I was offered therapy, and I chose my PhD instead

Content warning: this blog discusses mental illness, trauma and mentions maladaptive coping mechanisms. It may be difficult to read for people who have experienced abuse.

When I finally got the consultation for the therapy I’d been waiting over a year for, the therapist was the first I’ve spoken to who actually seemed to understand me. She noticed things about me that no therapist has before.

See that tattoo on your arm Gabe? If you’re going to do this kind of therapy, you’re going to need to take off your mask. Just like that. You have to be vulnerable and stop over intellectualising your feelings.”

I was shocked. People usually mistake my mask for my face. That’s OK. So do I.

Even though I knew this therapist could help me, I refused the treatment.

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When I say I refused treatment, what I mean to say is that after extending a one session consultation to four sessions, both the practitioner and I came to a consensus that psychodynamic therapy is not right for me at this time. You’d think that after such a battle to get treatment I’d be angry or upset; I was referred to the community mental health service, who sent me to the trauma team, who referred me back to the community team again – with months of waiting in between. Worse still, this is only my most recent therapy journey: it is the latest in a chain of therapeutic misadventures that started when I was around seventeen. I was, understandably I think, growing increasingly desperate and frustrated with the system.

I’m not being dramatic when I say that the wait could have killed me; it nearly did. I was referred to these teams because I was in crisis, but now I am not. As I write this, I’m approaching six months of being sober from alcohol, and free from self-harm. I discussed my progress with the consulting therapist, and we came to an agreement:

Could I benefit from therapy?

Yes.

Is this the right time?

Probably not…

There’s so much discourse URGING people with destructive behaviours to ‘GO TO THERAPY’. In fact, it’s a bit of a meme. What we’re really saying when we ask people to ‘go to therapy’ is: please develop a modicum of self-awareness, and do some work on yourself rather than causing people grief with your fuckboyish ways, or rather, please take some responsibility for your actions by learning how to express your emotions in a more constructive manner. It’s not quite as funny when we put it like that, right?

Instead Of Going To Therapy | Know Your Meme
See also, do a PhD.

These are all good and valid reasons to go to therapy, but the realities of therapy are vastly more complicated. There are different types for different things: some therapy is about coping with the day-to-day, and some therapy (especially trauma-based therapy) has the potential to make your day-to-day life infinitely worse during the process. The kind of therapy offered to me, the kind of therapy I may eventually need, is more likely to make my immediate life a living nightmare than help me cope with it.

Let me explain this using the story that my therapist and I told together.

In my head there is a box, and in that box there is a creature. We don’t know what the creature looks like, though we can hazard a guess from the shadows it casts. We do, however, know that it is there and if I speak its name, it will change me forever. When I first got my referral, I was in crisis because I had discovered the box by chance, and (because I, like Pandora, am a curious bitch) opened it. I slammed the lid shut as quickly as I could, but it was too late. The creature had awoken and wouldn’t let me close the box properly. Just catching a glimpse of it changed everything I thought I knew about myself. It made me feel and remember things I hadn’t dared admit, and still don’t entirely understand.

Pandora, by John William Waterhouse, 1896

I tried to weigh the lid down. I stacked books on the box to keep it closed, but they weren’t heavy enough. I couldn’t banish the monster from my mind – I was both fascinated and disgusted by it.

Oui, c’est l’abjection mon ami!

I didn’t know what to do: to close the box properly, I would have to open it again, and I was already so fucking weak. The creature’s presence dominated my waking life, and invaded my dreams. It became all I could think about. I tried various ways of appeasing it: I hurt the creature, I tried to get it drunk, I tried to starve it, and if you know me, you’ve probably guessed by now that I tried to fuck it too. None of it worked. The more I tried to silence the creature, the louder it screamed, and it became more and more difficult to block out the noise. It was hard. I was afraid to be alone.

