I had been feeling much better – while my anxiety levels were still quite high, for the first time in months I wasn’t depressed. Then last Monday I didn’t go to a scheduled appointment with my psychologist, and it’s been a downward spiral from there.

What I truly lack and struggle to build, is resilience. Most little things feel like big blows and are difficult to recover from. One thing goes wrong and I completely lose control.

I’m thankful, at least, for my partner. On Thursday and Friday he managed to coax me out of bed and force me out of the house to go to work – which helped me build some resilience. It feels like somewhat of a waste since I didn’t go to work today, and I will have to try and get the fortitude to go for the rest of the week.

Perfection: my never-ending quest

Given the subject matter of this post, it’s not surprising that’s taken me 2+ weeks to actually finish writing and publish it. In fact, that is and will continue to be the case with the majority of my posts.

I am a perfectionist. I want everything to be just-so, and I want to do well in everything. I am obsessed with perfection.

Throughout my life, my desire for everything to be ‘perfect’ (or what I perceived as perfect at the time) has created a lot of emotional distress and anxiety. And I do mean everything: when I was young I needed my hair and shoes to be tied tightly, my underwear to be very tight fitting (I guess I was worried that they would fall off?) and sandwiches to be composed in a certain manner and could not fall apart, otherwise I would cry. Now I get upset if dinner isn’t right or if I’ve prepared something wrongly, I stopped learning cello after 6 months because I was struggling and you know learning; I get stressed when I’m not good enough at games; and most of all I strive for academic excellence. In academic terms I’m a high achiever and writing is very difficult for me because I struggle to allow myself to think and write – because what I write initially isn’t ‘perfect’, it’s not good enough.

I began to examine my self as a perfectionist recently because of the distress created by my self-imposed, impossibly high academic standards. I received my Honours results, (objectively) I did extremely well: my thesis was awarded 86 and my overall Honours mark is 87.*  My initial reaction was disappointment, I was still not good enough.  

And so we come to the problems caused by having such high expectations and holding yourself to an impossible standard. An obvious and very harmful issue is that you are never happy and always disappointed with yourself.  This leads to an inability to enjoy or savour any achievements, because they don’t feel like achievements at all: it’s still not good enough. Another, more minor problem, is that other people don’t understand what’s wrong. To them you’ve done a wonderful job and you’re either being modest or somehow ungrateful if you’re not happy with your results. I also have an ‘all or nothing’ idea – if it can’t be perfect, why bother? This thought pattern is extremely damaging, it stops me from doing a lot of things including, at times, even basic housework.

The biggest problem is that I don’t even know what I mean by ‘perfect.’ I don’t know what ‘perfect’ would look like, I don’t know what I would have to do to achieve or become ‘perfect’. It’s literally an impossible ideal. Every time I think if I just achieve x then I will feel/be y, I’m setting myself up to fail, because life doesn’t work like that. My thought patterns are so ingrained that I don’t know how to think otherwise. It’s something I’m working on with my therapist, but as we all know changing the way you think is very difficult.  I want to be a high achiever, I want to do well, I want to succeed, but I need to learn the difference between success and being perfect.


*For those unfamiliar, 80+ is classified as First Class, 90 and above may be awarded First Class with University Medal.

Little Bit of Sunshine

I usually don’t get much exposure to natural light; my working day doesn’t leave much time for day light, and when I’m not working I struggle to leave the house. The past couple of days I’ve made the extra effort to go outside on my lunch break and get some sun. I find a little patch of sunlight (not much to find in Sydney CBD during winter) and stand there; I absorb the warmth and light. It’s definitely helping to improve my mood at work, I’m reminded that things aren’t so bad after all – at least I’m warm in the sun.

Mental illness as a disability pt 2

Relevant to my last post about mental illness and disability, for the first time I’ve experienced a tangible disadvantage as a consequence of having a psychiatric disability in the work place.

Earlier this week I received the  news that I was not going to get the promotion that I had been promised (and had been already announced to the team) primarily because of my particularly poor attendance of late.  Now, I understand my manager’s position, though she handled the matter poorly. She didn’t talk to me about it before, in a rather frustrating conversation, announcing her decision and the reasons for it. While she does genuinely care about my well being, she lacks a certain level of understanding and tact, as well as the interest in learning.

