Sitting here in the cage trying to get myself to work, I’m having a vicious battle with myself. And right now, I don’t know who is winning, but we aren’t really liking myself much.
Me: “I don’t want to do it.”
Also Me: “Tough shit. This is it. Suck it up. Buck up little camper. Just Do It, and all that. But, out of curiosity, why not?”
Me: “It is hard. It hurts. I can’t do it. I don’t have anything to say. It is hard. I hate it. I hate that I’m not done, and that I feel like such a chump that I’m not done. And, did I mention that it is hard?”
Also Me: “Oh. That sounds good. So, let’s run with it. Ok? You don’t want to do it because it is hard. So, don’t. There. You’re done. You’ve quit your dissertation. Good job.”
Me: “Um. Oh…kay… But, well, I don’t think that’s what I meant, really. Yes, it sounds good, and part of me feels relieved. But, then there’s this other part that is oddly disappointed.”
Also Me: “Why disappointed?”
Me: “Well, because then I’d have to quit the job that I really like, that I’m good at, and that I really want to do. And because then I’d have given up on this thing that was once really important to me, even if right now it seems far less important than walking outside in the sunshine and going home to where the Oreos and the videos are waiting for me. I still have a memory of what it was to know it was important. And, I kind of still have this nagging sense that it is a story that needs telling.”
Also Me: “So, then. What are you going to do about it?”
Me: “Shit. I guess I have to do it. And, by the way, fuck you for always being right.”
Also Me: “Right back at ya for making my life so hard.”
Yes, half of me has a brilliant career ahead as a therapist. Half of me is on the fast track to looserville. Throw in a dash of ambition, a healthy heap of disappointment, and a pinch of shame, and you’ve got a moment in my dissertation.
I think that anyone writing a dissertation has had this conversation with themselves. Perhaps over and over and over again. I used to tell myself that it was healthy — a good way to re-up one’s commitment to the project, to the process. To confirm whether or not you wanted to keep doing this. I used to tell fresh-faced hopeful young dissertators in my department that if they didn’t ask themselves every day why they were doing it, or alternately, if they actually wanted to be doing it, then they were cruising blind on autopilot and were headed for a crash. I thought of the dissertation as a relationship — one that you have with yourself, I guess, but still a relationship that took emotional work to keep going. It wasn’t always fun or pretty or exciting or sexy, but if it was the right thing, then it would always be important.
Now, I’m not so sure. I’ve been wondering lately, maybe you shouldn’t have to fight yourself into doing it. Maybe it shouldn’t be a struggle. Maybe it is a relationship that shouldn’t be work. Or, phrased more accurately, maybe it shouldn’t have to have so much of my emotional energy. I kind of had that revelation last Sunday (the day before my 35th birthday –so a good time for revelations…) I realized that I didn’t have the emotional energy to call my goddaughter or my best friend or my family. I didn’t have the emotional energy for anything, really. I wondered about this, and wondered why I didn’t. I realized it was all going into the dissertation. That it was getting EVERYTHING I had. (Which was doubly frustrating, because I feel like I’m not making much progress.) Then, it occurred to me that maybe it shouldn’t. Maybe it shouldn’t get all of my emotional energy. That, the burden of it, like fear, grew with feeding.
And, it turns out, I wasn’t the only one to notice that the dissertation was getting everything, and leaving not much behind for anything else. On Monday, for the first time in 10 years, Spousal Unit finally let slip (or explode, same difference, really) that he was sick to death of my fucking dissertation and why didn’t I get off my ass and finish the motherfucker? He phrased it much more diplomatically, but put through the Stewgad Dissertation Self-Esteem Translator, that’s what I heard. He was concerned at the lack of work I was getting done, and wanted to express it. But, also, it seems, he was tired of the emotional energy I’ve been giving to it. It was also a bit of a revelation for me. He said that he felt like MY dissertation had taken over his life too. That he didn’t have any control over it, but that it got to control him. I didn’t know he felt like that, which was a bit of a blow. Of course, my first reaction was to be defensive. And to cry. But, then I tried to listen to what he was really saying — which was that he loves me and wants me to be done with this really hard thing.
It didn’t help, I think, that his writing process is so much different than mine. He never had to do revisions that weren’t technical. He never had to sit down and rethink his whole approach to the question. Plus, he’s a scientist, so all he had to do was spend 5 years getting data, and then spend 4 months writing it up. (All?) I’m not saying it wasn’t hard for him, it was. It was hard on me, on us, and it was horrible. But, it was fast. And over fairly quickly. Like peeling a band-aid fast or slow. His was fast. Me? I’ve been ripping off that bloody little adhesive strip millimeter by millimeter for a decade in order to preserve and prolong the pain. And, he was trying to point out that this was what I was doing, and to tell me that I, hey, by the way, there are better ways to remove band-aids.
The fact that this horrible, emotionally charged conversation took place at the produce section of the grocery store was an added bonus, really.
So, on the walk home from the store I did my best to explain to him where I was at with it. (I’ve finished 1/3 of the new introduction — which is where I’m trying to reconceptualize the whole project so that its disparate parts connect more seamlessly. I’ve got now the “so what, what does it all mean?” section and the chapter outline to go and I’ll be done with this round of the introduction.) I did my best to explain my writing process. (I seem to need to screw around for a few hours before I can pull my brain into it, but then I do and can usually write for 2-6 hours at a stretch.) I did my best to hear his concern. Which seems to be the same as mine: Why am I not finishing this? As far as I can tell, the only answer so far seems to tie back to the emotional energy stuff. That I’m not done yet because it is emotionally hard, dammit. (Maybe they should call it an Eh.D.)
But, I’m rapidly losing patience with the part of me that is holding on to that answer. I think I’m holding on to the burden and the fear of the dissertation like a habit — one that is particularly hard to kick. Academic Heroin. But, I’m not sure I know how to quit. How do you stop giving everything emotionally to something that has consumed you for a decade or so? AND, how do you do this while still trying to give most of your time and intellectual effort to it? Maybe it is a conservation of energy problem — that the more time and intellectual effort I give it, the less emotional energy I invest. That is probably the first step. I don’t know. Maybe the first step is to win this fight with myself. Or maybe the first step is to simply stop fighting. I don’t know. But, I’m hopeful that just recognizing that I’ve got a problem is a good start.