And so this was Christmas…

December 31, 2009

Despite the lack of Christmas cheer I was experiencing at the time of my last post, I had a lovely christmas. I hope you all did too, and that those of you going through difficult times found some comfort from the people around you. That’s kind of what this post is about. A bit of a reflection about the people I spent Christmas with. I missed J lots, of course. He went to his dad’s over Christmas (next year we are hoping to spend christmas in the same part of the country although our flat is too small to entertain in and blah blah blah).

Anyway, I went home to the small Yorkshire village I grew up in, and although there are always a few ghosts of your sixteen year old self to contend with when you go home for christmas, I find that these days I can sit round the table with those ghosts in companiable silence. I no longer feel an uncomfortable ache of nostalgia for the person I used to be then. Well. Mostly.

And how can you fail to feel Christmassy driving home for Christmas in this?

Up North

Or waking up in your childhood bedroom on Christmas eve and looking out of the window at the snow.

The village hasn’t changed much. It still has one shop, two pubs, a chip van and, bizarrely, a football ground.

This is where I grew up. It’s beautiful -I just never realised that when I lived there.

I took this picture of the Emley Moor Television Mast on a boxing day walk with my mum. As always, Christmas was Christmas, in the end because I was with my family. Without wanting to sound too sentimental, (actually, fuck it- I don’t care if it sounds sentimental) this is what I liked best about my christmas -playing a family quiz with my parents and my brother; sitting in front of a coal fire with my mum, cats on our knees; my dad helping me take cuttings from some of his houseplants or making soup whilst listening to gardeners’ question time, festive edition.

Speaking of my parents, I snapped these sneaky shots to illustrate where the ADHD in our family comes from. The only real source of mutual chagrin for mum and dad is my dad’s ADHD tendencies – his mess, his compulsive bargain hunting, and his refusal to throw anything out. Ever. Most of the house is really very nice but my mum has to fight to keep it that way, constantly picking up old nails, random batteries, charity shop “finds,” not to mention the debris from hundreds of his “little projects” as she calls them. So the house becomes a battleground upon which my mum desperately tries to impose order onto chaos:

Mum's Order

Dad's Chaos (although he would probably argue that he is making omelets which requires a certain amount of eggs be broken)

You can see how the ADHD diagnosis made a lot of sense for us all. I love how different they are to each other, how they tease each other, how they understand each other and me, even when they pretend not to. I love my dad’s eccentricities, my mum’s tolerance and generosity. I owe my parents everything. I strive to be somebody they’ll be proud of even though I know that their pride and love is unconditional. They have taught me what family can be, what love should be, and I no matter how old I get, I will always grow towards them like plants grow towards the sun.

c.1984

I love you, mum and dad- thank you for another beautiful christmas x x x

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Now you mention it, yes, there is something missing...

Warning! Readers of a sensitive disposition may find some passages depressing.

So, according to every major retailer (and also some of those less traditional staple Christmas gift go-to’s  – I’m looking at you, AbraViagra.com), each of whom emailed me this morning to remind me, there are now six days until Christmas. SIX DAYS!

And yet, despite several end-of-term social affairs, numerous glasses of mulled wine, and three (yes, count ’em, three) Christmas cards, I am still not feeling festive. Not in the slightest, not a tiny little bit. In fact, I feel something else entirely, a dull dragging ache. Not exactly dread, although it’s not far off. Just a sort of flatness, an emptyness, like I’m out of sync with the rest of the world, a sort of robot, mechanically wishing people a Merry Christmas whilst wondering with three fifths of my brain whether that grinding irritation in my upper abdomen possibly signals the need for a nuts and bolts check-up and using the other two fifths to try and remember where I put the WD40.

I just don’t get it. I mean, I’m not usually one of those relentlessly excited festive folk. You know, the type who deal with the banality of modern living by exclaiming, ‘Only two-hundred and thirty-eight sleeps ’till Christmas !!!!’ (yes, really. Indeed, the four instances of hyperbolic punctuation I have included here are, if anything, turning down the volume of this kind of exclamation). So I’ve never indulged in the ‘start-writing-xmas-cards-the-day-after-Easter’ kind of festive cheer but I’ve always had that modest little bubble of good-will and cosyness that often accompanies chilly noses, 3:30pm dusks, and the thought of my loved ones opening carefully chosen gifts with one hand while they sip pre-pre-pre dinner sherry out of little glasses that haven’t seen the light of day for a whole year and whose faint smell of dust only serves to highlight the significance of the big day.

