For a long time, my self-care has been an afterthought, and it felt like things were just happening to me, rather than me making anything happen – like I was in the ocean with waves crashing over me, but I wasn’t swimming (I love a good simile). I’m not sure how or when even I got to this point, but I do know that it was some time during my postgraduate career. I have also learnt the hard way that this is unsustainable, and at some point, the waves will come crashing down and you’ll start to slip below the surface.
This is what has happened to me in the last couple of months. I’ve been sinking, not swimming. Every day was an uphill battle, trying to motivate myself to get things done, to keep moving forward. My mood was worse than it had been in years. There were some external factors that did contribute, but ultimately they were just triggers to bring up something that had been going on for years: putting myself second. I had been pushing forward for so long that somewhere along the way, I left myself behind. I was at the point where I didn’t even have the energy to brush my teeth or shower; every ounce of energy I had went towards doing what I thought was more essential, getting my PhD done. But it had reached the point where I felt like I just couldn’t keep going.
I had two options: fight, or flight. Things were so bad that for a time I did consider flight – just giving up and going home, putting my PhD behind me, unfinished. But I knew that this wasn’t the right decision – however difficult it was going to be, however painful, I had to fight.
Fighting is never an easy option. It takes strength that you feel like you don’t have, and somehow, from somewhere, you have to muster up the courage to fight for yourself. This is not something that I think comes easily to anyone, but especially when you have depression, the idea that you matter is almost laughable. You just don’t care enough about yourself to want to push to feel better. Matt Haig described it best, I think: ‘if you have ever believed a depressive wants to be happy, you are wrong. They could not care less about the luxury of happiness. They just want to feel an absence of pain’ (Reasons to Stay Alive, p. 18). This is what I was feeling, even when I was at a level of ‘okay’, at 0 on the graph of mood, neutral, that felt like enough. Happiness, while attractive, seemed like a pipe dream – I was just grateful that I was able to get through each day.
But after dipping lower, I realised that this isn’t what I wanted my life to be, oscillating between ‘terrible’ and ‘nothing’. At the bottom, I realised that things hadn’t looked very much better at the ‘top’. Yes, I had been able to do my PhD, and work, and everything else that life had thrown at me, but I was never happy about it. I just did it because there was no other option.
I decided enough was enough. Medication had been vital for me in reaching that ‘okay’ level, but, as I found out, if you don’t push to get any higher, to look after yourself instead of letting the medication do it for you, ‘okay’ will start to be less and less … okay (not to mention that medication tends to have a ‘blunting’ effect, so that, although you don’t feel the lows, you don’t feel the highs either). So, somehow, I summoned the will to take care of myself, to take back control. I went back to counselling; read books about how to get through depression, anxiety and stress; tried mood journaling; put self-care back into my daily routine (brushing my teeth, showering, skin care, painting my nails, putting on make-up, going for walks alone); and I made a conscious effort to dress better, to improve my confidence and self-image. A lot of this was occasioned by happening upon Queer Eye on Netflix (side note: I thoroughly recommend Queer Eye to everyone, especially PhD researchers. It teaches you that you are good enough as you are, but that you can also strive to do the best that you can and to be the best version of yourself possible by taking care of yourself, inside and out – something I think every PhD student needs to hear).
I’m not going to lie – at times this has been exhausting, and I have faltered along the way. Right now, I am sitting at my desk, not looking or feeling the best version of myself. I’m actually struggling to write this, as it feels kind of hypocritical with how I’m feeling at the moment. But it’s okay to not feel okay right now. Change isn’t going to happen overnight, and there will be bumps in the road. What is most important now is that I have realised that I need to take care of myself, and that I have come out of the fog of muddling through, not caring about whether I’m truly happy.
I urge every person reading this to really consider whether you have truly put yourself and your happiness first lately (particularly if you’re in academia, chances are that you haven’t). It’s not selfish or vain to do so – it’s vital. Don’t feel guilty about taking a step back from your work to refocus on yourself, or feel weak for admitting that you might be struggling. As hard as it might be to acknowledge, you are more important than your work. Make sure you don’t lose yourself along the way.
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