Content warning: The following post discusses trauma, BPD, CPTSD and codependency from the POV of lived experience. It also contains *spoilers* throughout, and may not make much sense unless you have experienced the game prior to reading.
“I’m so fucking normal right now.”
― Disco Elysium
Our bodies remember what our conscious minds try to forget. Memories, the specifics, can be erased, but emotions cannot. They are immutable. They become woven into the very fibre of our beings and influence our behaviour in ways we don’t understand. There is no erasure – the best-case scenario is rehabilitation; the worst is the pale.
Raphaël AmbrosiusCosteau Tequila Sunset Harrier Du Bois drinks to forget, but in the process loses himself. His memories are gone, but the emotions remain – formless, contextless. Harry is a man deeply shaped by trauma, and his relationship with his ‘ex-something (?)’ became a casualty of this trauma, a casualty that was one too many.
The game is punctuated by dreams and vague recollections, in which Harry’s faculties battle to repress his memories. Towards the end of the game, the repression fails, and Harry is finally allowed to remember – to connect the emotions he has been feeling, to his memories of what caused them.
In the final dream of the game, Harry confronts his ‘ex’, Dolores Dei – an innocence, or “a sacred human being”. But, of course, this isn’t Harry’s ex. This is an overdetermined image amalgamating the divine Dolores Dei, with Dora Ingerlund – his ex-fiancée. Harry’s idealisation may have reached pathological extremes, but idealisation is fairly common in romantic relationships, which may start with infatuation based on what we assume we know about a person, before a connection based on mutual understanding deepens over time and, if nurtured, matures into something we might call ‘love’.
Harry and Dora met when Dora was young. He was her first love, and he feels like she will be his last. From what we can deduce, it was a long-term relationship fraught with turbulence, partially due to Harry’s trauma-induced mental health problems. Harry was repeatedly traumatised by the violent and intense nature of his work, but the way that it consumes him suggests that his sense of self was fragile to begin with. Many people who have experienced trauma, and have BPD or CPTSD, cope by trying to find a sense of self external to them: in their work, for example. But to find oneself in something, is to make oneself contingent upon that external thing, which can further increase one’s susceptibility to re-traumatisation when those things go away.
In a moment of reflexivity, the game acknowledges that Harry has been defined by his role as a detective and has lost the ability to communicate in a private, interpersonal setting. His speech patterns are subsumed by questions and lists which have become his second nature: effective for a detective, but not a sensitive way to navigate intimacy. These lists remind me of a tendency I have to overthink every social interaction – the desire to exhaust all options to obtain the best possible outcome and avoid the negative consequences I’ve experienced for saying the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time. These dialogue trees literalise a form of control taken by people who have, at one point, had all control taken away from them. We may not speak in lists, but many of us think in them.
We do not know whether it was the work that traumatized Harry, or if he was more susceptible to re-traumatisation due to a personal history of mental illness and/or pre-existing trauma. What we do know, is that Dora spent much of her time witnessing his decline, tending to his feelings, and deteriorating as a result. Their relationship became co-dependent: for a while, neither felt like they could live without the other.
Did Harry and Dora love each other?
As far as we know, Dora loved Harry in the best way she could. Harry loved what Dora meant to him – he loved Dolores Dei. What Dolores Dei signifies is a transcendent experience: the promise of salvation that does not exist. Harry sought to lose himself in the prestige of his job, in music, in substance abuse and in his relationship. Oxytocin is a hell of a drug, but love is not a transcendent experience. Love is human, messy, imperfect and full of pain – as are the people we share it with.
Co-dependence can look like love, and feel like love, but it’s not love.
When we idealise people, it is in the hope that we can love in a way that transcends our past experiences. We want to become someone new. We make new selves, contingent on our entanglement with another. We ask too much, we invest too much, and then when the relationship dies, it feels like a part of us dies with it. We mourn people who are still alive and treat them like ghosts so we can try and move on. It is because we never truly knew them; we loved an ideal, and that is what is dead.
At the end of the interaction, Dora tells Harry about her new life and the wonderful things and people who are a part of it. Harry, who has finally remembered that which he was striving to forget, is left at a crossroads. Either he will confront and process the memory and finally move on, or repress the dream and be doomed to repeat it night after night.
We do not know if Harry experiences the dream again: will Harry’s shrine to the immortal and perfect Dolores Dei forever reside within his heart, preventing him from loving in a functional way? Or, will he acknowledge Dora as a human being? In doing so, perhaps he would finally be able to process the memory of a relationship that was important, but one that was flawed enough to allow him the space to let go.
Perhaps there is hope. What we must remember is that we never truly met Dora, only Harry’s version of her. In this version of Harry’s dream, Dora is happy and moves on. She also tells him that he, will indeed, be happy again. This is reassuring when we remember that when Harry speaks to Dolores Dei, he’s never really speaking with Dora… he is, and always has been, in conversation with himself.