Eventually I realised that living this way was killing me. Instead of giving up, I changed my strategy. I gave the monster a stern telling off, and scared it into stillness and silence long enough to give me time. I practised kindness as praxis and worked on becoming strong. Sometimes the monster tried to creep further out of the box, but this time, I’d recovered enough to drive it back. Eventually, after a lot of trying and failing, I managed to close the lid properly, this time, trapping the creature inside. It’s a victory, if a tentative and temporary one.

The box will always be there. Sometimes it oozes, and sometimes the creature whispers it will escape, take my sleep, and rob me of my sanity. I know that, one day, I will need to open the box and face the creature inside, but now is not the time. Right now the monster is manageable: when it makes a mess, I clean it, when it growls, I feed it snacks, and when it whispers to me, I tell it a story until it falls asleep. I’m still afraid of naming the monster, and afraid of what kind of person this monster has made me. However, most importantly, I’m not afraid to sit with it now – and sit with it, I must. It’s a lonely thing. The monster is open to polyamory, but it has to be my primary, or it gets jealous. It keeps its own schedule: google calendar is no good here. When it calls, I have to listen. I have to commit to it; I have to commit to myself.

My therapist said that I seem to have trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality sometimes, and that I use fantasy to make myself feel better about the bad things that have happened to me. She said it’s important to use fantasies to cope, but we can’t let fantasies undermine or invalidate the difficult realities of our lived experiences. The reality of therapy is that it’s like any treatment: you have to weigh the benefits against the costs. My reality is that I’m away from my support network to do a PhD. I’ve just managed to claw my way out of perpetual crisis, and doing this therapy would pull me right back in. Right now, if I want to finish this project, all I can do is damage control.

I’d like to open the box and face my monster. I’d like to sort through my issues, and get to the hope at the bottom of the box. The truth is, it’s not safe, and I’m not ready.

Pandora, by Walter Crane, 1885

My therapist told me that one day, that to do therapy, I will have to take off my mask and learn to be vulnerable. The thing is, that mask is doing something – it’s protecting my face.

*****

A note from the author:

Thank you for taking the time to read my blog. I wanted to update you on what’s going on with me right now, and to explain why therapy isn’t always appropriate. It was a really tough decision, and a part of me is still unsure. I am still having talk therapy once a week to cope, so I’m not entirely without support.

Have you had any similar experiences with therapy? If you feel comfortable, leave me a comment or tweet me! I’m always happy to hear from you! Please feel to share the post, if you’d like. I appreciate your support. ❤

Gabe x

Digital Fantastic: PhD Life is a Fairy Tale

On early PhD life, demystifying the APR and becoming a cliché

Hi all!

I just wanted to add a little note to let you know that this blog will be ‘rona free. I hope that it can give you a few minutes of distraction during a difficult time.

Love,

Gabe xoxox

P.S. I’m technically an English Lit researcher, so the PhD experience I’m talking about in this blog is primarily an arts one. Also, it’s just my opinion and often hyperbolized for the sake of comedy! You probably won’t agree with everything I have to say, nor should you! It’s all in good humour (or supposed to be)! Please read my disclaimer, but there are no trigger warnings today!

OK. I think I’ve covered my ass.

We hide | Cute animals, Funny animals, Animals beautiful
Phew! That was close lads.

Are you sitting comfortably?

If not TOUGH LUCK, because it’s time to begin…

Once upon a time, in a tall ivory tower, a message was sent to all of the scholars in the land. This message comprised of three letters:

A P R

The scholars were all in a flurry. They could be seen scrambling for papers, ingesting impossible amounts of a mysterious brown beverage and weeping into their books, most of which were upside down. If approached, the scholars would beg to be left alone and if pressed seemed capable only of mumbling those cursed three letters over and over again:

A…P…R…”

Friends and family who were wise thought it best to leave the scholars alone. The wisest of them even left tributes of food at their scholar’s door and some would even send etchings of cats in an attempt to ease their burden. They wanted to help. The problem was that no one knew what ‘APR’ even meant…

