How Not to Suck When Life Seems to be Falling Apart

In early November, Joyce, my spouse and partner of 26 years, was diagnosed with cancer. There has been much worry, shock, fear of the unknown, and all of the things that go along with that. There is the pain, fatigue, and general trauma of treatment. Yes, everything sucks just as bad as you would think. There is also support from family, colleagues, neighbors, and friends. But work is also a part of life. There are many issues and experiences that come with this specific life event that I will not discuss in this forum; and I know that the primary issues are not about me. For purposes of the blog entitled, “How not to suck in grad school,” the work is what I want to talk about.

Work can be therapeutic. Joyce works mostly from home in the field of business intelligence. She insisted on working after her diagnosis. She would likely still be working, but this is the time of year when she typically takes a couple weeks of vacation anyway. She will be back at work when her vacation is over. My kids are also working. My older daughter finished her first semester at university and continues to work at her part time job as well. My younger daughter has not missed a day of high school. Normalcy is therapeutic.

Obviously, we are not automatons. We have a rule that no one is allowed to be scared alone. We have dropped anything at any time to be together when needed. We discuss Joyce’s status every day. We make sure to laugh and cry together. The prognosis is good. Joyce has shown a productive sense of humor. We exercise together. We eat and fast together. We do not spend a lot of time worrying because we are busy managing every aspect of her treatment, making sure that household tasks are completed, keeping the whole family involved, and taking everything one day at a time. There will be tough times ahead to be sure. But we do this together.

When it comes to my academic work, the family is working, but I have been unable to do much. That is fine and completely understandable. The world does not revolve around me (much to my chagrin), and there are many projects that I am late to complete and other deadlines that are unlikely to be met. I am not upset by this because I am comfortable with my priorities. Nonetheless, for me to be a fully functioning human being projects need to be completed.

For academics, work requires focus, concentration, and creative thought. Even on the days where we are not 100% on point, there are administrative jobs, basic activities, and relatively mindless tasks to be done. But there is a lack of control, stress, panic, and a host of emotions that makes the most basic tasks challenging for me. Sometimes life seems to be falling apart and work is irrelevant. Yet, work is an important part of life and is therapeutic. Even when real and productive work is not possible, the effort to get back to productive work is the active ingredient in maintaining a sense of normalcy.

Others

Cancer is a conversation ender. There is no way to bring this up in a conversation without making everyone uncomfortable (so…sorry to you blog readers). People fall over themselves to help, offer sympathy, and generally step up. Friends, colleagues, and family have showed up to help, offered assistance, and been an important source of strength. My department chair has been supportive. He assigned a strong TA to the course I am teaching in the winter so that the TA can take over if I am needed at home on the day of a class meeting. I will simply prepare all class meetings one week ahead of time so that my TA can to serve as an understudy. Other faculty members have offered and I have yielded some of my program director responsibilities to them. My students (i.e., the impressive labbies) are amazing and patient. They have taken initiative on projects and made things happen while I am out of action. Reassigning tasks, renegotiating deadlines, seeking help, and being part of a team are all important activities. I have not told many of these people about my family circumstance—it is not a secret—it is that I do not really want to spend time and emotional energy talking about it and I do not want to make an excuse (even if it is a good one). Co-authors and other partners are aware that some of my work will be delayed, but only personal friends and people who need to know, have all of the details. Opening conversation and negotiation is the goal, mentioning cancer tends to close down any discussion.

Responsibilities

I have learned exactly how many people are counting on me to do my daily work. Between my role as teacher, supervisor, scholar, journal editor, program director, chair or member of various committees; there are over 200 people directly influenced by my inability to work for the last several weeks. This is a motivator to get back to work. There are many people right now waiting on me. There are days that I do not want to do anything, but it is constructive to be motivated. Everyone has been extremely patient and kind, but it is time to do my best for all of these people. To be clear, my work responsibilities are still second in importance to my family, but they are a strong second.

Compartmentalizing

This has always been a strength for me. I have the ability to shut out all noise and distractions and can work in any environment under any circumstances. I have a lot of experience with this. Anyone with clinical experience as a psychologist knows how to leave work at work and never let it interfere with your personal life; and home life stays home so as to not affect work. That ability has taken a hit. This current distraction is one that is tough to beat. Waves of emotion will wash over me when I least expect it and work does not happen. I ride the wave, address the emotion, handle the problems, seek support, and try to get back to it when I am able. Yes, it is frustrating to have a former strength turn into a weakness, but this is okay. I interpret these events as signs that work needs to stop and family time needs to take over with full attention.

