I haven’t written for the Voice for a number of months now. It’s not because I don’t want to. Even after several years, it is still one of my most enjoyable activities. It’s not because I don’t have anything to write about, as I have a stack of reference articles and dozens of ideas. I want to write, but I haven’t been able to.
It’s not just writing for the Voice that is affected. I appear to have been struck by a general malaise. A stack of bills several months old covers my phone desk, mostly unopened. Partly-finished housework projects lurk around every corner. My list of flagged “must-respond” emails gets longer every day. I do everything possible to avoid jobs that I know I must do. My “to-do” list has become a “didn’t do” list. The weeds in my yard are knee-high, now buried under autumn leaves.
Oddly, there are still a couple of areas in which I’m managing to remain quite functional. My grad studies are on track and I’ve started my first practicum–I’m loving every minute! I’ve finally completed a couple of undergrad courses that were dragging on in extensions, and applied for my Career Counselling Certificate. The AU Graduate Student Association will soon be official and things are going well in that department. I’m finding time to babysit my new granddaughter and to spend time with my grandson. I’m keeping up with basic housework and even cooking the occasional full meal. But I still must nap daily to get even that much done, although my doctor tells me my health is on the mend.
What is wrong with me? I have a few theories. The most obvious is residual burnout. As regular readers know, I did a number on myself the last few years by overloading school, work, family, university, and volunteer projects. It seems logical that it will take some time to get to maximum health and functionality. Certainly, I can’t underestimate the effects of graduate studies. It’s hard work, and the workload can be overwhelming. At the end of summer session we had two major assignments to complete (each worth almost 50% of the final mark), and at least one fellow student had a complete meltdown. I came close, but got the work done. One of my professors suggested that all grad students are in the same boat, but I think AU students are different. Coping with a graduate workload while maintaining a job and family is not something most campus grad students do, and the pressure increases when you are middle-aged and facing a host of other mid-life stressors such as health issues, aging parents, grandchildren, finances, etc.
Another possibility is that my personality is working against me. I’m a perfectionist high-achiever. I watched an Oprah show once where she took her camera inside the home of a woman who appeared extremely “put-together” but who in fact was living in a disaster zone, a house so filthy that it had become a maggot-infested animal toilet. Oprah’s psychologists said this woman had such high standards that if she couldn’t meet them her alternative was to give up and do nothing at all. I won’t argue with the psychologists. It seems plausible, but it doesn’t quite fit me. My house is messy, but not uninhabitable, and I clean regularly. However, I may avoid certain tasks if I think I can’t do them up to my personal high standards.
It is also possible that I’ve become so accustomed to living in a super-stressed condition that anything less leaves me disoriented. I’ve always known that I work best under pressure. If I have too much time to complete a project I have difficulty getting it done, yet under a tight deadline I can accomplish multiple tasks simultaneously. Stress activates and energizes me. In trying to reduce my stress and workload perhaps I’ve sabotaged myself. This is not to say I’m not still stressed. I recently completed a comprehensive stress test that mapped out each of my stress levels on a grid ranging from burnout to optimal performance (Essi Systems, 2005). My score flat-lined across the map below the burnout danger zone–not a good sign!
Disappointment may be another factor in removing motivation. There have been a few projects during the past year where the outcome was less than satisfactory. I’ve done a great deal of work for the university on behalf of students over the past few years. Although the majority of my colleagues and people I work with let me know how much they value my contributions, there are still times when I feel undervalued and occasions when individuals who I respect deeply treated me with a lack of appreciation and respect, contributing to a sense of disappointment and discouragement, and causing me to become somewhat disillusioned. This is nothing new, and I should not let it bother me. Human nature is such, however, that the negativity of a few, and a single harmful act, can often obscure the positive. It is funny, though, to see how quickly paranoia can creep up and cause me to impugn less-than constructive motives to everyone. Being under stress also distorts one’s viewpoint. Knowing this is one thing. Dealing with it is another.
One possibility that really worries me is that this malaise is related to an illness I thought I had beaten years ago–depression. Type “malaise” into a thesaurus and “depression” is the first synonym that comes up. Depression sneaks up on you, and often you don’t know you are in trouble until it is too late. It’s a battle I thought I had fought and won, even though I know the seriousness of the disease and the potential for relapse. A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend a marvellous conference arranged by the Canadian Mental Health Association. A key point that has remained with me is the ongoing need to bring mental illness to light, to stop hiding it, and to stop denying its impact. Even though we have made great strides in this regard, the majority of people still hesitate to admit that they have (or have had) this terrible illness. This is even true among health care professionals (or perhaps even more so). The stigma is huge, though as many as 10% of Canadians experience severe clinical depression at some point in their lives (with 1 in 5 lifetime prevalence of all forms of mental illness) (CMHA Toronto, 2005). Several speakers pointed out the importance of talking about our experiences so that individuals in the throes of depression know that a cure is possible, that depression can be beaten, and that sufferers can go on to live healthy, productive lives. We freely talk about cancer or heart disease, and give our support and understanding to individuals who are suffering these illnesses, yet depression remains a big secret. An individual can take sick leave for cancer treatment and return cured, embraced by the workplace. That same individual, who returns after suffering depression, is looked at with suspicion and fear, monitored closely in case they have a sudden relapse and let everyone down. We need to bring depression (and other mental illness) to light and remove the stigma by being willing to acknowledge our own experiences.
I’ve been musing about this notion, and I think it applies to other aspects of our personal history. Survivors of trauma, for example, can provide an incredible source of encouragement and strength to others, proof that survival is possible, that humans can get beyond even the most horrible of ordeals. They are a celebration of the resilient human spirit. As counselling students, we are confronted with the issue of what we call “disclosure,” whether or not we should share our personal trauma experience with clients, and if so, how and when it is appropriate to do so. Feminist theory supports the importance of open disclosure, and increasingly, I’m finding myself drawn to the idea. I’ve seen how helpful shared experience can be, and it is one of the core philosophies underlying the effectiveness of group therapy. When we read about successful, greatly admired people who have suffered depression and managed to overcome it to accomplish great things (people like Jim Carrey, Winston Churchill, Bonnie Raitt, Mark Twain, and Thomas Edison) it makes us humble and more human. It makes us stronger, believing that if these people can experience such a terrible illness and still achieve incredible things, anything is possible.
Musing aside, if depression is underlying my malaise, at least I am dealing with a known entity that I’ve beaten before. The unknown malaise is infinitely more frightening, leading me to fear all kinds of potentially life-threatening ailments. I’ve been extremely conscious of my physical health since my heart attack scare, and it’s easy to fall into hypochondria, perceiving any abnormal symptom as a potential coronary event. Whatever the reason for the malaise, there are a few things I know I can do to try to solve the problem. Self-analysis leading to insight is something I advocate and hope to teach my clients as a psychologist. The importance of self-analysis and the ability to gain personal insight is perhaps one of the most important things I’ve learned as a graduate student. Acknowledging the various possibilities is a starting point, akin to a physician making a diagnosis before prescribing relief. Perhaps by this writing I’ve taken the first step, and I can now begin to move forward once again!
Essi Systems (2005). StressMap. Retrieved from http://www.essisystems.com/
Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) Alberta Division (2005). Statistics / Quick Facts: Frequently Asked Questions. Retrieved from http://www.cmha.ab.ca/education/stats.htm;
CMHA Toronto (2005). Facts and Figures: Mental Health and Mental Illness in Canada. Retrieved from http://www.toronto.cmha.ca/c_media/m_statistics.asp