Metaphors

I came up with an analogy today while talking to my psychologist about my most recent difficulties with cognition:

It’s like I’m a magician reaching into my hat to pull out a rabbit, and I can’t find it. I know there should be something there, but I’m just grasping around where I can’t see, to find something I know should be there, and can’t find anything I want. Sometimes I get lucky and pull something out, but usually not what I wanted or was looking for.

Thinking on it more… It’s also kind of like trying to solve a puzzle with a blind-fold on, in a dark room, with the pieces spread out all over the room. You know the pieces are there, but you can’t easily find them, let alone see how they fit together to make a cohesive whole.

Lots of grasping in dark vastness.

Some days there is lots of metal fog, or trying to swim in concrete where nothing moves and everything is stuck, but on the best of days its like groping in the dark.

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Mental Health & Grad School

Depression has been my biggest enemy lately. While we still can’t figure out what is going on with the occasional limb jerks, pins and needles, ocular flashes, GI trouble, and mental slowness and difficulty, it was clear my depression wasn’t making anything better – and likely making things worse.

As I alluded to last post, I’ve taken to seeing a counselor and psychiatrist, which has been a great help. We’ve slowly upped my prozac to 40mg, and it’s like I can breathe again. I hadn’t realized how much my depression was weighing on me the past few years. Even in moments where I thought I was doing better pale in comparison to the interest and motivation I’ve felt in life again the past few weeks.

And its with all of this experience, the reaching a point of breaking down and not making any progress on my degree–in a resolve that my health had to come first–and finally coming up for air again that I realize how unhealthy graduate school can be.

Graduate school is a constant state of pushing. You are always pushing to be working, to be generating, to be doing better. Now, don’t get me wrong, there isn’t inherently anything wrong with pushing, it is good to be driven. But there needs to be reprieve.

But that doesn’t really come in graduate school. As any graduate student if they’ve ever felt “grad school guilt” and they will unanimously answer yes. It’s the guilt of not working on something academic or scholarly at every moment; the guilt of not working on your personal thesis/dissertation research even when you’re working on something scholarly.

It’s fed by some warped notion that you should be doing more. That even though you’ve spent all day working on your assistanceship, in classes, doing homework, working on your personal research, that you aren’t doing enough. And it’s perpetuated by a culture of “we’ve all been there, we’ve all done that.” You rarely get reprieve from advisers, committee members, or even peers. Everyone is feeling the push for more.

When you add this level of guilt to a high level of stress you build a recipe for poor mental health. Now, I’m not saying it’s terrible, but it is something we should be aware of and strive to make better.

As graduate students, we need to be kind to ourselves. We need to accept and respect our limitations and find a healthy way to balance our expectations with what we can do. And when we can’t do something, we need to accept that that’s okay.

Right now I am working doing that myself. I’m working on engaging more with academia and scholarly work. I’m focusing on baby-steps, reading a little here and there when I can, following educational news and other instructional designers on twitter. And when I can’t get something done I’m not beating myself up about it; I’m thinking positive about what I can do and what I did get accomplished. And I am so thankful I am learning the skills to do so, because honestly being easy and kind to yourself is one of the hardest things you can do.

Counseling

The single best thing I have done for my health has been to go to counseling. I see my counselor once every two weeks, and a psychiatrist once a month, and in the short time between now and January it has helped so much.
The only thing that has come close improving my quality of life as much as counseling has was my surgery and the acupuncture that switched my migraines from constant incredible pain to just auras.

That’s not to say its been easy, or counseling has been an immediate fix. It takes hard work and time.

But without counseling I wouldn’t be where I am today. I wouldn’t be feeling optimistic and engaged on a level that I haven’t been in years. Even through the struggles and challenges, counseling is helping me find the tools, resources, and support I need to get through them — and get through them positively.

I am thankful every day for my ability to see my counselor (shout-out J, you’re the best!) and to be able to do so through my university.