Seeing as I wrote a reflective piece at the end of last year, I thought I’d keep up the tradition and write another one for this year. It’s a monstrously long piece, but that’s 2020 for you.
Needless to say, this year has been an utter rollercoaster of events, so I’d like to include an appropriate trigger warning for mental health related things. Please feel free to skip this piece if things are a bit much right now. I totally understand.
I guess some of you may be wondering why I’d even bother to write a reflective piece, if I think it might not be beneficial to some, but… I find writing quite cathartic, so it’s more for selfish reasons that I write this. It’s mostly for me- but if some parts relate, and give you some sense of, ‘oh, good, it wasn’t just me’, then… that’s even better.
Also, I’m not really sure how ‘personal’ I want to write this, so this post is probably the most edited post so far. I’ve had to try and figure out what the best narrative is, but as was the year that’s been, I’m sure it’s a bit hit and miss.
I feel like last year was a lot of up and ups, so naturally, when 2020 unfolded, I could only see it going back down to what I thought would be somewhat hectic times.
And I was right.
I got back all the reviewer comments for my second manuscript on Christmas Eve last year, so I knew that January would be crazy. I had a naïve little social media post about a year ago saying I’ll probably be done with experiments by the end of Jan. Things never pan out that way, and it didn’t in this instance.
But it wasn’t just all about me in January. Australia was battling some of the worst bushfires we’ve ever seen, and Melbourne was blanketed in smoke. Given I am asthma prone during pollen season, I got myself a P2 mask and just tried to avoid being outside for as long as possible. Being in the lab was sort of a blessing in that sense, because the air quality was significantly better- but there was so much smoke that it was actually getting inside the lab. Still, seeing all that smoke was really unnerving, and I felt awful about all the people who were displaced, or had been traumatised by the fires. A former teacher of mine’s son had set up a site to help those that were looking for emergency accommodation, and I saw a lot of other people rally around this time. It was really sweet, but I also felt really disheartened by the sheer lack of acknowledgement about the underlying cause of all this chaos. Climate change. There, I said it. How that’s become such a political statement to make, I will never understand. 🤷🏼♀️
Still, even with the world literally and metaphorically in flames, I was under a lot of pressure, so I just had knuckle down and keep going.
I learnt last year that it’s quite alright to delegate tasks to others if things are a bit much in that moment. Obviously within reason, but if your brain was metaphorically melting away and you felt like you were being squeezed from all sides (again, metaporically), it’s good to pass some of your responsibilities on to someone else. I ditched my moths in January for this reason. I just didn’t want to have to think about them, and I needed to pass the skills on to someone else anyway. In hindsight, I’m very glad that I did this in January, because the next two months would be absolutely horrendous.
I had one big experiment to do, but the set up for it was taking longer than anticipated. It’s always the way when you’re relying on some probability and luck for things to progress, but with everything else going on, it was scraping away at my mental health by large scoops. ‘The clone woes‘ posts outline all the issues I was having, but it was just getting really disappointing and frustrating that things weren’t moving at the pace I wanted it to.
To put it in more simplistic terms, I’ll just write out my ‘to do list’ during Jan-Mar this year:
- Finish revision experiments for this second manuscript
- Deadline for rebuttals was extended to late March, but I had to have every experimental data finalised, incorporated into figures, alter the main text and discussion to address this new data and any other comments from the reviewers
- Finish writing my Ph. D thesis and be ready to submit in mid March (a day shy of my four year mark as a Ph. D candidate)
- If I missed that deadline, I would need to arrange another meeting with my committee to apply for a short extension to my candidature
- Get ready to start teaching undergrads again in March
- Find a job ASAP because as soon as I submit, my funding is cut and I’ll have no income (aside from a wee bit from teaching)
It doesn’t seem like much when you write it down like this, but I was in the lab probably 6 days a week, and working about 10 hours each day at the worst of it, so my poor old brain was just in tatters. The imminent loss of income and the mounting pressure to find a job in a highly competitive job market was also not making things any easier.
And things felt even worse when I realised that this was the norm in academic research. There is very little sympathy when you say that you were working such hours, because there are always people who are working even longer and harder- all the time. The current lack of funding into research also means that people are always face to face with an imminent, sudden loss of income from losing your job.
