Category Archives: Mental Health

Four Years, Four Lessons

Today, August 8, 2020, marks the four year anniversary of Black Girl Does Grad School!

 

On this day in 2016, I published my first post, hopefully entitled, “Ravynn Stringfield, (Someday) Ph.D.” I wrote it the morning before I was due to start my first day of training to become an Omohundro editorial apprentice, my first graduate assistantship. From there, I would go on to become the assistant for the Lemon Project, a position I held, and loved, for two years. I left Lemon to serve as a teaching assistant for a film and modernization class and this coming year I will finally get to teach my own 290 course on Black girls and fantasy.

Two weeks after I wrote that initial post and a couple about Omohundro training, I would attend my first grad class. Over the course of two and a half years, I would take fourteen classes: six courses which counted towards my master’s degree (which I graduated with in 2018) and eight that went towards my Ph.D. There were some really fun ones: I loved my Digital Humanities class and Critical Race Theory; I lived for Interracialism and the comics class that I, and a couple of my classmates, begged my advisor to teach. And some were…let’s say, challenging– and not because of the academic rigor.

I’ve come a long way since the first time I used the term “digital humanities” to describe my work in a blog post: from denying what I did counted as DH to taking my first DH class to being wrapped up in a cocoon of love by Black digital humanists at “Intentionally Digital, Intentionally Black.” Then from my first DHSI to consistently proclaiming my identity as a digital human(ist) by showcasing it in my bio and wearing a hashtag on a chain around my neck (Left).

I’ve also come a long way since coursework. Since I finished my last semester in December 2018, I spent a semester reading for comps, I took the exams, defended my prospectus and began writing my dissertation in earnest.

I’m now in my last stretch of grad school, a stretch that could admittedly take a while to get through, but I have faith that everything will work out okay. Four years ago, writing a dissertation was the last thing on my mind as I struggled to figure out how to read at the graduate level, manage my time, and find ways to infuse my work with my own signature flair. But, as I said so long ago:

“But never mind how I got here; the point is, now I’m here.”

So in honor of my four years in graduate school and my four years of this blog, I decided I wanted to share with you four lessons I’ve learned since August 2016:

 

  1. You can chase clout if you want to, but I’d much rather work with someone who cares about me and has my best interests at heart. Picking an advisor is one of the most difficult parts about graduate school. In my early days, I switched about three times, only to land with exactly who they suggested for me to start with. As it turns out, I wasn’t ready to work with her in the early days; but as I matured and figured out who I wanted to be as a scholar, writer and person, I realized I wanted someone who would respect my work as both scholarship and art. Someone who would help me protect my work and find the right homes for it. I found an advocate, and I’m extraordinarily lucky, because some people don’t.
  2. Find your people. And accept that sometimes your people may not be in your program or even at your institution. I have a few folks that I can turn to from my university, but for the most part, when I have graduate school related concerns or need support, I trot to my digital network of peers I have developed over time on Twitter. (Shout out to the Digital Dreamgirls, Allante, Joy and Autumn + so many more.)
  3. Know your audience. Ultimately this advice has saved me so much heartache and grief. The moment I disavowed myself from the notion that my writing had to be all things to all people, I became free. Knowing who you’re writing for, the folks you’d like to serve, can help you focus your work and questions, and also helps you tune out voices who don’t understand what you’re trying to do.
  4. Grad school may be a big part of your life, but it’s not your whole life. You have a whole identity, full of parts who aren’t served or fulfilled by what you do in the classroom or in your research. Make sure you’re tending to those parts of yourself by doing whatever you need to do to feel full. For me, it was yoga, making art, spending time with my family and dog and continuing to write across genres.

*

To all those who have been on this journey with me thus far, thank you.

To all those about to begin their journey, good luck.

And to all: be well.

Learning Limitations

June was a personal trial for me. The murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the resulting protests and national uprising alone were enough to resurrect my panic attacks. The feelings were at least twofold– rage at these lives cut short and relentless fear for the lives of protestors, given the unbelievable reality that we are still living through an unprecedented global pandemic.

I spent the first few weeks of June trying to unravel the knot of difficult feelings that had taken up residence in my stomach, trying to breathe through waves of panic, trying to do anything other than spend most of the day crying.

Because while the world burns, Academia and publishing continues to ask of me, asking for my time and labor and thoughts. In June alone, I edited a book chapter, wrote a book review, wrote most of a journal article, edited my graphic novel manuscript and drafted a freelance reported piece. Many of these pieces popped up near the end of May/beginning of June– I only had a reasonable window of time to complete two of them…if we weren’t living through a pandemic and an uprising.

And while I got everything done in a reasonable time frame, as the month comes to a close, I’ve had some time to reflect on my own limitations.

I have to deal with the fact that though I am someone who likes to keep unreasonably busy– a result of both anxious energy and occasionally hypomania– there still has to be a limit to even my madness. I often come across a quote that says, “You can do everything; just not all at once.” Reflecting on that quote has meant really sitting with my ideas and asking questions of them and of myself: Do you need my immediate attention? Should I let you marinate a while longer? What’s the worst that would happen if I didn’t do this thing right now? How can I slow down? What can I let go of to help me balance this new thing?

