Coping Strategies and Support Systems

Well, I had a chirpy post for last week that I never got round to typing up so we’ll start with that and then later I’ll publish the less positive post from this week.

Tuesday last week I had an assessment appointment at the University Counselling Service. I’ve had mixed experiences with them over the last two years but this woman was actually helpful. Turns out they’ve changed how they do things somewhat so that if you’re less severely affected by whatever it is that ails you, they now direct you to their group workshops on the basis that it actually helps in a lot of cases and is an effective use of limited resources. The upshot is that for the time being I’ve been recommended to make use of their relaxation and mindfulness sessions and generally treat myself gently then re-assess the situation in the new year.

We talked about the issues I’m facing in a general way and it was reassuring to hear her suggest that there may be grounds for formal complaint about the Boss Man, aka my Neglectful Primary Supervisor. The issues I and others have had with him are not the result of our individual failings, and they are serious enough to warrant intervention, if that’s what I want.

The general gist of our conversation was that I am not ready to go back yet and that that’s okay. I told her that I’d been feeling a lot better and had more energy after my two initial weeks off but that when I sat down the previous day to write down my massive to-do list of experiment planning and thesis writing, I got completely overwhelmed after about 15 minutes of listing things, to the point that I sat and did nothing else constructive or fun for the rest of that day. Just walking past my building had me feeling panicky and anxious! On the grounds of that alone she was confident in saying that no, I wasn’t ready to go back to work yet. Which was a relief but also horribly frustrating. One of the things I’ve been saying a lot to my sweetie is that I am fed up of feeling upset and anxious, and crying every time I try to talk about uni and the PhD.

Lovely lady that she was, she reminded me that I’ve got this far, that I’m an intelligent, smart, capable young woman. We talked about my coping strategies, what I do to have fun and relax and look after myself, and we talked about how I coped with the Boss being an arse on previous occasions and the things I do to keep him happy-distracted and off my back. Turns out I’ve been doing the right things all along; yoga, walking, jiu jitsu, drinking tea and writing this blog for example.

The main two things I could do with more of are 1) more guided relaxation, meditation and mindfulness practise and 2) making the most of the support systems I do have available i.e. my Second Supervisor, the senior post-docs and the current students. I did have to explain that I do feel alone, maybe more so than is really the case, despite having plenty of fellow current and completed PhD students who are/were working in equally shitty situations around me. The main problem with my “support” systems is that I have to chase every. single. one. of. them. in order to get anything useful out of them, which is exhausting. Yes, people are more than happy to read whatever I send them or to sit and bitch about things, but they don’t care enough to follow up. They don’t initiate and they won’t sit and help me do the really difficult part that is planning or starting. She pointed out that this is because they are busy people with work of their own but to me it feels like they just don’t really care all that much. Others have also said that planning and setting deadlines are key skills the PhD process is supposed to develop in you, and blah, blah you can’t expect people to spoon feed you and regiment work like school did, but, if I’m finding it so hard conceptually that it’s literally paralysing me with fear, can’t I expect a little help? To further complicate matters, my own personal issues make asking for people to help with or out-right do experiments for me feels oddly like cheating. It’s my PhD – isn’t it supposed to be my own work?

In addition to talking over what I can do to support myself, she mentioned a way of reframing how I view my time off that was very helpful. She spotted or guessed that having to say “I’m off sick” feels like an admission of weakness and failure to me. She suggested seeing it instead as a positive strategy aimed towards the thing I want most – finishing the PhD. Viewing my time off as strategic retreat to regroup made so much more sense and felt so much better. I compared it in my head to the difference on the re-enactment battlefield between the pulling back we do during the battle to reform the lines, take on water and catch our breath so that we can go back out and them a right good kicking and the final, inevitable, route at the end when the noble Lancastrian side once again crumbles before the might of the cheating Yorkist scum. Of course in the PhD struggle, I will be on the winning side for once!

The final thing was that in talking about taking more time off than just a couple of weeks was my realisation that I’m deathly afraid that if I stop now, I won’t go back. I’m afraid I’ll walk away and that will be that. This led to me recognising that I do care deeply about the PhD and that I *do* want to go back. If I didn’t care at all, it wouldn’t upset me so much, right? It’s not just guilt saying that I ought to go back because look at all the time and effort I’ve put in so far, and what would people think? It’s that I do actually want this. Keely commented on a previous post that ceasing to care is a self-defence mechanism to stop yourself completely burning out on something you’ve invested a lot in. I do still care, I’ve just buried it in a box labelled ‘don’t look’. Because the thought that I might not do this is overwhelming.

I’ve wanted to do a PhD since I realised it was a possibility. Wanted it for the wrong naïve reasons perhaps, (wish I’d known the academic job market was so deeply fucked up before I started!) but on a good day, I like doing science. I like being able to talk about it, the stuff that’s worked, and why I did it that way in the first place. I like reading about the cool stuff that other people have done. I love the elegance of a well-executed thought experiment or a mathematical model or a series of logical, precise experiments that say if this, then that, if not that, then this other. I love the beauty of the work that went into developing electron microscopy and X-ray crystallography that let us look at things so small we previously didn’t know they existed. I love the fact that we can dip a desiccated bee in gold leaf and see the hexagonal pattern of its eyes and see both the mite that was drinking it’s blood and the pollen grain that hitched a ride on that bee’s final journey. May that sense of awe and excitement never leave me, no matter how much I may temporarily hate doing my own work.

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