I needed to cry and I couldn’t, so I made a game instead.
This project simulates one of the most difficult things to explain about my mental illness. Well, actually, let’s frame this not in terms of mental illness, but in terms of neurodiversity. This game explores the ways in which some brains function a little differently to others, and details some of the struggles that may be experienced by neurodiverse people when functioning within neurotypical romance ideals and dynamics.
Romantic relationships are often conceptualized as sites of comfort and security – things we can count on, at least for a time. More nuanced portrayals speak to their challenges, however, difficult relationships are often labelled as ‘bad’, ‘toxic’ or ‘unhealthy’. It’s rare to come across acknowledgement that what may be functionally a ‘good’ or ‘healthy’ relationship may be more difficult for one partner than another.
If there’s no harmful conduct, difficulties individuals experience in relationships can often be dismissed, such as when a mentally ill person is labelled as ‘high-functioning’. The appearance of ‘functioning’ or ‘good’ behaviour should not be taken as a marker of mental health, just as when a relationship appears ‘healthy’ its difficulty should not be taken for granted, nor the work of its maintenance dismissed. No relationship is perfect, and all relationships take work, but can we please admit that some of us need to work harder than others?
Some of us pay a higher emotional cost, and when that cost becomes too high it can lead to emotional burnout which can bleed into the rest of our lives.
So why do some neurodiverse people have to work so hard? Well, because our brains work differently, of course.
On Object Constancy and Emotional Permanence
Have you ever played ‘peek-a-boo’ with a small child, or do you remember playing the game as a small child yourself? This game plays with the idea of object permanence – a skill acquired in the early stages of childhood in which children develop the understanding that an object continues to exist, even when it’s out of sight. If you don’t have object permanence, once a thing is out of sight, it is out of mind.
Object constancy is the emotional equivalent of this concept: when you have object constancy, you are able to hold a positive impression of someone, and your relationship with them, in your heart, even when they’re not around and ‘despite the presence of setbacks, conflict, or disagreements’ (as explained on betterhelp). It’s a feeling of security – the possibility of loving and being loved by someone, even when you’re apart. For those who lack object constancy, every disagreement is a ‘potential break-up‘, which is why those with object constancy issues often fall into habits of people pleasing and may struggle to get their needs met in a relationship. It also makes us more susceptible to abuse, which is sometimes targeted.
When individuals don’t have object constancy, it can lead them to question their relationships to an unhealthy degree, especially when this difference isn’t accommodated for. Those who have not experienced a lack of object constancy may find it difficult to understand their loved one’s behaviour: they may take the stability of the relationship for granted, or view their partner’s requests for help or for overt displays of affection as ‘needy’, ‘self-absorbed’ or ‘high maintenance’.
Object constancy issues themselves are not mental illnesses, but they can lead to them without appropriate management. So why isn’t this kind of emotional support framed as accessibility? Neurodiverse people are capable of having happy, healthy relationships if strategies are in place to accommodate for their differences.
Narratives surrounding a lack of object constancy do not often directly name, or address the topic, but manifest as stereotypes and tropes in media, or in the language used to describe celebrities who exhibit socially dysfunctional behaviour. People with object constancy issues, or those who have trouble maintaining stability in relationships, may be labelled as ‘the crazy ex’ or ‘the needy girlfriend’ and described as ‘immature’, ‘acting out’ or ‘attention seeking’.
Even literature surrounding disorders which feature a lack of object constancy, such as borderline personality disorder, warn people not to be in relationships with those who suffer from these problems and feature case studies of people whose lives have been ‘destroyed’ by their mentally ill partners. I’m not going to link the literature, it’s prevalent enough that a google search will be revealing.
I’m not saying that people with such disorders can’t be abusive partners, but people WITHOUT these disorders can be just as bad. Having a disorder may affect the way a person feels about and towards something, but feelings aren’t abusive: it’s how we act which defines us. You can be a shitty person with object constancy issues, and you can be a shitty person without them.
See also: being a good person and having a disorder are not mutually exclusive.
You may not even be able to tell when someone has object constancy issues. They may not even know. Sometimes the condition only becomes apparent when the symptoms become unmanageable, as neurodiverse people often mask the problem to fit in, due to the stigma, or out of fear of hurting others. Masking the problem does not erase the suffering, and the energy required to mask takes a toll on the person doing so. If we are used to masking, we may only ask for help when our distress has escalated to a near unmanageable degree. We ask when we are desperate, and desperate pleas do not make for polite conversation: often the symptoms we see in media are at the extreme end of the spectrum.
