a higher education. Coping is not how I am going to get this PhD done.
Coping is not how I live my life.
It’s not enough. Something had to change. And it has. It is. And if I stop to think about it a couple of areas have actually made a difference.
Just like it wasn’t just one thing that pushed me over the edge it hasn’t just been one thing that has helped. My days are simpler. The massive house to do list is dwindling. And I’m back into a vague routine. All good progress.
But there were 3 things I consciously did that have definitely helped and I’m not about to give them up anytime soon. 1. Go for a walk and spend time outside everyday.
I legitimately consider this to be therapy. Last year I borrowed from the library and read “The Nature Fix: Why nature makes us happier, healthier and more creative” by Florence Williams. It was so good I bought 3 copies and keep lending them out to friends. For me it's only a small change, evenings in our back yard watering the garden, short walks along the lake at our local park. But it’s conscious and achievable and it’s working. I feel less constricted. I feel more like myself. If I can offer just one suggestion to help you move the needle in your funk it’s “go play outside”.
2. Write a comprehensive and collaborative to do list with my husband.
I called this my big fat fuck off to do list. Usually I write up little seperate lists and diligently work on them, feeling little zings of satisfaction as I tick them off. But this is different to regular life so I needed something different.
It was important to write it up together so that we both had a clear understanding of just what the other person was trying to achieve. We had house stuff and Bub stuff and uni stuff and friend stuff and family stuff and some of his work stuff. I wanted to know what he had on his plate so I could understand if what we were trying to do was achievable but let’s be real he gets to go on holidays to the office 5 days a week to sit in a luxurious air conditioned haven that is completely void of baby paraphernalia and the only caring decisions he needs to make is what type of lunch he will have and when he will be coming home.
Anywho, writing it up was daunting. There was and are a lot of items on this list. But the physical action of writing this up allowed me space to communicate what I wanted to get done with the focus being the list, not my aspirations and my emotions. This helped me feel more in control. I feel like it’s achievable.
3. Plan my writing projects and share my goals.
I have been using my writing planner for a couple of months and it’s really helped. I’ve been far more productive in that time than I have in the past 6 months. But I’m still scared to share my writing goals and I rarely talk about it beyond meetings with my supervisors as cursory progress reports.
For the first time I’ve rewritten my writing goals mid-way through the month. It wasn’t helpful to have a reminder of what I wasn’t going to achieve so… I reset. A goal, like a budget, is just a guideline and it’s ok for it to change. I think I need to remind myself of this more often. It’s ok to adapt my goals to my new reality. So I’ve rewritten my monthly writing planner, I’ve printed it out and I’ve spoken with my nearest and dearest about these plans. From these conversations I’ve had offers of help, encouragement, pats on back as to what I’ve already done and a deeper interest in what I’m spending my time on.
By taking the time to redo my writing planner I’m feeling like I have more clarity and that the situation isn’t nearly as dire as I thought. By sharing it I’m feeling less withdrawn. I’m feeling more connected, to my writing and to my supporters. If I can offer another piece of advice for those feeling overwhelmed and disconnected it would be “have a specific writing plan and share it with someone”.
Didn't cost me a cent and only took a few minutes each.
Now that I’m back home I’m feeling like I can at least talk about it to my husband and some other academic mamas who knows what it’s like. But beyond that if someone was to ask me how is it going - I’d likely lie and say “fine... plugging away at it”. Not everyone needs to know, I don’t think it’s healthy to keep bringing up challenging experiences and feelings to relive them over and over. So it’s not perfect, and I certainly don’t have it all figured out, but I am feeling more like myself now and I am back to writing. I mean I wrote this blog post for starters. And I’ve an article draft ready for my final supervisors eyes. If you are feeling overwhelmed or disconnected from your work or yourself please reach out to someone, go play outside, access the supports available at your university or college or in your community, make a plan and share it. Writing a PhD (or other big project) is hard. It’s meant to be hard. Buy it’s a lot easier if you feel more like yourself and that your mountain to climb is achievable. You can access the writing plan I use each month for free here. And share it with me @mamas.writing on insta - I’d love to know what you’re working on.