It’s really twisted when people criticise you for complaining about the above, because they ‘have it way worse’. Like, the situation is already bad! It’s not a competition of who is more/most miserable?! It’s like people expect you to be suffering, and if you’re not, then you’re just taking the easy route, and are therefore unworthy in some manner.
When you realise just how messed up that whole world is, and how much it doesn’t suit your personality (or ideals about work-life balance), you just want to pack up shop and run away as fast as possible.
Unfortunately I still had some stuff to do, but it was just like this horrible thing was grabbing me and pulling me further and further into this sludge of despair. I can’t stress how much I wanted out at this point.
It took a toll on my writing, too. My last chapter (the ‘Discussion’ or ‘Perspectives’ chapter), didn’t flow very well, which was a bit unusual for me at that time. Generally my first drafts are pretty good, but even I noticed how awful it was upon a second read in late Feb. When you’re not in a good place, mentally, your productivity plummets. No matter how hard you work, it just won’t be at the same level as when you’re healthy.
And then on top of all that, at the beginning of February, I wrote about this weird little virus that wasn’t actually named after a beer… That was definitely not welcome. There was this ominous cloud over everything, wherever I turned.
I wrote a general update in late Feb to note how many weird things were going on in the lab at that time, as well as my general direction for the future. I desperately wanted to get out of academic research ASAP, but at the time, it just felt like everything was all over the place. I despise not being in control of a situation (another trait that doesn’t suit academic life- because nothing in science is within our control 😂), so this also added to the deteriorating mental health.
Teaching was a much needed respite for me at that time. Semester one kicked off in March, and it brought along a massive confidence boost, because all the techniques were easy and guaranteed to turn out okay. Even if it doesn’t work, there’s always back up results and such as a safety net. A stark contrast to what actual research is, for sure, but I appreciated it at that time.
And then all of a sudden, one Wednesday morning in mid March, I had an impromptu catch up with my supervisor to update them on what I was up to with my revisions and my Thesis writing. I had finalised a real, final draft the previous day. It was ready to submit for examination. It felt very eerie and surreal at the same time.
Unfortunately my last experiment (a confirmatory one for the actual, big experiment) was still giving me grief, so I told my supervisor about this last little bit of data that I hadn’t quite finalised yet- fully expecting them to tell me to keep going.
But then they said it’s probably not really necessary, so I could just drop it.
And suddenly I was done in the lab.
After all those days… weeks… months… YEARS.
I wasn’t expecting that, so I was quite taken aback.
‘Really? That’s… it?’
After some thought, I realised that my supervisor was right (as usual). The reviewers never asked for it, so… why worry about it now? I quickly went to throw bits and pieces out, when I came to another realisation.
That was the last meeting I had with my supervisor as their student.
An impromptu, ‘oh wait I have a minute now if you wanna chat?’ meeting.
I brought it to their attention when I was next in the office area, and they told me to stop pointing it out because they thought they might cry. 😂 It was such a weird feeling to have ended in such a haphazard manner, but I think it suited us this way.
Obviously I told my mum that I was suddenly all done in the lab. All I had to do was to read over my Thesis draft and then submit that Friday. With two days to go, I was well ahead of schedule.
I was parading around the lab and office area in all my glory, when I got a sudden call from mum. She asked me when I would be home, and I said I’d be home later in the evening, so I could avoid the peak hour rush.
Then she told me to not rush, but that she’s actually at my home. Not hers.
I thought it was oddly out of character. My housemate wasn’t around at the time (she was off galivanting around Tassie), so at least it wouldn’t impact them, but I still thought it was really weird.
I didn’t rush, but I left work fairly promptly so that I could get home sooner. I wracked my brain for what it might be about. Was I in trouble? Was it an early celebration? It could have been anything! But I had a somewhat nasty feeling that the news wouldn’t be positive. It’s never positive.
… And I was right.
You know shit’s about to get real when your usually boisterous mother is super quiet and sombre.
So when she sits you down and tells you that your beloved grandpa had actually passed a way a couple weeks ago- you’ve got nothing else to do but to scream.
