My sabbatical summer

I was having lunch with a close friend the other day. As we were chatting, she noted how relaxed I looked. Outwardly, I smiled and thanked her. Inwardly, I thought to myself, “It’s been a very, very long time since anyone’s said that to me!”

I’m about a month into my sabbatical, and I am re-learning what it means to relax. I’ve been so go-go-go for so very long that the relaxation stuff feels a bit unnatural, to be honest. I do have occasional moments of panic where I start thinking “shouldn’t I be FRANTICALLY WORKING ON SOMETHING?”, but those are becoming fewer and farther between. Hey, old habits die hard!

My summer schedule’s a bit disjointed this year. There are weeks where my kids are in camps/school district programs, interspersed with a week here and there where they’re home with me. Both kids are home with me on Fridays, for the most part. And for most of August, my kids are not scheduled for anything. (School for them starts the day after Labor Day.) The kiddos are both old enough to entertain themselves for a bit, so on some of the days they are home I can get a bit of work done, but I try to focus mainly on them on those days. Part of the reason we went with this schedule was so that the kids and I could have some fun together this summer, so I’m honoring that as much as I can.

I decided at the start of the summer that I’d commit to working (writing, reading, researching, etc.) for 2 hours every weekday through June and July (with some exceptions, like parts of July 4th week and the 3 days I was at Girl Scout day camp with my troop), and that anything beyond that was gravy. This would allow me to make progress on my research, while also leaving plenty of time for my other goals: de-stress, relax, slow down, and enjoy the non-work parts of my life. I’ve since expanded this commitment into parts of August, while leaving most of August free from work to allow me to unplug and recharge.

So far, this schedule has been working very well for me. I’ve been working for at least 2 hours on most weekdays, and I usually end up working more. For example, on Monday I worked on a literature review for 2 and a half hours in the morning, and then ended up going to the pool by myself in the afternoon and catching up on some research reading there. (Read an article, jump in the pool! Read another article, go down the waterslide!)

The best part is that I am super productive and focused, even with (or probably because of) the abbreviated schedule. I’m making a ton of real progress on my work. This morning, I spent an hour sketching out a potential new study. I got the idea for this study while reading a new paper yesterday, and I’m sure I was inspired because I actually have the time and mental space to think and reflect.

I also don’t feel guilty about doing things other than work, which means I can actually enjoy things like kayaking on a random Wednesday morning, or working on a craft project — both of which I did yesterday. In past summers, even when I’ve given myself permission to take days “off”, I’ve still felt guilty for not spending the time doing something more “productive”. I’m starting to realize just how harmful that mindset was for my productivity, ironically.

One thing I did not expect: I’m starting to rethink my sabbatical plans. The time I’ve had to pause and reflect on my work has made me realize that I need to rethink some things about my work: how I work, what lines of inquiry to pursue, how to involve students, what research questions are really important to me, etc. I have a longer post brewing about this point specifically. Suffice it to say that my plans are shifting, but that I’m even more excited and confident about what I might be able to accomplish this year, and that the shift will probably mean my work will be more sustainable for the long term and more personally meaningful.

Overall, this summer has been just the summer I needed: a little bit of work; a lot of relaxation, reflection, family time — and time to rediscover myself.

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And so begins a new chapter

Today is a day for celebration around these parts.

My three year term as chair is finally over. My sabbatical has officially begun. And last night, I handed in my materials for promotion to full professor. (If memory serves, I’ll find out whether my bid was successful next spring.)

I feel like I’ve been working so long without a break, running from one thing to the next, putting out metaphorical fires everywhere. Other than one last report I’ll need to submit in the next couple of weeks (which shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours to complete), my work time for the next year and change is pretty much my own. It’s been a very, very long time since I could say that.

I have some posts brewing about a few things that I’ll try to get out over the next month. Lessons learned as chair, lessons learned from doing 3 tenure track hires in a row, and so on. I am looking forward to having time to blog again.

