Today I’ve been travelling on trains a lot, and using the time to work through old blog posts and newsletters from my favourite writers of the decluttering/minimalism/non-consumerism variety. One of Tsh’s old posts discusses a number of things that are ‘keeping her sane’ in the cold days of February.
It resonated with me a lot, particularly as she frames it in terms of her and her family being in a temporary, transitory place for the next year or two. I feel like that is where I am, too. I’m over the initial extreme disorientation of dislocation and change that came with the end of my PhD, but I haven’t entered a settled period either. I’m not living month-by-month anymore, as I was when I first finished, but I’m not investing in long term plans or settling down to a life of academia and struggle either. In some ways I’m waiting, not for anything external, but for my sense of self to fully return to me, for my heart to uncurl, for the pin feathers to grow back in my wings.
It’s almost exactly a year since I submitted my thesis for examination. Looking back at that last year, I do get a strong sense of disorientation. Of fear and desperation in beginning to come out of that trapped, constricted place that was the end of the PhD. I had changed myself a lot, repressed myself, muted my voice and expression to try and be what people told me I needed to be to be a successful PhD student. Then at the end, all those changes felt like they were for nothing. I passed, with little difficulty, but there was nothing waiting at the end, none of the feeling of acceptance I think I was subconsciously waiting for, yearning for. My irritating intelligence, nerdy interests and attention to detail weren’t suddenly welcomed, and I didn’t feel like I belonged any more than I did before. Which is to say, not a lot.
I clipped my wings to show how comfortably I fit in the box, but in the end was dumped out along with all the rest.
Coming to realise these things was a more immediately painful experience than the process itself. I didn’t know who I was anymore, and I felt more numb and emotionless than I had in an extremely long time. The early months of the last year were a tumult of disorientating desperation, of stumbling around alternately numb and longing for something I couldn’t vocalise or reliably conceptualise. Of experiencing crippling moments of fear and anxiety and losing hold of half the reference points of my life.
In the end two things helped. The first was establishing new reference points. I decided not to fight the internal socialised pressure to ‘get a real job’, and did so: I feel like that’s a battle I can fight later. Now I’m working a regular day job which gives me confidence just because it’s so ‘normal’ and I’m very good at it. I’m also working another job which feeds my soul and my desire to do something worthwhile, and helps fulfill my need for meaningful relationships.
It was during establishing these that I first heard the ‘still quiet voice’ within me return. The voice that we all have, that knows what we truly want, that really embodies without fear who we really are. Realising I could still hear that innate ‘self’ under all the layers of control and tension was a moment of relief so strong I cried. I realise now that I was afraid I’d dismembered it so thoroughly it would never recover.
The second thing that helped was committing to do work on myself. There’s reasons I chose to mute and mangle myself, reasons I suffered such isolation and loneliness in my PhD. Certainly the environment is part of the cause, and doubtless I’ll talk about that at some point, but in the here and now what I can do is work on how I react to similar situations in the future. So I’m seeing a therapist and learning, slowly and painfully. I’m trying to actually be here, to be present with the people I love, and fully in this body that I don’t so much. I’m also going to evening classes, getting qualifications, learning new ways to communicate and construct meaning.
And slowly, the worst horror and fear and loss that erupted around the end of my PhD has subsided. A year later and I’m not ready to take on the world, but I am beginning to feel like I may be able to safely be in the world.