The trouble is that issues of object constancy manifest when there is an object to attach to – meaning they involve other people. This makes the issue messy and difficult: no one’s mental health is your responsibility: support should be reasonable, boundaried and include external sources. Support groups (DBT focused groups, for example) have been identified as being particularly useful – but, sadly such groups are painfully rare. Furthermore, partners of neurodiverse people must be engaged enough to work on the relationship to improve it too, and may need to consider how they can make reasonable accommodations for their partner if they want to make the relationship work. I don’t feel that it’s fair for one partner to take on the burdens of a relationship alone, especially when aspects of relationships may exacerbate their problems.
Object constancy issues or not: every fight will feel like a break-up if you’re weighing the cost of being in a relationship against the value of your mental health.
The destigmatization and discussion of these issues, along with early intervention and treatment, could alleviate the suffering of neurodiverse people and better support their partners.
So about this game
I’m going to be honest with you. Even though I ranted about neurodiversity above, I didn’t make the game to provide representation or be an advocate. I don’t have enough distance from the thing to know whether it’s ‘good’ representation either, so if this makes us look worse, I am sorry.
I made it because I am angry. Angry and so fucking tired of having to explain myself all the time. I find it incredibly upsetting that such a common issue is so poorly understood, and that just because I mask my symptoms well, it’s taken for granted that things are easy for me, or I’m undeserving of help.
I am often frustrated that the work I do to achieve something resembling ‘stability’ or what people describe as ‘normality’, obscures my difficulties so much that I am not believed when I do need help. I’ve been working really hard on myself and am in recovery for a lot of issues, in a mostly self-directed way. I’ve been doing everything I can, but it feels like there are some things that I can’t change. I have hit a mental health plateau and I just want to scream. This game is the scream; so do take care playing. I was really surprised when people told me that the game is triggering, because it’s not about a particularly bad, or good day for me: it’s about most of my days, or how most of my days have the potential to go.
It’s not all anger, though. Love is important I suppose, and not all forms of love are difficult for me. This game is made with a lot of love. It’s a celebration of my hard-won self-awareness and my continuing fight against maladaptive coping mechanisms and suicidal tendencies. It’s also a celebration of my friendships and the people I’ve trusted to help me with the game, even though working alone is my default. It showcases my highs, my lows, and my struggle to find balance. Without love, I wouldn’t have the strength to work on myself the way I do, or to take responsibility for myself and for my feelings. I wouldn’t have the motivation to try and be better, for other people, or for myself.
Thank you for reading this and for playing the game. Do leave a comment, tweet me and share! I’m eager to know what you think.
On early PhD life, demystifying the APR and becoming a cliché
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.
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.
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:
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…
(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.
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.
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-
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!)
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).
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:
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 painfullyaverage 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?
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Fairy tale: Hansel and Gretel
Lured in by the promise of gingerbread and nearly cannibalized.
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?
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.
Researchers! How would you describe your experiences using fairy tales?
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.
“It’s funny,” I said to my supervisor, without smiling. “I’ve written about this kind of thing before, but back then I didn’t know what I was writing about. Now I think I know and the project is starting to look a little clearer. I didn’t realise that it was so personal to me.”
Rycroft’s Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis defines sublimation as a ‘developmental process… by which instinctual energies… are discharged… in non-instinctual forms of behaviour’ (p 176, 1995). At the basic level, sublimation makes the terrifying and socially unacceptable useful; it’s like putting a zombie on a leash and making it push trolleys instead of eating people: though, I’d rather chain it up in the shed and play games with it, but that’s another metaphor. The gist is that dangerous things are fine as long as they’re productive.
In his definition, Rycroft suggests that the urges sublimated are situated in the pre-genital stage of development (p. 177, 1995) which to plebs like us means those survival instincts we get before we become obsessed with dicks: oral and anal fixations. Apparently as we get older, the urges don’t go away, we just focus them elsewhere: like music, art or academia. We channel all that energy into something useful, more socially acceptable. However, in the typically dick-obsessed Freudian manner, Rycroft also ties sublimation to more adult urges. Here’s a fun fact for you lads: apparently academic curiosity is the result of sublimating scopophilia: deriving sexual pleasure from watching people fuck. Well, that’s me well and truly called out… Oopsie.
I don’t necessarily agree with the idea that certain urges correspond to particular interests, but it seems like common sense that art we create, fiction we produce and research we conduct can be an outlet for things we have repressed (be that an urge, or a memory): an attempt at processing it.
