On crumpling and uncrumpling – a tale of a PhD in progress

I went for a walk yesterday, and as I walked I thought some thoughts. There’s a phrase in PhDland, ‘take breaks – make breakthroughs’, but all too often it feels like it’s more about ‘have breakdowns – take breaks’. This post is a reflection on my experience of crumpling and beginning to uncrumple myself.

The moor between Kettlewell and Starbotton, Yorkshire Dales

My relationship with my PhD has been problematic for a long time. There’s so much information out there about how to navigate the process, and so many of us talking about our experience of the process, but things have been glitching inside my head for months and months now. Some people suggested having a chat and it ended up with me counselling them for an hour – great, and glad to be of help, but not what I needed. It’s like those trite posts on Facebook, where people say they’ll always be there to listen, and it always, always, requires the person in distress to make the first move, which is, of course, the hardest step to take when you’re in distress. 

I took a week off in March, thinking that would help, but I ended up cramming it full of non-PhD activity, as if I had to Do All The Things before the thesis monster ensnared me again. I’d found myself shouting at a constant inner voice to just shut up already will you, just shut up, but it didn’t. I kept feeling as if I was on a rollercoaster dropping into its big dip. I climbed for several years, and I don’t remember things feeling this vertiginous even when topping out on a big multi-pitch mountain route or sea cliff and peering over the edge. The chatter in my head is always about how I haven’t read enough, I don’t know enough, what am I doing, what’s the point. I’ve left emails unanswered (if you’re reading this, please excuse me – my silence isn’t borne of ignorance). I’ve sat staring at the screen, wondering what I might mean by this or by that. I wonder about theoretical underpinnings, things I thought I’d nailed months, years, before. I wonder how it will ever come together. I fear putting it together and being told to go back and rewrite half of it before submission. I fear time running away while I fret. 

The other thing I’ve found is that no matter how much performative martyrdom happens on academic Twitter, (and lord knows there’s a lot of it), there still seems to be a huge omerta around confessing that one is struggling. If you struggle, you’re weak, right? You can’t take it. You’re not a Good Scholar. You’ll never cut it in academia (who says everyone even wants that anyway?) It’s so easy, at these times, to stare out at the people who are killing it, churning out articles, presenting everywhere, networking away, performing brilliance, and to think ‘bloody hell, I’m really not cut out for this business’. Those people are probably marvellous and will go far, but I don’t know most of them from Adam and their lives have zero impact on mine, except for my habit of looking from my messy insides and seeing their gleaming shiny outsides. 

And then there’s Covid, and the long drab winter, and enormous complicated family things that aren’t for public consumption, and all of that, combined with trying to write findings drawn from my own (autoethnographic) experience, well. It’s all got to be too much. I realised I’d begun to resemble one of those insufferable people who thinks that holiday equals weakness – I hadn’t had a two week break in twelve years. The reality of this is, of course, not quite as straightforward as it seems; for instance, I live in a coparenting household, we have an assortment of pets, and my partner’s job becomes problematic with  breaks of more than a week. But even so. Even so. I downed tools on 31st March, and I’ve gardened, and stitched, and sewn, and wandered, and I’ve read books, drawn pictures, stared into space, seen friends, talked to counsellors. I’ve read about maladaptive perfectionism and have stroked my chin while taking notes. 

Yellow lichen on a rock

So yesterday I walked, and thought, and looked at lichen and lambs and places where the land has slipped down the hillside, and I thought about all the things I know about bite-size chunks and taking it steady, and slowly I began to think about some of the interesting things about learning amateur crafts alongside others, and about how necessary I think the ‘third spaces’ – the open access making spaces of my research – are. I remembered that all my stitching, which is only notionally part of my PhD but which has been the huge personal discovery of my doctoral time, will wait for me. I reminded myself that I don’t have to stop doing everything for the next six months or however long it takes, that time off is as important as time doing. I walked along in the spring sunshine and I felt better than I have in probably eighteen months. Reader, it was quite the revelation. 

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