Elusive horizons

I remember that when I was a kid learning to swim, sometimes I would swim to my Mom or Dad, and they would slowly back up in order to get me to go further.  It annoyed the hell out of me at the time, which is no doubt why I remember it now, but as an adult, I understand the motivation to try to help your child do more than they they believe they can.

Writing a dissertation is not like that.  I’ve thought of the swimming incident alot recently as I’ve tried to come to terms with my ever-moving dissertation deadlines.  I thought I would graduate in December, and then in May, and now it is August.  I’ve been “almost done” for almost a year.

Now, I keep telling myself I’m almost done, as do my friends and family, in attempts at encouragement and motivation.  But it feels hollow when my deadline keeps moving just out of my reach.  I will finish this summer, but it is hard to believe when I’ve thought I was so close so many times.  I feel like the girl who cried dissertation, and I’ve done it so many times that I no longer believe it when it is finally true (the haunting voice . . . is it? why this time?  how is it any different than before? . . . ).

It also means that I’ve consistently been living my life as if I’m about to finish.  I’ll only have to keep splitting my attention a little bit longer.  I will only have to keep working at night and on the evenings just a little bit longer.  But a little bit longer has stretched into almost a year, and so I’ve spent that time dividing and splitting my attention until I don’t have nearly enough to go around (like butter scraped over too much bread.  I need a holiday . .  a very long holiday . . . )

So I feel desperately behind in all the other areas of my life, while being unable to quite catch up to the dissertation deadlines.  When I finally swam long enough to reach my parent, I remember being proud and pleased at how far I had come, even if I remained a little irritated at the deception.  But when I finally do hit that last dissertation deadline, I don’t really expect to feel that same sort of accomplishment.  The always distant dissertation horizons make me feel consistently inadequate and perpetually behind.  When I finally do reach them, I can’t believe I will feel anything but a sense of relief that I have finally done what I should have accomplished months ago.  And then get to the pile of things that I’ve neglected over the past several years.

So how do I convince myself now that I really am almost done?  How do I find the energy to do the last bit of work to finally finish the damn thing when it feels like I’ve been purposelessly treading water for so long?  How do I reach for that horizon when it has slipped out of my grasp so many times?


Sunday night, 10 pm

After my initial complete meltdown, I’m settling back into some sort of normal routine.  I’m trying a battery of things to deal with keeping my mental/physical state in some sort of manageable place (therapy, exercise, acupuncture, eating more vegetables, deep breaths, looking at internet pictures of kittens, etc. etc. etc.) and trying to just plow through the next couple of months.

A draft is written, I’ve got the nausea-inducing pile of advisorial comments (received several months after I initially sent them in, but hey, who’s counting), so now I’ve just got to jump through my advisor’s hoops of editing and revision to get this thing finally finished.  I’m trying to get my 100th or whatever wind to get some energy for this thing, but mostly I sit down and listlessly work on it.

I had planned to graduate this semester.  In order to get my paperwork in on time, I quite literally had to trudge through the snow in order to turn in the paperwork.  When I told my advisor that I was turning in the forms, the first thing ze said was, “well, what happens if you don’t finish this semester?” which I should have realized was code for “if I haven’t bothered to read your dissertation up to now, what makes you think I will read it in the next few months?”  So now, I am beginning to see my initial deadlines float by me as I continue to work on this worthless piece of crap.  The deadline for turning in preliminary drafts, for having my defense, for turning in the final draft, for the oh-so-sweet returning of all my library books. Watching those dates go by hurts.  

So does sitting here at 9:45 on a Sunday night, when I know that I have to get some more work done on this thing in order to stay on my revision schedule.  I remember a time when I would have seen the clock hit 10 pm, and I would have been motivated to blast through the end of a paper, doing obscene amounts of work in tiny amounts of time to hit the next day deadline.  Now I see 10 pm come on my clock, and I really just want to read and go to bed with my husband.  The husband has one of these real office-y type jobs that pays our rent, our grocery bill, and gives us some really enviable health insurance.  It also means that it keeps him on a regular schedule.  10 pm on a Sunday means it is time to eke out a little more weekend free time, then get into bed.  10 pm for me means you-have-to-keep-working-you-loser-because-you-went-out-to-breakfast-and-went-to-the-gym-which-means-you’re-behind-and-if-you-go-to-bed-now-you-will-feel-like-today-was-a-failure.  

Needless to say, I am really sick of measuring my days by how much work on the dissertation I got done, and then using that as a yardstick for my self-worth.  This is all to say, that I have to get back to work now.  Le sigh.

Talking it Out

So, I’m going to a therapist today.

