Friday, 3 May 2013

‘It’s not you*, it’s me**’

(*the PhD; **all of us.)

Today’s post will be about mental health.

I am a bit freaked out by how many people I know are struggling with some kind of mental health issue. A friend of a friend (a beautiful girl, a very clever person, someone you might just envy) recently admitted to being desperately unhappy with herself and with everything in her life. A boy I ran into a couple of months’ back, who used to know me at school, told me he’d been in therapy and was still having a hard time. A friend from my undergraduate days revealed on facebook that she’d had what is known as a ‘manic episode’. Then, not long ago, someone else from my past emailed me and confessed to having struggled with mental health issues. What got me was the fact that this someone is the last person I would ever have thought of as needing help; I imagined this person to be bumbling along quite happily, and just generally hunter-gathering his way through life in a state of perpetual contentment. That I could be so wrong about someone I know has now made me think. I wonder how many people out there – perhaps some I have laughed with, or those I have been jealous of – are inwardly struggling, or hate themselves, or don’t feel like they can carry on. I wonder.

People who do PhDs tend to be high-achievers and perfectionists, and that’s why they have a tendency towards being hard on themselves – one of you commented something along those lines on one of the posts on this blog. I’m beginning to realise it too; it’s not the PhD – it’s us. I wonder, had we not chosen to do PhDs, but had we instead done something else with these three-four years of our lives – taught in a school, worked in a shop, edited films – would we still be fundamentally the same, with the same negative reactions to those other jobs and lifestyles that we  now have towards our PhDs? When there were rough times over the course of the PhD, I often thought how much happier I would have been if only I were not doing a doctorate. If only I’d just got a proper job instead! – I berated myself. I sometimes used to stare at people in the street, walking through London on busy afternoons, and wonder about those people’s lives and envy them; I’d look at a young woman approximately my age and think, just look at her, she’s wearing a smart dress and nice shoes and she’s obviously got a good job, and her life is obviously much nicer than mine. I wish I was like her. I only occasionally wondered if any of those people ever looked at me and thought the same thing. (I guess I do cut a pretty convincing picture, and in exactly the same way: nice dress, good shoes…)

None of the people I mention above, the friends and acquaintances who have been struggling with mental health, are doing PhDs, by the way. They have somehow just fallen by the wayside of their basically very nice-looking lives and have quietly slipped into depression. By contrast, some of my friends whom I most admire – the truly ‘functional’ ones, the ones with a bit of ‘get-up-and-go’, ones who conceive of great schemes and then make them happen, the ones who know how to live well, and effortlessly – those friends all seem to have already HAD a breakdown, aged, say, eighteen, somewhere in the middle of their A levels, and have been through therapy already. They got it over and done with early and then went on to build their successful lives. Maybe we’re all just a few steps away from mental illness, at varying points in our lives. Maybe we all need a little help, and are just afraid to say.

Over the course of the PhD (and life, generally), when I’ve felt down, I’ve looked at other people and thought: in contrast to me, this person is clearly very happy. He/she has a better job/ more money than me, which in itself must be great. And this person does not have my background, my family, all that past baggage and its problems to carry around with them. this person is entirely free from a unique combination of factors that come together to make my life a misery, and which prevent me from being happy with what I have. Sometimes I used to think; oh God, how great it must be just to not be ME.

Then I read somewhere that ‘if everyone threw their problems together into a pile, you would want yours back very quickly’.

It’s true that you can never know what is going on inside other people’s heads. If a beautiful, skinny sibling is complaining about being ‘too fat’, or a friend who hardly ever has to work is complaining about being ‘so tired’, maybe one should really shut up and not judge, and let them talk; we can never know what demons might be lurking inside someone’s head.

I have sometimes been unhappy because I don’t earn much money; because I don’t have a pension; because I’m not as good at my job as I’d like to be; because this, because that. What strikes me is how reluctant we all are to add a healthy dash of ‘smug’ to our actual achievements, as opposed to beating ourselves up about the everything else that we haven’t got. I have a boyfriend, a warm flat to live in, tons of nice possessions, and a family and friends who like me, and I have people in my life who seem to think I’m doing an OK job on this PhD, and are encouraging me to carry on, and I know they mean it. Why the hell am I not feeling smug about all that?... I know why; because the moment we start going on about our achievements and how pleased we feel with ourselves, we worry that people will start to see us as self-centered, insufferable weirdos. (we’ve all known one: the one who’s so positive about everything that he/she makes you hate him/her, and then makes you want to go hide in a dark place and cry.) Just writing this two-liner about my ‘achievements’, just now, makes me uncomfortable.

Maybe we all need to allow ourselves to feel a bit smug about ourselves sometimes, even if only secretly, instead of bringing ourselves down all the time because society demands of us that we be self-deprecating. Maybe we should celebrate our little achievements more often. And by that I mean those everyday achievements, like managing to get to the shop before it closes to buy that pint of milk, or managing not to run out of printer paper at a crucial time, or like renewing your library books, or managing not to be late for dinner. Those things we never celebrate, but over which we beat ourselves up immediately, if ever they do not get done.

Me?... I’m fine, happy as a lark; I’ve never been better. I saw my tutor and she gave me her feedback on my latest offering (a revised draft of chapter 5). She said it was ‘very good, read well and convincingly’. (‘Convincingly!’ I’ve never had a ‘convincingly’ in my life. I’ve had a ‘I was not convinced by your argument’, not from my tutor, mind, she wouldn’t do that to me; this was from some other professor on my ‘progress review’ panel one year. But ‘Convincingly’?... Woohoo!...) I smiled at her and she smiled right back. We discussed the chapter, and we discussed conclusions and introductions; words upon words, building and creating. I walked out into the London sunshine and thought about how great everything could be, and also about this thing I read about in the procrastination book, which once helped me feel better about my PhD and which, as it turns out, is true:

‘The rate of learning and accomplishment in the beginning of a project is often slower than you’re accustomed to. Remember that later on, when you are more familiar with the subject matter and more confident in your new situation, it will go faster. […] Your learning curve can climb very rapidly, especially when you use positive self-statements to keep your attention focused on the task rather than on self-criticism. […] Create a positive expectation that as you make progress there will be large jumps in your learning and your ability. You cannot judge your rate of progress by your current ability and knowledge. As you come closer to finishing your project you will see that your confidence and your ability have been transformed.’

[Me, to my tutor: ] ‘I read a fantastic book on procrastination, by Neil Fiore. It really helped me and changed my life.’
[Tutor: ] ‘who’s it by again?’ (writing it down.) ‘I guess this close to retirement it might not be much use to me, but I’ll have a look at it anyway.’

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