I originally started this post with “2018 was a mixed bag” but that wouldn’t be accurate. 2018 was good, because if I compared what I knew at the start to what I know now, objectively I am better off than before. If I could compartmentalise the areas of my life I think the most about, they would be as follows:
- My ongoing PhD
- My recovery
- My social connections
Let’s see how these have all progressed. It is important to me that I measure my progress because all too often I feel like time rushes by, and I realised why with an extract from East of Eden by John Steinbeck.
My ongoing PhD
I started 2018 not fretting too much about my PhD, I had until 30th September 2018 to finish it. I cruised on by doing some contracting to pay the rent, but that left me feeling empty. I couldn’t find a way to start making meaningful forward progress with my thesis or the work I had left to do. I had no structure and no drive and I wasn’t seeking help from my supervisors. I did that thing where I let time go by because I had loads of it. I made some new friends who have helped push me forward with writing, and I am thankful to them for that. Writing by itself however is not enough. What I need to do is two main work areas, and then write the chapters they fall in to. I read a book about how to write a thesis (the ultimate in productive procrastination, don’t you know?), and I gleaned some interesting things from it. First and foremost about how I insert myself, the scholar, into the text, and how I fit there. The second key lesson I got from the book is how to disentangle “writing up”. The authors discourage minimising the thesis to “writing up” and instead frame it as a crucial part of research. The reason it is crucial is because hidden within the task of doing the thesis, is learning how the writer feels about the research they have done. I have a lengthy catalogue of work I have done for my PhD, I know how I want to weave it all together, my overarching model, so why can’t I just bulldoze the thesis? Having to write something means having to think, and the thinking you do when you attempt to write is different than the thought process when doing other things. Writing is the way one creates meaningful, ordered conclusions from disordered thoughts. Writing the thesis is crucial to learning how I feel about my research. I will reach my conclusions by trying to write, and trying to write will create order from my thoughts.
The next major area of my PhD going forward is setting up my old test rig. I have reassembled and fixed my old test rig from when I first started. This rig was the first thing I designed at the start of my PhD, so it is quite sentimental in some ways. I need to perform a series of experiments to contribute to part of my overall model. It has been hard getting back to this, because I have dealt with regularly feeling like a failure and retreating into procrastination. Procrastination was always a problem, but I have found ways to move through it. I got back in touch with my supervisors and they have been a tremendous support to me. As time goes by, I tend to feel as if I am not worthy of receiving help. This is especially crippling for my PhD as I regularly avoid reaching out to people for help, even when the problem is merely to ask a technician to drill a few holes in a plate. I am doing better with this now, I am remembering how to be assertive. Assertiveness is an interesting word for me, because I think of it as merely asking for what I deserve. The technicians for example are staff who manage our lab, they are happy to help with these things. My supervisors are also happy to help me, and I should not feel like I am unworthy. My supervisors afterall want to see me finish my PhD, get a good job and be successful. They have been key to getting me back on track, we have reestablished weekly technical meetings to discuss work I have done and where I should go with it next. This has given me the motivation to do something in order to have something to present to them.
I struggle with routine as I have to plan all of my time and the tasks I do. I think in many ways getting a 9 to 5 would make my life much simpler, go to work, do work, go home again. Sometimes I don’t even reliably get up early and start working. I have started planning my weeks in a planner a friend bought for me, in order to combat this. I am still fine tuning my method for planning, but I am getting somewhere with it for sure. I am interested in learning how to engineer new habits, and I think planning my weeks underpins that really well. I usually write four lists; PhD, Me, Social and Commitments. PhD is self explanatory, it can be any task I plan to do. “Me” is anything to do with things solely related to me, i could be going to the gym or even things like laundry or cleaning my room. Social is plans with other people, and Commitments are things like meetings or private tutoring, things I have committed to other people. I then assign these tasks to specific days, so “P3” would means number 3 in the PhD list. I think I might be slightly overdoing it at the moment as I assign too many PhD tasks each day, so I should aim a bit lower and just make sure I achieve something.
I have always had a problem with perfectionism, which governs the order in which I do things and the height to which I aim. I need to aim small and go from there. Instead of listing all the tasks I have to do and trying to cram them all in to one or two days, I should list my tasks and just aim to do one, and if that goes well I can tackle another too. Recently, Arnold Schwarzenegger did an AMA on Reddit, and I saw his response to the comment below:
A guy asks a throwaway question in the hope of a reply, and Arnie gives him the most wholesome reply possible. Just do something. Anything will do. Nothing is too small to achieve in a day, but it is definitely possible to aim too high. I know that if I give myself too much to do in a day, I will fall short, I may even do nothing. However, if I give myself one thing to do, that is no sweat. I often find that if I go and do something straightforward and short for my PhD, there is often impetus to do more to build on it. If I can “trick” myself into getting up and doing something, I will likely end up doing more. This mentality underpins everything going forward. With this I can engineer new habits and begin my ascent once again to everything I am capable of.
In the meantime I have to stay grounded, I can’t allow myself to become overworked by never stopping, and on the other hand I must not allow myself to never start. I had some thoughts today on one of my last days of holiday that I should be working. Who else thinks they should be working when they are on holiday? Holiday is holiday, being able to compartmentalize work and leisure is key to balance. I am tired of swinging from pole to pole.