I’ve been to a therapist at numerous points in my life. Once when I was very young, again during college, and then during grad school at the point where I realized I needed to leave.

My intentions for this time around are quite different from my past visits, so I imagine the experience should be pretty different.  My first two therapy experiences were both in response to traumatic events.  I suppose the third was in response to a traumatic event too (i.e. graduate school).  When I went to therapy during graduate school, I was an unmitigated disaster.  I was mostly just flailing about wildly, desperately trying to find anything that would make me less miserable.   I have depression in general, was going through a major episode at the time, and was also trying to figure my way out of a variety of situations that weren’t working for me.  My intention for therapy then was mostly just the vague hope of making things better.

Now though, I’m not experiencing that sense of misery or flailing that drove me to therapy in grad school for the first time.  For the most part, I actually feel pretty good about things.  I’m very happy with my first year of married life, which gives me a sense of both emotional and financial security that I have never had before.  I feel like I have a non-academic life plan more or less worked out.  This is not to say that it is perfect, or won’t change, but I’m already well upon my escape route from academia, so I no longer feel like I’m stuck in a place that has eradicated my options.  So going to a therapist today feels very different, because I’m not going in and saying…I am so unhappy and don’t know what to do.  I feel much more specific about what I need and want to get.

At this point, I’m recognizing that academia is a very toxic place for me, and no amount of just putting my head down and pushing through it is going to get me across the finish line.  I just cannot spend the next few months working on this thing through tears and misery.  I’m tired of academia making me feel like crap, and I would like a therapist to help me learn ways to get through the last few months in a way that is not destructive to my psyche.  So my intentions here are very specific.  Given that I need to finish this thing, how can I manage my emotions to finish it?  Academia now makes me feel inadequate, guilty, and unhappy–how can I change my patterns of thought to take control of my emotions and deal with the situation in a different way?  And really, I think that learning about this, and talking about it will help me in general.  I tend towards depression and anxiety in general, and whereas academia exacerbates those qualities (thus making it a bad fit for me), I certainly will keep experiencing various forms of shittiness throughout my life.  If i can learn how to better deal with it here, those strategies will certainly serve me later on.

This time around, I’m also way more open to actually  helping myself.  During my first graduate school therapy experience, I didn’t have enough value for myself to put real energy into making things better.  I wanted to stop being so unhappy, but anything more than that felt impossible.  I literally didn’t have enough self-worth to make really working on my issues feel like it was important.  But, I can’t make anybody else’s life better if I can barely function myself.  And this time around, I feel way more ok with doing that.  So I want some helping in finishing this dissertation, and I want to learn how to manage my emotions better, so I am better equipped at both helping myself and others.

The first therapist I saw in grad school didn’t fit at all.  We didn’t really mesh, and her approach didn’t feel right.  The second therapist I went to was much better.  I felt comfortable with her, and it ended up being extremely useful.  I know it is really important to find a therapist that works for you, but I’ve never been quite sure how to do that.  When I went in grad school before, I just went to my university’s counseling center, where you basically end up with whoever has openings.  I found the one I am seeing today rather haphazardly.  I looked online for therapists that specialized in women, and from there found a group that focused more on holistic approaches.  So . . . we shall see how it goes.

Even though I have seen therapists numerous times in my life, and they have always been really helpful, I retain the general apprehension about them.  I feel bad that I can’t just push through my problems and deal with them myself.  I feel alot of first world guilt about not having issues severe or problematic enough to “warrant” therapy.  I conceptually realize that those ideas aren’t useful, but it is hard to get past.  If someone else was in my place now, I would urge them to get some therapy, and yet I feel guilt and shame for doing it myself.

So . . . . that’s what I’m up to today.  I’m about to do some paperwork before heading out to my appointment.  I’ve got some high hopes for it, so I hope it goes well.  We shall see.

An Open Letter to My Husband

Obviously this little missive is inspired mostly by my husband, but also by a blog from Post-Academic in New York.  Her story about the unending support from her husband really resonated with me, particularly in terms of her husband’s mind-boggling calm reaction to the tempest wrought by academic misery (which is exactly the case with my own implacably level-headed husband).  In her words, “So, if you want to know how to survive grad school (or, for that matter, war and pestilence), get a partner that will find absolutely no reason to hate you, dump you, or even speak an angry word to you ever despite all your best efforts to make hir life a living hell.”  Amen sister.

Dear Husband,

I’m sorry that this dissertation is sucking up so much of our first year of marriage.  I hope that one day when I look back, I will see all the good things with you more clearly than the bad things with the dissertation

I’m sorry that I have to spend so much time in front of my computer when I would rather be spending it with you.

