Dropping out of my Ph.D. saved my life

I like to say on this blog that my midlife crisis started three years ago, which is essentially true, but the fact of the matter is, I’ve been in crisis most of my life. The the real flame out started in 2001 when I started a Ph.D. program. I went back to Vancouver after very successfully finishing a Master of Arts in Sociology at Queen’s in 2001. I hadn’t taken a break from academic work since after my Mom died in 1995, a huge mistake. So after an honours BA at UBC and a Masters at Queen’s, I decided to move back to BC which was a huge mistake.

Saying that my trauma was triggered the minute I got off the plane is an understatement. I think I had a massive panic attack that lasted about 2 years. You think I may be exaggerating but I’m not. Genuinely not kidding, it lasted 2 years when I fled the province with Meg by car.

I started the Ph.D. program with the highest of hopes. I wanted to be an academic and I thought I would be a good one. I really did. But I couldn’t deal with my trauma, be in Vancouver, I was completed burned out from overworking myself and I flamed out. But let’s go back to what I think happened and then, with almost twenty years perspective, maybe did happen.

I started in 2001 and it seemed like it was going well. I had no idea what fresh hell awaited me – the people were competitive, the city was cold as hell (both the weather and the people) and I had no idea what I was doing there. But I faked it, sort of. My supervisor whom I gone to work with could clearly see me flaming out in my first year because she didn’t like my work and didn’t hold back in telling me. She told me on a weekly basis how truly terrible it was for someone in a downward depression/anxiety/shame spiral was super helpful.

But she didn’t know about the spiral and I didn’t tell her. In fact, I couldn’t tell anyone. I was so afraid and ashamed about having depression that I didn’t think I could be a Ph.D. student and be diagnosed with a mental illness. It was pretty dark and being in a doctoral program was soul crushing. I think the most mentally healthy of people suffer as doctoral students. The sole purpose of these programs is to strip students down. To make them prove their scholarly worth. To try to push every piece of ego out of their work, as has been done to them. It’s not only dehumanizing, it’s unconscionable.

So every time someone has asked me about doing a doctoral program, I’ve advised them against it. And not because I hold a grudge against the program or that I spent years feeling like a failure because I couldn’t finish it, it’s because I genuinely believe it’s not worth it. Very, very few people who get Ph.D.s these days get a full-time, tenure track jobs. That’s the golden carrot they dangle in front of you when you do a doctoral program. And it’s far too elusive these days to be worth the struggle. I’d love to hear from people who had a good recent experience with a Ph.D. program, it would make me believe more in the sacrifices required.

With 20 years hindsight, I can see that I was so unwell even before I got to that program. And going back to Vancouver, after being away from the pain and trauma for two years, was a huge mistake. I could feel the mistake in every bone of my body and I didn’t listen to it. I refused to listen to the voice that told me not to be there, to pull the plug. If I had known then what I know now, I wouldn’t have done the Ph.D.program, I wouldn’t have gone back to Vancouver and I could have started my healthy life a lot earlier than I did. I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to get my shit together. But you all know what they say about hindsight. If you have the opportunity to listen to the voice that tells you, don’t do this, just tune in, just for a minute. It may pivot your life in ways that are a lot healthier. xo Janet

Make room for the hard stuff

Credit: Pete Souza

We do a lot of avoiding hard stuff. There are genuine reasons for this. As Obama’s sign on his desk in the Oval Office tells us that hard things are hard. I think we covered this before, right? Well let’s keep talking about what it means when we face the hard stuff and when we don’t. Yesterday, I talked about what we learn as kids if we’re shamed for having normal emotions and trying to express them. As adults, if we continue to run from those genuine emotions, our health, both mental and physical takes a toll.

Let’s stroll down memory lane back to 2015 when my midlife crisis really hit. I was completed burnt out at work and yet continued to go every day. I had a huge herniation in my spine and couldn’t walk. Still went to work every day. Stopped sleeping due to anxiety and severe low back and leg pain, still went to work. Until I couldn’t anymore. I stopped being able to go to work, my only coping mechanism. I couldn’t admit that I had serious health issues. I had severe pain in my back. I had insomnia. I still couldn’t tell anyone at work the truth. I still felt huge amounts of guilt about not being able to work. That’s what I felt bad about, not being able to work, which is really messed up. And no one at work asked me if I was ok. No one at work asked me if I needed to take time off. No one at work asked me if I needed help. What I learned through therapy was that I had a lot more healing to do. Many, many hard truths to face.