Concentration

The essence of my problems have been with focus. Typically, my concentration is a strength of my work habits. I can usually work for 4 to 6 hours without taking a break. And I can do this for a total of 14 to 18 hours a day. That superpower has eluded me for the last 8 weeks. I have not been able to work for longer than 15 minutes before my focus drifts away. I set my Pomodoro timer to 15 minute segments. Take a break and check in with the family, do a household task, exercise with or massage wife, or walk the dog. I have gradually worked my way back up to a 25-minute Pomodoro segment, but the breaks are 20 to 60 minutes, rather than the traditional 5 minutes. Not fantastic, but I can work with this. Attention is fragile.

Sleep

This is another new problem. I usually do not sleep that much, but nearly always have high quality sleep. I can sleep anywhere at any time. There have been times of stress or mental health issues that have affected sleep in the past, but these were rare events. Sleep is now fitful. Sleep problems are probably as debilitating to my work as any other aspect of this experience. Sleep quality is improving slowly.

Self care

Joyce knows that I can be sloppy with self care, so we do a lot together. We meditate every morning. I fast with her before and during those treatment days. I make sure that we both drink a lot of water. I make soup often. I am improving my diet. We both know that I need to be healthy in order to be useful in her recovery. Now my favorite thing is to go to the gym. When I annoy Joyce, she says, “Go write.” I say, “I can’t.” “Then maybe you should go to the gym.” When I cannot focus and do work, then I can always lift heavy things. No offense to weight lifters, but it is not a high cognitive load task (“I pick things up and put them down”). Self care is not complex, but requires a bit of vigilance.

Conclusions

Life happens. Academics talk endlessly and tediously about work-life balance. Usually the problem is that work takes over, invades everything, and interferes with our personal lives. I know many people who have been through multiple marriages or unable to have relationships at all because work rules everything in their lives. This is not to say that one should avoid personal problems and seek solace in work, but work can be a therapeutic activity that reminds us of normalcy in times of crisis.

This news may be a surprise to many Twitter followers (@Shawpsych) as I have not mentioned Joyce’s medical issues at all. Twitter is a cancer-free zone for me that is the place to be silly, make coffee talk, try to inspire others, get inspired, and to be a tool for easing back to work. I will probably keep that status.

Joyce and I experience every day together. We still laugh and have fun. We still argue (apparently I suck at folding laundry). We learn every possible way to make her treatment better and increase the chances of a complete and rapid recovery. We are amused that everyone we know tells a story about an aunt, mother, sister, roommate, friend, or boyfriend’s mother’s 2nd cousin who went through a similar experience (or worse) and is “just fine now.” We have a long road ahead, but will simply take each day as it comes. We are ready and developing the skills to survive and even thrive. I am confident that we will get through all of this; healthier, better, and closer than before.

When something big and life altering, like cancer, enters your life; then everything is thrown off balance. Work is something that we can rely on. Sometimes it is an anchor that weighs us down with stress, imposter syndrome, absurdity, rejection, p = .051, and long hours; but others times it is an anchor of stability in rough waters. I appreciate all of it and am working to regain balance.

SR Shaw

 

 

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10 thoughts on “How Not to Suck When Life Seems to be Falling Apart

  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts — there’s so much really good advice in here, and, if I may, it’s refreshing to see more senior academics admitting that life can be really hard sometimes. My very best wishes to you and your family!

  2. Thank you so much for sharing. When difficult life stuff bubbles to the surface and demands attention I often struggle with handling work/life balance in the other direction. Your suggestions to address the waves of emotion and let others know to the extent that deadlines and responsibilities can be negotiated is spot on; I’ve found these two steps to be difficult but extremely helpful in the past year.

  3. Thank you for sharing this. It resonates with me. Last semester, my husband faced a life threatening surgery to remove a pancreatic tumor (he’s doing great at the moment!). The same week of his surgery my mom was diagnosed with advanced stage pancreatic cancer, and was dead 8 weeks later. In the midst of trying to take care of my mother from 3,000 miles away and my husband, my tenure file was due and we had to put our dog down after 14 years of companionship. I know just what you mean about the difficulty concentrating, and the need for self-care. Reading this helped me to remember that we are not alone in life’s challenges. Sending kind thoughts to you and your family.

  4. Sorry to hear, Steve. I think this is a great guide for anyone who is struggling with work/life balance due to unfortunate events. As I grow in my career, I am learning that there is a special solace found only in work, but diving fully into it is one of the hardest parts. Cheers.

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