 

The last question, What can I let go of to help me balance this new thing?, is very important. If you don’t make a conscious decision, then your work will make it for you. In order to get these side projects done, I had to put aside my dissertation for the month, a decision both my advisor and I thought practical. Practical or not, I was still frustrated that I couldn’t do all the things. I became increasingly agitated when my body wouldn’t cooperate when I asked it to keep pushing and working and going, producing in spite of the all consuming rage I was working against.

 

Finally, I had to stop.

I had to ask myself: Why is it so important that I do everything, right now?

 

And though I frequently talk about this impulse to push and go that is driven by a need for control, I’m always still surprised when that’s the answer that comes to mind.

I need to feel like something is in my control. The thing I’ve always been able to control is my productivity. When circumstances made it so that I was unable to even control my own output, I spiraled out of control.

After some emergency sessions with my psychiatrist, a consultation with a new therapist, an appointment with a somatic practitioner, new medication, more mindfulness apps and a frequently broken social media break, I started to feel more like myself. I was sleeping again. Food didn’t taste like sawdust in my mouth. The pressure that was threatening to burst out of my body had subsided.

I broke down my work into manageable chunks, giving myself plenty of reasonable daily and weekly goals, worked only a few hours a day, and spent a lot of time tending to myself. These days I have found a lot of joy in making art and accompanying my mom outside as she waters her plants in the morning while I enjoy my coffee. I watch Jeopardy! every evening and read for pleasure for about twenty minutes every morning and night.

I’ll be turning in the last of my June projects this afternoon and the marathon writing month will be over. But I have learned a valuable lesson: Know. Your. Limits.

 

The difficult part is that you don’t always know what your own limits are until they’re tested. And I went into June believing that juggling three too many projects was my personal brand. While that may be true, it’s true under very different circumstances.

Moving forward, I think my rule of thumb will be:

  • Only work on a MAX of 3 different writing projects at a time
    • One of them must be the dissertation
  • Stagger deadlines if possible and if you cannot say no to a new project
  • Work according to what your body is telling you it can handle, not what your mind believes your body can handle.

Valuable though the lessons learnt this month may be, I sure am glad it’s over now.

Dissertating During Coronavirus

As you all are well aware, we are in the midst of a pandemic. In a matter of weeks, the coronavirus has redoubled public health and safety efforts, effectively resulting in the seeming indefinite closure of schools and universities, retailers and other places and events where folks congregate. This means conferences have been cancelled or postponed, travel is limited, and teleworking and online learning is the new standard.

There’s plenty to be concerned about: beyond the risk and concerns of contracting the virus, many are worried about spreading it, as we’re learning some folks are asymptomatic carriers; parents and other caretakers are now concerned about how to balance caring for their children and elderly; finding appropriate sustenance and necessities as panic-induced bulk buying cleans out shelves at grocery stores. There are worries about displaced college students having to shelter in abusive homes; acute financial concerns as some people are laid off entirely and losing work, and others having to continue working overtime to support a panicking population; and whether our president will wield this disaster as an opportunity to postpone the election.

And that’s just some of the discourse I’ve seen on the news and around the internet in the last week.

Then, of course, there’s the firm suggestion that we practice “social distancing,” a conscious effort to prevent the spread of the virus, which involves limiting the amount of contact we have with others. Many others are having a much harder time with this than I am, admittedly. Staying indoors, only venturing out for necessities, and entertaining myself with hobbies I can do in the house is pretty much what I do anyway. Plus, as I’ve written before, it’s just me and my dissertation this semester, which means I can write from anywhere as I have no obligations to be physically present at the university.

Rationally, I know not much changes for me, aside from the fact that my dog and I are weathering the pandemic from my parents’ house an hour away from campus. And yet, the low level of panic I typically feel in general on any given day has been turned up from about a 1.5 to a 4, with spikes of acute anxiety throughout the day.

I know I will be okay for a while. I’m safe. I have many of my comforts: my dog, my art, my books, my journals… but I can’t say I’m not unaffected by the many stories that cross my timeline in a day. Folks I interact with regularly online are having graduations cancelled and losing freelance gigs and are already in precarious financial and health situations. It could easily be months before things get back to normal.

It feels…disingenuous to be worried about my dissertation right now. On the one hand, there are so many other, more important things I could be occupying myself with at the moment. But on the other, work has always been my anchor, it has kept me grounded in the midst of personal upheavals. As long as my already busy mind is kept focused on a task, I can minimize the amount of time I spend spiraling into rabbit holes about the world ending.

I can’t say that there’s a “right” response to an international pandemic, but pressuring myself to work on a project that ultimately will end up on a shelf in College Apartments, untouched for decades once finished, just doesn’t seem useful.

What I think is a better idea is striving for some sense of normalcy in these uncertain times. Given that I am already prone to panic and anxiety without the added stress of a global crisis, for me, striving for normalcy will probably mean being more proactive than usual about my mental health and tending myself first, and working when and if I feel like it. I will need sleep, walks with Genghis, time to read, make art, write, to feel okay. I really need yoga, but it looks like my University is working to put some virtual fitness classes in place for us, so hopefully, I’ll be able to tune in with my favorite yoga teachers soon enough.

Most importantly, I think I’ll be reminding myself as often as I can to take some very deep breaths. More often than not, I realize I’ve been holding my breath. I sit up straight and and do some seated cat and cows to release my spine, roll my head on my shoulders, and breathe.

Sometimes that’s all you can do.

Breathe.