Monday, November 14, 2016

An Academic Journey: The Guilt of Self Care


It's funny really, that it took me so long to really understand the important of self-care when it comes to issues of mental health... or really any health. I was raised in an environment that very much valued a stoic approach to pain, illness, and suffering on the personal level. Part of that was just the general values of my family... my father and grandfather were both ex-military farmers who were probably half scar tissue and healed bone fractures before I was born. Any acknowledgment of pain or illness was considered a weakness, and in retrospect that was as stupid as it was unhealthy. Another part of this was just growing up poor... you ignore everything that may cost any amount of money for as long as you can, hoping it will go away and not cost anything. It was by this virtue that I spent a year walking on a torn meniscus rather than getting the surgery I needed (which is why I walk with a limp now). It was ingrained deeply into our brains that self-care was something you didn't make time for, often because you had to finish the job at hand and see to all of your other obligations, duties, jobs, and responsibilities. Ignoring injuries, ignoring illness... it all saved money, and it was expected, because you needed to be "tough." 

In regards to mental health, I carried this attitude with me for a longer time. In ways I still do, and it isn't always a good thing. With mental health, though, it's a necessary component of not feeling like you're going completely crazy. You have to make time for self care, you have to take care of yourself, and find avenues for relaxing and restoring some semblance of regular function to your life. Whether it be in response to anxiety, or depression, or overwhelming stress, it's safe to assume that finding time to unwind in a healthy, productive way is a necessary component to taking care of your mental health. 

As a graduate student, though, it is a luxury.

The time requirements of a graduate program are pretty intense. I lived through an accelerated masters program and am in the midst of a PhD program right now, and you have a lot on your plate. Classes, assignments, projects, presentations, experiments, homework, seminars, meetings, departmental whatevers, whenevers, wherever. Some programs, such as mine, also have a requirement for you to teach, adding classroom time, lesson preparation, and grading to your list of responsibilities. Throw in the stress of making shit for money on top of all of your real world expenses, and you can see that not only is there a ton of stress to contend with, but also not enough hours in a day to contend with them. In a typical week I spend 9 hours in classes, 4 hours teaching, 20 hours in the lab, 4 hours at departmental events/seminars, 3 hours doing office hours... and then I go home and study, read papers for the lab or for class, do homework or writing assignments, prepare presentations, grade quizzes, write new quizzes, and prepare a lectures for my next set of classes. Much like in professional academia, being a student-trainee in academia requires you to take home a lot of work. Even just reading a paper or two can take an hour or more, just deciphering the jargon and the results. Grading typically is only an hour or so because I only teach 3 sessions. Still, it doesn't leave a lot of room for self-care. 

The thing is, most grad students NEED that time to just sit down and take care of themselves. They need a break from the constant pressure of the frenzied rush to be on the ball at all times. We're expected to be smart, we're expected to absorb material like a sponge, and then we're expected to apply that information in various critical thinking scenarios, all while being pressured to maintain a high academic standard, and be on top of every other responsibility thrown at us, NONE of which take into account the fact that we are also people with (presumably) lives outside of the classroom and lab. It's insane, and the problems facing students who need that time to relax are multiplied by a very simple facet of academic stress:

Any time NOT spent doing something directly related to your graduate program makes you feel incredibly guilty for not devoting that time directly to graduate school. At any given time when you're doing something you enjoy, there is constantly that voice in the back of your head saying "You should be reading, you should be writing, you should be studying, you should be in the lab, you should be doing literally anything else except enjoying yourself and trying to relax." 

Even just sitting down to type this is making me feel insanely guilty, because I have an exam in a week, 2 presentations, and a problem set to do, and even though some logical part of my brain knows that sitting down for 5 minutes to rant isn't going to destroy all hopes I have of an academic future, it sure as hell feels like it. Add to that the stress of thinking that any attempt at slowing down of self-care could be viewed in a negative light, and you have a positive feedback loop of negative impacts. You stress about things, then try to de-stress, which only makes you stress about not being more productive. It's a vicious cycle, and one that is entirely unfair to get yourself caught into.

See, the thing is... you will almost always have those 5 minutes, and you should take every little breath of fresh air and fleeting moment in the sun when you can. You're going to spend enough time slaving over study materials and lab benches in the next few days/weeks/months/years. You need to take that time to take a deep breath, even when you feel like you don't have the time... maybe especially then, because holy shit I know that I have nothing to really complain about but I'm going to anyway because graduate school is pretty damn ahrd, even the second time around and it's easy to feel overwhelmed and rushed and stupid. Always feeling stupid. Every single step of the way. After every homework, every exam, you realize that even as dumb as you thought you were, you hadn't quite recognized the true depths of your own ignorance. It's disheartening, and some days you just need to sit down and watch shitty television, or take a walk, or play your favorite video game, or pick up an instrument you haven't touched in months. You need that just as much as you need to sit down and study your ass off when exams come. You're going to feel awful. I think 80% of graduate school is feeling miserable and stupid, and the other 20% is feeling tired and being broke. 

So don't be ashamed of taking the time for yourself, especially if you're struggling with depression, anxiety, or any of a dozen other issues that compromise your mental health. This is true for everyone, but especially true for graduate students. You already made a lot of sacrifices to get where you are, and you've sacrificed things in your future for a passion. Like the proverbial starving artist, you are putting love of your field before... well, most other things, really, Just don't get so caught up in it all that you forget to treat yourself like a person. We both know that grad school  sure as hell isn't going to slow down so you can take a breath...

...and seriously though, you should be reading or studying right now.