I was rather nervous this morning, as I’d arranged to see my supervisor and anticipated discussing my progress on the writing up of my Masters project, which frankly, so slowly that a snail looks like Usain Bolt next to me. This is mainly due to the tortuous process of going backwards and forwards through 150 dense pages of my lab book and seemingly countless digital files to link together all the things I did. My memory and concentration is far from at its peak currently, due to my still being in recovery from the latest incapacitating spell of depression-tinged anxiety.

Although I am feeling considerably improved, it takes a while for my cognitive capacities to move from being able to concentrate on only a couple of minutes of technical reading between hours-long breaks to that which is necessary to understand most scientific writing (or even my own notes). Every day I notice my faculties improving, but they are not up to par yet.  This, and my tendency to procrastinate and/or become distracted, mean that my work pace is fairly slow at present. Throw into the mix that I got little work done last weekend due to being preoccupied by distress, and that I am currently drinking very little caffeine as I hope minimising it will help keep my heart rate lower (to help the anxiety): well… I haven’t got nearly as far as I (or I suspect my supervisor) would like.

When I left to go to campus however, I was cheered by a stranger with a bicycle that I passed as I crossed the road en route to the bus stop. Neither she nor I could stop, as we were in the middle of the wide road, but as we crossed each other, she turned back smiling, and complimented me on my jumper.  This is the fellow who had caused her cheer:

Sorry for the poor quality picture.  But look at that polar bear’s face!

At the other end of the journey, as I approached my destination, I started to panic about a presentation I am due to give on my project.  I managed to bring myself back to the present by meditating on Christmas.  I know it’s rather daft, but I figure, whatever works.  I sang ‘Away in a manger’ under my breath to myself and envisioned a beautiful Christmas tree like the one I’ve decorated before:

My present anxieties about the ‘P-word’, of course, aren’t helped by the fact that I am still in the process of writing up the project to hand in, but more than that, the very idea of presentations fill me with complete and utter dread. I haven’t always felt this way.  I wasn’t a big fan of presentations when I started my Psychology undergraduate degree in 2009, but through the first years, I managed to get through them with nervousness that I believe was within the normal range. In the last two or three years, presentations have become overwhelmingly anxiety inducing.

I panic.  Last year I was due to give a presentation for my undergraduate final year project.  This was a fairly informal presentation with five students and our supervisor sat in an office together.  We used slides but presented them whilst sitting next to the computer screen they were on.  I couldn’t do it.  Everyone else went before me and I froze.  I don’t know what anyone else talked about, not because it was a year and a half ago, but because I didn’t hear a word anyone said.  I sat there shaking, having denied a chance to present near the beginning, watching through unseeing eyes as my counterparts went before me.  Fortunately I’ve been lucky enough to have a supportive supervisor who can sometimes intuit my emotion (it might not be intuition. It might be that I’m incapable of disguising my fear even when I want to), and she gave me a get out.  In the end, apparently I presented my findings anyway.  I think I managed because I didn’t actually realise that what I was doing was giving anything like a presentation, but instead I felt like I was talking about some images I’d produced.

In January of this year, I had two awful occasions, both involving PhD interviews.  The first involved a trip up to London to interview for a prestigious PhD funded by the Wellcome Trust in the UK and the NIH in America.  I did incredibly well to earn an interview, but the upshot of it being so prestigious, was that the interview was with a panel of a dozen individuals, the vast majority of whom were esteemed academics from either side of the pond. Needless to say, it was incredibly intimidating, and I suspect it would have been for most candidates. I kept myself together all day, in the morning whilst I went through my preparation with my supervisor, on the train to London, and whilst I went for a coffee and spoke to my friend to calm me before I went into the large glass building with elevated ceilings. I sat in the waiting area with thoughts buzzing round my head, and was there long enough to calm down the jitters, by focussing on the high palm trees (yes, trees) that were planted (inside) in the window.

