At least twice a year (once in summer and once in winter) I enter an epic funk. These funks are exhaustion-induced, and most commonly occur when school’s out, and I’m firmly embedded in the bosom of my family. Suddenly, I find myself sleeping for twelve to sixteen hours a night, eating poorly, going makeup (and occasionally hairbrush) free, refusing to exercise, and—a sure sign of trouble—watching a lot of TV. We’re talking Law & Order: SVU marathons, Dateline binges, bad sitcoms… it’s horrible. (Well, horrible in that it indicates I’ve entered my own personal Bermuda Triangle. You could do much worse TV wise.)
You might be thinking “That sounds great!” or “That’s basically what I do when I’m on vacation.” Fair. But here’s the kicker: when I’m in my funk, I don’t do anything I actually enjoy. No reading, no writing, no knitting, no cooking, no adventures… basically, if it’s something I look forward to doing, I’m not doing it. It’s awful. I hate my funks, but can’t seem to prevent them. It’s frustrating and depressing, both for me, and for the very select group of people who bear witness to/are punished by them.
I said that I tend to fall into a funk when exhausted, and that’s 100% true, but if being tired lays the groundwork for funkiness, the funkiness itself is composed of, and perpetuated by, fear. This has been a problem since I was a little kid. I’m in like, the 21st grade, and I still have a spate of nightmares right before going “back to school” In the fall. Never mind that summer break is largely spent at school doing schoolwork. This is the time of year when I begin to convince myself that I can’t possibly do this anymore, that I’m bound to be unsuccessful no matter how hard I try, and—my particular favorite—that I’ve just been convincing myself that I’m happy all this time. The smiling and laughing… lies. I’m pulling off the thought crime of the century over here.
This summer’s funk began within two days of coming home from New York, and—mercifully—only cost me a week of productivity and happiness. I started climbing back on the horse yesterday, painful though it was, and am slowly getting back into the swing of things… hence this blog post.
There are two reasons that summer funk wasn’t too bad this time around, and I want share them, because I can’t imagine I’m the only person in the world who devolves every once in a while, and there are few things more maddening than this particular brand of stasis.
FUNK SHORTENING MOVE #1: In anticipation of visiting my family, I made a mental list of the things that I do while funky. For each behavior I found a counter measure.
For example: I watch almost no television at home, and what little TV I do watch is appointment viewing on steroids—viewing parties, themed dinners, the works. The house I grew up in, meanwhile, is one in which television serves as background noise at all times. In the almost ten years I’ve been away from home, I’ve thoroughly broken the habit of turning on the TV immediately upon waking up/coming home/entering a room, but visiting my family re-flips the switch, and suddenly I’m watching the Food Network for hours, for no particular reason. When I was a kid, the hours of TV were a comfort I needed; I was attending a prep school and probably would have gone crazy if I didn’t have a couple hours with The Simpsons every day. Now, marathon television viewing almost always leaves me bored and sad.
For the first several weeks I was home, I made—and followed—this rule: if the TV is on in the living room, I should be in my room working. By limiting my exposure to the television during the day, I not only managed to accomplish something quickly every day about which I could be proud, but I also made it possible to take in an episode or two with my mom late at night before bed, a ritual we’ve had since I was a kid. (It’s really quite heartwarming: cuddling up, watching true crime stories about rape and murder, and then toddling off to bed sporting a force field of mother’s love.) If I spent time knitting while watching a nighttime episode, well, that was a bonus.
I also made sure I had some appointment viewing lined up. Dinnertime was Orange Is the New Black time for the past couple weeks. Once we’d finished that series, we moved on to season four of Downton Abbey. It sucked not watching these shows when they came out, but instead of losing two days of my life binge-watching good TV, it now operates as a reward for month of hard work… a reward that’s conveniently spaced out by the demands of my mother’s work schedule. Joy = prolonged.
My approach to the boob tube is just one of the many changes I made to ensure that I wouldn’t spend my whole time at home in a funk, being (and making everybody else), miserable. I made sure that—despite not having a car and living in a very UN-walkable town—that I would leave the house once a day, even if only to go to the grocery store. I made sure I cooked for the family every few days. I started a blog (this one) that made me feel responsible for something despite being on “vacation.” I tried hard to be a decent daughter and sister, and not, you know, the slovenly mess I usually am whenever I come home. (Cleaning is only relaxing, I find, when it’s your house you’re cleaning.) You get the idea. Every day was lived with a level of intention that I’ve long perceived “vacation” to be about avoiding.
FUNK SHORTENING MOVE #2: When all the funk started creeping in, I let it happen.
Usually I realize I’m entering a funk, and respond by beating myself up, getting anxious that it might never end, and giving in to the urge to fight with everyone about everything (when I’m not sleeping, that is). Not this time.
I returned to my mom’s house from New York more tired than I’ve been in a long time. I tried to keep up all of my good habits, but it was much harder given the level of exhaustion I was up against. Two days after getting home—and after two nights chockablock with anxiety dreams—I told my mom “I can feel myself slipping.” She noticed it too. Instead of excoriating me to pull myself together, she told me to take a few days to fall apart. I did. Because we both accepted it as a natural process with an endpoint, the anxiety dreams diminished faster, and I managed to keep imposter syndrome (usually a hallmark of the funk: “I can’t go back to graduate school… I need to just sit here and watch Say Yes to the Dress!) at bay.
I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, My Brother, My Brother and Me, earlier this week. For reasons I will never fully understand, they had Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat Pray Love fame) make a guest appearance. I read her best seller years and years ago, on a plane, if memory serves correctly, and it didn’t really connect with me. It wasn’t a bad book or anything, I just wasn’t the author’s intended target. My reaction to her appearing on my favorite comedy podcast, then, was lukewarm. Then she said something I doubt I’ll ever forget.
Gilbert told listeners that creativity and fear are conjoined twins. You cannot have one without the other. The key is to make peace with your fear. She used the metaphor of a road trip. You know fear is going to be there for the whole ride, with you at every rest stop and leaving Pringles on the backseat… but that doesn’t mean fear gets to drive. Welcome your fear, acknowledge it, but make sure it stays in the back seat where it belongs.
Brilliant. It’s not a particularly novel idea, but for whatever reason, this particular enunciation really resonated with me.
In this case though, I’m taking a slightly different approach. About twice a year, I find myself letting fear drive. It’s a bumpy ride for me, and I come out of it a little worse for wear, but I also get something really meaningful out of the experience. As scary as it can be getting a PhD, or living 3,000 miles away from your family, or what have you, seeing what you become when fear is in charge is much scarier. Now I’m actually excited to get back to California, and back to work.
Instead of viewing my funks as a personal failing, I’m going to start scheduling them. I’m going to let them be more instructive than destructive. I’m going to use them to remind myself that the life I’m working so hard on, while occasionally exhausting and still more occasionally frightening, is also pretty awesome. I’m going to embrace my creativity’s conjoined twin, and then punch her in her stupid face when she least expects it.
“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.