Granted, it’s not the same as it used to be. I don’t think it’s possible to retrieve that magical, glowing excitement that the eight-year-old version of one’s self used to feel. And that’s probably the way it should be. I’m willing to admit that the psychiatrist would probably have more than ADHD and a touch of anxiety on his hands if I was still reciting ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’ from the 15th onwards, ascribing the voice on the other end of the phone to Santa on Christmas Eve despite all evidence to the contrary (it was actually my uncle impersonating St Nick  – the Welsh accent should have been an immediate giveaway), planning a nutritious carrot-based meal for Rudolph and a somewhat more alcoholic refreshment for Santa (Rudolph totally draws the short straw there, no? But he has to do all the work really. Santa just navigates with a sweep of one brandy-leaden arm that is not dissimilar to the ‘fuck off’ gesture you get at last orders when you dare to suggest that if somebody is making no effort to put any distance between their shirt front and their own vomit, then they’ve probably had enough). *Sigh* Those were the days. Filled with wonder, love, and genuine excitement. I remember being so excited one Christmas Eve that I had to get up at 2am and do star-jumps in order to make myself sleepy (I know the logic there is a bit flawed, but I was only about six so I’ll let that one pass without a full analysis).

I accept that I’m never going to feel like that again and that, framed by nostalgia, there is no point me holding up the childhood Christmasses of twenty years ago as being  the model of Christmas cheer. I do know this. But I would settle for that gently simmering feeling of well-being, humming ‘Silent Night’ to myself as I contemplate whether I have enough Christmas paper left over for each of the presents in my Top Secret Stash of Christmas Gifts or whether I’ll have to resort to Birthday Wishes paper for the last few, or how pretty the tree will look blinking away like a proud hen atop its nest of clumsy yet lovingly wrapped parcels. Most years, once the shopping is done, the cat-sitter booked, and the logistics confirmed, I look forward to Christmas – to the over-eating, the family time, and (most of all perhaps) the legitimate time off from studying.

But this year? Nothing. Zero. Zilch. Zip. Partly, I think, I am truly exhausted from the end of term. By the last day of term I felt as though I had no energy left for anything else, like I just wanted to press pause on the whole world and sleep until the will to live came back. But I couldn’t because I was already a month past the deadline I had agreed with my supervisor in a fit of optimism and had got to the point that I was no longer replying to her emails because I couldn’t bring myself to respond without attaching something that justified the wait. So I had to produce something but when I finally sent her 9000 words (desperation, apparently, makes me quite prolific), I felt even worse because that 9000 words was 90% utter crap. I waffled for 8000 words in that meandering, ‘if I keep writing I might work out what it is that I want to say’ kind of way, and then I ran out of time, energy, and patience all at the same time so I sent the bloody thing just to get it out of my sight. So now, far from experiencing the satisfaction of a job well done, I cringe every time I think of  her reading it and am dreading ever having to reopen the document. Bleugh.

So perhaps it’s just a case of it being difficult to change gears and go from ‘fucky fucky fuck, fuck – it –  y –  fuck’  to ‘fa la la la laa, la la la laa’ in three days with only some panic-fuelled Christmas shopping in between during which Slade’s hyper-festive wail of ‘It’s Chriiiistmaaaaas’ served as a soundtrack to the strangled silent scream of my hyper-anxious heart. What I need, I think, is a few good nights sleep. In the meantime, here are some things I am going to do in a last-ditch attempt to feel Christmassy:

1. Have a bath.

A long, long bath. With imaginary candles. Imaginary, because this time last year I forgot to switch the bath off and flooded the flat downstairs. Adding real candles into the equation is pushing the ADHD risk assessment too far into the danger zone. Nevertheless, a long, hot bath is in order. Not least because it has been several days (I seem to forget to bathe when I am writing), and I imagine I have some of those comic-book squiggles decorating my person like an unpleasant aura.

