I’ve wondered whether to close down this blog entirely, because I haven’t been writing here. I tend to write when I feel free, and excited, and curious, experiencing new things. And for a few years now I haven’t been free or excited or curious, and the new things have been scarier than ever before, while the old things have had elements of the new but in ways that… the more I get familiar with a place, the less I feel permitted to talk about it. I end up suspending in a weird place between being foreign and new and allowed to show that childlike curiousity about everything, and on the other hand a sort of desperate attempt at assimilation that I’m doomed to fail at, which makes me reticent to reveal the things I should know but don’t.
So I turned to Instagram, because I still love photography, and because I finally bought myself a new DSLR (thanks, Dad, for the birthday money!), and because Instagram’s special gift is the conciseness of photo blogging where I can write as much or as little as I want and am capable of.
Which has been great for me, because although I’ve always been an extremely verbal person, during the past few years words have failed me.
It turns out that stress, anxiety, and burnout aren’t just emotional issues but have physical and cognitive effects. That makes sense to read, but I didn’t fully understand how serious it could get until it happened to me. I’ve always been a sort of anxious, melancholy type person (although I think this is pretty well concealed, most of the time?), but when things started falling apart at work, it bottomed out. I blamed myself for a lot of things that weren’t my fault, and a lot of it had to do with information being hidden and less-than-ethical decisions being made so that it was difficult to tell what the reality of the situation was. It’s a long story–suffice to say, I felt trapped, I felt like I didn’t understand what was happening, and I assumed, for a long time, that the problem was just that I wasn’t working hard enough.
In academia, there is little time for burnout, common as it is. You’re always thinking eighteen months ahead, always applying for things, always got a handful of projects on the back burner, always trying to keep up with the cutting edge. It’s exhausting in the most supportive of situations, and I still look back with amazement about how lucky I was to get the PhD experience I had. There’s a bit of survivor’s guilt, in fact, about how good I had it, and I really believe that’s what protected me from burnout up till now. But the higher you fly, the further you’re able to fall, and I’ve been feeling precariously balancing on the tip of my ambitions for a while, like that game where you stand on a log hitting each other with giant Q-tips until one of you falls. I’ve been feeling my imposter syndrome poking me in the back for a decade already, whispering in my ear What if this is it? What if your glass ceiling is actually made of stone? What if this is as far as you can go?
I had three months in Finland waiting for my visa after I defended my PhD. It was technically unemployment, I guess, but I also saw it as an unpaid vacation. I worked on hobbies, I hung out with people. I thought that was a great break to let me rest up and start my new job fresh. I was wrong.
The thing about burnout is that it’s not about the work. If it was, then only people like surgeons and police officers and engineers and teachers and social workers would get burnout. Only people whose jobs are objectively difficult and who work long hours and who have a ton of responsibility. When I started researching it, I learned that burnout is about stress and instability. It’s about feeling unfulfilled, trapped, unappreciated, unimportant, doing too much of one thing, even if it’s something you love. Even if it’s something you believe in, even if it’s something rewarding. And taking on other people’s stress and emotional instability makes it worse, which explains the high rate of burnout in helping professions. We only have so much energy to put into our jobs–we need to take care of ourselves, too.
I thought there was no way I could have real burnout. I don’t work in a helping profession. I supervised a couple of students, but I wasn’t responsible for teaching. I worked long hours but they were flexible and for the most part ultimately up to me. I love what I do, and no one dies if I screw up. I like many of the people I work with. Surely I can’t have burnout?
Then the cognitive symptoms started, and I got scared.
I consider myself a pretty quick thinker. We can talk about how that’s due to the privileges of a wealthy public school district and a “neurotypical” brain and supportive parents. But that’s been my experience in the past. I have all the little slips of the mind that most people do: I walk into a room and forget why I’m there, I forget milk at the grocery, I use lists and calendars to help me organize a complicated modern life. But I can also multitask and solve complex problems and talk about complicated things and have intense discussions.
