Waiting for my pin feathers

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.

Waiting for my pin feathers

Hope for the New Year

This week has been one of those strange liminal times. No longer really Christmas (though more traditional folks will remind me it’s still the 12 days of Christmas), but not yet the New Year. I’m off work, there’s nothing much to do, and there’s still piles of food in the fridge to eat. Things are closed, and people are sleepy and focused on their families and homes.

I guess there is a sense of waiting, now the hubbub and noise of Christmas is done, waiting for the last party, the final celebration of the year. Then everything goes back to normal, back to work and school and daily routine. But maybe with a touch of hope, a touch of expectation that the new year, this year, things will be better. 

This year I don’t know what I’m hoping for. Nothing concrete. I still feel a little too bruised, a little too small to take the risk of making my hopes tangible, voiced, written things. Sometimes it feels that if you don’t acknowledge your hopes, if you wrap them up in your heart, then you won’t feel so achingly disappointed when they aren’t realised. So I’m not facing my hopes head-on today, I’m not looking at them directly. I’m letting them hide themselves in my heart, and hoping to sustain them, quiet and safe in there.

But I am letting myself feel their presence. I hope that whatever fears and disappointments you’ve suffered, you can let yourself feel the presence of hope too. Don’t be too cynical. Let a little of the hope for a new year enter your heart. It may be dangerous, but I think next to love, hope is one of the fundamentals that makes the human condition bearable. 

Hope for the New Year

Missing creative writing

Doing the PhD pretty much killed my desire to write.

I’ve always written. Ever since I was a small child, I’ve made up stories. My father encouraged me to write, probably from the age of eight or younger. I was in my teens when my mother brought home an old laptop from work – an amazing Windows 3.1 machine that I still have – and every summer holiday I used to sit inside and write all kinds of stories about battles and elves and brave young people swept up in maelstroms they couldn’t control.

Getting a job, doing a degree, getting more jobs and doing a masters degree never stopped me writing stories. No matter how much I was doing academically, I never stopped writing for pleasure. It’s worth saying here that I never wrote for anyone else, and I never considered pursuing writing as a career. I think my father’s example showed very clearly how unlikely that was to work, and I was always a very sensible child. I also never finished the tales I wrote, because I’d just write the bits that excited me, and once I’d worked out in my head how the rest of the story went I usually didn’t bother typing it up. But I wrote consistently, most weeks, for hours or more and just for the pleasure of creating.

I’m not sure whether it’s the volume of words I churned out during my PhD, or the actual PhD experience that put a stop to that. There were times when things were stressful during the PhD, but that used to turn me towards writing for pleasure, not away. I might have just been overwhelmed by the steady process of churning out hundreds of thousands of words. I do think my fiction writing suffered: my writing has become very dry, very mechanical since doing the PhD, and I think that likely relates to the necessity of hammering through fact after fact, data set after data set. But I what really killed fiction writing for me was that my ability to be creative was heavily damaged during the PhD process.

I have to admit I don’t have a clear concept in mind, when I say “ability to be creative”. I think I am trying to express the feeling I have when my mind is full of ideas, full of stories, full of the desire to create things that I believe have aesthetic or similar value. That desire to create or make rather than to analyse, or learn, or examine. It certainly became very diminished during the PhD. I was still creating, largely costume, but in a limited and mechanical way that simply attempted to achieve the minimum necessary. I didn’t take joy in the process, I just wanted to make the object for use.

As I reflect on it, I suspect it wasn’t the PhD exactly that damaged my creativity, though pressure, stress, and large amounts of academic writing did probably reduce my ability to write creatively to some extent. I think it was the way I felt during the latter parts of the PhD that really did the damage. At times I felt anxious, very self-critical, found it difficult to establish and retain confidence in the things I was producing, and experienced periods of low emotion and motivation and overall sadness. Being in that place, feeling those things, crushed almost everything else, and it’s not a surprise that included my desire and ability to create.