I often feel very conflicted about my relationship to food and my recovery from binge eating. I have learned a lot from lots of different people, mainly other people who suffer from eating disorders. Even though I don’t know anyone else who struggles with the same thing as me, there is a large amount of universality to eating disorders. We all struggle with basics like not even knowing what a “normal” person eats, and we all feel shame. I also had quite a bit of therapy throughout the year, but in my opinion it always ends too soon. I think this happens to people a lot, they need therapy, they get it, but because you only get 8 sessions, you’re done before you get into “maintenance mode”. Maintenance mode is when you’ve had some therapy and kind of learn the mistakes your brain is making, and start to challenge it, and keep having therapy to fine tune it. It isn’t enough time to properly build a new habit I don’t think.
Right now I have ended the year heavier than when I started it, but not by much really. I know that when I get my routine going (which includes the gym!) the weight will begin to secede. In order to fix my body, I have to fix my mind. No amount of brute forcing the gym will really fix me if I feel compelled to binge eat as well. If I make peace with the forces that make me want to binge eat, I will move forward again.
I have binged frequently over the Christmas period. I knew I would, but I just kept telling myself I won’t because I’ll be too ashamed for anyone to find out. In some ways it is pretty impressive how well one can hide things from people nearby. I was binging heavily for about one week in particular recently, but I managed to break that. I resisted the temptation to go to the nearby shop and buy the usual binge foods. I made sure to walk the dog at least once, picking times when I was feeling negative so that I could use the exercise to rebound. It worked. I would like the gym to be a place I can go after a long day in order to relax. I want any feeling of resistance or anxiety about going, to be gone. I want the gym to be a sanctuary.
Last night I reflected on how things will be fine. However I did binge and subsequently purge. It felt bad, but I didn’t dwell on it really. I knew it was a one time thing because I had eaten so much chocolate and regretted it. Then again, that’s what the process of binging and purging is, purging is an attempt to undo the binge. I know that it won’t continue though because I believe in myself enough to not allow it to continue.
In summary, I am not in my best shape because Christmas is hard, but I am in a stronger mindset. That mindset has evolved as I have been writing this post over several nights, but more on that later.
My Social Connections
2018 was a big year for this. I made some new friends through First Steps and it all grew from there. Ever since I had over a year of therapy, before bariatric surgery, I was festering in solitude. My therapist and I struck up such a good connection that she had even offered to meet me at boardgame nights. However I could never muster the courage to go to them. I actually still have not. I started putting a lot of pressure on myself to go to things like this but I think ultimately I felt too scared about how I looked to other people. But that’s in the past.
Just before 2018 I started going to First Steps weekly drop-in clinics. They are a place for people to come and talk about their struggles, or not. It is a supportive environment for people who need it. Through this I made friends with other people, through our shared experiences with eating disorders. I soon felt comfortable around these people because they already knew my biggest vulnerability, and they knew theirs, and we realised we were the same. I find that when I am feeling bad, I need constant exposure to other sufferers, to remind me that my thoughts and feelings are not unique to me, and that they are temporary. One of my friends invited me to her birthday get together, and there I met another who has become a really good friend, and through her I met other people as well. It is pretty cool how things can progress like that. I am lucky they have. Through being with more people I became more confident at approaching new people. After being in a shell for so long, this really is a big step for me, and I need to recognize that. I am now a volunteer for First Steps, because somewhere along the line some people there recognized I am good at talking to people and helping them feel better. I have at times doubted my ability to do that but at the end of the year I realised I want to stick at it, because ultimately it is good for me too.
The whole point of this post is to recognize how I have progressed in a year, not to assess that I feel bad at any current moment. I decide to take the long view. I would like to try more to keep in contact with the people I don’t speak to enough. Family is included in that because I almost take for granted the fact we have a WhatsApp family group. It is important to talk about life stuff rather than just passing memes and pipe dreams.
What Comes Next
I omit the question mark because this isn’t a question about what comes next, this is what comes next. I must endeavor to remember my worth in all areas. I have a lot of things, I know I am smart, I have the credentials for that, I know I can work with people, but more than all of this, I know I have potential. I don’t know how far I will go, but I haven’t even really started. I am in the state of mind currently where I feel like I can do anything, but a lot of the time I do not think that. I often think that because my PhD is a niche area, I am not viable for many jobs. However, from another angle, I have a Masters degree in Mechanical Engineering from one of the best Universities in the UK, soon to have a PhD in Mechanical Engineering too. A PhD recognizes not just expertise in an area, but capability as an Engineer. I can enter a field different to my PhD because I am a quick and capable learner. I have made a lot of contacts and done significant work alongside my part-time PhD in the last few years. I can reach out to the careers office and seek more careers advice. I think that I let the unknowns keep me down, I don’t know about how the job market works for PhDs, as it will still be my first industry job. But not knowing doesn’t mean it cannot happen. It speaks a lot about the depth of my lack of self worth that I can convince myself that I am still worthless even with a PhD. I must endeavor to remember that I am not.
2019 has a lot in store, but without creating a self-fulfilling prophecy and setting myself up for failure, I will keep it broad; I will finish my PhD, I will know what my next step after the PhD is, and I will be more in control of my thoughts and feelings. It is time I work harder to engineer new habits and to leave behind the volume at which I retreat into nothing. I have taken steps to improve my productivity and my ability to learn. 2018 was good because ultimately I know more, and I have started to do this, write a blog, and share it all with You. I know some people read it, because people have been really kind about it too. Thank you for taking the time to read it and/or say something nice, from someone who struggles to feel good about themselves, just know that that means a great deal to me, more than you can know.