I am looking forward to having time to BREATHE again.

I’m also eager to start my sabbatical. I realized a couple of weeks ago that I do have something publishable, or very, very close to being publishable. I am pretty sure I can get this out by October. So that’s my near-term goal. In general, I’m just eager to spend lots of quality time thinking about, and actually working on, my research — something that’s been in very short supply lately.

But to be honest, the next week is all about celebration and relaxation. Today I’m taking the day off and spending some quality time with my son at his favorite place — the science museum. Tonight I’ll celebrate all three work milestones with my family. This weekend I’ll hopefully spend some quality time on my kayak. On the 4th, I’ll run our local 5 mile race and eat way too much (vegetarian) barbecue, as I normally do. I did not sign my kids up for any camps next week, so my kids and I will have a staycation of sorts. I plan to spend as much time with them outdoors as humanly possible to take full advantage of our gorgeous summer here.

Today begins a new chapter. I look forward to seeing what this chapter brings.

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.

 

 

I survived

Paper chain link The paper chain link shown on the left represents the end of a long, difficult, stressful 6 months.

In my last post, I talked about how I made this paper chain as a way of both coping with my stress and reminding myself that this really tough period in my life was finite. At the time, the chain had 44 links, one for each day until the last day of classes winter term. As I write this (Tuesday evening), the last day of classes for winter term is tomorrow (Wednesday). After tomorrow, the next time I will teach a regular class will be September 2017 (!) — due to a combination of a teaching-free term this spring (though I’ll still have my chair/administrative and research duties, and probably a couple of independent studies) and a sabbatical for the entire 2016-17 academic year.

In retrospect, I probably could have more easily handled just one term of what I’m calling “extreme teaching” (2.5 courses), than two terms in a row.* Around week 7 of winter term, I reached the point where I was so mentally exhausted that I couldn’t imagine being able to put together another class plan, write another test question, deal with another set of office hours, talk to another student. (Granted, that week we also had 2 job candidates on campus, so that may also have sped up the mental exhaustion.) I really had to push hard to stay minimally on top of things. The chain was really helpful that week for maintaining perspective on the situation. Leaving town for SIGCSE last week also helped, as it gave me some much-needed physical and mental distance from campus. But overall, it was a tough slog.

I do try to learn something from every situation I’m in, no matter how good or bad, and I certainly learned some valuable things from this extreme teaching experiment:

  • Sleep matters. Oh, does it matter. A few weeks into fall term, I decided that I was going to prioritize getting 7 hours of sleep per night, even if this meant that things weren’t going to get done. (Those of you who know me in real life know that this is a HUGE mindset shift for me.) Getting 7 hours of sleep, I believe, kept me sane, and it made me more productive and focused.
  • Teaching 2.5 classes effectively while also chairing a tenure-track job search and a department is pretty much impossible. My saving grace was that I’d taught my two “regular” classes multiple times in the past (and one of them this past fall), so I had a pool of resources from which to draw. I also made a conscious decision to change very little about either class—this was not the time to innovate!
  • Protecting junior faculty is a noble goal, but should not come at the expense of my own health and well-being.
  • Being honest with students often pays off. I was up front with my classes about my crazy schedule this term. I was also up front with my Software Design class about the things I was learning alongside them (because I didn’t end up having as much time between fall and winter terms to learn a couple of new packages/tools that they were using this term). Now, the reason I can get away with this is because I am old a senior member of my department, and carry a bit more authority in the students’ eyes. I could never have done this while a junior faculty (and certainly not as the only woman in the department as I was back then). The one downside is that I think sometimes students were reluctant to come to office hours for fear of “disturbing” me, so if I had to do this again (please, dear god, no), I’d be more explicit about office hours being for THEM.
  • Things may not get done on my perfectionist schedule, but if I keep plugging away they will eventually get done.
  • Many deadlines are more fungible than you think. Also, if you have a track record of being highly dependable, people are more willing to cut you some slack if you need it. I am so grateful for the people who recognized I was struggling and gave me extra time to get things done/in.
  • The self-care experiment worked. I didn’t always do what was written on the paper link, but if I didn’t, I improvised with something else. For instance, if the link said to mediate for 5 minutes but I knew I’d be too tired/busy to do so, I’d take the “scenic” walk back from my classroom building to my office so that I’d get some extra thinking/outdoors time instead. I ended up doing something for myself every day.