Unfortunately, the worst was yet to come. The bottom dropped out several months later, after the depression and insomnia really set in. And that’s when I finally went to get help. I learned how to help myself. But the truth is, the only way I learned how to help myself was to face the hard stuff. To do the hard work, to lean into the toughest stuff I have. To unlearn the hardest parts, cry my eyes out with grief, feel the anger and be ok with it. I learned to let the feelings out in the safety of her office. That’s where I learned that it was ok to feel my feelings. But I’m still learning how to feel my feelings outside of Jill’s office. This is the really painful part. I don’t really know how to be in my feelings, in the moment. But I’m learning. I’m getting there, but it’s still hard. So if you want to unlearn the stuff in your life that doesn’t work anymore, lean in to the hard stuff. But my advice is don’t do it alone. xo Janet

Being shamed for emotional reactions is a powerful motivator

Credit: @frizzkidart

Kids grow up with a view of the how emotional responses are suppose to work just by watching their parent or parents or primary caregiver(s) respond to the world around them. They also understand how to emotional responses are supposed to work by how their caregivers respond to them. Children want to know if their emotional responses are a) acceptable and b) normal. Being shamed for having emotional responses as a kid is a sure fire way to teach children not to: show emotions, connect with their emotions, and/or that they are a freak for having a normal emotional response to something stressful, sad or upsetting.

So, if we take this logic into adulthood, what do we get? Disconnection, lack of empathy for self and others, a fundamental belief that we are somehow different or inherently flawed/unfixable. We suppress or repress our emotion, we bury them in food or alcohol or other quick hits, we have difficulty being vulnerable or connected to others, even those we love the most. It’s a shame cycle that isn’t pretty – I have difficulty expressing my emotions because I have an built-in shame response about doing this, people view me as lacking the ability to connect or be vulnerable, I feel more shame for being defective or broken in some way. Rinse and repeat.

What do we do then as adults when this is happening? Can I think my way out of this? Yes and no in my experience. The first thing I did was learn about the range of human emotions and that these are totally normal for me to express. Sounds weird but it’s true. Second, I learned from my therapist that we’re all flawed and fallible, that’s being human, and that this is, also, totally normal and ok. Third, I learned that when I default to an emotional response that isn’t functional or rationale (extreme worry, anger, frustration, etc), that I can write down the story I have in my head about what is going on and work it through. What does that mean? In cognitive behavioural therapy, therapists use things called “thought records”. It sounds weird at first but once you do them on paper a couple of times it gets pretty easy to start doing it in your head. I do these in my head a lot when I have anxiety or when I’m really frustrated by something. I’m not an expert on CBT, a therapist or a source of advice on thought records but if you want to learn more, go here.

I have found that there are tools and resources that help me when I’m in a shame spiral, particularly when it comes to feeling guilty, anxious or getting angry/frustrated about something. Shame is something we learn as a kid in so many different ways and all of it comes with trauma. But we can unlearn the shame we feel and respond differently. We can work through the trauma and the thoughts or mental scaffolding we have built up around it. This is a way through, not away from, tough stuff emotionally. Keep leaning into the fear of being emotional exposed and you’ll find it’s not so scary after all. xo Janet

Feeling the feels

The feeling that we are often told to feel is fear. We are so often told, especially as kids, that we’re supposed to feel the fear and do it anyway. What about sadness, grief, anxiety, remorse, jealousy, worthlessness, joy? As humans, we are wired to feel and yet we numb like crazy with drugs and alcohol, sex, shopping, food and our phones. We numb so we don’t have to feel the feelings. We numb so we don’t have to process our trauma, memories, feelings of insecurity, lack of confidence or general sense of malaise.

We are in tough times folks. For many of us, times are physically easy, historically speaking. Psychologically, we are in tough times. The news this week has been awful, and that’s saying something for 2019. We are in a collective free-fall, psychologically speaking. And I’m really worried about what all of this trauma is doing to our psyches. I’m worried about what all this trauma is doing to our alcohol intake and credit card balances.

I’ve had plenty of trauma, plenty of pain. I’ve had more than my fair share of alcohol, credit card debt and numbing. I will use my phone to distract myself, worry about my level distraction and then get more distracted. There feels like there aren’t enough hours in the day to be sad or worried or fearful about what’s happening in the world or what has happened to us in the past. There often aren’t enough hours, life is busy and stressful. But there are small windows where we can find a space to feel our feelings. Therapy helps. Meditation is good. Exercise can really be helpful. Journaling helps some people although I’ve always found it tedious. I started writing this blog to get out a lot of the stuff that has rummaging around in my head for the last twenty years.