2. Decorate the flat.

I don’t have a Christmas tree. But remember that avocado plant I started growing last spring?

3. Make some mince pies.

If that doesn’t work, nothing will.

4. Have a girls’ night in on the mulled wine and the ‘festive spirits’.

Fortunately, I have just such an appointment arranged for tonight. Love those girls, love ’em.

I’ll let you know how I get on. Hopefully you’re all feeling exceedingly Christmassy and need no such encouragement from me.

And if all else fails? Get yourself down to Homebase. I hear they have seasonal offers on crockery, portable heating, and Christmas cheer…

Season’s greetings (of a sort) xx

My, my, what have we here?

December 12, 2009

Search terms used to find your blog:

Help me feel less anxious about my PhD

I am sorry, anonymous searcher, that you are in that dark and frightening place. I know the anxiety, the panic, the nausea, and it sucks. Especially when it does that creepy thing of sidling up to you when you least expect it, sliding its cold slimy fingers around your neck. And then the sun goes out and your heart frosts over into a ball of fear. Oh, wait, I think I’m getting the PhD mixed up with Dementors again. Oh well, semantics. I am sorry you feel this way and I am sorry that you submitted your desperate plea to the Internet and that google, in its wisdom, responded, and that you pitched up here. I am fairly sure that my self-indulgent ramblings were not what you were looking for (although they are probably of more relevance to you than the to person searching for ‘can chinchilla catch swine flu’).

Perhaps you had something else in mind? Maybe yoga lessons, betablockers, or a whale song CD? In which case, you need to be a little more specific with your search terms, my friend, because although Google moves in mysterious ways (and who am I to question its greater plan for us mere mortals? Many a time it has saved my vegan bacon by coming up with a page number I have forgotten to record, or locating some obscure article at the back of one of its sock drawers) it has, alas, not yet completed its PGDip in Counselling, and is therefore unlikely to reduce any anxiety you feel as a result of the rocky path that is the PhD. The fact that it brought you here, to my blog, where there is anxiety and self-indulgent ramblings in abundance, but not that much in the way of practical help or advice, is a case in point.

I can’t help feeling Google let you down on this one, my anonymous friend, so I recreated your search to see what your other options were. Let’s have a look at this:

Help Me Feel Less Anxious About My PhD

So on the right-hand side, we get the sponsored links. Helpfully, Google suggests ‘findaPhD.com’ Because, clearly, the anxiety you feel could be helped by the addition to your life of one of the ‘Thousands of Postgraduate Courses’ on offer here. I am presuming that your anxiety has arisen in response to a PhD on which you are actually enrolled, rather than merely the prospect of one on which you might or might not be enrolled at some point in the future, yes? Thought so. Ok, moving on.

First up in the results list, we have this article from the New York times, which I think must have been written especially for ‘ International No Shit Sherlock’ week. Go on, I’ll wait here while you join the stampeding millions whose excitement Ms Reynold’s had clearly anticipated with this ground-breaking report. Appaaarently, exercise is good for us! And wait, not just for our bodies, no, but for our minds too! Who the fuck knew?? Just hang on a mo while I do a couple of star-jumps and readjust the laptop so that I can type this while adopting a casual reverse warrior pose. Ok, thanks, that’s better.

Look, it’s not that I doubt that exercise helps with our mental and emotional resilience. Having read the article with the curious yet cursory skill that seven years of higher education has honed to a dark art,  I would have liked to have seen the single mention of dopamine extended a bit so that I could rip it out, fold it and put it in my pocket with all the other bits of paper I mean to look at later but will probably use instead for hygienic chewing-gum disposal in cafes.

