By Dr. Dawn Sardella-Ayres, alumnus of Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge
I’m a Cambridge graduate, a scholar, well into my second post-doc year, and I manage anxiety and depression.
I’ve managed it all my life, even long before people talked about it, or understood what it was. And yes, I managed it whilst completing a stressful academic programme at one of the top universities in the world.
I’m sharing this because I know no one else here can possibly understand it or relate to it.
This ain’t my first time at the rodeo, to quote cinematic masterpiece Mommie Dearest. When you’ve heard your whole life that your anxiety and depression are “excuses” or “white women’s tears” or a sign that you “can’t handle” rigorous academic study, it takes a long time (and a lot of therapy) to get to the point where you can pragmatically understand that your brain is just wired to respond to certain things in certain ways, and that sometimes things will trigger that reaction.
Some of my earliest memories — ages three and four — are what I can now identify as panic attacks: not just being scared of something, but this all-encompassing horror that everything is wrong and will never, ever get better. And it is all because you are a bad, bad, awful person and deserve bad things. Shame on you. You suck. You are worthless, everything you do is worthless, and you will always be worthless.
Things like, oh, simultaneously completing your PhD after twenty years of battling for it, combined with having to move back to America at arguably the worst time possible, which makes for a delightful stew of oft-simultaneous highs and lows as I send out dozens more job applications and letters begging for funding interspersed with contacting my local and state representatives about yet another issue brought on by the flaming dumpster heap that is our current administration.
But one of the side-effects of managing this cavorting cavalcade of brain-weasels is procrastination. It seems weird, even counter-intuitive if you aren’t used to the honked-up ways of a brain riddled with anxiety, but the fear of messing up — because, you know, we suck and are worthless — is so great that we can freeze and be terrified of doing anything because it won’t be perfect.
“This is terrible. My supervisor is going to hate it and write scathing comments about it and meet with the rest of the department and have me kicked out of Cambridge.”
“My classmates will mock me and use me as an example of what not to do. Academic peers will confront me outright, wondering about how I even got here, got into this conference, got ___ published.”
“Someone will take a sentence out of context and make a meme out of it that goes viral and I’ll be publicly shamed and humiliated and ruin my career.”
“My family will continue to complain about why I’m doing this. I will demonstrate yet again that I never should’ve tried this, and can’t handle it, it’s a waste of my money, and it’s time to call it quits, accept the inevitable, that I’m no good, and-”
Most of you know how that rigamarole goes. We talk about Imposter Syndrome because it’s a real thing. Most of you, too, are worried about the quality of your work. You put pressure on yourself (with or without an added lifetime of familial pressure) to be the best of the best. Everyone here is smart, has advantages, does groundbreaking work, or possesses high-level skills. Even if you’re not managing anxiety and depression at a clinical level, you’re still feeling the pressure, and sometimes it’s enough to make you freeze up, too. I’m competing with three hundred people sometimes for a one-year part-time position in Northeastern Western Ohidahoma or a few hundred bucks to spend a couple of weeks at library archives combing through letters and drafts, and the amount of rejection this involves is soul-crushing. Many days, it’s hard to muster up the motivation to tackle another application, another article revision (or another strongly-worded letter or phone call to relevant lawmakers). And as a result, many of us feel like if we can’t do ___, if we are paralyzed with fear and hopelessness, that it just isn’t worth even trying. What’s the point if we can’t do it well, do it brilliantly, do it right? Why would we want to not put forth all our best efforts?
But how do we get out of that funk? What fixes procrastination? What are the magic words, the sprinkling of pixie dust, the solution to be able to take that next step? How do you start when you’re scared that you’re going to mess up and do it wrong?
We’re told to give it our best, our all, 110%. The charming American term is “doing things half-assed.” Don’t half-ass that job. Look at this mess; you did it all half-assed. Psh. You are clearly incompetent if you can only do a half-assed job on your thesis, your conference paper, your research. People who do things half-assed are stupid, terrible individuals ruining everything for everyone.
But what if you were assured that doing things half-assed is actually… sometimes… okay? Doing something half-assed is still a start. It’s not nothing. You build on it. It’s a foundation. It’s better to do part of something than nothing of something.
You’re freaking out and having trouble breathing, and the whole world feels like too much? Don’t try to format your entire bibliography today, then. Just half-ass it for now: make sure it’s all in the right font, or do a Replace All for “University Press” to UP and call it a day. That’s more than you had done an hour ago. You’re meant to be finishing your thesis and the deadline is coming up and that’s scary and you can’t even think of turning this mess into a polished, print-and-bind-able draft? Then half-ass some work today: do some clean-up on making sure your terms are spelled consistently, or the spacing on your paragraph breaks is all the same. Write one paragraph of one cover letter, fill out one online page of one application. That’s still a thing you did, a thing to tick off the To Do List.
You still did work.
When I was running the Writing Group at Homerton, our motto was “WRITE THE CRAP!” It didn’t have to be great, or even good. Just write crappy words, because you can edit crappy words into good words. You can’t edit nothing. Half-ass that draft! Or even that paragraph! Give it 25%! Start off giving 25%, and you may discover you built that up to 40% or 50% in a few Pomodoro sprints!
Each of these tiny little bits add up. Or, as my Gramma used to say, “Little by little, we go far.”
There are all sorts of suggestions for managing anxiety, and anxiety- and depression-fueled procrastination, at Cambridge. You’re not alone in this. Many of your supervisors and professors are dealing with the same things, even. So if the brain-weasels are getting too active, make an appointment at the DRC. Talk to your supervisor. Sign up for online therapy sessions. Have a group of classmates to talk and work with. You can even drop me a note if you want to.
But don’t be afraid of doing a half-assed job for now. Sometimes, giving it half is the very best you can do. In that case, half-assing it is still doing your best. That’s worth a lot.
Dawn Sardella-Ayres completed her PhD in Children’s Literature at Homerton College, the University of Cambridge, in 2016. She has published on Alcott, Montgomery, and Wilder, and researches issues related to intersectionality and genre, as well as the Kunstlerroman, in late nineteenth- and early twentieth century girls’ texts. Currently, Dawn lives in Chicago with her two weird cats and her equally as weird husband, and spends her time submitting funding proposals, article drafts, and job applications. She still firmly believes Harry and Luna should have ended up together, and shares Anne Shirley’s fondness for dresses with puffed sleeves. You can contact her by email.
*Editors’ Note: Pursuing a degree in higher education is hard in ways we can find ourselves unprepared for, and can present unexpected challenges. But these challenges don’t have to be faced alone. The following is a list of resources, should they prove necessary or helpful for any of our readers.
The NHS has a variety of helplines and resources available. The service notes that many are free, but some may require a GP referral.
Cambridge has a University Counselling Service that students can self-refer to via their website. Some colleges do also have their own resources; if comfortable, talk to your college tutor about what help is available.
The Nightline is a student-run, student-serving confidential national service within the UK, with volunteers trained to “listen, not lecture.” They are available all night, every night. The Cambridge local nightline number is 01223 744444. Not from Cambridge? You can find your local nightline number here.