CW: mental health; depression; anxiety
As September begins, and Twitter is aflutter with everyone talking about heading back to university teaching and all that that entails in 2021 – overcrowding, blended learning, et cetera, et cetera – I can’t help but feel a twinge of sadness because this is the first Autumn in 12 years that I’m not heading back into a classroom as a student or as a teacher. It feels odd to feel the crispness in the air and know that it won’t be accompanied by a steaming hot latte, walking across George Square on Edinburgh’s central campus through the fallen leaves, taking in the brilliant autumnal hues of the trees.
Autumn is my favourite season. It always has been. And I’m finding it difficult to say goodbye (at least this year) to the teaching responsibilities of the first semester, which I had come to associate with what I love about Autumn. This blog post will take a somewhat different tone than my posts over the last year, more personal than academic. It offers me a chance to reflect on my first year post-PhD and what’s happened along the way.
A mental reset
If you’ve been following along with me the last year, you’ll know that I had two emergency medical procedures, one surgical and one endoscopic, to treat complications of gallstone disease. I’m now without a gallbladder, and hopefully now without gallstones. I lived most of the pandemic dealing with chronic pain, inflammation, and digestive issues that would have made it difficult for me to live a normal life if we weren’t all confined to working from home. This was thrown into sharp relief when I did return to work at the restaurant, the same week another gallstone blocked my common bile duct, requiring me to take time off work and a brief hospitalisation. The chronic pain and poor health I experienced took a toll on my mental health. My daily pain levels had completely extinguished my will to live and it triggered a major depressive episode. This depression did not resolve itself after my health improved following my procedure.
Instead, it got worse.
Ten days after my hospitalisation, I had a job interview. I didn’t get the job, but found out I was a very close second. This deepened my depression. The utter randomness of the universe and my perceived bad luck was hard to live with. I talked to my doctor. We upped my anti-depressants to see if they would spark joy (spoiler alert: they did). We upped my anxiety meds to see if they would help stop my panic attacks and general days of existential dread (spoiler alert: they did). I went back to therapy. Turns out it took a quasi-stranger telling me that I’ve had a really shit year for me to actually accept that I’ve had a really shit year.
So, I’m easing slowly back into the academic work and research. I’m doing things that make me happy, things that fill me with purpose as an historian of medieval Scotland. This is helping to remind me of my own worth and merit as a scholar when job rejections and a year of misses and near misses left me feeling not good enough. I’m working on my relationship with myself, which is the most important relationship I have. And I’m using this change in season as an opportunity to start anew.
It’s important to note that my life hasn’t been entirely shit this last year. I got married to my long-term partner. I have a forthcoming article. I got a promotion in my hospitality job. Most importantly, I graduated virtually online in December and I recently graduated (in-person!) at Edinburgh Castle, in a truly memorable ceremony. My mamma was able to travel over for the ceremony, which was our first time together since November 2019. Being able to celebrate with family and to pause and reflect on what I’ve accomplished was an important moment for me, since I so often focus on future goal posts, rather than looking back to see how far I’ve come. So here’s to celebrating life’s victories, big and small, a little more, and to being hard on myself a lot less, as I head into the final months of 2021. Onward.
The quote in the title of this blog post comes from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925).