That’s why psychoanalytic theory can be useful. It’s a contentious field: still used widely in therapeutic practice but derided by many as ‘those weird books about daddy issues and fucking your mum’ (some guy called Allan, 2020). Though I would not dare to venture into the realms of practical therapy (and am poorly qualified to do so) we can utilise psychoanalytic theory to analyse cultural artifacts such as literature, visual art and video games because it attempts to explain the processes behind their creation via the accessible language of metaphor. There’s a reason that many of Freud’s terms are still part of common parlance: it’s because they feel like common sense; whether that’s because they’re already so ingrained in our culture or because they manage to so clearly describe how we experience emotions, we cannot know. But, either way, the terms are here to stay. Why? Because I say so (see my thesis in four years – I hope).
So, back to sublimation. What if it’s an outlet for more than pregenital boob and shitting obsessions? We don’t stop developing after childhood, our lives are long and there is plenty of time to accumulate other urges and debris to store within the dank basements of our unconscious minds.
We grow, we change. Things happen for us. To us.
Instinctual urges aren’t the only things we repress… What if during the process of sublimation we drag up other things lurking within the depths of our unconscious? What if our art or our research reflects the impulses or repressed memories that drive us? What if I chose to study psychoanalytic theory for reasons I don’t understand, or can’t remember? I’d never thought about how my research might reflect my personal experiences. Academia is perceived as an ivory tower (a tower I’ve been dragging myself up brick by bloody brick). Research is just something students do because they’re lazy and don’t want to join the real world and get a real job! Right?
I experienced the theories I read in a disembodied way: they were just intricate trellises used to display a pretty argument and the argument felt essentially like a logic puzzle rather than anything real.
Then the flashbacks started.
I was writing my dissertation for my MLitt in Fantasy Literature. It’s about using Fantasy video games as a means of processing unconscious trauma… Purely theoretical of course. Nothing to do with personal experience… Then the connections started to form. I started to recall shadows of memories. Something inside me snapped. I lost touch. I didn’t understand what was happening to me, that I was finally remembering.
I remember studying psychoanalytic theory during my undergrad and frantically contacting one of the wonderful tutors. Hewas so understanding.
“When you spoke about repression in class… I… I have the feeling I’m forgetting something. I don’t know what. Is there any way you can help me? My therapy isn’t working.”
I’m not superstitious, yet whilst writing my dissertation I started to believe in ghosts and became afraid of the dark. My anxiety was so heightened that I experienced everything as a threat: I couldn’t even walk along my two meter corridor alone to get to the light switch and the (perfectly normal and healthy) sound of the crying child next door made me weep in despair.
“Why won’t somebody help him?”
I got lost in the hypnagogic fog between the sleeping and waking worlds. I woke up sobbing, fighting someone who was not there.
“Don’t touch me.”
Almost nightly I rolled out of bed half asleep and confused to search for clothes as if my life depended on it. I didn’t recognise my own room, or the man who’d been sleeping next to me for five years.
“I’ve got something to tell you that might change the way you think about me,” I said to him. “I think I know why I feel dirty all the time. I mean, it might not have even happened. It probably didn’t. No big deal. It doesn’t matter. I’m sorry.”
Then there was a murder in our apartment complex. It may be rather self-centered to point out how it effected me, but it didn’t do much to help my sense of security.
Still, after hours of compulsive checking (the kind of checking that hurts your eyes and your brain so much that it’s unproductive – as many symptoms of OCD are and become) I submitted the dissertation and went to the pub with the other Ravens (the name of our cohort). I knew I shouldn’t have had a drink, but I wanted to try and feel normal. Celebrate, perhaps?
I’d not had the luxury of being able to relax. Not for a very long time. Relaxation is dangerous and I confided in someone I shouldn’t have.
“I think I’ve been attacked,” I said. “I still don’t know. It’s been around ten years. It probably didn’t happen. I’d remember it if it happened. It can’t have been that bad? It doesn’t matter. I’m sorry.”
She was sweet. She was wonderful. But, friends are not therapists. It wasn’t the time or place. That’s one of the reasons I never go to parties. If I let down my guard just a little, the dam breaks down and all of that ‘tragic backstory’ comes pouring out. What is repressed always fights to resurface. My trauma was inked across the white pages of my dissertation and I hadn’t even realised until it was too late.
It wasn’t the time or place.
Is there ever a time or place?
Perhaps this isn’t the time or place either.
I’m so sorry to be such a burden to all of you. I don’t deserve your time.
It’s no big deal.
I’m so sorry.
I suppose that’s why psychoanalytic theory is so appealing to me, as well as its academic merits (which I will detail in my thesis), the theories have changed my understanding of myself. It wasn’t the reason I chose to study it, but it’s the reason I was drawn to it.
I know that now.
I didn’t mean to make it all about me.
I had no idea.
Then again, it might not have happened anyway. I still can’t entirely remember.
Rycroft, C. (1995). A critical dictionary of psychoanalysis (2nd ed). Penguin Books.
Freud, Sigmund. (1915). Repression. SE, 14: 141-158.