Many of the struggles of PhD life pertain to invisible, imaginary pianos that might fall from the sky: feeling like you’re behind, writing struggles, fear of criticism, of not meeting a deadline…the list goes on. Most pianos don’t fall. And if they do, you find out they are quite innocent cute little pianos you are well equipped to handle, after all.
Sometimes we are not so lucky, and a real whopping big piano drops right on top of us. (That’s some of us. Count your lucky stars if you cannot relate!) These type of pianos tend to drop so fast there’s no fear involved. That’s the irony, or it seems to be. The truly awful stuff: it just happens. And then you have to deal and cope, whether you like it or not.
A while ago a PhD candidate got in touch with me. He had to suddenly deal with a disability: an illness for which he was effectively treated, but the treatment had had side-effects. Side-effects that directly, and likely permanently affect his mental energy, sometimes his mental clarity. On the outside no-one seems to notice. He looks the same. But he can no longer perform the way he did before. What to do now? How to finish his PhD? How to communicate about his situation?
The tragedy of dealing with massive pianos, especially if they are invisible ones, is the loneliness. You drop out of the mainstream, your experience no longer shared. There are no guidelines, there is no handbook. It’s just you and the piano. And the question of how to get it to shift an inch, so you can get it to hurt a bit less, and work with it or around it, and somehow get on with your life.
Universities often offer little support. You may have to deal with additional complications: sometimes systems are so rigid they do not allow for pianos at all! Great. Just what you need.
So, how to cope? How to deal? Can it be done elegantly?
I have quite a bit of experience with massive pianos and how to deal – if you’ve been reading for a while you know I finished my PhD while struggling with an illness that left me with very little energy and more worries and issues than I want to even think about!! In the process I learned quite a bit about being effective despite circumstances.
A tip of the iceberg:
1. Love your boundaries
If I could say only one thing, it would be this: love and respect your boundaries as much as you can. A piano, whether an illness or something else, will force you to re-examine what you can and cannot do. It is incredibly hard to come to terms with the constraints imposed. You did not choose this, you do not want it, yet it is there. Acknowledge the piano. Dare look at the reality of the situation. Dare find out what the new situation means. I say dare, because it takes courage. If you are clear half the battle is won. Boundaries keep you safe, and provide possibility. They show you what is possible, right here, right now. Find out what might be possible, find out how you could work within your new boundaries. Don’t fight them, even though it’s tempting, I know.
2. With courage comes heart
Appreciate yourself for all that you are, do, and deal with. It’s pretty incredible! And it is enough, even if you can’t do what you used to do, for now. A sense of self-appreciation is your most valuable ally in the midst of your world falling apart (hopefully not completely!). Not only will it help you muster the strength to go on with your life, in pieces or not, it will significantly affect how others treat you. If you respect yourself, others are more likely to respect you and your circumstances (and if they don’t, it’s not as much of a problem). You set the tone by how you approach yourself. I suggest you do so with fierce appreciation.
3. Communicate your needs
Asking for help is the most difficult thing in the world! If you are anything like me you want to be independent, self-reliant and eh…capable, without extra provisions or extra care. No special treatment please! Yet asking for help, asking for support becomes vital once you have serious life-changing stuff going on.
Work-wise: if your situation is preventing you from working at a pace you were used to and is expected of you, temporarily or permanently, let your supervisor/ anyone else involved know. You don’t have to go into great detail about your circumstances, but you must, MUST, communicate about your new situation as it pertains to what you can and can no longer do. You may have the tendency to underplay the huge changes in your life. You may want to deny the piano. In fact, you may succeed for a while, as most pianos are invisible to other people, including supervisors! That is until they can no longer be denied, which at that point will be certain to cause you a great deal of extra stress and grief. Not good.
It’s a much better idea to be as pragmatic as you can in dealing with your situation. Stick up for yourself. It’s important. Depending on your circumstances make strategic decisions as to how much information to share at work, and whether/ who/ how to ask for help. Some environments are friendlier than others, and some people have people skills while others do not! But regardless, and I want to emphasize this: let others help if they can. People (supervisors are people) are often more than willing to do so. They may even help bend some rules. Ask yourself what you need first. Be specific. Then ask. You deserve all the help you can get.
From my personal experience: when I was finishing my PhD I had to do so in a PhD environment where there were NO arrangements for disability (Ouch, how I hate that word!). The only option was to take unpaid sick leave, and they didn’t seem to be too generous with that either. Yet I needed time, and lots of it. Every six months, for the three years that I did not work at all, I applied for an extension, and I ended up being the person with the longest sick leave in the history of the Institute! This wasn’t without stress, and to be honest in the end I thought they would drop me. They didn’t. Now I know my supervisor did quite a bit of lobbying on my behalf behind the scenes, even though he too was getting impatient. I believe he/ they would have given up on me if I had not communicated about my circumstances, as painful as it was. These situations can make you feel as if you’re battling a machine. I am glad I kept making my case, best as I could, and kept asking for what I needed (more time) without being apologetic about it. It paid off.
4. Don’t underestimate yourself
There is a silver lining to massive pianos: the imaginary pianos start to matter less. These aren’t words of comfort really: I am sure we would all rather deal with imaginary pianos than real ones! But it’s true: crisis can create momentum. There is no time to obsess over writer’s block etc. when you have real problems going on. The sky has already fallen, so no need to obsess about it happening! Might as well skip writer’s block altogether and get to work! When fear starts to matter less, when the PhD becomes less important in the scheme of things: that is when the pace picks up. In addition, constraints can force us to become more effective in the way we work. It is quite remarkable what we are capable of when we have to, when we are forced to do more with less energy/ less time at our disposal. If we used to specialize in making life difficult for ourselves, we no longer do. There is a real piano to deal with now – it is enough.
If you are dealing with a piano right now – an illness, a disability, death in the family maybe – just know I am rooting for you. May the tide turn soon, may you feel better, may all be easier for you in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime, hang tight. You can do this. You will get through it. You will find a way. You will.
If you have questions for me about this topic, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. Talk to me. Leave a comment below, or send me a message or tweet. As always, if you enjoyed this post, please share it. I appreciate it!