Spring term will come with some challenges of its own (including trying to hire a visiting faculty member in a really tough job market!), but I am looking forward to having time to work on outside-the-classroom projects that have been on my list for a while and, more importantly, time to think and reflect in general. While I don’t think I’ll be making any more paper chains in the near future, I do plan to continue to incorporate some regular self-care into my life. And while I wish I hadn’t been quite so busy these past six months, overall I really enjoyed the work I was doing and all of the fabulous students I had the pleasure to teach these past two terms—and many days, that alone was enough to keep me going.

* The normal teaching load at my institution is 5 courses per year (2-1-2 or some similar combination). As department chair, I get a course release, so my load is 4 courses per year. This year, that was supposed to be distributed as 1.5-2.5-0 over fall-winter-spring. But when we failed to hire enough visiting faculty, I deferred my course release to a future year to teach an overload in the fall (so we wouldn’t have to cancel a crucial core course for the major). Hence the 2.5-2.5-0 “extreme teaching” load.

Self-care

chain

My “self-care chain”

I’ve been reading a number of posts lately, and thinking in general, about self-care. Two of my favorite recent ones have been this one, on Scary Mommy, about the burdens moms carry, and this one, on Tenure She Wrote, about self-care for academics (and caregiving roles more generally).

I’ve been thinking about self-care a lot because I’m going through a rough term. Too much work, too much stress, too many responsibilities. I do what I can with the time I have, but it’s never enough to make more than a tiny dent in my to-do list. I feel overwhelmed and exhausted most of the time.

The final straw came this weekend. I’d barely slept all week due to insomnia, went to bed early on Saturday night to try to chip into the sleep deficit—and woke up 4 hours later. Nothing worked in terms of getting back to sleep. In my overtired state, my brain went on overdrive, and I had an ugly, full-on freak out session about my life, which is exactly what one wants to do at 4:30am on a Sunday.

A long run and a nap later that day helped me regain some perspective on the situation. I realized that I couldn’t do much about my workload, but I could take steps to better manage my stress, and those steps needed to involve some regular/daily commitment to self-care. And also, that this extreme workload situation was temporary—once winter term is over, things will get MUCH better and about five orders of magnitude more manageable. Basically, I just need to get through the next 44 days of craziness.

My son and I made a “kindness chain” for the holidays in December, both as a way to count down the days until Christmas and as a way to infuse the season with meaning: each link listed either a fun thing to do as a family or a way to give back to the community (random acts of kindness, expressing appreciation, donating to charity, etc). I decided to borrow the idea and make a “self-care” chain. Each link in the chain represents a day (weekends included) between now and the last day of winter term classes. Each link in the chain contains a small thing I’ll do that day to take care of myself.

Each day, I remove a link and do whatever’s listed on the link, whether that’s “color for 10 minutes” (yesterday’s link) or “drink tea before bed” or “buy a trashy magazine”. I also have some gratitude things in there, like performing random acts of kindness, and some future-planning things, like listing 3 books I’ll read for fun this spring. The things are small and easily doable, and they are all things that bring me joy, so that I can (and will be inclined to) fit them in on even the craziest of crazy days.

The length of the chain reminds me that this crazy time has a finite duration, as well as to take one day at a time. It’s a visual reminder to not let myself get overwhelmed by my situation. Just the simple act of putting it together helped me feel like I had more control over things. And my kids are pretty fired up about it too—they grew impatient yesterday morning waiting to see what was on today’s link, and my daughter joined me for my coloring session last night before bed. I like that I’m modeling healthy behavior for them, because I don’t always model handling stress well (and that’s something I definitely want to change).

