On non-teaching terms and productivity and mental health

This was supposed to be a post about how I spent my non-teaching term. This was supposed to be a post examining how one structures a term when one is not teaching but is not on sabbatical either. This was supposed to be a post about productivity and workload and the other parts of my job beyond teaching. I tried to write that post. I really, really did. But I finally realized that I could not write that post without addressing the twin elephants in the room, and the roles they played in my non-teaching term: anxiety and depression.

I was diagnosed with mild-to-moderate anxiety and depression in April 2011, after I had a panic attack on a treadmill at the gym. Looking back, my anxiety and depression likely have been around since 6th grade. (Looking back, that panic attack at the gym was also not my first panic attack.)  But I didn’t grow up knowing what anxiety and depression really were. I assumed the voices in my head, the ones that constantly told me I wasn’t good enough or lovable enough and questioned everything I did and second-guessed every decision I made, that made me worry worry worry about everything, plausible and not, all the time, 24-7, the brain never ever turning off….I thought that was normal. That was my normal. I thought I was flawed, that I wasn’t good enough or lovable enough, and that I just needed to work harder, and harder, and harder still. And when I found myself stuck, not able to work, paralyzed by self-doubt or fear of failing and proving the voices in my head right…well, I just assumed that was a moral failing on my part, and beat myself up for not trying harder.

The diagnosis in 2011 was a revelation. My doctor was telling me, finally, that these voices are in fact NOT normal, and that in fact it’s not normal to go through life with your brain on hyperdrive 24-7. She gave me language to understand what was happening. She prescribed some meds. She sent me to a psychologist. And for the first time in years, when the meds kicked in, my brain calmed down. The voices backed off. It was a revelation. So this is what “normal” feels like, I thought! It was…freeing.

I am fortunate that most of the time, I can control my anxiety and depression without meds and without therapy, by taking care of myself: sleeping enough, eating well, exercising regularly. Running and swimming are especially helpful for me. But I have triggers that make it harder to successfully apply these strategies. Extreme stress is one trigger (which I’ve had in spades over the past year and a half). Spring term, for whatever reason, is the other. My latest working theory on the latter is that I’ve used up a lot of my mental reserves in fall and winter terms, and that I start to realize just how many things I haven’t accomplished in the year that I intended to accomplish. The voices in my head seize upon this as proof of my incompetence, and the cycle begins again.

This spring term has been especially rough. The anniversary of my dad’s death weighed heavily on me in April. Things came up unexpectedly at work that demanded my attention, putting more on my plate than I had planned. We were still hiring into April. I fell behind on my research and on my carefully constructed project plans. And I’ve been dealing with on and off insomnia for months. So my reserves are shot…and this has brought a perfect storm for the anxiety and depression to rear their ugly heads again.

I spent a lot of this term beating myself up over how “unproductive” I was. When I’m in the throes of anxiety and depression, I don’t and can’t recognize that they are there, and I fall back into my old patterns of assuming I’m flawed. It took me a long time to be able to take a step back and recognize what was happening. Now that I can, and have, I’m doing what I can to keep them at bay. I’m cutting myself some major slack. I’m spending time on research activities that don’t trigger my feelings of failure as much: designing experiments, collecting data, rewriting code, reading the literature. I’m spending more time reading in general, the things that have piled up over the last year that I’ve intended to read but never got around to reading. I’m making a game out of other aspects of my job (“Let’s see how much of this policy document I can write in the next 10 minutes. Go!”). I’m digging my way out of the hole I made for myself, slowly but surely. And I have an appointment later this month where I’ll discuss with my doctor maybe going back on meds for a while, just to help me regulate myself again.

I’ve also recognized that the unstructured time of my non-teaching term likely made things worse with my anxiety and depression. All that free time leaves a lot of time for the voices to note that you’re not working hard enough, or fast enough, or producing enough, which feeds into a cycle of paralysis and self-doubt, which in turn feeds the voices. This is something that I will definitely need to watch for on my upcoming sabbatical.

So the story of this term was not the triumphant story of Amy Conquering All Of The Tasks. It was not the story of the Successful To-Do List. It was not the story I wanted to write, or wanted to live. But it was the story of Getting Some Things Done Despite Myself and of Recognizing My Limitations. And that, I suppose, is a good enough story for now.