When You’ve Hit the Wall: Thoughts on Exhaustion

This week, blogger Vesna Curlic takes us through a tour of the full gamut of exhaustion metaphors, in an attempt to think about overworking and rest. If you’ve hit the wall, or you’re at the end of your rope, or if you’re running at a breakneck place, or….

Last night, I went roller skating. This is one of my favourite hobbies, my solace from the busy schedule of the PhD, and I try to get to the rink at least a few times a month. I had only been skating for about two minutes before I tripped over my own skates and dramatically faceplanted forward. I walked away with just some sore muscles, a bruised knee and bruised my ego, but it still threw me for a loop. I was so annoyed with myself – I hadn’t fallen in months! How could I have tripped over my own skates?! It’s not like they’re new skates! As I sat on the bench on the side of the rink nursing my wounded pride, I started to rethink my fall. It wasn’t just that I put my skate in the wrong place at the wrong time. I also didn’t warm up like I usually do. One of my skates felt a bit loose because I rushed through lacing them up. I hadn’t practised in a few weeks.

I appreciate you bearing with me – I promise this will turn out to be about academia in a second. As I reflected on it more, I realised that my fall hadn’t been about just the fall. It had been about a long series of decisions I made before that fall, all of which meant that I was off balance when I finally got on the rink. And this is where the post becomes about academia. Academia works at a breakneck pace which means that sometimes, we’re forced to make a series of decisions that don’t prioritise breaks, rest, and warming up. When we do that for an extended period of time, we end up hitting an academic wall.

In my experience, hitting an academic wall feels a lot like falling on one’s roller skates (apologies for the egregious mixing of metaphors). They are similar because I can rush through things for a while, until I can’t, at which point I find myself flat on my face, with the wind knocked out of me. Also, once I finally do fall, I’m stuck recuperating with a metaphorical sore knee for days, more than making up for all the resting time I avoided. My body will force me to take the time I was unwilling to take before.

This article is a bit of a downer, and needs as many cheerful flowers as possible to counteract.

I always feel a bit silly for needing all the rest I need. Sometimes it feels like all my peers wake up earlier than me, work in the evenings, and work all weekend, which I don’t do. I work in the evenings sometimes, but never more than once or twice a week. I’m rarely awake before 7 and never at my desk before 8:30 (usually not before 9:30, honestly). I usually spend my evenings and weekends seeing friends, watching TV, cooking dinner, reading for fun, and listening to the radio. I can give these restful habits up for a while, but sooner or later it catches up with me. Sometimes I am so overwhelmed with deadlines and commitments that I start working myself to the bone, working on the weekends and at night. Of course, at the end of a week or two of working like that, I find myself utterly incapacitated for days – either with stress or with illness, having caught whatever flu was floating around. It’s right around this point where I start fantasising about going to some kind of seaside institution for a prolonged rest cure, where my only responsibilities would be brisk walks by the sea and crafts like needlepoint.

Am I particularly bad at regulating my work schedule? Am I uniquely unable to find a good working balance, finding the place between boredom and overwork? I might be. But I also think part of this is inevitable in academia (and maybe in other sectors, too!). The seasonality of academia means that deadlines often cluster. Moreover, the particular precarity of doctoral research means that many of us are often wearing multiple hats at once, trying to do it all. I think this must be a problem that goes beyond just me, though I admit I might not help things by chronically overcommitting myself to interesting opportunities.

I can’t really give advice to close out this post, because I haven’t figured things out myself. I’ve written before about creating a routine that works for you, but that’s exactly the kind of thing that goes out the window as soon as life gets really stressful. The only bit of advice I’ve ever found useful when I’ve hit a wall goes something like this: “If you’re juggling too many balls in your life, you have to know which ones are rubber and which ones are glass.” Essentially, some things will bounce back, while other things will shatter if dropped. I think the conventional wisdom is that things like loved ones and health are glass balls, whereas work is a rubber ball. This is a cliché, yes, but one that I find very soothing in difficult times. Most things in life will be okay if you drop the ball. I hope if you’re currently running at a breakneck pace towards a metaphorical wall, you can take this as permission to prioritise yourself.

If you would like to contribute to the SGSAH Blog, please email Vesna (vesna.curlic@ed.ac.uk) with your idea.

Vesna Curlic is a PhD researcher in History at the University of Edinburgh and current SGSAH Blogger. Her thesis project considers the relationship between disease, disability, and the British immigration system in the early twentieth century. More broadly, her research interests include the history of medicine and science, modern immigration law, and public health policy. She splits her time between Edinburgh and her hometown of Toronto, Canada.

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