Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Another year

Best way to deal with an anniversary, it seems, is distraction. My comprehensive exams have kept me so busy that while I have been having a hard time, I have had no choice but hold on and cope. Last year I also was busy writing at this time of year, and while I was initially worries about not getting to take some time for myself, it helped to be engaged in something completely different. I can't say I'd choose to do something quite this intense every April, especially since both the papers I handed in today dealt with violence in some way. But it was good to situate things as abstractions, keep myself focused on an academic plane all day. Because of the comps people are being extra nice to me, and that also helps.

I've had lots of thoughts recently that have yet to meld together into a coherent blog piece; both the content and the process of my exams has been very thought-provoking. That's a matter for another day, though.


Each year, the 16th is the hardest day. It is so, so arbitrary; the calendar is a social construction, not and there is nothing inherent about this day. And yet, things feel harder. Partly, it's a function of the date being a mnemonic, as I've discussed before. But partly, it is the silence. 

For so many other life-altering events, people are attentive to anniversaries. A year since an accident, or ten years since the death of a loved one, if others know the significance of the date, is likely to bring kind words, even cards and flowers. 

I have little use for cards, and there isn't one for this occasion (happy birthday to your PTSD?). Flowers are potentially poisonous for my cat. What is hard is that even though several of my friends and family know why this date is so difficult for me, I can count the times when anybody has extended any sort of particular support. They probably lack the words, or are afraid to bring it up in case I am not thinking about it (understandable but not the case; odds are that given the contours of my analytical brain that reads so much significance into dates, places, and other arbitrary indicators of experience, the history of this date is likely not for from my mind, and it already emerges in my mind each time I read the date on a newspaper or computer screen). It's not that people don't care, but that there is no social framework for this. The silence, each year, is deafening. 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

A letter

A year ago, in the last session of the mindfulness group I attended through Health and Counselling at my university, the facilitator asked each of us to write a letter to ourselves. He then mailed them, a few months later. I didn't open mine right away; in the usual paper-shuffle of grad school, it fell behind the printer.

Today, on a hunt for scrap paper, I found a little brown envelope, addressed, in my own purple-gel-pen handwriting, to me. It was the best thing I could have read, and I wish I'd found it earlier in the week. It refers to comps, which I am presently writing - I'd optimistically planned to complete comps in the fall, when this letter was initially mailed. The sentiment here may be a bit trite, but today, it's exactly what I needed.

"Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Hello, Me!

There is no deadline for healing, no time after which it must be OK. That is OK. Everything comes with time, patience, and self-love. Pain hurts, but it can be safe if I let myself remember love. Things are what they are.
I need to share with myself the love I have for others; focus on the present, however it feels, and let go of the fear of the future that is not yet here, the fear of the past that cannot come back. Time cannot own me. 
As an historian, fearing and hating the past closes so many opportunities to accept it for what it was. Wishing for what could have been, obsessing over how it could have hurt less, is ahistorical. There are some analyses that ought not be made. Some things will always hurt, but they have less power if I look myself in the eye and let go, surf the emotions, then put them away.
When this letter arrives, comps will be looming. I have survived bigger trials, and will make it through this one, too. Self-care is critical, whatever pressures other people place, whatever the time constraints are. With silence, stillness, and stretching, there will be pieces of peace.


Now, I am tempted to write myself nice letters when I'm having a good day, and hide them behind the printer. Or the sofa, whatever.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Anxiety, Academics, and Acrostic Poetry

Marathon of
Practically no

That's how I began today's reflection on my other blog.

My other blog, where I am writing this week about my comprehensive exams, is a semi-anonymous-but-not-really blog associated with my academic work, so I haven't been absolutely candid about mental illness - although it is an undercurrent, and probably fairly apparent in my writing as I talk about anxiety. I do have an anxiety disorder, among other diagnoses. Nothing like a mountain of high-stakes work to draw it out of me in its least rational manifestations.

My terror surrounding this exams has many overlapping elements. Fear of failure, of course, as I never feel like the quality of my academic work is adequate. But in addition, there is the fear of what will happen to me emotionally if I fail, or if I panic too intensely before I'm done, and thus bring about my own failure due to inability to emotionally cope. It is hard for me to separate what must be a normal extent of anxiety for these exams from anxiety stemming from being someone who struggles with anxiety on a more pervasive level. I've heard the horror stories: one person whose description of her oral exam uses similar language to what I would use when describing the odd sort of dissociation I felt while being raped; another who was hospitalized for dehydration after his comps. There isn't space in academic relationships to ask other people whether (or how) mental health has influenced their comps, and how comps has influenced their mental health.