Well friends, I am here to explain it to you. It’s time to demystify the jargon and reveal the arcane secrets of the APR process…

If Sorting Algorithms Were Pokemon - Monique Tuin - Medium

(For my colleagues who know what an APR is: first of all – I’m so sorry, we’ve TOTALLY got this, second of all – please join me for a session of masochistic mockery as I recount the details… )

For those of you who were wise enough to choose a sensible career path, APR means ‘annual progress review’. It’s that time of year when PhD students must discuss their work with a panel comprised of their supervisors + someone new who will provide helpful insights into our projects – or proceed to beat us about the head with our own misguided words.

Alan Rickman Slapping GIF by Cheezburger - Find & Share on GIPHY

As much as they like to tell us that it’s not a test, it is a test. PhD researchers must submit a specified number of words of their project (around 7000 for UofG English Lit researchers – look, I know it used to be 10K, please stop bitching about it) alongside a few forms including an especially fun and not at all irritating box-checking activity called a Researcher Development Log. We complete the paperwork to prove that we’ve been doing things other than our research such as organising events, attending research development training courses and ‘networking’. The whole thing is an elaborate charade designed to help the university pretend that it’s teaching us skills which are applicable to ‘the outside world’ so that it doesn’t have to feel bad when we can’t get a job in academia after graduation…

JUST KIDDING GUYS. 

Of COURSE doing an arts research project teaches us valuable skills that helps us secure later employment. 

OF COURSE bureaucracy is useful part of developing reflective research skills and not a waste of time. 

OF COURSE the research development training courses are always of the highest quality and contribute to our employability. They’re not at all designed to help us check the more obscure boxes of the researcher development framework.

OF COURSE the researcher development framework is intrinsically useful and not something that universities must use to shield themselves in order to justify the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, which is no longer deemed useful by wider society because it’s difficult to commodify…  

OF COURSE we understand the benefits of this process. 

Of course we do. We get it. I swear.

Actually, I’ve heard that APRs can be genuinely useful: they’re rare a chance to talk about our work with people who understand it and the process can be a bit of practice for our viva – a much more formal interrogation meeting us researchers must complete at the end of our projects. The reflective logs also give us time to think about all of the hard work we’ve been doing outwith our projects and consider how this has developed our professional skills. If we’re lucky we might even get a little pat on the head to acknowledge our hard (often unpaid) work.

Pats head GIFs
mmmm serotonin

YUP! Us layabout, late to rise, work from home skivers actually DO things you know. Even lit students can’t just sit around looking at books all day anymore. We have to make IMPACT (whatever the fuck that means) and take part. We have to be do-ers; as a misanthropic introvert I feel as if I was grievously mis-sold this lifestyle… The agony. (Press f to pay respects in the comments please!) 

Anyway, all of this APR stuff and bullshit useful reflective exercises made me think about the start of my own PhD. Not just the research project, but the experience in general. Honestly, I feel really blessed to be doing something I love, but at the same time I have faced difficulties, I have journeyed-

Through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered

No, it’s fine. Really. 

My research is my life. I wouldn’t trade it for the world, especially as I’m one of the lucky few who is actually paid for my work. I can’t overstate the fact that I am incredibly privileged to have the means to do what I love as my job. (Thank you to the University of Glasgow: you have been the Sugar Daddy that I always wished for. Please don’t get mad at me for teasing you… I do love you so!)

it was love at first stipend payment

So early PhD life has been going pretty well, aside from one thing… I’ve become a cliché. I mean, I’m practically a walking meme: I’m that weeby-smol-big-tiddy-goth-girlfriend-sarcastic-millennial that never grew-out of emo music, eats avocado and had a mid-life crisis (well, a quarter-life crisis, now that I’ve quit smoking – going 44 days strong – gib congratz in the comments please). For some reason being a PhD student cliché is even more awful because I SWORE when I saw the sad posts and memes that I would avoid every trap and be my own person. Alas, clichés are clichés for a reason: they’re lived experience converted into shorthand. Although we cannot entirely understand a cliché until we experience it, they are stories that are there to guide us. 