The first thing that bothered me was that I had to use notecards when giving a talk. I realize that a lot of people use notecards, but I prefer not to. I find that I speak much more naturally and convey ideas better when I’m moving them around in my mind rather than trying to connect my brain to an interface of notes while giving a talk. My approach has served me well, I think; during my PhD I taught a class with 90-minute lectures and zero notes. In January 2019 I was supposed to give a 20 minute talk and I realized I didn’t understand the slides I had made. So I wrote down my entire talk, word for word, and printed it out and taped it to note cards. And for the very first time in my entire life I read out a talk.
Then I noticed that I would walk into a room and forget why I was there, and then forget what I had been doing previously. And then forget why I was holding a pen. And then forget what time it was and what I meant to do that evening. Forget if I had eaten dinner. The things I forgot formed a labyrinth around me as I lost my place in the world, mentally backtracking until I could find something solid to hold on to. Thoughts left my mind as quick as they came, so if I didn’t write them down immediately, I lost them.
I lost muscle memory, which was a strange feeling. I took my contact lenses out and put them in their case. And then forgot to put in the lens solution. Five days in a row. I’ve been wearing contacts for sixteen years. I forgot how to tie my shoes, I put my clothes on backwards. I would take a shower and forget to wash my hair or rinse out the shampoo, leave things in strange places around the flat. I went for weeks without milk for my coffee, because the shop had run out of the usual milk I bought and I couldn’t gather the executive function to find a substitution. I obsessively googled things– people I knew, events, facts–I didn’t trust anything my brain produced and had to triple check all information.
I would check what day it was, what time it was, repeatedly, before scheduling anything. The numbers somehow didn’t look right, so I wasn’t sure if I was reading the time correctly. I sent the wrong information to people even when it was right in front of me to copy down. I made typos I’ve never made before and sent documents without noticing they were there. The graphemes just sort of blurred together like a reflection in a muddy puddle. I lost words and mixed them up, often phonetic substitutions like “interest” for “difference.” I talked slowly, losing the train of thought and having to pause to find words. I checked and double checked things multiple times; as soon as the information wasn’t in front of me, it was like I had never checked it in the first place.
The brain fog was the strangest feeling. I spent whole days staring at an article, unable to understand anything in it. I read the same sentence over and over again, without being able to extract anything useful from it or link the concepts to anything else. I would open a spreadsheet, taking ten minutes to find it in folders that are usually organized in a logical way, and dated appropriately. (But what is the date today? What is the most recent version? If today is the seventeenth, was the fifteenth or the twelfth the latest version?) Then I would forget what I was going to do with the spreadsheet, and sit for another ten minutes staring at it and trying to remember. Throughout all of this there was a strange physical pressure in my head, with a low buzzing vibration, like my skull was packed full of cotton balls. The pressure came from inside, and it was a hot, scratchy pressure that physically hurt. It was a claustrophobic feeling, like not being able to breathe in a hot, crowded elevator with ten other people. I tried to stretch out my jaw, crack my neck, use an ice pack, drink three cups of iced coffee, go for a walk, but nothing helped. There was no getting away from it. It took up all the senses, creeping into vision like the focal length of my eyes had shortened–I had no peripheral vision and had to expend an enormous amount of effort to focus on anything. If you’ve never experienced it, fog might seem poetic, but it’s literal. It’s like your eyes and your brain and your sensory perception are all unfocused, lost in a fluffy dense cloud like a vignette effect on a photo. You start thinking it’s always been that way, and why bother trying when it’s just so hard to do anything? Physically moving is like walking in a pool of molasses. Everything hurts, everything is exhausting. The world moves so quickly, it’s safer just to stay here, hidden, not even bothering to watch, too difficult to listen and keep track of anything, including time. Falling backward into unconsciousness and not making any effort to engage. It starts to feel like you’re outside the timeline, like things in the world are continuing without you and you’re just sinking in a void that has no time, no solid space. It feels like the world is a little unreal, and maybe you’re a little unreal too, and why bother thinking about any of it?
There was a time when I wasn’t able to cook anything more complicated than pasta with store bought sauce. I couldn’t even look through the cookbooks I own or the recipes I’ve saved from Instagram, couldn’t put together a grocery list, couldn’t figure out the necessary timing for meal planning or put together lunches. Thankfully my veg box company rolled out a great line of recipe boxes around that time, and I could just about choose between 8 options and follow one of the simpler recipes when all the ingredients were delivered to my door. Still, even months later, I found myself struggling to follow a simple recipe and hold a conversation at the same time.
