I start my PhD again at the start of November, after fourteen months out. I’m kind of looking forward to it, and kind of scared, so I thought I’d write about what I’m thinking.
I spoke to my supervisor a couple of weeks ago, and agreed to come up with a plan for how I might address the next seven months, which is the time remaining of my studentship. In theory I can finish by then. In theory.
When I paused the PhD in August 2021 I was tangled up. Tangled in ideas, in processes, in whether my performance of scholarship measured up – to whose expectations, I’m not sure; most likely my own. When I paused, I dropped everything. Looking through my papers feels akin to how it might feel to return to a house hurriedly abandoned, looking around, surveying the damage. I’m finding myself looking at possessions whose purpose is now unfamiliar. Wondering what has been washed away. I have surprisingly little recollection of what it was I was writing about – I remember something about a breakthrough, something to do with play and learning and affinity spaces maybe, but I’m not sure what it was. I wasn’t systematic or methodical in my approach; quite the opposite, in some sort of wilful (or rather, belligerent) resistance to orderly systems which might actually have helped me but which, in my tangle, I perceived as stifling my creativity. That old lie so readily grasped when spiralling out of control.
The months leading up to that point had been gruelling, arguably no more so than for all of us trudging through the pandemic experience, but with some added spice in the form of family illness, family members’ mental health struggles, and my husband, who worked in primary healthcare management, coordinating covid responses and shouldering ever more stress. Everything felt brittle. I remember saying to someone that if my husband had given any indication that quitting the PhD was right, I’d have dropped it in a minute, to escape the feeling that everything would fracture – so he carefully didn’t, until the day when I sat and cried and he said that if it was upsetting me so much then maybe it really just wasn’t worth it. So I did the sensible thing, and suggested to my supervisor that I pause – ‘only for a month, I’ll be fine after that’ – and she said to take three months. That was in August 2021.
At the end of September, I remarked to my husband over dinner that the anxiety seemed to have waned.
Nine days later, he died.
Reader, the anxiety no longer waned.
Now, a year later, I think I’m ready to try again. I know there are things I want to think about and to write about, about making and play and shared learning, and how we develop new skills. I think there’s something worth sharing. My concentration isn’t what it was, though, and even before, it really wasn’t great, with wasps in my head all the time. There’s a theory that ‘early grief’ lasts roughly two years, and given the unexpectedness of what happened, I’ve now had the equivalent of a brain injury. Can I really do this? I’ve tried to write since – a book chapter – and the words slipped and slid while my panic mounted. That was a few months ago though. Will it happen again, wheels spinning in mud while I grow frantic at my stuckness?
I’m trying to remember all the things people say, about how perfect is the enemy of good, and that it’s about persistence, and that all I need to do is to show up at the page every day. This is where I find myself. Onwards and alongwards, I suppose. Let’s see how this goes.
2 thoughts on “Here, again”
I hope it goes amazing, Clare! I am sure your eyes are looking differently, you already said to yourself PhD is not at the center of your life. You know you can quit anytime and you did once; what else can happen? After one of the worsts happened in your life, facing the death of the loved ones we all loose our appetite of living and struggling to find a reason to do things/continue research as everything seems meaningless. But the life is beautiful and your research will be more meaningful than ever when you add one step for those people we had to say farawell. As you will try to complete it I hope it heals you and helps you to close all unfinished works. All the best!
Kudos for coming back to it. My day job is providing administrative support for postgraduate researchers, and it’s surprising how many PhD students experience major emotional and psychological trauma while working on their thesis and have to pause for a while (I often think this fact in itself would make a good PhD research project). All you can do is show up and trust yourself; the words are all in there and will form an orderly queue when they’re ready. Good luck and be kind to yourself.