I’m sorry that I can’t spend our time together in figuring out what sort of spouses we want to be to each other or how we want to shape our married life.  It sure as hell won’t continue to look like this.

I’m sorry you have to see me sad and miserable so often.  I know it is hard for you, and I know you feel powerless to do much about it.

I’m sorry you get to hear my same litany of complaints and misery every damn day.

I’m sorry that you have to pick up more of the household stuff than is really fair.

I’m sorry that my office is a mess, and I can’t fold my clothes and put them away, and that sometimes I can’t be bothered to make the bed.

I’m also sorry that sometimes I don’t go to the grocery store for awhile, and then when I do, I buy weird things like 3 different types of pickles but no milk or peanut butter.

For the record, I’m also sorry that I keep taking all the spoons for my morning yogurt, and then forget to put them back in the kitchen, making you think that possibly there is an kitchen gnome stealing our cutlery.  You do not seem to really mind, and I appreciate that.

I know that you don’t begrudge me any of this, because you love me and you know our life together won’t always look like this.  And even if it did, I suspect you would probably stay with me anyway.  And I know you wouldn’t want me to feel bad about it.  But academia has taught me to feel guilty and inadequate.

More than anything, I’m sorry that the choice long ago to finish this thing is preventing me from being able to live the sort of life I want to live with you.

I’m thankful that you are always loving and supportive, even when I don’t have much energy to return it to you.

I’m thankful that you don’t seem to mind all the times that I have to work.

I’m thankful that you aren’t impatient with me being continuously depressed and anxious and that you do your best to help me feel better.

I’m thankful that you have a stable job that can support both of us.

I’m thankful that you have health insurance that, amongst other things, covers therapy so I can crawl out of this hole.

I’m thankful that you don’t seem to mind that my financial contributions to our life are going to be small and/or inconsistent for quite possibly a very long time.

I’m thankful that you make it clear that my non-financial contributions to our relationship are significant enough  to make me feel like an equally valuable component of our partnership.

I’m thankful that you are thinking of and planning for our future when I can’t see beyond the narrow confines of the dissertation’s dictatorial control over my immediate moment.

I’m thankful that you are an anchor of stability, and normalcy, and love when such a large part of my life is dominated by irrational, miserable lunacy.

I’m thankful that I met you and married you because I can’t imagine doing this, or anything else, without you.

Love always,

Your Wife

Waking Up

Another awful little morning ritual I’ve picked up is the inability to get out of bed in the morning.  I won’t be asleep necessarily.  I’ll just be laying in bed and staring at the alarm clock.  I won’t decide to just turn off the alarms and sleep for a little longer–I will continue to torture myself with periodic alarms interrupting my  aimlessly lying in in bed.

I have to get up on time actually.  I have to go to the gig-which-assures-I-will-be-employed when I finish.  Actually, I like this gig quite alot.  I stumbled into it by accident, and love (that actually deserves a LOVE in caps and italics) the company and the people, and for the most part I like what I do.  And even things I don’t like as much, I’m learning how to do better, and so I feel more proficient and like doing it more (more on all this another time).  So, I’m not unhappy to get up and go there.  But I am unhappy to get up and know that eventually I will have to work on the dissertation again.

I had avoided working on the dissertation for a few days.  I was exhausted, strung out, and really pissed off.  So, I decided to take a few days away, which resulted in a lovely weekend with the husband, going back to yoga, and starting up this blog.   My psychological undercurrents were pretty fucked up, to say the least, but it really helped to step away a bit.  Yesterday when I began thinking about working on the dissertation I began to cry.  I kept crying when I opened the chapter and started revising it.  I stopped crying for a bit when I took a break to eat dinner and watch some basketball with the husband.  I cried again when I worked on it after dinner and left to go cry in the shower awhile.  I cried in bed while trying to get to sleep.  My eyes still hurt today.

Is this how it’s going to go?  Will I spend my next several months looking at this dissertation through tears?  Really????

I keep trying to remember that this is all temporary.  Eventually it will pass, and I will just look back on it as memory.  But the sheer misery of it now is so overwhelming that it is hard to see beyond it.  Particularly through tears.

The lunacy of the situation is out of control.  If I had a job where a boss made me feel like an inadequate failure, and where I was driven to tears whenever I worked on it, and that made me hate getting out of bed in the morning, I would be looking for a job so fast my own head would spin.  And probably a therapist.  And yet, I persist in trying to finish this thing.