I’m excited to see how this experiment goes, and how effective it is in helping me manage my stress. And hopefully this experiment will train me to take care of myself every day, even without needing an external prompt to do so.

My no-plan summer

My backyard home officeI am sitting in my backyard on my porch, sipping a cold beverage. I glance at my to-do list, which has a few small items. I tackle two of them, and decide to table the rest for tomorrow.

This scene is not atypical for a summer work-at-home day for me, but there are a few things missing this time around:

  • Undergraduate research assistants working away in my lab.
  • A lengthy to-do list for the day
  • A “master plan” for the summer
  • General panic and stress

Summer is supposed to be a time of rejuvenation for academics. There’s work to be done, sure, but unlike during the school year this work doesn’t (a) take up 60+ hours of your week and (b) have strict unmovable (and frequent) deadlines. (This of course assumes that you don’t have any summer school teaching responsibilities—in that case, summer is definitely less rejuvenating and more like the academic year, for sure! We don’t have summer classes outside of the various high school programs at Carleton.)

On one level I recognize this, yet most summers I still whip myself into a frenzy of work and panic and stress about work. I typically start my summer with a lengthy and ambitious plan. I end up working 40 hours a week to try and get it all done. I stress out when I’m not working, because there’s so! much! to! do! before fall. I feel guilty about working at home, because I’m not physically there for my research students. I take some time off late in the summer, but by then I’m stressing about getting ready for the fall. I forget about the “rejuvenation” part of summer, and start fall burned out and frazzled.

This summer, I decided enough was enough.

Last fall, when decisions had to be made about this summer, I kept one obligation (teaching in our summer high school program for 3 weeks) and jettisoned the rest (mainly, supervising research students). I said no to a lot of servicey-things that I knew would take up my summer. I scheduled and staggered my kids’ camps to force myself to take some time off early in the summer (driving kids around cuts into work time, and since my kids are in 2 different age groups, their camp start/end times are different, so more driving [or biking!] for me). I decided not to train for a marathon or really for any race this summer, although my almost-but-not-quite-gone plantar fasciitis sort of made that decision for me.

Most importantly, though, I decided to let go of my beloved summer “master plan”, the list of goals I so lovingly (ha!) craft at the beginning of each summer, the major source of my summer stress.

Oh sure, I have some general ideas for what I need to do this summer: finish coding up a simulation (started last winter, largely abandoned during hiring season and when my father became ill and passed away), revise the projects in my Computer Networks class, pick textbooks for my 2 fall classes, prep for the summer program, and various chair duties. But I refuse to put these on any kind of “master plan”. Because then I’ll feel guilty about not working towards them when I’m out kayaking or hiking or spending 3 days at Girl Scout day camp with my troop. Because I don’t want to feel accountable this summer. Because I know they’ll get done anyway.

Because I’m sick of the cycle of guilt and stress that each summer brings, and I want to try something different to break that cycle.

So on my work mornings (or afternoons), I’ll come up with a to-do list, but just for that day. I’ll work for a few hours, or heck, all day if the mood strikes. But I’ll listen to my brain, and stop when we’ve had enough. And I’ll actually take days off—yes, even days when I’m not driving kids around anyway.

This summer I want to focus on the important things. Exploring the area waterways on the kayak I got for Christmas. Hiking my favorite (and finding new favorite) trails. Eating lots of ice cream and fresh fruit. Pulling my kids out of daycare early to hit the pool. Reacquainting myself with my bike.  Finding new paths to run. Camping. Sitting on the back porch, playing with my kids or chatting with neighbors or working on my latest cross-stitch project. Reading actual books (not work-related). Not panicking.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a very important lunch date….with my kayak on a nearby lake.883176_10152589971972188_6000740674393881188_o

Professing while grieving

My dad was a runner. Every day he woke up at some ungodly early hour, did some work (before he retired), then headed out for a short run, typically a couple of miles. Every day, rain or shine, snow or sleet, steaming hot or bitterly cold, he ran. When his Parkinsons made it too difficult for him to run, he continued to walk every day, at least a mile, usually two. My dad is part of the reason I became a runner.