But I digress, as is my wont.  We all know that anxiety, depression, poor concentration and all those other little bastards can be helped by doing something slightly more active than cocooning yourself in a duvet on the sofa and watching BBC iplayer from beginning to end in an effort to stave off the crippling panic you feel when you contemplate the self-worth-trashing effort involving in making some kind of dint in the 80k words standing between you and the viva. But forcing rats to run around in little sweatbands (ok, they probably weren’t wearing any kind of rodent-sized leisure accessories, but in my head? They totally were.) and then forcing them to swim in icy water which, readers, it would seem, ‘they do not like to do’, is not going to make the difference between somebody googling ‘Help me feel less anxious about my PhD’ and actually getting off the sofa and onto the bloody step machine.And the reason for this is that the anxiety causes poor productivity, which means that you go to bed each night knowing that there are simply not enough hours in the day to do everything you need to in order to catch up, which means you feel even more anxious about the work and time slipping away like a grounded teenager in the night. It’s a cycle of causality that turns the screw of panic deeper and deeper into your heart everyday and, although you might know that going for a jog would help, that kind of panic is more conducive to alcoholism than exercise. Hey, I’m not defending this position, I’m just sayin…the dumbells don’t work.

For most of us, that is. There’s always one, isn’t there? Here’s a little taste of what Dr Silva, (PhD, doncha know) contributes to the discussion in the comments:

I do jogging since I was 22 and by the way I ran two half-marathons during my PhD at Penn State Univ. Perhaps my healthy lifestyle has helped me to mold my professional career on brain performance.

~ Dr Elson Silva, PhD

Ooooh, Elson, not one but two half-marathons while you did your PhD?!!! We are a little goody-two-shoes, aren’t we? Who reckons that Elson was the one at school sitting at the front of the class with his full range of highlighters out on the desk before him, his hand up like the reverse warrior every time the teacher dared to ask the class a question, or else smugly laughing into his hand in a not-so-discreet way, every time the teacher picked somebody, please anybody, than Elson to answer.

To be honest, Dr Silva (that’s Dr as in PhD for those of you who might not have noticed the letters after his name there and the mention of it in the comment itself), you’re something of a drive-by comment-leaver on the news sites and I think you might be starting to get on people’s tits a bit.

Maybe it’s the fact that rather than having a breakdown during your PhD like the rest of us, you do jogging and ran two half-marathons??? In conclusion, my response to this article was less an urge to renew my gym subscription and more an urge to push Dr Silva into very cold water.

And so, after this little foray into the world of science, I no longer think that Google exercised particularly poor judgement in placing my blog at number 2 in its results list for our anonymous friend’s search for  ‘Help me feel less anxious about my PhD’. In fact, I now feel a sort of responsibility to anxious PhD candidates everywhere who might potentially become anonymous searchers themselves and stumble onto this little outlet of anxiety and self-loathing. So much so in fact, that I leave you with a tip of the day for feeling less anxious about your PhD:

Do not ever Google the terms PhD and Anxiety. No good thing can ever come of it. Instead, why not visit me here again? Go on, I’ll wait while you add me to your bookmarks or hit the subscribe button all the way down there at the bottom of the blog. Done it? Good, see you next time for more cathartic outpourings of self-pity.

A bientot x

Back from the dearth….

December 3, 2009

So perhaps I ought to explain the hiatus in posts here at I won’t forget a single day. By my calculation I have forgotten, or at least forgotten to record, approximately 103 days since my last confession post, which adds a kind of retrospective irony not only to the name of the blog but also to the title of the post below which promises continuation and, in doing so, lies through its little bloggy teeth. And while I’m on the subject of teeth, I haven’t had any concerned emails from blog readers, so I’m assuming that my subject matter makes either abandoned fads or procrastination more likely explanations for my absence than, say, a fatal wisdom tooth extraction. Or perhaps you did consider that possibility but thought it no great loss. Meh. Cruel and fickle internet….

But I digress, I haven’t updated because, for a while, there was nothing to update and then, when some happening of note did occur, I was too busy with said happening to reflect or record. Lately however, I have had the urge to resurrect my(online)self. There are probably lots of reasons for this but the two that seem most significant are my impending deadline (for a chapter of my PhD -I’m calling it an essay as it sounds less of a rumpelstiltskinian feat) and the fact that I have recently kicked the Concerta to the curb in favour of Ritalin.