I was called over, and went through some paperwork with a steward, and was ready to go in.  And then I broke.  Before I knew what was happening, tears rolled out of my eyes and I began hyperventilating.  I was sat down and the lovely lady doing the paperwork began to calm me.  I didn’t calm.  Eventually, as I was clearly holding up the proceedings, the chair of the interview committee came out to speak to me, and I couldn’t have asked for gentler treatment.  He immediately set me at ease through some humorous anecdotes and reassurances about various interviews he had been part of, and I managed to go into the interview and perform alright.  I didn’t have to give a formal interview in that one, luckily.  I did manage to answer all the questions and explain my research and proposed research capably.  I didn’t get that PhD in the end, but given that there were two days of consecutive AND concurrent 20 minute interviews happening, involving students who had been flown in from around the world, the fact that I did not get one of the five positions was unsurprising.  I am still proud of myself for earning an interview and for making it through the experience.

The second experience I referred to in January was my second PhD interview.  It was at my current university, with my current supervisor and a second supervisor who is (and was) not at all unfamiliar to me. Despite the familiarity of the people and surroundings, I had enormous panic about the whole event.  This interview required me to give a short (5-7 minute) presentation on my proposed approach to the funded research position available.

The day before, I was adamant I shouldn’t (and wouldn’t) go.  The presentation was prepared and practised, but that made no difference. I went to great lengths to convince myself that the position might not be appropriate; that I should take extra time out before doing a PhD; that there were far better candidates for the position; that it was unfair of me to do the interview (no, I still don’t understand that one either).

I found a friend who I knew understood problematic mental healths, so I could talk through my anxieties, and as soon as I found her, I burst into floods of tears.  She took me outside and we sat on a bench near the Psychology department on campus whilst I sat crying for two hours trying to convince her why I shouldn’t attend the interview the following morning.  An old tutor of mine came past and saw how upset I was, and I distinctly remember her commenting ‘what’s wrong Jo, where’s this come from? It’s not like you to be this nervous and upset’… But it was.  I tell this part of the story to let you know that however confident a person seems, you don’t know what’s happening underneath. To let you know that if someone intimates that they have an understanding of what a mental health condition is like, that may well come from personal experience.  Elly (my old tutor) is lovely, but it surprised me that she assumed that my nerves were uncharacteristic, as I have always been something of a perfectionist – a trait that has, if anything, somehow decreased since she taught me, rather than increased. It surprised me that somehow, whilst sitting there sobbing before her, I was somehow having to tell her that yes, this was like me, even if this particular occasion was more demonstrative and evident to the outside world.

In the end, Elly let me know that in the morning, she would be working in the Psychology office, so that when (‘if’, in my eyes) I got there, I could find her and have her support if I needed it.  Gosh did I need it. That evening, I tried to practice my presentation with Oblong, but couldn’t even bring myself to say the word in front of her, so in the end, she became frustrated and decided not to bother trying to help any longer.  I attempted to get a good night’s rest, but unsurprisingly that didn’t happen, so I was awake the following morning after dozing for just an hour or two.  I went into university early, found a quiet room that would be free for the following hour or two, and practiced. Practiced practiced practiced. I said the words over and over, at first in my head, then in a whisper, then a loud whisper, a quiet voice, a more normal voice, a normal voice.  I was getting there. It kept shaking, but I pushed the words out.  I went to the office to let them know I was there.

True to her word, Elly was at the office when I arrived, and as if she had been waiting for me, she brought me straight through and out of the way of everyone else.  We had to walk down a corridor in the building – one that I have walked down a hundred times – running from the School Office to a waiting room.  As we walked down, I began to hyperventilate and panic attack began.  Elly got me to the waiting room, sat me down, and worked some magical mindfulness techniques on me to help ease my stress.  Somehow she deescalated me, and got me to starting to whisper through what I needed to say to get me going once I walked into the interview room. When the time came, she saw me walk (edge) down the hall, and was waiting for me when I came out afterwards.  By that time, I was absolutely fine, as having made it through the presentation part, the following discussion with questions and answers felt like a chat over tea and cake at a local café, in comparison.

That afternoon, I was offered the PhD.

I’m not sure if either of them will ever read it, but to Becky and Elly, thank you so much for your support those two days.  I’m pretty certain I wouldn’t have made through to that interview without you, and without that, I wouldn’t be starting my PhD in January.

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Image credit: ‘Thanks’ person, cat and flowers illustration, found here.