At the beginning of the month, my 60-day suspension of studies ended. There were a number of factors leading to my decision to take a break, and ultimately while I was nervous to truly step away from my PhD for any period of time, it was exactly what I needed…but there are some words of advice I have to offer for anyone looking to ‘take a break’ be it in an official or unofficial capacity.
My suspension was brought on due to health complications following my latest bout of surgery and treatment for my endometriosis. I had a busy summer- between the PhD, my wedding, a second surgery and other life/uni events taking place, it completely flew by. My new husband left a few weeks after our wedding to go work abroad (where he still is), so after the craziness of the summer where people were constantly around and all the things were happening, I was left alone. I didn’t mind the loneliness at first, I mean I still had my cat, regular meetings, and folk I would see at the office, but I was left with just my own thoughts, however damaging or kind I decided to be to myself that day, and my chronic condition flaring up at random.
In October I ended up put back in the hospital the week before I had a chapter deadline. This completely dismantled any sense of focus and control I thought I had over my PhD and my life, and I ended up mentally spiralling into a very dark place. I struggled to return emails, getting out of bed each day seemed like it was more and more of a chore, and eventually I got to the point I just couldn’t anymore. Between my pain, and the fear of the pain coming back, and letting others down, I mentally and physically checked out.
My departmental review came at the beginning of November, and after having met with my supervisors the week before and having expressed my need to pause (and their complete compassion and understanding in response), I officially suspended my studies for 60 days. To some, this may not seem like much, but as an international student this was all I was allowed without needing to drop my course, leave the country, and re-apply, so I was going to take what I could get. I was used to working hard through adversity- during my Undergraduate degree I held often 3 jobs at once to get by, one of the jobs I worked during my Masters often required overnight shifts. Having to get on with life despite feeling worn down and dragging was not new to me, yet I felt I hit a wall. It made me feel inadequate, and weak, as I knew others around me had it far worse and that just added to the guilt that I should be able to pick myself up and move on.
This harsh self-talk only served to bring me down more and more, so during the first few days of my suspension, I allowed myself to be happy, to be grateful I could pause this one thing in my life to be able to focus on the other issues at hand. Life doesn’t stop for your PhD, but if you need to stop your PhD to focus on your life, don’t take that as a failure. I did at first, and it took me some time to overcome it, but once I did I was so much better off for it.
When my suspension ended I was extremely nervous. What if I wasn’t able to get back into it? What if I can’t do this anymore? Is this worth it? Everyone might have a different realisation when coming back to the PhD after some time off, so I can only speak to my experience.
- For me, I quickly realised that, despite feeling more ‘level’ than I had in months, stress would always accompany thoughts of the PhD. I needed to learn how to manage this stress better, not just assume it would go away after a break.
- A chronic condition is a chronic condition- it, like stress, wont magically disappear just because I had time to rest my mind and body. I took time during my break to learn what made me feel better and worse with my condition, but there would always be things with it I can’t control.
- Easing back into the PhD after some time away is completely acceptable, be realistic about what to expect from yourself. Up until my break I had always aimed high and then felt terrible about myself if I shot low. With the PhD I am realising what works better for me is setting lower, very realistic and manageable expectations for myself, and then being pleasantly surprised and empowered when I met or exceeded those expectations.
- You are you, no matter what you do. Some of us have this idea (maybe falsely put there by films) that we step into a whole different way of being when we progress through things in life, and then are disappointed to find you’re still you…just doing a PhD. You’re still you…just having a baby. You’re still you…just moving flats. You need to be happy with who you are at a base and not expect to become something ‘more’ or ‘better’ as you put yourself through different situations in life.
I am so glad I took the time off I desperately needed to step away from my PhD and reorganise my life, my priorities, and my mentality, so I could deal with the reality of the chronic condition I had and finding myself married but husbandless. I have come back to my PhD finding that, no, it has not gotten any easier, but neither is it as impossible a task as it was seeming before my time off. The road to the PhD is not as straightforward as the pamphlet I imagined in my mind sold it out to be, however I don’t know many things in life that are. Your path is whatever works best for you, and if that means taking a bit of extra time, there is absolutely nothing wrong with putting your wellbeing first.
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