Just like fairy tales.  

My first chapter (and APR submission) is about fairy tales, well, fairy tale video games. It has been an especially challenging start because I burnt my whole life to the ground and was extremely mentally ill folklore is such a dense topic, full of long intersecting histories and counterhistories.  Situating my research within the field seemed like an overwhelming task. That was until I found Jack Zipes. Jack Zipes uses Dawkins’ theory of mimetics to define fairy tales as MEMES. Now, if you’re my facebook friend (in which case I’m so, so sorry) then you know that memes are things I can get behind (or on top of, or underneath).  Now, I’m going to hit you with this theory rather gently so I don’t accidentally self-plagiarize (and because we don’t have a safe word).

Kink Spank GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Basically, Zipes describes a meme as a ‘a unit of cultural transmission’ that must be ‘relevant’ in order to be replicated. 

I’ve outlined what this means in this extremely fancy and SCIENTIFIC flowchart down here:  

 *See the annotated bibliography for sources that more fully explain the concepts below.*

The short of it is that ideas become memes if people find them relatable enough use them to communicate something to other people about themselves. As a meme comes into contact with individuals, it mutates as the teller shapes it in order to make it feel more relevant and more personal. If the meme remains relevant to enough people, it continues to proliferate. Fairy tales are stories which have persisted, remaining relevant enough for their continued use as a means to communicate with each other about ourselves in relation to society.  For something to become a meme, or a cliché, it has to have been true for a long enough time to continue spreading, and versatile enough to be adapted from teller to teller and generation to generation….

I was a fool to think I could escape. It’s extremely tiring to understand how painfully average one’s existence is, BUT at least I had those memes to help me when I was facing difficulties… They reassured me that I was… normal?  

Me? Normal. 

Well, OK then.  

IF YOU SAY SO. 

What I’ve come to learn is that PhD life isn’t just one fairy tale, it’s pretty much all of them.

Fairy tale: Rapunzel

The story of a princess shut away in a tall tower by her witch of a stepmother.

Book tangled rapunzel crown lila bored bed cama rubia GIF on GIFER ...

Reality: tangled up at home

We are both the princess and the witch.

The nature of our work means that researchers often end up shut away at home. There are some provisions on campuses for researchers to work, but unlike many corporate workers, only a few of us are allocated desks or an office to work in. When we’re not attending events and meetings, we likely have the freedom to create our own workdays, so those of us who like to work from home are fortunate enough to be able to. It’s a personal choice for me as it’s cheaper and easier just to stay inside (plus, Pixel is great company).

Fairy tale: Cinderella

Forced by her stepmother to work all day whilst her family go to the ball without her.

Cleaning gif 19 » GIF Images Download

Reality: ‘when you do something you love you’ll work every day of your life’ (Ruth EJ Booth, 2020)

Being our own bosses and working from home means that it can be difficult to separate work from leisure time. For at least three and a half years our work is never done. Nothing can ever be truly finished until our submission date. Many researchers are also unfunded, meaning that if they’re not financially supported by their families they often have to get another job on top of their research: very few of us have fairy godmothers (funding/rich parents/sugar daddies).

Fairy tale: The Golden Goose

Everyone wants to pet the pretty, golden goose, but they quickly change their minds once they are stuck there.

goose knife cute weird untitled goose game...
fucking honk

Reality: if one more person tells me to play more video games, i’m going to fucking stab a bitch

People say that it’s a good idea to study what you love as that passion makes the project more intrinsically motivating, however, disciplines such as Game Studies and English Literature often require us to cast a critical eye over our objects of study. To see its flaws. When you spend all day picking literature or video games apart, it can be difficult to disengage the critical mind and enjoy it after hours. Studying something and enjoying it are VERY different things and require different mindsets; switching between the two can be challenging. This is detrimental as not only does it become more difficult to enjoy ourselves, but often, there is an expectation that PhD researchers should be broadly knowledgeable about their subject areas, when actually specializing in a subject is the antithesis of general knowledge.