In some ways, continuing to rehearse the ways in which grad school makes me feel like crap and how I want to quit is rather pointless.  I made the decision to leave academia a few years ago, but decided to go ahead and finish the dissertation because I was “so close.”  The idea of being so close to finishing when you’re ABD is hilarious, as tossing another few years into the life sucker is an enormous commitment.  I can’t believe I looked at that a few years ago, and thought–oh, I can polish off a dissertation, no problem.

My difficulty in finishing the dissertation now is bringing up all sorts of issues that had lain dormant since my decision to leave academia a few years back.  At that time, I was incredibly upset, very pissed off, and ready to walk away.  I decided to finish the dissertation so it wouldn’t haunt me; thinking that I could unproblematically get it done so that way I could free myself from ever thinking about it again.

But I can’t dismiss the profound ramification it has had on my life.  My husband recently said that I will have to spend some time recovering from the dissertation after I finish it.  I visualize this as an old-fashioned convalescence where I travel to a seaside town in order to sit in a chair by the water with a blanket over my knees.  Apparently a dissertation is psychological consumption.

I think I’ve realized that I can’t just finish it and forget it. The problematics at the end have stirred up problems I wanted to conveniently ignore and cannot.  Its effect on my life has been too pervasive, too pernicious to brush under the rug with a completed dissertation.  I thought that finishing it would kill it, so I could be free.  But now I’m not sure.  It is more like a sleeping beast that could rouse itself at any minute to torment you.  Here at the end, I realize simply finishing it to forget it, if I even can, might not be enough.

When I first decided to leave, I felt like I was alone, and that my decision to leave academia but finish the dissertation was just about me.  But it isn’t really.  I’m part of a much larger group of people experiencing the same misery, the same confusion, the same anger over buying into a life that would only chew them up and spit them out.  Staying silent and alone pretends like it is some isolated problem that is more about me than about the institution.  There was a time I believed that was true.  I don’t anymore.

Morning Rituals

Another day.

I realize that I have fallen into a horrible habit of starting every day by working myself up into a dissertation-related frenzy.  Before I have even had my first sip of coffee, I have already rehearsed numerous hate-filled imaginary diatribes with my advisor, enumerated the litany of reasons I’m over it, as well as imagined various scenarios in which I dramatically quit.  In all these scenarios, I imagine myself mixing eloquence with profanity in a deadly and unarguable cocktail of undisputed rectitude, but in reality, it probably looks something more like this:

At any rate, it occurs to me that this might not be the healthiest way to start my day.

How it Began

After I graduated from college, I moved back in with my mom for awhile.  She lives in a small town, quite unlike the city where we spent much of our adolescence.  I lived there for two years, and mostly hated it.   It didn’t have a bookstore or a real coffee shop and my sister and I used to drive 45 minutes for Indian food.  I worked 2 jobs and liked them both well enough.  But I felt I was destined for something else. Eventually the siren call of academia lured me away from small town to the university for fame and fortune.  AHAHAHAHAHA.  Ahem.  Anyway.

Now I look back at both of those jobs, and think about how I could have spun a solid, worthwhile job out of either of them.  I’m a little astonished at how blind I was to those early opportunities.  I remember inwardly scoffing when, at a meeting with one of my bosses, ze suggested the value of my job as a future career.  But neither job related to my “major” or to “intellectual pursuits.”  And I persisted in thinking that I was “too smart” for that kind of career. The combined falsity and pretentiousness of that belief still blows me away.

So I left for the Ivory Tower.

I went out of some pompous deep-seated belief that I was too smart to do anything other than academia.  I think I stayed because I didn’t know what else to do.  That and continuing to believe that I should be a professor, a goal based on some vague idea that I liked to teach conflated with a complete lack of knowledge about the realities of work in academia.

I have moments of regretting not staying in either of those jobs.  It would certainly have been more cost-effective to start my career at the age of 23 or 24.  I might have earned raises and promotions and developed a real career.  But I really do believe that had I stayed there, I certainly would have been haunted by the belief that I had missed my calling.  I think that I would have been plagued by some seductive vision of myself as a teacher at some idyllic liberal arts school, imparting wisdom upon my bright-eyed and attentive students.  I think that dream would have made me vaguely dissatisfied my entire life, and would have prevented any full-fledged commitment or joy in any career I could have developed.

If it took going to grad school to cure me of that alluring lie, so be it.  It cured me of my pretention too.  Had I stayed, I would have remained a pompous, dissatisfied melancholic convinced I was working in a job beneath my talents.  Grad school taught me that the life I had imagined had become virtually non-existent, and that I wasn’t nearly as special as I thought.  Eventually my profound dissatisfaction with academia would open up all sorts of new doors to me.  But it took the complete destruction of my ego, coupled with a realization of academia’s broken promise, to make me look for those doors at all.