It’s gone 2.30 am and I can’t sleep. It’s not unusual for me to be unable to sleep, though typically I just feel awake. Tonight I’m feeling anxious. I’ve been feeling pretty anxious all week.
On Tuesday I was in London for an academic meeting, a conference if you will, with the speakers including academics and coordinators of research groups and organisations. I’ve been to a few conferences and largely find them enjoyable alongside being obviously informative. My brain can tend to feel a little frazzled at the end of a day listening to academic presentations, but a positive frazzled – dazed from the huge influx of information and excitement, rather than the more commonly implied frazzled – the feeling of incipient burnout from stress.
Tuesday was neither of those things. I’ve described before my unreliability at getting up in the mornings of my own accord, which has a negative correlation with the hour I am required to be up: the earlier the hour I need to be up, the more stressful I find it, this isn’t unusual, but the level of difficulty I have is, which I have written about several times previously. No matter the hour I try to go to bed, sleep eluding me (like tonight) is my norm. Because I knew I needed to be at Regent’s Park in London on Tuesday morning, I arranged to stay with a friend in South London on Monday night. I knew this would have two benefits: firstly, it meant I would not have to get a train during rush hour between Brighton and London on Tuesday morning, and being closer, I would not have to be awake quite so early. Secondly, I knew that sleeping in a strange place, and having an unfamiliar voice (for first thing in the morning) talking to me first thing in the morning would be more effectual in waking me up. Whenever I sleep away from home, I always try to make arrangements to be woken up by a friend – it’s one of the reasons I prefer to stay with others. I also know that whenever I have to be up early, I will be unlikely to have had very much sleep, and what I will have had will likely have been severely compromised in quality. This is also one of the reasons I like to stay overnight before having to be somewhere out of town early – it allows a little more sleep and a less daunting journey when I wake, making the waking easier.
So far, so good. On Tuesday morning I woke on my friend’s sofa, and after coming to, went about getting myself together for the day ahead. I dressed in my normal clothes and packed my two bags I had carried my belongings in – one tote bag I use on a day to day basis, which had notebooks and pens, a book, a spare jumper, my wallet and so on in; and one shopping-type bag I had popped my laptop and some overnight things in. I had considered taking my overnight case but the last time I did this for one night it seemed excessive and cumbersome in addition to my usual day bag. In future, I will try and remember to use my overnight case. I left my friend’s house and walked to Clapham Junction in reasonable time, determined the platform I needed and hopped on a train, making my journey to Regent’s Park.
It was cool and crisp but sunny when I disembarked, and I made my way to the meeting. I enjoyed the walk and felt positive about being in London, yet felt somewhat unsure about the day ahead. I had felt uneasy about it on Monday too – and couldn’t put my finger on why. In retrospect, I believe it was because I had had very little information on what to expect from the day – I had been able to find little information on the specific content of the meeting or its speakers, where usually information is emailed or available online prior. Nevertheless, the conference was coordinated by a consortium of research groups I believed related to my work and I had been looking forward to finding out what talks would be on.
I arrived a few minutes later than anticipated, having missed a turn on my walk. I immediately felt worried but when I entered the building, I was assured that many people had not yet arrived. The speaker introducing the day had begun, and I was asked to wait to enter until after they had finished speaking, with a couple of other people. Whilst waiting, I began to worry about having been late, feeling wholly awful, despite having put strategies in place to mitigate any lateness, and having got up in time.
In the twenty five minutes I waited to be let in to the meeting room, I looked around at a few displays and at the line up for the day. I found it was not really what I had expected. This did not help my feelings of unease. When I entered the meeting room, I immediately felt conspicuous. Looking at the list of delegates, I could see very few were students at my level, and most attendees were dressed in suits for the day. This has not been my experience of such meetings or conferences before. They are usually well organised but relaxed environments of exchanging experience and findings. This felt like a business conference, which I was not prepared for, with my casual clothes and bags of belongings. I found a seat at the back on the perimeter and sat down to listen.
Honestly, I don’t remember a lot of what was spoken about. I took some notes and listened attentively, but I didn’t hear, because all I remember was increasing anxiety and worry. I stayed throughout the morning fighting an urge to flee into the strange weather outside where I thought I could enjoy some time and ease my anxiety.
I stayed through lunch, and busied myself reading posters of people’s research, which grounded me a little, in between sitting in the toilets feeling panicked and taking refuge from the throng of people.
Sadly, I still don’t remember much more about what I read than what I heard, but I made some notes of interesting research. I was determined to try and get benefit from the day, and I was feeling incredibly guilty about the fact that I wasn’t taking very much in. I spoke briefly to a couple of charity representatives who were pleasant and I felt slightly more at ease. After lunch I returned to the conference room to hear the continuing talks. Whilst listening I found myself fighting the urge to go and the guilt keeping me sat there. I was battling a clenching stomach, feeling utterly conspicuous, shaky, and panicked but I was feeling enormous guilt. I had taken the day off to go to this event, I had purchased a train ticket I would be expected to claim back the cost of, and yet I was struggling to stay.
In the end, I stayed as long as I could endure and concentrated as much as possible in the time I was there. I left early, but picked up information on the parts I missed. When I couldn’t keep myself sat for any longer, I gathered my things and left deliberately, fighting the urge to dash out.
When I got outside, I crossed over to Regent’s Park and decompressed, walking slowly beside the lake and sitting intermittently on the benches. What began as a bright day (in weather, and mostly mood), quickly turned grey (again in both domains), but after leaving the conference venue I was able to bring back the brightness by spending some time in the park. I spend some time with the avian life of London, being especially delighted to see herons, coots, and a mother goose with her babies, who honked defensively while onlookers stood admiring but respecting her brood.
I also realised that I had never been to Regent’s Park, and was startled by its bucolic beauty, ensconced in the middle of London. I appreciated that were it not for my anxiety during the conference, I would not have had opportunity to see the park in such lovely light, and during the peace and quite when most people were at work. I contemplated on all the things the great old wizened trees had seen.
In the end, I felt a lot better and I headed into London for a couple of hours before having food with another London based-friend and getting the train home.
Although I ended up feeling much better on Tuesday, I’m feeling anxious tonight because I didn’t see my supervisor yesterday so I didn’t have a chance to tell her I left the conference early. I am also feeling very lost in my PhD. I know this isn’t unusual but the lack of structure I have is apparently even less than most people. I am feeling all at sea without a paddle and I have felt this way for months. I feel unable to mention this because I believe it will only confirm any doubts that were in place about my particular capacity to do a PhD. I also don’t know what to do about the train ticket. I feel guilty claiming back the cost of it when I left the conference a bit early and couldn’t concentrate during it, yet I would not have spent the money had it not been for the conference (and can’t really afford not to claim back the fare). I’m generally feeling guilty, confused and incapable. These aren’t nice feelings. I do feel a bit better than when I started this post though, and though it’s approaching the pre-dawn haze outside, I might be able to sleep.