Last year was spent with a near singular focus on a single work project. Although there were many moving parts and a lot going on, there was a single goal, a single product. Over time, it turned into this big life milestone: there was before the grant and there would be after the grant.
Certainly there have been times in my life when I’ve been all-consumed by something to the point of dreaming about what life would be like “after.” Finishing my PhD thesis is an obvious example. In the midst of all the focus on the one big thing, there is daydreaming about all the things I put to the side or let languish a bit that I’d be able to devote more time to in the after.
Running, writing, volunteering, learning, reading, cooking, traveling.
The after beckons like a warm, safe light. A light that shines its soft light onto me and eases my mind and stops the chatter and lightens my load. This light urges me on with the promise of possibility for what is next. Its presence reminds me there is more to life than the one big thing, and although it’s something I need to focus on right now, it’s not something that will drive me for the rest of my life. My bigger path is into the light.
I am now in the after. After the deadline. After the trip that followed the deadline. And yet I don’t feel bathed in light. That light still seems just out of reach—closer than when I was in the midst of the project, to be sure, but I’m still not there.
Instead, I find myself swung like a pendulum through the light and to the other side. This of almost the opposite: instead of a singular focus, I find myself with a short attention span. I get excited about the time I now have and want to do all of the things. All of the things in a random order without a plan and with the very real danger of doing too much. Taking writing classes, volunteering once per week, building up my running so that I can train again, writing every morning, researching every evening. Even at work, the list of projects I want to tackle and new ideas grows longer each day.
I will say that this change in mindset is certainly welcome after feeling closed in for so long. It’s refreshing to even be able to think in this way, to feel the buzz of excitement over a new idea, a new plan, a new goal. I remember feeling like this after the last day of school, a whole summer stretching out in front of me and a mind full of plans.
For me, though, this buzz of activity also isn’t sustainable. I already feel like trying to do everything means I will actually implement nothing, because it becomes too overwhelming and too much to hold all at once. I see the big end goals rather than the small steps I can take in the right direction. I find myself wanting nothing but to nap and read on the weekends instead of taking some of those small steps. This crash, too, I remember from summer vacations. And I think it comes back to expectation.
Simply identifying goals and plans of course wasn’t enough to make them happen. I think I’d have an expectation in my mind for a summer—what I’d do, how I’d feel, what I’d change, how I’d be different—and would then be disappointed when that’s not the way things went. I’d put too much pressure on myself when things didn’t happen overnight or the way I’d sketched them out in my brain. And then, of course, I’d conclude that I was the reason for this failure. There was something wrong with me that I wasn’t able to make my expectations happen. Even though, for all the planning, I hadn’t built in time (goals take longer than a week!) or known myself enough to recognize what would be easy and what would involve a deeper element of overcoming deep-rooted fears (the fear of rejection, for instance, would make it really hard to pick up the phone and call a friend to hang out, so my carefree image of an active social life was wishful thinking. I didn’t have the tools, back then (does any 14-year old?) to be curious about why it was hard for me or if it’s what I really wanted or just thought I should want because other people had it. No, instead I’d be convinced there was something wrong with me that I “couldn’t just” pick up the phone).
Looking back, it’s clear to me that there were elements of depression swirling around in all of this. But not in the way you might think. I don’t think these pre-teen and teenage moping sessions caused depression. No, the way I understand my depression now, I think the depression masks my ability to be curious about how I’m feeling. It is the mask that is pulled over my eyes when I focus on the grand scheme of things rather than the day-to-day and prevents me from doing anything. It’s temporal and fleeting, so it took me a long to recognize what it was. It isn’t sadness or anger, it is a condition that makes everything seem hard. And my brain is one that finds it easy to blame itself when things are hard—a perfect little hiding place for depression to go unnoticed and unblamed.
So now, finding myself on this familiar swing of the pendulum, I’m trying to look at things differently.
I’m trying to acknowledge that things will be hard. Just because I want something doesn’t mean it will be easy, so removing that expectation prevents me from being disappointed and self-blaming when that expectation isn’t met. I have my own insecurities and obstacles to overcome, as everyone does, with a layer of depression over all that. And, hard isn’t bad. Hard doesn’t mean I’m failing. Hard means I’m pushing myself and going somewhere I haven’t been.
I’m trying to trust that the pendulum will eventually find equilibrium—not that it will stop swinging, but the edges will be less extreme.
I’m trying to recognize when the excitement to do one of “all of the things” comes from the place in my brain that buzzes when it’s distracted by something new or when it feels hyped up rather than from a place of inner peace and clarity. It’s tempting to let my buzzing brain take charge, and sometimes it’s good for me to take leaps without overthinking, but overall I wouldn’t feel satisfied and fulfilled if I let my buzzing brain lead. The buzzing brain cares too much about what other people think, about what I “should” want. The buzzing brain also shuts down when things are hard, so I can’t rely on it to help when I really need it.
That place of inner peace and clarity? That’s where my heart buzzes. That’s the frequency I want to listen to. That’s what will bring me into the light, not as a final destination but as something that will surround me as I continue to journey.