Drowning, or In Need of a Flotation Device

I have a serious case of the Mehs, or what I am thinking of as Lockdown Ennui. I mean, we’re not technically in full-on lockdown anymore because we can get haircuts and buy all the shoes, if we so desire and feel a bit reckless with our health in being out and about. But, we still are living small lives, with no visits to friends and family, none of the usual work-related travel, and way, way too much time in front of computer screens trying to create engaging learning experiences for our students, and ourselves. It’s freaking exhausting. And strange, oddly lonely, unsettling. Perhaps the worst thing, for all of us, is the uncertainty. There is this new ‘normal’ now, and we don’t know when, or if, that will end. What will our lives look like when the coronavirus has finally been brought under control? We’re not built to not know – humans need answers, and plans, and dates and deadlines. We need to know. And we do not. Not right now, anyway.

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This uncertainty – for me, anyway – seems to be creating a listlessness. I have SO much to do – I feel I am drowning in supervision, and marking, and feedback-needed-please, and consulting work, and my own research (which is pretty much permanently on hold right now), and admin, and online teaching. But, instead of being industrious and focused and knocking off the to-dos every day, I do a few things and then tell myself I am too tired to do more, even though it’s barely past lunchtime. I work from about 9.30 until about 2, and then I knit, and scroll through my Twitter feed, and indulge a mild panic about all the work I should be doing but can’t seem to actually make myself do. And then when I do the Big Things, the things that require Thinking, I feel like I have done nothing of any consequence. I don’t quite recognise, or understand, my work self right now.

I feel at a loss as to how to help myself out of this. I find myself longing for some kind of legitimate reason for being so flaky about work, like a mild illness (but not corona, or anything serious). The bronchitis I wrote about the last time I had the energy to blog turned out to be asthma that was out of control and on the wrong meds. I’m on the right meds now, and apart from the odd bad day where my chest is tight and the stairs seem like a mountain, I’m better. So, I can’t actually lie around in my PJs and cough pathetically and have everyone fuss over me. I have to Adult, and work, and be Responsible for All The Things.

I see all over Twitter that I am so not alone. So many people are tired, Zoomed-out, frustrated. My lovely colleagues respond to my apologies for late email replies and requests for extensions with kind emails and Whatsapp notes telling me to be kind to myself, that we are all in the same boat, that this is hard on everyone and it’s okay. But it doesn’t feel okay. It feels like a slippery slope, to me. The more I stop work at 2pm and cite tiredness to myself as a reason, and then follow that with: ‘It’s okay, we can try again tomorrow’ (in a kind voice), the longer my list of work gets, and the greater the likelihood of more emails to students and peers, apologising and asking for more time, and feeling (and looking) like a flake. This is not a feeling I like, and letting people down – even if they are kind about it – is not something I like to do.

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I’ve written posts in the past about how to get yourself out of a funk and get writing, and reading, and thinking again. I know cognitively what I need to do. Take all the tasks and create a realistic daily list. Break it down into small chunks, smaller tasks. Not all the assignments, just 2 at a time. Not all the reading, just a paper at a time. I know all of this. But knowing a thing and being able to do the thing are not always the same thing. External deadlines from people I cannot let down really help, but they skew my list because I end up pushing down other things that have been languishing for too long and need to be finished. I end up feeling a bit flat before I have even started. But start I must, and finish I must.

There’s no moral or magical learning here. Just, solidarity, I suppose. If you, like me, have ennui, and the Mehs, and feel like everyone around you is Adulting like a pro and there you are longing for your PJs at 1pm on a Tuesday afternoon, or harbouring fantasies of spraining a wrist so you legitimately cannot type anything. I don’t think we are all in the same boat. Our boats are very differently filled with kids and families and pets and care work and loneliness and everyone in your space and no one in your space and good wifi and bad wifi and no wifi, and so on. But, we are all in our boats in the same sea, paddling against this strange new tide that is moving us into a really uncertain and unknown future, an uncertain university and learning space, an uncertain job and career space.

Socially distanced boats heading into the unknown; Photo by Humphrey Muleba from Pexels

Take care, be safe, wear a mask, social distance, wash your hands, be kind to others, and hang in there. Perhaps, for now, that’s all we can do; that and get some freaking work done!

PhD fatigue

So, I have written and submitted the first draft. It is a huge achievement because I can see that this really will get done now; I will finish this year. But reaching this milestone has meant working every day, seven days a week (for at least part of each day) for the last month or so at least. Which means I have not really had weekends or evenings to just chill out, and even when I have been chilling I have been unable to get my mind to stop running over ¬†arguments and data and possible conclusions and changes I need to make and clever turns of phrase to add here or there and on and on. And even though the draft is in, it is far from done – the conclusion is not finished because I literally ran out of steam, my brain unable to continue to create coherent sentences or thoughts any more, and there is still a lot of ‘panelbeating’ to do on the thesis before I will feel okay enough about it to sign it away to my examiners. And that makes me feel tired too; the anticipation of more work and more thinking to come.

And I am tired. More tired than I feel I have ever been, particularly in mental terms. I have kids, so I know fatigue well. But that kind of physical and emotional fatigue feels different to this. My brain feels like it has been replaced with woolly stuffing, and I feel kind of fuzzy around the edges, not sharp, not clear. I forget words and I can’t type straight. I think words that come out differently when I type them or write them down, and there are so many typos in everything I am trying to write this week that I need a lot more spellchecker help than usual. My brain feels untrustworthy right now because it forgets even the simplest things, like calling the plumber or why I wrote ‘notes’ on my TO DO list (what notes?) or why I went into the kitchen. This is an odd feeling for me. I’ve always been a writer and a reader and someone who thinks a lot about things (probably too much, some would say) so my brain and I have always been close; I have always trusted it far more than any other part of me, like my heart or my gut. But now, at this point in this PhD journey I find it has gone all fluffy and marshmallowy and I cannot really count on it to remember things or to get things right. It doesn’t feel good.

I am sure this will not be a permanent condition – once the final draft is handed in and I have had a long holiday over Christmas and New Year doing little more stressful than laundry or baking or reading in the hammock, I am sure my brain and body will rest and recover and I will start 2014 with a sharper, clearer brain. But now, in the middle of this, I feel like I will never really completely get rid of this tiredness, this feeling of fuzziness. I was totally unprepared for this. I thought I would feel tired and strung out at the very end, not now when I still need to keep going and thinking and writing. I worry that I don’t have enough in me to finish the revisions really well, and that I will make silly changes and not be able to see these errors before it’s too late and the thing is out of my hands. I hope I will find it in me – I must – but boy, this is one part of the PhD process people are awfully quiet about. Maybe, like pregnancy and childbirth, people can tell you how it was for them, and it could be like that for you or it could be very different. I am putting this out there anyway, because it may be like this for you, or it may be different. Either way, it would have been nice to be a little more prepared. Onwards I go, but maybe a nap first -_- .