I was irritable, I was constantly sad and anxious. I faked a cold for months so I could cry at my desk without being asked about the sniffles. I started working from home because of anxiety. The little office that used to be just mine suddenly had two other people and we were elbow to elbow at our computers. It was stuffy, and depressing, and the silence punctuated by typing and sighing was deafening. Every time I tried to get work done in the office I couldn’t breathe, my hands started shaking. I couldn’t sit still. There was a pressure in my throat. I’d have to get up and walk around the floor, or hide in the bathroom. But when I went back to the office the pressure in my chest welled up again.
I’m still waking up gasping several times a week, and still relying on the recipe boxes for a good portion of my meals. My flat is untidy and several of my plants are dead. The packing and getting rid of things in preparation to move is daunting, and I feel that familiar sense of having no privacy as there’s flat viewings several times a week. There’s a bunch of cardboard recycling stuff in my hall closet because I haven’t been able to wrap my mind around taking it out to the recycling bin. I’m still forgetting things, still double checking things, still slow. But the brain fog is better. It’s still there, but it’s slowly being burned off. I can physically see the fog clearing. I can focus on multiple things, with effort, and my peripheral vision is back. I understand most of what I read. I can give sustained attention. I have ideas again, I want things again. The cottony pressure is mostly gone. And I’m getting help.
The great thing about a blog like this is that it’s purely selfish; even though I know it’s out there on the internet, it feels like talking to myself in the mirror. I’m not beholden to anyone’s publication schedule, I don’t make any profit from it. Few people read, if any at all. And that’s how I like it, I guess. It keeps me from getting anxious and wondering if my photos are good enough (they aren’t), if my writing is witty enough (it isn’t) or if it’s too long (definitely) or if it’s pointless because I’m just another rambling self centered millennial putting their whole life online. Well, I for one enjoy reading about normal people and their lives, their thoughts, their worries. I spend a lot of time wondering if my internal life is normal or “right,” and it helps to hear what other people are going through and how they choose to deal with it.
I’m starting to realise that there are a lot of rules and restrictions that I put on myself that don’t apply to other people, and maybe the permission to be honest is one of them. Honesty is why I return to yoga and to the forest, two places that force you to reckon with your inner and outer self. Yoga insists that I let go of judgement, twist and bend and press up against the limit of my ability in public, and at the same time take responsibility for keeping myself safe. Recently I attended my first long yoga workshop, three hours. At the end I chose not to do a headstand, knowing that I needed more guided preparation than was planned for that session. My teacher instead guided me into a pose that I slowly realized used exactly the same muscles and balance as the headstand but protected my weak spots.
Just before Christmas I went on another hike in Surrey. When I first moved here I had grand illusions of hiking the Cotswolds and Chilterns, and then everything happened and I needed to find something less stressful. I got really fond of Box Hill, conveniently the perfect day hike up and down through the forest, around the pastures, over the top of the heath, through the village and past the old churchyard. Nine hours from door to door, including two hours on the train and an hour to the trailhead. The problem was, there were only about seven hours of daylight and fewer in the forest. But I know the trail. I know my pace. I had food, water, light, noise, first aid, warm clothes and a charged phone, I know where the pubs are and where the cliffs are. So I trusted myself and made it back to the lookout point in perfect time to a glorious sunset.
I guess my point is that while FOMO is a real thing, you don’t miss out on anything by protecting yourself. In fact, the world is capable of accommodating you, and you are capable of more than you think. The choice between safety and ambition is a false dichotomy; you can strive and try and work and risk and still be okay in the end.
And uncertainty isn’t a flaw, it’s a feature. That’s another thing I’ve learned from yoga and the forest. Trees bend and shift and change to survive; being a tree involves shaking and wobbling to stay upright. But that wobbling strengthens the tiny muscles of your feet that keep you from falling. Wobbling is not a flaw, it is strength.
And maybe there’s something, too, about the need for both light and dark to keep balance. I’ve struggled with having met such wonderful people under such difficult circumstances, and it makes me sad that we can’t all just live together in the same happy utopia. But the shadows make me appreciate them all the more.
I’m still coming to terms with the wobble, and I’m still tired and scared and slow. But I’m looking forward to summer.