Our details are important. Otherwise, if they are not, we can drop a bomb and it doesn’t matter.Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones
One of the hallmarks of being a scholar is the ability to communicate through writing and usually to communicate research and teaching ideas through writing. Most people who go through doctoral training are aware that to be employable and to maintain employment contracts in academia, writing and publishing are desirable. Most are aware of the expectation that we should publish our doctoral research in some form during or after the PhD years. I completed my PhD in 2010 and I’ve yet to publish research from it. I write ‘yet’ because I’ve been invited to submit a chapter based on it for an edited collection this summer. I have a quiet confidence I’ll write, edit and submit. The details of this matter. In this blog I will share insights about how severe anxiety and compulsivity affected me and my writing throughout my PhD (and afterwards), and how I’ve managed to arrive at a place of gratitude and acceptance.
I’m sure many PhD students will know how challenging it can be to write and communicate research to different audiences. In the years after my PhD, I read numerous books about creative processes and writing, and about making the writing process more efficient. I did this partly in order to understand why writing was not happening and also to shed light on why I experienced writing, sharing written work and networking in academia as highly threatening occasions. During a nine-month teaching job post-PhD at a Russell Group institution, I was assigned a mentor; during our conversations I tried to explain that I was experiencing real difficulty writing. She quipped that I should try having four children, just like her, as that would help me find time to write with laser beam focus! The added pressure I was piling on myself back then was, of course, because I wasn’t writing, I wasn’t securing a ‘proper job’ in academia. I felt I was a failure because I wasn’t able to write; I wasn’t able to write and so I was a failure.
This sense of failure and inadequacy followed me everywhere. It was my shadow, but the kind of shadow that buries itself in the soul. I became quietly and persistently confused. I had definitely written a doctoral thesis. I could write. To make matters worse, I passed the viva with no changes or corrections, just before my twenty-fifth birthday. As I was told fairly often, this was quite an achievement. What’s more, at the viva, a very prominent scholar assessed my work in a gentle yet challenging way and just wished me well in a career that was surely unfurling. Both her and my supervisor commented on my finely-tuned attention to detail, my nuanced approach to reading and writing about scholarship, and the quality of my writing. I stemmed the flow of confusion a little by becoming aware of the class inequalities and forms of marginalisation and exploitation that are inherent in academia. I really had no idea how to navigate academia and ‘play the game’. I was probably due to my class background and young age that meant I was missing a trick or two that would have eased the navigation of the academic job market. My family did not have the capital or insight to help steer me through academic networks and I had only recently got my foot in the door with temporary research jobs with the academy.
But these factors didn’t explain the writing issue or the doubt or the fear that was part of it. The more I retrospectively accounted for my doctoral experience with help from close friends, the more I was revealing to myself a deeper and more enduring problem: I was experiencing anxiety, confusion and forgetfulness that had clearly affected my work
For example, after my viva, I spoke with my supervisor and told her with all the certainty in the world that the prominent scholar hadn’t actually read my thesis. This was obviously not true. In another example, my supervisor held a post-viva debrief and gently asked me why I had not been truthful about certain steps of the doctoral process. I had no idea that I was giving the impression of lying. Shame was setting in as other people noticed the inconsistency between what I said I would do, what I actually did and what I thought I did. On numerous occasions, I had written chapters, stored them, forgot I had written them, then re-wrote them – and in the process re-read the same scholarly work to draw on thinking I hadn’t. And on the eve of submitting my thesis, I had a panic attack after a week of scrambling through a final edit, losing the power of speech and experiencing immobility in my legs. What was going on?
Developing Self-Awareness Through Support and Therapy
It was through this process of accountability with close and trusted folk that I began to pay attention to my everyday behaviours and how I had been spending my time. I realised that I had lost hours to scanning my body in a mirror and to picking my arms and face. I’d sit down to write, and then, without even remembering moving to a mirror or turning to my arms, I’d be there for hours, daily. Through sharing these memories of the doctoral process, over time I came to realise I had been picking at my skin, at my body, since my early teens. Ever the problem-solver, I took myself to my local GP and was referred to the adult psychology centre at the local National Health Service community hospital to start therapy and habit reversal training. I did indeed ‘have’ or experience life with a compulsive disorder, and specifically compulsive skin picking.
Clinically, it’s called ‘excoriation disorder’ or ‘dermatillomania’. In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, compulsive skin picking is recognised as one of a few ‘body focussed repetitive behaviours’ (BFRBs). These behaviours are classified under the umbrella of ‘Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and related disorders’. Compulsive disorders typically dovetail with acute anxiety and in my case this often manifests in catastrophising and cognitive distortion. Although picking is the most obvious expression of compulsivity, elements of compulsiveness map onto other habitual behaviours and daily routines.
