Category Archives: Mental Health

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.

Creating and Maintaining My Wellness Routine

At the beginning of the semester I wrote a post about rediscovering my wellness, detailing my not so great habits that led to a sedentary lifestyle, my descent into poor eating decisions, and what I intended to do about it. Six weeks after committing to some of the changes I laid out in the same post, it’s time to do a wellness check in.

When I added yoga classes to my semester timetable, I was unsure how this would all play out. I had no idea that after just a few classes I would have the Yoga Bug. Six weeks and nearly twenty classes later, it feels weird not to do a few poses even if I don’t have a class scheduled for that day. One of my new favorite things is showing off my new poses to my parents, who are increasingly shocked at how difficult some of them look. As a result of my 3-4 times a week practice schedule, I look and feel stronger, my mood is stable, and I’m proud of my diligent work ethic.

If I could recommend yoga to everyone, I would. My current practice includes Yin yoga one hour per week and two Vinyasa classes. I also took a four week “Intro to Yoga” mini series, where I got to practice foundations and learn modifications to poses that help me feel more confident practicing in class settings. However, there are lots of things that don’t necessarily make yoga classes accessible or comfortable for everyone. Classes are free for me as a student on a campus, but not everyone has that luxury. Stereotypes about yoga are stereotypes for a reason: classes typically are filled with thin white girls, which often makes me feel hyper visible and acutely aware that I cannot wrap my arm around my big thigh to come into Bird of Paradise like everyone else can. And, truthfully, who really has the time to go to classes?

Of course, there’s always the option to do YouTube yoga classes or find studios that cater towards folks of color, if you’re in an environment where that sort of thing might be possible, but there are so many limitations. In terms of finding time for wellness practices, I do have actual suggestions. Sitting down at the beginning of the semester to block out my regular obligations on paper helped me see how much time I truly had to do my own thing. I started with blocking out time I knew I had to devote to TA’ing: I blocked out lectures, discussion sections, meeting times, and office hours. From there I added regular meetings and appointments. Then I was left with a lot of space. I saw where I could insert an hour practice here and another there. Once I was satisfied, then I added regular dissertation work time. I think for the average PhD student, we tend to work around our writing, but I realized that if I was going to commit to my wellness, my priorities had to shift. Writing would fit into my predetermined schedule, rather than be a monster that took up all of my time like an inescapable dark void.

To be sure, I have made other changes as well. Really, it’s making decisions every day that lead up to a lifestyle change. I have been working on developing boundaries between my work life and my home life, which means that if I can help it, grading stays in my office. Do I always honor that? Absolutely not, but I try. I limit my consumption of fast food and do small, weekly grocery hauls so that I always have fresh and good things to eat at the house, even if I don’t feel like cooking. I also rejoined the Mindfulness Meditation group that I was a part of last year to encourage regular meditation practice.

It’s worth remembering that even though I was shaken into a recognition that I was failing myself and my own health, these are the things I needed to do for myself anyway. Yes, I am an overworked graduate student and that by itself comes with a load of stressors that wellness practices can help, but I also live with Bipolar II disorder. Managing moods has always been…a task. I often walk through the world as if a fog has settled right over my face and I can’t see beyond the joy or sadness, whichever, or whatever, is present in that moment. It’s super cliché, but when doctors tell you moving and exercise will help your mood, it actually will. I’ll be perfectly honest, I never wanted to do that. I hate exercise. But between yoga, being properly medicated, and eating better foods, I’ve never felt more clear-headed.

While I’ve spent most of this post being a walking advertisement for yoga, I do want to acknowledge the fact that it’s really difficult for some people to enjoy for a whole host of very valid reasons. And beyond that, finding a good yoga studio, teacher, and specific practice can be very much like finding a good therapist. Some teachers’ methods of practicing will really resonate with you, and others will turn you off. You have to be willing to try a few varieties to know what you enjoy doing: you may love the fast movement Vinyasa but find Restorative Yoga entirely too slow. And you might like a teacher and their class, but the studio might not feel welcoming. All of that is okay.

What’s most important is developing your wellness toolkit. Right now, mine includes yoga, good eating, meditation, journaling, art and warm comfort drinks, but do know that you should regularly attend to your wellness toolkit. Think of them as seasonal. Things that work for you right now, may not work for you in six months. Update as needed. Do things that help you keep in tune with what your body needs from you. It’s hard, but let me tell you, it’s well worth the effort.