Note: losing interest in leisure activities is also a symptom of depression which can be difficult to identify if it’s high functioning. Any researchers out there struggling to disengage from work should consider having a check-up – I did!

Fairy tale: Little Red Riding Hood

She was supposed to follow the path to grandmother’s house, but was distracted by a wolf…

Red Riding Hood GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Reality: sidechicks – hot or a heavy burden?

Most of us have chosen to study something we love. Our projects are like spouses: we adore them, but the road is long and after a while the novelty and excitement wears off… Sometimes it’s all too easy to venture into the woods and get distracted by a tasty little side project! Side projects can be great and sometimes they can even support and reinvigorate your relationship with your research – however, it’s important not to neglect your main squeeze.

Fairy tale: The Three Little Pigs

Built their houses of straw, sticks and bricks – only the latter house survives the wolf’s wrath.

three little pigs | Tumblr
“I’ll huff and I’ll puff,’ said the wolf, “and I’ll blow your-“
“-do you promise?” interrupted the pig.

Reality: we are the wolf, reviewer three built their house of bricks

To be competitive in the academic job market, researchers have to get published! In order to have our work published (an honor that is largely unpaid, by the way) we have to go through a process called ‘peer review’ in which other academics read our work and leave comments. Many reviewers, such as those who take part in Press Start journal are considerate, knowledgeable and leave constructive feedback. Some are reviewer three. Reviewer three knows only destruction. Fuck you reviewer three – did you even read the paper? (The answer is almost always no.)

Fairy tale: Rumpelstiltskin

Rumpelstiltskin span straw into gold for the miller’s daughter, later returning to claim her first born as his reward. He would only relinquish his claim if she guessed his name correctly.

Rumpelstiltskin GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY
“Say my name.”

Reality: impostor syndrome

Researchers are the Miller’s daughter and our thesis is Rumpelstiltskin.

One of the biggest PhD realities is that despite our years of training in academia, none of us feel like we know what we’re doing. Experts aren’t born, they are made, and experts are only human. We can’t know everything! Please don’t expect me to know and remember every game every made – most of the time I can’t even remember my way home!

I Have No Memory Of This Place GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

It’s likely that we know a lot about a very niche thing, so when questioned broadly, some of us must seem like frauds (sometimes it makes us feel like frauds too). Furthermore, during the process of becoming an expert, we have to trawl through so much research and write so many terrible drafts that sometimes it feels like we’re the miller’s daughter spinning piles and piles of straw in the HOPE that it turns into gold.

And just like the miller’s daughter, we are always searching for that illusive name… The TITLE of our project. We often begin our work with a clear idea of what we want to investigate, but the more we work, the more we learn and the more the project changes. “Speak my name!” Our thesis cries before bursting into flames! Our projects should change – that’s the point. If we already knew what we needed to know, we would have our doctorates.

On a darker note, like Rumpelstiltskin, the PhD is capable of stealing our children if we let it. Kind of. OK, this one is a stretch, but for a lot of women, PhDs take place during childbearing years. Although many people are capable of both completing research and having a family, sadly, some feel as if they must choose one or the other.

It’s cool Rumpel, if i ever have a kid then you can keep it. lol

Fairy tale: The Little Mermaid

Gives up her voice in exchange for legs.

The Little Mermaid Ariel GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Reality: losing our voices

It’s a common stereotype that PhD researchers have no social lives because our work takes up so much time. What we don’t talk about are the social dynamics of the job. Except for organizing the odd event, there’s little incentive to work as a team. Outside of term time, we can go for days and weeks without speaking to anyone (at least I do, if I’m lucky). It’s easy to forget how to communicate like a functional human, especially if you don’t have a cat to talk to.