When scheduling the exams and realizing that one of them would be on a date that I still find difficult, I was afraid that I would be preoccupied with thoughts of trauma while writing. I'm not. I'm preoccupied with a sense that the questions are purposefully designed to showcase my weaknesses, that my failure is a foregone conclusion. My academic fears are overtaking my triggers and trauma in their race for my attention - and perhaps that's a good thing, although it doesn't exactly feel that way.

Exam anxiety is something I've struggled with before. At 18, I was unable to write midterm exams after having a breakdown while studying and being unable to find my way home when I went for a walk in my neighbourhood. Then I spiraled downward, terrified that I could be having a psychotic break (I wasn't) with my fear of my own mental health overtaking my fear of grade twelve chemistry. The high school found other ways to evaluate me, and I am grateful that they accommodated my needs as I otherwise would not have passed my midterms, with attendant academic consequences. The trouble with comps is that there simply is no other way, in practice, at least. Theoretically, another system is absolutely possible - comps procedures less focused on stamina and more on intellectual ability are in place in other departments. Our handbook technically says that questions must be given to students "at least" one week in advance, but most professors interpret that as "no more than" one week in advance. The only reason this is done in such a short time frame, as far as I can gather, is tradition, and perhaps as a mechanism of weeding out students who are not prepared. The trouble, for me, is that I'm academically extremely prepared - but emotionally, I don't know if I ever will be. My friends and committee have assured me that I'm ready. I have thousands of notes as a tactile reminder of this. If I fail, it will be because of my mental health more likely than my academic ability - and that would be a tough thing to stomach.

I'm rambling now. Longer post to follow, I think, about how this system works with and against mental illness. Something more engaged, less navel-gazing, once comps are done. For now, I'm going to read some poetry and then go to bed early and hope that self-care doesn't count against me in the long term. Tomorrow I'll probably work on campus to be around people who are also working (but hopefully less distracting than a litter of two-week-old kittens). These people tell me it's all going to be OK. I'll only be able to believe them once it is over.

Saturday, April 5, 2014


Each spring, I come back, pulled somehow, to TS Eliot.
This week, I've written my own somewhat convoluted addition to "The Waste Land." Original parts in italics.

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain. 
Winter kept us weak, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers. 

In with a bang, fooling
Nostrils, teasing taste buds, drooling
On shrink-wrapped forsythia, catching
Hollow rabbits by the seams.
Scriptures boast from church signs, resurrecting
Blue-masked fears, in triage, infecting
Screaming lungs, stifled exhalations, linking
Burning bushes, bricks and mortar, duck ponds
Dredged, unblinking.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

On March 32nd

Dates. At this time of year, despite PTSD being a waning factor in my health (anger and grief are overtaking flashbacks when I do have bad days), I struggle with two things: weather, and dates. The weather is a more sensory trigger, a subtle reminder that it's that time of year again. Those beautiful signs of spring - forsythia blooms, robins, early buds - saying that time is passing, that I'm still feeling this way. It's a taunting, haunting start to the cycle, which I'm trying to reframe as a sign of strength, that I've gone through another year and damn it, I can do more.

But dates. This one has been more troublesome for me to piece together. The calendar is a social and cultural construction; on a lunar calendar, I could ascribe meaning to a different date. Days of the week are arbitrary, yet it means so much more to me that this year, once again, it is a Wednesday. I realized, though, today, that this isn't really a standard "trigger." It's more of a shorthand, a mnemonic. A phrase I hear more and more at this time of year, that places trauma in my brain even when I haven't been thinking about it.

Say your birthday is on March 10th (arbitrarily chosen). If someone says "let's schedule the meeting for March 10th" you probably think, at least fleetingly, "oh, on my birthday." We all have those dates that prompt a thought of something else, a "remember when" on-this-day sort of thought. It's hard, though, when that thought is a reminder of the worst day of my life. This year is hard in particular because I have a major deadline that day. The innocuous emails sting: "the second paper will be due on..." means more than the sender can ever know.

Sometimes I can go for days without ever thinking about it. A string of good days to hold on to, that are so natural that I don't even realize that they're good days until I've run out of beads to string. April makes that impossible. I'll be dodging reminders until March 47th.