I was about a minute into a morning run from my parent’s house a few weeks ago when the cellphone on my arm buzzed. It was my mom. The hospital called. Dad was gone.

I sprinted all the way back to my parent’s house.

The phone call was the latest in a whirlwind saga that started last summer. My dad’s Parkinsons symptoms inexplicably took a sharp turn for the worse. My mom sensed something was not right. Lots of doctors, lots of tests, several MRIs. The discovery of what looked like a brain tumor in January. The surgery to remove the tumor, the size of a fist, during my spring break. The subsequent diagnosis of a very aggressive brain cancer, malignant, stage 4, months to live. Canceling all of my spring travel plans and offloading as much of my responsibilities as I could, so that I would be able to fly home on a moment’s notice if need be. The inexplicable seizures. The frantic phone call from my mom just two days before that run, with the news that “months to live” was now “days to live”. The hastily arranged leave of absence and one-way plane ticket purchase so I could be with my dad during his final days. Seeing my dad one last time, saying “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Not realizing there would not be a tomorrow.

No blog post could ever come even remotely close to conveying what a special and amazing man my dad was. He was the kindest, most generous, hardest working person that I’ve ever known. He was quiet, but knew how to have fun, knew how to make people laugh, knew not to take himself so seriously. He believed in me completely and was my biggest cheerleader. He was convinced that I could do anything I put my mind to. (I don’t think he ever fully forgave me for not applying to Harvard and MIT for college and grad school, respectively.) He was the type of person that never pressured me, but still motivated me to give 110% effort because I wanted to make him proud. He taught me the importance of hard work and perseverance. He taught me how to pick my battles, something that’s served me well countless times in my career. He taught me the importance of giving back to my communities, of volunteering, of leaving the world a better, happier place through my words and actions. When faced with a difficult situation at work or in life, I often find myself asking “what would Dad do?” And usually, what Dad would do works out for the best.

I spent a week at home holed up with my mom and my siblings, unplugging ourselves mostly from the rest of the world. We took my mom out places, something she hadn’t been able to do in a very long time while caring for my dad. We shared memories of my dad. We ate lots of carbs, thanks to generous friends and neighbors who dropped off food. We tried to process, among ourselves, the new reality we were all facing.

Re-entry has been hard. I’ve been back for almost 2 weeks, trying to ease back in to my “real life”. I’ve been taking back my responsibilities slowly. Grief is non-linear and unpredictable, though. Some days I function mostly fine, and can mostly pretend that everything is “normal”. Other days, the grief is so all-encompassing that achieving one small thing on my to-do list seems like a monumental hurdle. I’m exhausted most of the time, trying to juggle my job and motherhood and this big burden of sadness. I try to cut myself a lot of slack. It helps that my colleagues and students have been amazingly helpful and understanding, giving me space to figure out what I’m capable of handling. But it’s still hard.

Friends who have been through this say that things will get easier. The grief won’t be quite so overwhelming. I’ll figure out the new normal. Getting back into a routine has certainly helped some. But I know I still have a long way to go, and that there’s no set timeline for healing. Unfortunately the frenetic pace and crazy-heavy workload of the academic life makes it hard to carve space out for reflection and healing. And as far as I can tell, there’s no entry in the faculty handbook that discusses how to find that sweet spot between not sucking at your job and leaving yourself enough time to mourn.

So for now, I’ll just do what I have been doing: stumble along, take more time than I normally would at this time of the term for myself, and try to get to the end of the term with most of my sanity intact. And when I don’t know what to do, I’ll ask myself what I always do:

“What would Dad do?”