I’m sure it was horrendous for her, too. He was a right pain in the arse most times, but he was still a good father and grandpa to us, respectively.
The decision to not tell me immediately was probably wise. I don’t think I could have finished in time if they had. There’s no resentment at all from my end, except the regret that I had forgone video calling my grandparents because I wanted to wait until I was out of the well of despair that I had been marinating in for the past couple months. It meant that I’d not spoken to my grandparents (via audio call or video call) since… last year. That still plagues me.
So in the space of about 18 hours, I had gone from flat out lab to nothing, flat out Thesis writing to nothing (just some light reading left), and finding out that the one person who would have most openly celebrated my submission, who probably would have been the proudest, had already passed away.
To say the least.
I’ve never experienced this type of loss before. It’s gut wrenching, world shattering, heart breaking… everything. A giant hole forms where that person used to be. I can say with absolute confidence that I’ve never felt this much emotional pain before.
Objectively, it’s amazing how your body responds. The screams and tears were almost instantaneous, and you almost don’t believe you could make those sorts of sounds. A part of you worries what the neighbours think, because while 90% of you is raw emotion, another part of you is always computing away at stupid shit like that.
I told my partner, my friends, and my supervisor immediately. I should have asked someone to cover my teaching session the following afternoon, because I definitely didn’t sleep enough that night. I did get offered a break- someone else to tag in, but I stupidly didn’t take it.
If someone experiences that level of loss, and they insist that they rock up to work- tell them to get fucked and stay home.
… Okay, possibly with less hostility, but you get the drift.
I should have stayed home, but I went in anyway. I managed to pull it through, but my eyes were like what you’d see on a Black Moor gold fish. They’re pretty cute, but that’s because their eyes are supposed to be all puffy. Mine aren’t.
There is not a single day thus far, where I’ve not thought about my grandpa. I’ve had nightmares, or just dreams, and woken up screaming or crying. It’s still very raw, and I generally find it very uncomfortable when people express their condolences. I feel bad about that, because I know they mean well. It puts me in a pickle because sometimes I want to bring it up, because I feel okay to do so, but when someone else does it, it’s like they blindsided you and you feel very exhausted by the sheer act of making face. I’m still not sure what the best way forward is. I’m still learning to live with it.
So my Thesis submission on the Friday was ultimately very bittersweet. I didn’t really read over that draft that I’d finalised on the Tuesday- I wasn’t in the right headspace for it. I just submitted it as is, because there is absolutely no way you can pick up on every single typo or some such in a Ph. D thesis. A thesis without any typos is an unwritten thesis.
My partner came down so that we could celebrate/hold a belated wake. We toasted with what was my grandpa’s favourite Sake, from the prefecture where he was born. He had pretty good taste, because it’s probably my favourite brewery, too.
Now, if you think that week was an absolute rollercoaster, the following week just kept adding to it.
We still had the paper to resubmit, so on Monday, I was back to editing and attempting dot point rebuttals. It was doable, but I was also not really in the best headspace, so everything just took longer to do. We somehow managed to pull everything together so that we could resubmit the following day (Tuesday).
Turns out there was a formatting issue with the figures, so we had to quickly fix the issue on the Wednesday and re-submit again.
I forgot to mention- while all this was going on, back in mid Feb, my supervisor notified me that there was a job opportunity coming up within the building for a Communications role. It wasn’t front facing (i.e. directly interacting with the public), and it was mostly about writing very technical reports. It sounded like the perfect thing for me (and my very special set of skills). I’d had an informal chat about it with the person doing the actual hiring for the role, and the formal interview was coming up on the Thursday. Naturally, I was freaking the fuck out.
So, Thursday rolls around. I’d had an exhausting week and a bit, so I’d sort of slept in a wee bit. First thing I usually do of a morning is to scroll through my messages, emails, and social media accounts (oh come on, we all- well, most of us, do it), so as I groggily opened my emails, I was very surprised to see that the paper had been accepted by the journal for publication.
It was like a four hour turnaround. It took four hours for the assigned Editor to look over the rebuttals, the associated draft and figures, and then click accept. All of it happened overnight because it’s all based in the U.S.