Through therapy and habit reversal training, my confusion subsided and a sense of grief and acceptance settled in. I realised that I experienced writing and social exposure in academia as battles because my embodied experience of most days was saturated by acute anxiety, catastrophising and the impacts of a compulsive disorder. Sometimes it still is. Sometimes the influence is weak and I can hardly hear it; sometimes I find humour in the madness, as is rightly advised by my mentors who have accumulated wisdom from centuries ago. (I mean, my thesis was on the value of autonomy, of self-government and freedom. The irony is not lost on me!). But at other times – and this was the predominant sense in my younger life – in my body, acute anxiety whips up a whirlwind of cognitive distortion, suicidal ideation and immense threat, and it’s typically then that the insidious slide into time-guzzling involuntary repetitions and compulsive behaviour takes over.
Going through habit reversal training and continuing to read those books about writing started to make more sense. Annie Dillard (1990, p. 32) has written beautifully about the writing process, capturing the urgency of writing down the details of life relative to how life time passes and why giving structure to time can be wise given our human tendency to wander off into time:
How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim…is a mock-up of reason and order – willed, faked and so brought into the being; it is peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself…
Working in academia often means having lots of discretion with how to structure your time. While this can be liberating and can generate self-discipline, having vast oceans of time ahead of me as a doctoral student was the perfect condition to let compulsivity roam free and do some damage.
One of the saddest and most frustrating things about living with a compulsive disorder is that it steals your life time – or rather, I was losing my own time. Minutes and hours spent involuntarily repeating behaviours that may offer momentary relief, an escape route, or an obsessive fix, but do not serve your life time. This sense of losing time was amplified by the process of searching for a ‘proper’ job in academia and being employed on endless fixed-term contracts. The precarity involved in the academic job market just egged on my tendency to catastrophise and lose time and energy worrying about income and being good enough.
‘How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives’. Annie’s sentiment stayed with me. I wrote these words on my kitchen blackboard as a reminder of the value of time. Through therapy and support from close friends, I realised the rhythms and precarity involved in academia did not allow me to spend my days being well. I’m grateful that the doctoral years helped me realise that I live with a compulsive disorder but life time is too precious to spend each day running into a wall.
Finding Purpose and Acceptance
Now, I spend my half of the week working as an organic gardener at a residential school for young people with additional support needs and tending to the gardens of elders in the community. I retrained through further education in horticulture and found a way to simultaneously channel and reduce my body’s compulsive tendences through manual work and being of service to others. Human activity which involves the synchronous dance of hands, head and the heart is known to ease our felt sense of distress and to enhance our connectedness with others in this earthly, time-bound existence. I fundamentally restructured my sense of identity through my labouring body and gained a different sense of time in doing so.
What surprised me was that gardening brought me back to writing. In the garden, I learned a different sense of time, structured by the seasons and the elements, and a quiet acceptance for the transitions and impermanence each life goes through. I brought this learning into the writing process and I’m now no longer so fearful of putting words together on a page and having a voice. When the crippling doubt swings by, as it does, I remind myself of Michael Pallen’s (1991, p. 5) observation in Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education that writing and gardening have much in common; they are ‘two ways of rendering the world in rows’. Making a transition into recovery and healing means writing feels different now – it often feels good and I realise the urgency in sharing with others through the written word in our life time.
This is how I’ve approached sharing my story with you, here. I’m motivated to help raise awareness of obsessive compulsive and related disorders to help ease suffering of others, and to join in public conversations about ill health, recovery and institutional changes needed in academia. But the intention runs deeper, and though it may seem personal, it is communal. Writing and sharing these words are small victories. They are small but powerful reminders of life-in-healing and reminders of the significance, to those who have survived and those who left us too soon, that details matter. My details matter, your detail matters, their details matter.
For information and support regarding OCD and related disorders, see:
The TLC Foundation for Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviours
Dr Kirsty Alexander is a teacher in Applied Gender Studies at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, Scotland. She is also a biodynamic gardener at Ochil Tower School in Auchterarder, which is part of the Camphill network of schools. Click here to listen to the Being On the Inside podcast with Kirsty talking about compulsivity and getting well. You can contact Kirsty on Twitter @DrKirstyAlex and check out her work in the garden on Instagram @kirsty_in_the_garden