Taking Time Out is Not Failure

I’ve been a bit down lately (massive understatement, but I’ll not go into it here) about various things and hit a bit of a wall. I think partly this was due to exhaustion, for want of a better word. I felt like I was going mad with working full time and studying towards the PhD part time (which actually equates to roughly 20 hours a week) and doing stuff for free for people and trying to write and finish the new manuscript. It was like all of a sudden my brain just said “nope” and everything started to come to pieces. I became much more isolated and stopped doing a lot of the stuff that I enjoyed and found that I was constantly worrying about how I was going to get everything done. I stopped sleeping, which is still an issue, when I did sleep I was having the most horrific dreams. And let me tell you, nothing increases stress like very little sleep. It was too much. I admit it, it was too much.

I have been juggling work, study and writing for the last…I don’t know…at least ten years, and always got through everything. I carried on studying right through the IVF and the loss of Matilda (I handed an assignment in a week after she died) and through miscarriages (I went to an exam whilst having a miscarriage) and it always gave me a really steely determination, like if I could hang on to this rope that was coming from a future place where I had succeeded in my studies, everything would be alright, like the future me was giving me a way to keep moving forward. So it came as something of a shock to suddenly realise that the thing that I had always, always relied on (this is my fourth degree, the big one, the end game) was causing me more harm than good. I have ended up having to work so much to get my bills paid and my tuition fees paid (I’m self funded) that I didn’t have adequate time in the working week to actually do the study I needed to do, so in effect I was working seventy hours a week at one point, every weekend and not having enough down time. I’d managed to get that down to fifty hours a week, but realistically, because I do some charity stuff and some unpaid work, I was actually still working most weekends, and when I wasn’t working I wasn’t switching off, I was worrying. I was no longer enjoying what I was doing.

I have worked so hard to reach this point in my writing career, where I am a full time, self employed writer, qualified, published, boxes ticked. But because of the stress, I wasn’t enjoying it. The PhD had become a huge weight with serious deadlines. I’d lost my supervisor a while ago and because the whole department was being changed, I went without support at a crucial part of my PhD process and I just lost my confidence, I drifted, I lost momentum and couldn’t work out how to get back into the work, so much so that when I finally did get two new supervisors, it was difficult to meet their requirements, even though the are both absolutely lovely. And then, as I say, the train came off the tracks and that was it.

It came to a head when I was doing some research for an article that I was writing for a magazine, with the subject being the Hand of Glory in Whitby museum. I was getting paid well for it, and I had been on a research trip to the museum to chat to the curators and look over the artefacts. I had had a wonderful day, I felt I was finally doing the thing I loved and was just enjoying it. But then I got home and one of my other clients had not paid when I expected them to, leaving us short, which put me in danger of not being able to pay my tuition fees, so I set to work doing ten hours of very low paid writing work, work that is always available, but is quite strenuous and mind numbing as often it’s on subjects I don’t know enough about and don’t have interest in. However, it is available work which plugs holes like this. But then, of course, that meant I’d lost ten hours of my twenty hours study time and suddenly I was acutely aware that this situation was happening all the time, I was on this never ending hamster wheel and I was simultaneously writing intensely painful poetry for the new manuscript and for the PhD and was fighting the council on the cemetery rulings, and I was turning forty and then it was Matilda’s birthday and I couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t do it any more. My mind was racing and racing and I couldn’t think what the answer was. I’d become so used to the idea that I would just continue to study, that it didn’t occur to me to take a leave of absence from the PhD. And then, suddenly, it did. Of course, removing not only the time spent doing the PhD, but the financial strain of doing the PhD and the stress of it all is an obvious solution, but you see, studying, like I say, had always been a lifeline and this is my big one, this is the place that I had imagined getting to all those years ago.

I knew it was the right decision immediately, but the sense of failure was also over whelming. I don’t deal with failure very well, I set my targets very high and to be fair, that makes me work hard and accomplish what I want to, but it also leaves me feeling bereft when I fail because I feel that it is intrinsically part of who I am to be rubbish at everything, and I have to work hard to prove to myself that I am not. I don’t have confidence in myself, my work, my studies, I’m actually quite reliant on having confirmation of any talent that I do have because my own sense of self is skewed to see someone who is unlikeable, unlovable, untalented, unattractive, un-wantable. There’s also a very very deep wound inside me that says I failed my daughter. I failed my child and I will never know what would have happened if I had shouted louder for scans, for appointments, to be believed. I often feel like there must be something utterly, horribly bad about me that all my babies have died inside me, like I am a pomegranate that has gone rotten on the inside, out of sight. I blame myself in a  way that I don’t think you can imagine unless you’re a mum who’s baby is dead. I might even try a little more therapy to deal with it because I feel that I am stuck in a place of grief a lot of the time. But then, I think I am always like this when it’s her birthday, it’s a massive trigger. Perhaps I need to cut myself a bit of slack. Eight years, it sounds like a lot, but it’s not. I have relived her death repeatedly in those eight years, every day, several times a day. But a lot of the time I relive the absolute joy that I felt to have her with me, the pride that I felt in seeing this perfect, beautiful baby that we had created. I remember the love more than the loss, mostly. There I go again, all roads lead back to my daughter, always, always, always. I don’t know if I am ready for them not to, if I’m honest. It feels too permennt. I still haven’t emptied the baby clothes out of the drawers, I got as far as taking the maternity clothes out of the wardrobe and putting them in a bag, and getting rid of all the old pregnancy tests and literature from the IVF , but I am blocked when it comes to dealing with her things. Perhaps that is about failure too. I’m a fighter, I fight, I even fight myself, a lot. It feels almost like being disloyal to her, to take her things and move them or get rid of them, and I know that will sound bat shit crazy, but it’s like I might hurt her feelings and I would never ever have hurt her. It kills me to know that she might have suffered and I might have been the cause of that, by not acting, by not challenging the things that were said to me, by accepting, by being passive. That’s why it’s important to me to keep fighting now, against the cemetery rulings, against poor protocol, raising a bit of money here and there for charities, it’s like a sort of atonement in a way. Perhaps that’s why I find it so difficult to put her away, put her things away, because that feels like letting her down.

Sheesh. This wasn’t supposed to be about her, it was supposed to be about university. So, anyway….I decided to take a year off my studies. I need to build my freelance work up, start getting bigger jobs and I want to finish the next manuscript and this is a good choice, this is a positive choice to make. I’m certain of that. But still, the feeling of being a failure, of letting people down, of potentially upsetting or hurting people because of my choices persists. However, this is the first week I have managed to go to a poetry gig that I wasn’t reading at, and I have done housework and I have bathed guinea pigs and I’ve been reading poetry not attached to the PhD and I am going out researching for another article next week. And all of that, that’s where I wanted to be, with a new manuscript taking shape and being self employed. Perhaps this needed to happen, perhaps this is actually a natural process of coming to terms. Perhaps the frantic wound packing that I have been doing for the last eight years is stuttering, the fuel running out, the engine cough coughing to a stop. What feels like a car crash is perhaps just a change of transport, perhaps this is my brain telling me it’s time, perhaps I am so used to fighting and running that I don’t know how to stop and perhaps my lovely brain does know, inside, somewhere in a back room, perhaps lovely brain knows that it takes a massive collision with ‘now’ to stop me being so reliant on ‘future’. Perhaps I just need unplugging and plugging back in again. And the PhD is going to be there waiting when I’m ready.

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