So that was a very pleasant way to wake up. Stark contrast to how I woke up the previous Thursday.
I rocked up for the job interview with a bit more confidence, because:
- It was the same building where I’ve worked since 2014.
- My paper had been accepted.
- I’d written out answers to the top 50 most commonly asked job interview questions- because I am insane
I felt pretty good about the interview, but the elation was somewhat short-lived, because the following day the lab had to go into full shutdown because of COVID-19!
I was very lucky to have finished in the previous week. I’d sorted through most of my stuff already, so the shutdown didn’t really affect me at all. Others weren’t so lucky, though. Obviously the students who were still working had to suddenly ditch all experiments and start working from home. If you’re a late stage candidate, you can start writing your thesis with a little more ease, because you’ve got a fair amount of work to write about, but… if you’d only just started, there’s only so much writing you can do. It was a very hard time, and I have a series of posts from students about what life was like for them at the time.
Teaching also transitioned from face to face to online in that week, so that was also an interesting adjustment to make. We were able to film some of the final experiments and do an online live stream with the students, but it was definitely less than ideal. Students do Practical subjects because they want to use their hands and do experiments themselves. Sitting at home and watching a livestream (or video) isn’t the same experience, but we had to make do with what we had available to us. I think, given the urgency and limited resources, everyone did a fantastic job. I have to say, I’m lucky I was relatively tech savvy, because learning the ins and outs of Zoom on the fly was relatively smooth sailing for me. I know others weren’t so lucky.
So yes, just like that, my life came to a screeching halt. My routine was gone, because I was no longer in the lab. I couldn’t see people, because we weren’t supposed to visit each other at home… all the plans I had to celebrate submitting my thesis was up in the air, let alone our lab’s customary paper lunch for paper acceptances.
Unfortunately, though, around this time, I started feeling really under the weather. I still don’t know what it was, exactly, but I was very tired and had trouble with my breathing. I couldn’t get a COVID test at the time because I didn’t meet the criteria (no fever), but I still self isolated and kept to my room for a couple weeks just in case. It felt very lonely, but I scoff at the level of loneliness I felt then (with the worst being yet to come).
On the flip side, I heard back at the end of the following week after my job interview that I’d gotten that Comms role. It brought a sense of normalcy back, because I was now classed as an essential worker and could go into work. I gave myself a few weeks to recover and get back into things, but we were still under stage three restrictions and had to be very careful about workplace practices.
Thus began the year or learning new skills.
The programming and such was, and still is, the most difficult thing. I know enough to alter pre-existing code, but not enough to write fresh stuff. One day…. One day…
But while this was going on, Melbourne was battling a second wave of COVID. It was spreading rapidly into aged care homes and onto healthcare workers, so things were feeling very apocalyptic. Panic buying meant that everyone was just on edge, and toilet paper flew off the shelves.
I still have no idea why it was toilet paper, of all things.
Disinfectant, foods, PPE, sure.
What’re you gonna do with it? No one needs five packs of 24 rolls of toilet paper in one hit. COVID doesn’t make you poop??
I never got too caught up in the panic buying. I always bulk bought things anyway, because it was cheaper. Sure, I had to change the menu on occasion because I couldn’t find certain food items, but I never starved. I didn’t buy more things to compensate. I’d hate to think of how much food was wasted by people who bought too much and couldn’t use it all up.
But panic buying was the least of my problems. Metropolitan Melbourne was doing very badly by late June, and the situation was becoming much, much worse. I was already feeling very isolated, but once stage four kicked in, it just hit a whole new level of isolation.
Work was staggered so that we all worked shifts. I was initially in the early morning shift (6:30am-1pm), but I didn’t anticipate how long we’d be doing shift work. A few weeks of it is fine, but I think in the end I did almost two months. I am not a morning person, so this was dreadful for me. Eventually I managed to swap to afternoons (1pm-7:30pm), and that made things a bit easier.
But most of my former lab mates were still working from home, because while I was classed as a healthcare worker in my new role, they were still university students or employees. It meant I couldn’t see them very often, and that made things even more isolating.
And then on top of that, with the hard border around Metropolitan Melbourne, my partner wasn’t comfortable visiting me anymore from regional Victoria, so I went two months without seeing them.