We have cohorts and are encouraged to bond and help other researchers, but sometimes this can exacerbate things. Sometimes (not all the time and not everyone) researchers have a way of accidentally pressuring each other. Even though logically we know that our projects are unique and we work in varying ways at different paces and have very diverse circumstances (full time/part time, family/single, funded/unfunded, supported by family/self-sufficient, etc) a lifetime of comparing grades to ‘be the best’ so that we can join a PhD programme in the first place has made it difficult to speak to each other about work without somehow feeling the pressures of competition.

Many researchers are so overworked and so stressed that spending time together may not produce the chillest of vibes. To make matters worse, those of us in similar fields will be competing for the same few jobs when we finish….

But hey, I’m just antisocial anyway. Maybe let’s forget about being competitive and go for drinks when the world has healed? (´。• ᵕ •。`) ♡

Fairy tale: The emperor’s new clothes

Two weavers promise the emperor an exclusive set of threads: in reality, he’s just naked. Everyone pretends he’s dressed until a child points it out and shatters the collective lie.

Emperors New Clothes GIFs | Tenor

The reality: we are fragile monarchs of very tiny kingdoms, please appease us

We’re all pretending that our arts qualifications are leading us somewhere and that we’ll get something out of it at the end. Our loved ones are complicit in this elaborate lie: “But you’ll have a doctorate,” they say. “You’ll get a job easily,” they say. The harsh reality is that the letters are about as useful as the emperor’s new clothes these days.

We’re not just naked, we’re also also fucked.

Just please don’t mention it to us.

WE KNOW!

Fairy tale: Hansel and Gretel

Lured in by the promise of gingerbread and nearly cannibalized.

Mean Lisa Simpson GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

The reality: cannibalized by the system

Have I mentioned that there are scarcely any relevant jobs for PhD researchers after graduation? To be fair, we were warned. Senior academics are quite transparent about the state of the academic job market, but we enter the gingerbread house knowing how fragile it all is because it’s fucking delicious and maybe, just MAYBE, our particular gingerbread house won’t have a witch inside. Or perhaps if there is a witch inside, she’ll magic-up a contract for us that isn’t precarious.

But what about the happy ending?

Believe In Your Dreams GIFs - Get the best GIF on GIPHY

According to Tolkien (because we CAN’T talk about Fantasy without mentioning Daddy), one of the most important functions of fairy tales is ‘the Consolation of the Happy Ending’.

They are there to make us feel better because life is beautifully flawed and full of disappointment.

So you see, PhD life is a fairy tale. It just so happens that it’s the shit bit at the beginning, rather than the good bit at the end.

Just kidding!

Researchers! How would you describe your experiences using fairy tales?

Annotated Bibliography 

For mimetics: Dawkins, C. (1976). The selfish gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Some fairy tales (gruesome): Grimm, J., Grimm, W., & Mondschein, K. (Eds.). (2011). Grimm’s complete fairy tales. Canterbury Classics.

More fairy tales (cutesy): Perrault, C., & Betts, C. J. (2009). The complete fairy tales. Oxford University Press.

Apparently Pratchett talks about a lot of this stuff, but I haven’t read it yet – it’s a cheerful book and I’ve been depressed: Pratchett, T. (1997). Hogfather: A Discworld novel. Corgi Books. 

For a happy ending: Tolkien, J. R. R., Flieger, V., Anderson, D. A., & HarperCollins Publishers. (2014). Tolkien on fairy-stories. HarperCollins Publishers.

Relevance theory: Wilson, D. and Sperber, D. (2008). Relevance Theory. In The Handbook of Pragmatics (eds L.R. Horn and G. Ward). 

Fairy tales and memes: Zipes, J. (2006). Why Fairy Tales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of a Genre. Routledge.