It’s been some time since I last shared with you a piece of my mind. This time it doesn’t start pretty, but it does have a happy ending.
Last week I hit rock bottom. I got overly stressed at work and I had a meltdown. A serious one. My body paralysed, I felt nauseous, I panicked every other second, and everything made me cry. Everything. The breaking point came from something so simple, and so silly, such as turning up late to a doctor’s appointment. As if the destiny of a whole day had been sentenced because I failed to show up 5 minutes earlier to an appointment.
Luckily, this is how far I got. I am back on my feet, feeling happy and thankful. I honestly cannot imagine what it must be like to continue spiraling down, and reach a point of no return. It happens to people more often than you’d think. On the day of my breakdown, the world wouldn’t stop to see me mourn, I had obligations to attend and I showed up looking sharp and carefree as usual, but inside I was terrified, my mind still dancing on the edge of the cliff, hoping not to slip. Later that day I finally allowed myself some hours to think in silence. And then I collected myself and decided to go on, and take action to solve my problems. Because I am a brave girl, and this is what brave girls do.
Before I continue my story, I shall tell you what my problem is: writer’s block. The classic tormenting dilemma. Imprisoned thoughts, disconnected ideas, unwritten words. I had been writing one particular article since what felt like forever, and it still did not make sense to me. I was only 30% along the way and I had committed to be finished by the end of that week. One could almost say I drove myself to the edge on purpose. Because it seems that I need to hit low to re-emerge. In all honesty, I am a good writer. I just make out of the writing process a thorny path. No pain no gain, they say…
It looked pretty dark from my standpoint on that Tuesday, getting well. This time there were obligations I couldn’t reschedule to go crawl into a hole and pity myself. I had planned a full-blown experiment on the side of writing for that week, which meant I was expecting more than 40 participants, and there was no escape to interacting with people. I had to be on my feet, and busier than ever. To top it off, my family was arriving from Spain and I had to prepare to welcome them. And I survived it all. And I accomplished my writing goal. I must admit that a strange sense of empowerment comes with putting yourself together after a dip. I’ve made a few realizations that I wanted to share now, despite how cliché they may sound to you:
(1) I am brave, and strong and smart. I own the ultimate tools to ensure my well-being.
(2) I am back on my feet faster than I used to be.
(3) Emotional pain drained me, only to render me more resourceful. With pain comes creativity, and comes endurance. I am thankful for the thoughts I have experienced this week. In fact, I even had more interesting conversations with people. Because I was running busy, but inside I was “on hold”. Because I was simply available. Because I asked. Normally I am too deeply buried in myself. Not because I do not care about others, but because I tend to live amidst a halo of cognitive confusion. My mind wanders too fast and it takes a lot of energy to focus.
(4) The lethargy, the emptiness that followed my breakdown allowed my mind to work slower. That was a real blessing. I was able to clear my head and experience some real “disconnection”. This helped me work around everything else.
(5) With respect to writing, I was doing it all wrong. Read on.
Here is how I got better:
The most important I have done this week is conceiving a strategy to become, not a better, but a happier writer. I had some of these ideas on my own, others I sought for online, and ultimately I found this great book called “How to write a lot” by Paul Silva which is genuinely helpful for struggling academics. Contrary to what I believed, although it is important to take breaks, stepping aside and taking a holiday is not going to solve your problems. In fact, you may dread more than ever going back to work. The change must be worked slowly from the inside so that we get to enjoy both our work and our free time to the fullest. For me, it all starts with becoming a happier writer.
(1) Writing a book can be a very painful birth. Or a regular task. A daily insignificant ritual, such as cooking dinner. Understanding this relieves a surprising amount of pressure.
(2) Devote only parts of your day to writing. I used to correlate “busy” with “stress”, but nope. It is all about appraisal, about how you deal with your “busy”. Accomplishing many other deeds (such as getting paperwork done, managing appointments or preparing a lecture) will leave you feeling proud and accomplished. Use those good feelings to sit for a couple of hours and tackle writing easily. At least, if your writing is not too successful on that particular day, you’ll have already accomplished a lot. I was surprised to learn this week than the busier I was, the better I learned to manage my time. That said, there are limits to “busy”, of course.
(3) Set small goals. When I first read that you should tackle small goals and small goals only to make progress, I guess I did not understand it. I failed at establishing small goals. My goals were too ambitious, too abstract or too broad. My new goal consists of making an outline of the message I want to convey. Then, look at a very small point and ask questions. Ask the type of questions you would expect people, or yourself, to answer within a three-line paragraph. Those are the baby-steps that will make you advance more than you suspect.
(4) First facts, then bridging. Although a coherent storyline is the dream, follow Step 3 and move on. Go with the Flow. Tackle one small question after another and draft in a few words in the middle what the connection is. Tomorrow, devote the first hour of the day to editing up all you wrote the day before. Until then, out of sight, out of mind.
(5) I was repeatedly told this: “perfect is the enemy of good”. So, stop being afraid to disappoint. We all die in the end, don’t we? So let us just give less of a fuck.
After some time I am finally able to disconnect from work when I get home. Although the tips above may seem obvious to you, they have really helped me. I am feeling genuinely happy and in balance now, and positive that I am going to be able to overcome anything that comes my way.