We weren’t allowed to leave the house unless it was for very specific reasons, so our days were spent either at work (mostly keeping to yourself), or at home. Our household limited our grocery shopping to once a week, where only one of us would go in and grab stuff for both of us. Exercise was limited to one hour a day, but I felt so uncomfortable being near total strangers (potential incubators) that I didn’t want to go out. It frustrated me because there were people who wouldn’t observe social distancing rules, and I’d spend most of my outing dodging and running away from people. There was overnight curfew from 8pm to 5am, and you’d see police roadblocks, or police officers and ADF personnel walking around in groups and questioning people. It’s like, even under normal circumstances, when you see police, you sort of do a slight mental panic that you may have done something wrong- even when you haven’t.
… I guess, with all of that combined, it was just really, really, tough.
It was so unbelievably isolating.
Constant fear and anxiety, while knowing that others in the state (in regional Victoria) weren’t experiencing anywhere near this level of isolation.
There was a lot of resentment, which made you hate yourself for thinking that way.
I got so angry at conspiracy theorists and COVID deniers who’d claim this was all made up, or that it was just a ‘flu’.
People who wouldn’t wear masks, or wear them properly.
It covers your mouth AND your nose! You breathe through your nose as well! GAH!!!
Being a Doctor in infectious diseases was good and bad this year, because while our job prospects went up, when you heard or saw people openly dissing your expertise, it was infuriating.
I think I spent most of this year being disappointed, angry, resentful, anxious, and lonely.
And I didn’t even have it that bad! That was the most infuriating thing for me, personally.
I had a home, a stable income, a good housemate, and good food on the table.
But when I still felt like absolute shite, I just felt really disappointed in myself for not being able to appreciate how fortunate I was.
Eventually, when my Thesis examination results came back, and I found out that it was a pass with no amendments, my initial reaction was despair, because I couldn’t tell my grandpa about it. Every good news this year was met with more loneliness.
So when my housemate found out that she got a travel exemption and could move overseas to start her new life as a Post Doc, in the midst of stage four restrictions, mind you, it meant that I had to very quickly organise a new place to live in.
Do I stay in Melbourne? Do I move back to my regional Victorian town (where I grew up)? Do I live solo, or do I move in with my partner? Even after I figured out the answers to these questions, I still had to coordinate inspections (which I couldn’t attend myself, being in Melbourne), applications, and eventually, moving logistics.
Moving all my gear with just two people and a large van was… interesting. I don’t recommend it. You should get help. In the end it was manageable, but I would have liked more help.
Doing the cleaning for the final inspection, when you hate cleaning… also interesting. Usually I just palmed the task off to my mum (who loves cleaning), but she wasn’t able to come down and help.
Thankfully the situation was very different in regional Victoria. The difference in restrictions meant that I could have some helpers clean the new place and unload furniture once I moved back. Walking into a retail store for the first time since… May? After a five month absence… Melted my brain. It felt so wrong.
Having other people in my house was super weird. I hadn’t interacted with that many other people in so long- I just felt really stressed out, but also happy- but mostly anxious.
I’ve still not really been out and about as much as I may have beforehand. Even with eased restrictions, I feel uncomfortable dining out, or going into somewhat crowded places. I didn’t like being around people anyway. This just exacerbated it.
So, with a quiet Christmas now gone, I’m just taking it slow.
Continue my cooking adventures…
Stare at my printed Thesis…
And I can now call myself THE DOCTOR, because I graduated (in absentia) on the 22nd.
There will be an in person event next year, where I’ll get to wear the regalia.
But for now…
What a year. What a painful, eventful year.
I hope that, wherever you may be, and whatever situation you’re in, that you can welcome the new year safely.
It’s been tough, and really isolating, even to the ones who didn’t have it so bad.
I hope you get a bit of a break, and that you can take something from the rollercoaster ride that was 2020.
Even if it’s just sheer resilience.
Bonus images for those who bothered to scroll this far:
A Ph. D graduate in Microbiology, residing in Victoria, Australia. Now working part time at a secret location as a Communications and Data Officer. 👀 🦠 🧫 🧬