Before I headed off to university, I used to compete as part of an athletics club. My specialties were the long jump, high jump and the short to middle distance runs. I still remember one competition day quite vividly, a pentathlon that culminated in an 800m event. This has always been the most gruelling event for me – 2 laps of the track at what is essentially a sprinting pace. My tactic was always to take the first lap easier, and once the first 400m was complete, I kicked it up to a full out sprint, passing by the other runners who hadn’t paced themselves as well. It felt great to sail past the other athletes as I made it onto the back straight and into the final corner.
But the hardest part was always the home straight. At this point, your lungs are stinging and your stomach begs you to stop and take a breath. This is when the race switches from physical strength to psychological. I remember this particular race, because it was raining, and I was tired from having competed all day, and there were 3 girls in front of me by the time I was on the last bend. I can still hear my coach cheering me on from the sidelines. I dug deep inside and found an extra gear. My body was screaming to stop, but I knew all I needed was just another 5 seconds of full out sprint to get to the end. I didn’t even realise I’d managed to overtake two of the other athletes. My eyes were locked onto a spot just beyond the finish line, and I wouldn’t let myself stop until it was under my feet. I came in second place, and I won a medal for my county. But nothing beat the feeling of collapsing into a heap on the track, lying on my back in the rain and letting my breathing finally steady.
I’m reminded of that day now as I find myself on the final straight of my PhD. Weeks away from a completed thesis, all my energy is going into keeping up the sprint of chapter writing. Some days I just want so badly to push the whole thing to one side and forget about it, but I keep trying to look to that spot just beyond the finish line.
My athletics coach taught me how to pace myself over long distances, and I still hear his words every time I go for a jog. “Remember to breathe in. You’ll breathe out automatically, so focus on breathing in.” When I wanted to stop, he took that as a sign to push me just a bit further. “It’s hurting because you’re pushing past your limit. The pain is a good thing, you’re growing. We’ll just do another minute or two, okay?”
In truth, I did not pace myself so well over my PhD. Since I’ve managed to leave the worst of it behind, I don’t mind divulging now that I battled a lot with anxiety and depression over the last couple of years. I wanted to hit the ground running when I started in my first year, and maybe I burnt myself out a little. There are other factors involved, of course. And it’s difficult to maintain a high level of motivation for one thing over a course of a few years. But I had some especially bleak times where it felt like finishing was impossible.
I will tell you now that everyone will experience something like this on their PhD. There are days when you don’t want to work, there will even be days when you want to quit. I firmly believe that at least some of my anxiety could have been assuaged had I just talked to my other friends about it sooner. Once I did, I realised I wasn’t actually some loser; everyone was feeling crappy. Yet there’s this whole stigma about not being able to just get on with it. So no one talks to each other about it, and everyone carries on thinking they’re the only one who’s struggling. We all put on a façade of rock solid steadiness that only isolates us from each other. If only we’d talk about it, we might see that we’re all just normal.
It’s okay to be depressed, and upset, and feel like you can’t do it. That’s no failing of yours. It took me a while to realise that, which is probably why it took me a long time to actually ask anyone for help. I made these horrid mental scenarios where people were disappointed in me, or angry with me, or just didn’t want to even know me anymore. In truth, everyone I’ve spoken to about it – which includes supervisors and various people in my department – have been nothing but supportive. In actuality, they were all just concerned and worried about me, and wanted to do whatever they could to support me so I could get my PhD finished. I felt a bit of a lemon once I realised this, and it did a lot to relieve some of the anxiety I’d been feeling.
A year ago, I didn’t feel like I could even reach the point I’m at now. It wasn’t that I couldn’t see the finish line – I’d lost sight of the goddamn track. And now here I am, on the final straight. I know it’s going to be painful, and my body will be begging me to stop, but I feel within me that I can do this now. It might take everything I’ve got, I might collapse into a heap once I make it, but I’ll make it all the same.
I’ll see you on the other side of that finish line.