The difficulty with not feeling our feelings is that numbing results in anger, frustration, depression, anxiety, perfectionism, overachieving, micromanaging and a host of other dysfunctional ways of coping. We yell at our kids, spouses, sometimes or coworkers or employees, we anxiously meddle, we try to control our surroundings. So in the hopes that some of you may be open to feeling your feels, know this: it’s not as scary as you think it will be. What feels like our crazy is only scary to us; therapists don’t scare easily unless they’re not good at their job. So go ahead, feel your feelings. Dip your toe in the feelings water if you’re not used to it, it just takes practice. The more you do it, the easier it gets, I promise. xo Janet

When anger and frustration is your emotional default setting

I’m back! I missed writing this blog but having a two week vacation was amazing, what a great break. We went on our first family road trip with two kids and went so far we almost ended up in New Brunswick – from where we are, that’s about a seven hour drive. We made a real adventure out it, stopping at the Granby Zoo, Quebec City and ultimately, Riviere-du-Loup where we went whale watching which is a totally life affirming experience, btw.

My memories of being a kid stuck in a car with my parents are some of the happiest and most cringe worthy I have. The cliche of parents yelling, “don’t make me come back there” because my brother and I were fighting, is a very real memory for me and so many other kids born in the 70s and 80s when taking a road trip was the way that people vacationed.

So we struck out on our big Quebec adventure and I honestly wasn’t sure how I would manage my own frustration if the girls started fighting or something went wrong with my perfect planning. I am not a patient person at the best of the times, it’s something that I have been trying to work on for a long time. Some days it feels like two steps forward, one step back. I try to remember to breathe and keep my cool. I’m not going to pretend to be good at it. It’s hard for me. Frustration and anger are the two emotional settings that I can access the easiest when when I get upset or am overwhelmed. When my anxiety is really high, anger is right there at the surface.

I come by anger honestly. It’s an emotional state with which both of my parents were very familiar. And I’ve used that fact to justify not being able to control my temper. So I’m now in my 40s and time’s up on my anger and frustration. I don’t have a good plan to deal with this yet, it’s just the latest in my ongoing process towards good mental health. I’ll let you know how it goes. I think the biggest hurdle I have is knowing my triggers and watching for them. I know one of them is feeling like things aren’t in my control. This is where the anxiety/anger nexus lives.

“If you were raised by a parent like this, that’s trauma inducing, that’s eggshell territory. “

Brene Brown, Super Soul Sunday

And I’m sure that that’s where my parents anger and frustration came from as well. Anxiety, things out of control, feeling overwhelmed. But what’s hard is that for a kid, they don’t understand the anxiety/anger nexus. All they see and hear is anger, frustration and disappointment. Not to mention adults who just can’t seem to keep it together. That’s what I saw as a kid and I’m really hoping that our girls remember more of the whale watching and trips to the zoo and less me getting angry because they’re fighting in the back of the care. Time well tell but at least I know I’m going to try to do something about it, that’s a start. xo Janet

New resource on the blog: Janet’s quick tips on how to deal with work stress

Ok so I can’t help myself even though I’m on vacation. I started thinking about how I could offer some tips that I use many times at work to manage my stress. They’re short but hopefully you find them helpful! Xo Janet

Janet’s Top Ten signs you need a break from work

10. You swear Jesus Christ at the top of your lungs to no one in particular when you’re reading something on your screen.

9. You read your emails and start immediately rolling your eyes or shaking your head. Again, saying nothing and directed at no one in particular.

8. You can’t remember the last time you went to the bathroom but you’ve been at work for at least 4 hours.

7. You are eating lunch at 3pm and are grateful just to be putting food in your mouth.

6. You run between meetings. Not figuratively, literally, running between meetings because you’re so behind in your day.

5. You look around at all of your colleagues, who are all lovely people, and think, if I have to spend one more minute with you I’m going to lose my shit.

4. You start micro-managing everything – emails, meetings, people, documents. Everything looks wrong to you even though it’s a document you’ve probably seen at least once before and though, yeah, this is fine.

3. You walk into a meeting room and forget why you’re there. You know you have a meeting but you’re so overwhelmed by everything that you’ve forgotten what you’re there to discuss.

2. You start presentations to people by saying, I’m sorry I’m so disorganized but I’ve been really busy lately. And then proceed to give half of the right presentation and half of the wrong one.

and the #1 sign you know you need a break from work:

You’re in a meeting with your entire management team and your boss and you say far too loudly, “if we don’t stop talking about this subject, I think my head is going to explode all over this table”.

Ref: me at work on Tuesday. I tried very hard to maintain my cool but couldn’t and I blurted this out. I was, in my defense, trying to be funny and also move the conversation along. But there was some truth in it as well. Thankfully, I’m taking two weeks off, starting next week. Happy summer everyone, see you in August! xo Janet