These two elements, you might (but probably, and forgivably, won’t) remember, were two of the driving forces that led to me registering this blog way back in June. Newly diagnosed, I was full of hope that the former would be made considerably less excruciating by the latter. Alas, that was not to be, and although I got through the PhD upgrade, I have come to realise that this was attributable to that age-old formulation: 1% medication and 99% desperation (is that right? I forget). In other words, after an initial feeling that the Concerta had helped somewhat, I came to the disappointing conclusion that it had been a short-lived placebo-like delusion, one that had me triumphantly noting each teacup that made it successfully to the washing-up bowl, or declaring myself cured on the basis of an object found in the place I expected to find it (“A DVD? In its case? The very case in which it should live?? Behold the miracle drug!!!). Sadly, these improvements didn’t seem to extend to remembering to pay bills or send birthday cards, nor to remaining seated in a library for longer than 15 minutes. And, once I flopped exhausted over the finish[dead]line, I went back to my old ways: 100% procrastination.

So I’m trying to be more cautious with my optimism this time. I need to get something to my supervisor by Monday. In ADHD terms, this is still more of a long-distance run than a sprint. Nevertheless, this week I went to the library three days out of five and actually worked there! I think it helps that I can take the Ritalin in the morning and get a couple of hours work in before lunch and then take another dose which lasts me through till around 6pm. Having this kind of control helps no end. With the Concerta, I’d have to take the dose no later than 9am if I wanted to get any sleep that night. And yet by the time I had faffed about and found a million other things that didn’t need doing, I felt like I had missed the optimum concentration window. I felt like I was relying on it to get me out of the house and sat down at a desk. Not only is this an unrealistic expectation, but I really do believe that the Concerta didn’t work for me. The prospect of study still filled me with fear and dread. Because that’s how it gets when you know you have to sit alone with only the words of razor-sharp minds and your own blank pages for company, wondering how you can want to do something so badly and yet feel sick at the thought of confronting your inadequacy. Useless. Loser. Fraud.

Understandably, this takes its toll and libraries, once a place of inspiration and promise, have become big dusty houses of misery for me. It’s like I walk in and become trapped in the sticky web of silence, unable to escape, but trying not to struggle and alert the monstrous dread which will cocoon me in tight and fibrous despair before devouring all of me that matters, leaving only an empty shell swaying slightly in the draft from a ill-fitting window frame, fragile and papery, gradually turning to dust as the days continue passing. Dramatic, maybe. But accurate nonetheless. Are you telling me that dread doesn’t feel like a massive (wo)man-eating spider?

Anyway, things are slightly better with the Ritalin. It’s easier to spell and pronounce for one thing, but it also seems to work (the crossed fingers make typing difficult). I still wouldn’t say that I feel like a light has been switched on, or any of the other dramatic differences that I have heard others have experienced upon finding a medicine that works but I a pretty sure there is some improvement. Exhibit A: this completed blog post. Exhibit B: the several thousand words I have managed to amass by sticking to a 300 words per day minimum goal. But the biggest improvement I have noticed is the gradual reduction in that oppressive dread. Each time I visit the library and find it less painful and more productive than expected, it lessens the horrible psychological resistance to my work that has accumulated over the last few years. Sitting there, two hours into a book or article, scribbling furiously (not in said book, I hasten to add), I have begun to feel the stirrings of a long-dormant pleasure in the practice of academia and, without wanting to sound either daft or pretentious, the intellectual excitement that I first felt as an undergraduate when I was let loose on my dissertation but has been gradually eroded by the pressures of unstructured research degrees. It’s a good feeling. I once heard somebody say that, when you’ve been married a long time, you get into the habit of not having sex, but that immediately after infrequent err sessions of marital relations, you think to yourself, ‘Actually, that was quite fun, I’d forgotten how much I used to enjoy that, must do it again sometime’. And then two years later, you say the same thing again. Well that’s kind of how I feel after two weeks of relatively successful research and from this admittedly rather bizarre comparison, I draw three conclusions: firstly, do not get married, cohabitation though sinful is more conducive to coital activities; secondly, I think I have been married to my research and the change in medication has spiced things up a bit- perhaps it’s the ADHD equivalent of swinging; and finally, this is probably not an appropriate metaphor to use when discussing my progress with either my supervisor or my psychiatrist. On the other hand, it is a very apt note on which to sign off this, my first post since August. It has been much-needed, fun even. Forgot how much I enjoyed it. Must do it again sometime soon.

A bientot, internet. X x