I also think writing, good writing, requires knowing who you are. Or at least being willing to explore who you are and what interests you, what perspectives you bring, what your assumptions and desires are. I’m coming to the impression that during the PhD I distorted my self, to fit within what I perceived was the role I should be filling. Conditions of worth certainly played a part there, as well as an underlying desire to fit in. I think I had assumed that the PhD would represent a time in which I would finally fit in, that my strong desire and motivation for learning and enjoyment of analysis and critique would finally be normal because everyone else would be the same. Why else would they be doing a PhD? Unfortunately that didn’t happen, and I still felt like the odd nerd who didn’t connect with anyone else. Part of the time I tried to fit in, the rest of the time I felt frustrated and alienated, and I suspect that I was rarely, genuinely, myself. I don’t think I found my niche, and I think I spent a lot of time assuming that was my fault, or just being perplexed by the whole thing.

It’s not the adversity that was problematic, I think it’s the fact that it lead me to be quite self destructive (on a purely internal, mental level), and to loose faith in my internal barometer. It’s difficult to be more than paralysed when you doubt your own judgement, not only on what is good, but what is worth even spending time on. I think I often thought or worried that what I was doing was stupid, worthless, a waste of time, bad for my career, of uncertain purpose, foolish, etc either by other people’s measurements or by what I perceived were other people’s measurements. Because that clashed with what I did actually, really, want to be doing I had to tell myself I was wrong, and I had to learn not to trust that internal direction. I never overcame it entirely, which I think lead to spending a lot of time conflicted or uncertain; paralysed.

As I continue my convalescence, I’m slowly recognising these things.  I think I’m starting to reestablish trust in my internal barometer, and confidence that what I want to do is worth doing. This month I spent most of a whole day writing, in a single splurge that caught me a bit unawares. It’s one of the things that prompted this post.

Has anyone else experienced losing their creativity under similar conditions? I’d be interested to hear other peoples experiences.



Missing creative writing

In convalescence

I realised yesterday that I’m a recovering PhD student. The easiest way of describing how that feels is to say that it has some similarities to coming out of a bad relationship. You’re left with attitudes, behaviors and habits that don’t make sense to the average person. You’re left with a pretty thoroughly warped and erratic sense of self worth. You’re left with an aversion to forming a similar relationship that’s so strong you can’t even look at it straight on.

The last on that list is a particularly kicker – it’s taken me months to understand why I can’t face applying for research positions, why I can barely make myself look at job listings and why I feel physically sick when I read job specifications. I’m so gun-shy of entering a similar environment to the PhD that I can’t even face looking for a job in the specialty I trained in for close on ten years.

I feel I should say here that my experience as a PhD student was not bad compared to many others. My supervisor was good, in their own way, my department was not a terrible place, I wasn’t bullied or picked on. Only once did my work get published without me as an author on the article, and even then my name was mentioned, so that’s not so bad in the scheme of things.

My PhD experience was not really bad, and other students’ experiences, even within my department, have been worse. You can read horror stories across the web, but from what I’ve seen the average experience tends to be one of being generally left with limited supervisory contact and sometimes actively ignored, with all the reduced outcomes you can imagine from that.

But it’s been a few months since I finished, and I’ve realised that although my PhD experience was honestly average to good, it has still had a profound impact on my attitudes to myself and my work. I’m only just beginning to unpick and recognise these attitudes, and only because at the moment I have the time and space to do so. If I had jumped into a research post straight out of my PhD I don’t think I’d have the mental space or safety to do that, and I think I’d be pretty darn miserable as a result. I wouldn’t know why I have such a bruised and inconstant confidence in my own abilities, almost constant anxiety related to my work, high levels of self-criticism with regards to anything I do in front of other people, and a complete lack of passion for my speciality. I’d probably just be trying to ignore it all, or just assuming there was something wrong with me, instead of having the opportunity to realise that these are all things that have developed as result of the PhD experience.

So right now I’m in convalescence. I’m hoping with a bit of self-care, a bit of rest, and a reintroduction to a normal working environment I’ll be able to rebalance my perspective and regain that spark that drove my research a few years back. Being able to enjoy writing again, even something like this blog, is part of that.

I’m going to concentrate on the small things for a while, and let the big things move at their own pace.

In convalescence