Things have progressed rapidly in the last few months. All of a sudden I am editing an actual manuscript of my doctoral thesis rather than just drafts of my individual chapters. But this advancement comes with a cost. The pressure is building up, and every deadline requires more work, more attention, and affords less time to breathe in between. After all, the end is in sight – not just because there is a manuscript, but because there is a finite lifespan on my contract at the university. So the clock is ticking, and though I have a clear idea about what needs to be done between now and the end of the year, I am not at all more confident or relaxed because of it.
Fear has been a constant lately. I am as afraid of finishing my thesis as I am of not finishing it. Because once it’s finished, then what? I’ve been contemplating this for months now and do not feel like I am any closer to an answer. What type of work would I want to do? What can I do? What are my options? I simply don’t know. And maybe I’m not supposed to know, but I do have a mortgage, a car, and two wonderful dogs that depend on me. Besides, I know myself well enough to know that I won’t handle unemployment well. Working has always been my one constant. No matter what mood I was in, there was always work, and to be sure there were moments that I couldn’t function properly, but I was at least always able to make up for it. I am on time with my thesis because I have prioritised work above almost everything else (certainly above myself) and it has been that option – to disregard myself in favour of work – which allowed me to maintain a certain constancy on a professional level. If that falls away, what purpose will I have? What constancy?
Though I cannot speak for others, I presume it is only a natural fear. We are all afraid of major life changes, and we should be. They are major life changes for a reason. Their value is enhanced in part because of the uncertainty and fear that comes with them. Our ability to transcend that fear, to deal with major changes despite it, gives us a sense of power and control. You might have been afraid to move to a new city, start a new job, move in with someone, or something along these lines, but in the end, such experiences have the tremendous potential to empower you as a person. I know that my current fear is primarily based on the fact that, even though I’m almost 29 years old, I’ve never functioned in the ‘real world’ before. I know academia, I know the university, and I know I don’t want to stay here because it doesn’t make me happy. I can see the world in which other people operate, a world which doesn’t require quite as much explanation as to what it is you actually do on a daily basis, but I have no idea how I go about introducing myself to it. And facing a whole world of options and people, opportunities and potential rejections, new directions and feeling lost because of them, is terrifying.
There are moments, of course, that I feel like everything will be okay. After all, when was the last time I was ever unemployed? Never. And when was the last time I worked more than one job at a time? This year. So, past data suggests that I will be okay in the future. It helps that I don’t mind what kind of work I do for as long as I pay the bills, but ‘any job’ is more of a last resort than what I have in mind for my future. It’s about time I start building up an actual career. I did not go through all this trouble, all this blood, sweat, and many, many, many tears only to end up flipping burgers somewhere. I want more for myself. But when I ask myself the question ‘what do you want?’ the answer is invariably ‘I have no idea.’ And so time passes away, all whilst I work as diligently as possible on my thesis because heaven forbid it isn’t done on time.
Since this new deadline-to-deadline work thing has kicked in, I haven’t had much of a chance to rest and restore my energy reserves. Arguably, I haven’t had a chance to do so since I was twelve, but it has become worse recently. I’d been drowning and had barely broken the surface before I was being pulled under again. My mood responds accordingly. I have been more depressed than usual, and any passion I once felt for my work has evaporated. In fact, it is often the case that thinking about working on my thesis makes me break out into a cold sweat, has my hands and fingers tremble, and my mind run wild in a sudden panic. However, I am still blissfully denying a thesis-burnout. I can’t afford to have one right now. And so every day, I drag myself to my laptop, sit down, open whatever section I’m working on, and continue. Are there moments I burst into tears? Yes. Is there an edge of resentment when I look at all the feedback on my work even though I know I really appreciate it and that it is only intended to help me improve? Yes. I had hoped I could escape this part of the process – the whole ‘I hate it, make it go away’ part – but it seems like at least in this, I follow the PhD pattern. I’ve been told this is normal.
Normal does kind of suck.
To be honest, I’m not sure how everything will work out in the end. I am used to the presence of a steely resolve in me, the kind that makes me finish something on time simply because I said I would, but it has wholly deserted me now. There is still a dutifulness in me which keeps me going, a desire to have it finished and done with, but is that truly enough to keep me going as my sparse energy reserve is running out? I have come to depend on the strength that comes from passion, the power that comes from an obsessive need to do what I agreed to, and now I find myself with little of both. I am at that point where I just don’t care that much anymore. Lucky for me, my thesis is in its final stages. Now it just feels like either I will hold out long enough to finish it, or it will finish me.
Mheer, Limburg, The Netherlands.