On Tuesday I promised that I would share a post with you on Thursday about how to think about writing a dissertation because it is fundamentally different from almost any other writing project you can undertake.
However, if you check our archives that you’ll see there was no post on Thursday.
Started on Monday, now we here.
Yesterday, I had a bad mental health day. It was bad from the time I woke up to right before i went to bed and although there were some good moments in the day the overall day had a lot of unexpected curve balls.
As I was going to bed last night, finally feeling a bit more human, I contemplated just finishing and posting the draft I’d started for Thursday’s topic and hoping y’all wouldn’t notice that I was late.
Lord knows, as a grad student, I certainly used this tactic a time or two with my committee.
When I woke up this morning, though, I thought about all the times that my health had impacted my writing schedule when I was dissertating.
Sometimes it was physical health. Stop me if this one sounds familiar: It’s fall semester/quarter. Your students/classmates have the sniffles. You have grading to do and papers to write and a term to end. You are running on adrenaline and caffeine. You get to the end of the term. Hooray! Now, at long last, you can “catch up” on all that writing you put off while trying to finish things up over the last few weeks. But Lo! The minute you stop running off adrenaline you get sick. Your brain’s too foggy to read. You’re barely awake. You feel miserable and doing anything more active than laying on the couch with Netflix in the background is too damn much.
In interviewing grad students about barriers to their productivity I had dozens of grad students tell me that this exact pattern often ate up at least a week of their planned writing time while debilitating guilt and panic over the idea of catching up took out another week.
Mental health issues are just as debilitating but often more difficult to prevent or treat. For instance, I don’t know why I woke up already in a bad headspace yesterday. I do know that this time of year always exacerbates my anxiety and depression. It could also be residual exhaustion from the Kavanugh hearings and/or the ongoing stress of moving. I don’t know why it happened. I do know that I did all the right things: I used my UV spectrum light to help mitigate the effects of the weather. I took my escitalopram. I did restorative yoga and I called in sick to work. I took care of myself in the best way I knew how and, you know what? It was still just a bad mental health day and the writing did not get done.
Why am I telling you all of this?
Well, first, because if you are in a PhD program and deal with a chronic illness of any type I want you to know that you are not alone and that your dream is not impossible. During my PhD program, I was diagnosed with anxiety and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. I had likely had them for some time before my PhD but they became increasingly debilitating and, therefore, increasingly noticeable throughout my PhD.
My own illnesses were, in fact, part of what inspired this business. I didn’t want people to go through their PhD program thinking they were failing at all the things when they were sick.*
Second, the adage, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is so incredibly true when it comes to health and writing.
Most academics I know tend to think of their bodies as giant meat suits they use to carry books from the library to their office.
But that’s so far from the truth. The origins and perpetuation of that myth are a whole other set of topics. What’s important to know here is that feminist, queer, and disability studies have all clearly proven that our bodies are critical in working with our brain to shape what we perceive and what we think, how we process and how we make meaning.
The thing is, I can’t tell you how to take care of your health and I know there can be some structural barriers to doing that in grad school (like difficulty making an appointment with CAPS which is underfunded absolutely everywhere).
I can tell you that taking the time, daily, to do what works for optimizing your mental and physical health is a long-term investment in your writing.
For me, this often means ensuring that I get between 8 and 10 hours of sleep and doing somewhere between 5 and 20 minutes of yoga.
I can also tell you that even when you are doing your best there will be days when you just can’t write. There will be days when the thing you most need for your health is to stay far away from writing and that’s okay. Those days are, also, an investment in your long-term writing success.**
In summary, if you want to write well then do everything you can to be well–including practicing compassion towards yourself.
*PhDepression is something I foud via Twitter. They are doing some great work talking about mental health in grad school. If you know someone struggling to balance mental health and grad school I would recommend checking them out.
**Loss of interest in things you used to enjoy is a sign of depression. If you find yourself needing to take a lot of days off from writing it might be time to have a loving conversation with yourself about whether your health is in jeopardy or if grad school is still the right path for you. All the answers are ok and you are brilliant no matter what you do.