The fact is I have been away from work a lot lately because it’s been a particularly hard time for me; I was even more stressed than usual to finish my Honours thesis on time. Really, I’ve always struggled with regular attendance; at school and after school activities, social activities, then later work and university. I’ve always felt very guilty about not being able to regularly attend things – and then of course my guilt feeds my anxiety, creates more self hate, more fear of the outside world, leads into depression and thus more difficulty with attendance. In the workplace I’ve always worked hard when there and tried my best to be open, honest and discussed my reasons for not being there. I must say that overall I’ve received support, understanding and compromise.

This recent setback, however, has led me to even more doubt and fear. It’s made me worry that I won’t be able to succeed in my chosen career, because of the effects of my illnesses. I know that I work hard and am very capable, but maybe that simply isn’t enough. I can only hope to improve my attendance over time with more therapy etc, but realistically I will never be able to be somewhere 100% of the time.

What really struck me about this situation, is that this is a serious problem for the chronically ill (psychically or psychologically). For those of us who cannot always be at work it has serious repercussions. The options are to 1) try and work full time but then have lots of time off resulting in leave without pay and not being given development opportunities; 2)  try to find part time work and accept a lesser earning capacity; 3) not work at all and struggle financially. When these are the options you are faced with it is no wonder that statistically people with mental illness earn less and are regularly among society’s most disadvantaged.

Achievement unlocked: Honours

This week I did something I didn’t believe I could do; I finished my honours thesis. I’ve now finished my Bachelor of Arts (hons). I now have to wait an indefinite period to get my final mark and then actually graduate.

In some ways this doesn’t feel like a particularly amazing accomplishment, since I know lots of people who have done degrees and it’s pretty common. On the other hand, I cannot believe that I actually did it. I put myself through so much mental anguish and pain over the past year and a half (in fact, it was only meant to take a year but I had to extend it), I was so consumed by the voices in my head telling me I couldn’t do it and I truly believed at times I wasn’t capable, that I am a little astonished that I did it. I actually, for once, feel proud of myself. Mind you, it won’t necessarily last too long as I start applications for post-grad study.

Despite what I thought was the finality of my decision to start a PhD in Aus, I am going to apply to do a coursework masters overseas next year first. I’m terrified at the prospect, and I won’t be able to go if I don’t get a scholarship, but I am forcing myself to at least try. Because I’ve realised that if I try, I can accomplish what I want, no matter how anxious, how paralyzed I feel or how obsessed I am with perfection.

Dreams versus Reality

Dreams are something that I think drive all of us; they lead us move our lives forward and achieve what we want in life. Our culture emphasises the idea that we should chase our dreams and that as long as we work hard we can achieve our dreams. Well, unfortunately as I grow up I’m discovering that it’s not always that simple.

I’ve always had big goals and dreams for my life and future, but reality seems to get in the way.

I want to get married, I want to travel (lots!), I want to own a house, I want to live overseas, I want to have a child (note: only one), I want to undertake postgraduate study, I want to work as an editor (in book publishing), I want to complete a PhD (preferably at Cambridge), I want to have an amazing career,  I want more tattoos, I want a cat, I want enough money to be comfortable and I want to do it all in the company of my partner. Not too much to ask right?

Well, recently I’ve started to learn that you can’t have everything. This is a hard truth for me since when I want something I want it almost to the point of obsession and work very hard to get it. I’ve been planning and creating tables of postgraduate study options for a couple of years now, mostly focusing on options in the UK. For my PhD I had wanted to focus on Old Norse and medieval Iceland for which there is little (now almost no) avenue to pursue this in Australia. Ideally Cambridge and their Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic would be the place to do postgraduate research. Now that I’m almost finished Honours (finally handing in on 16 May) I have started seriously considering my options. However, I’ve been faced with the fact that if I want to move to the UK to study I would have to wait at least another 2 years for financial reasons and partner related reasons. I’ve also had to consider for medical reasons I may not cope with studying overseas. I also don’t know that I want to wait another 2 years before starting a PhD (which is 3-4 years in itself).

These considerations have led me to the difficult decision to start my PhD in Australia next year, at my same university. There was a lot of pain and tears in this decision. I don’t mean that an Australian degree is worth less, because it’s not. In my field of study though there are many more opportunities overseas. It was extremely difficult to let go of one of the big dreams that I had. I didn’t want to give up on it, I wanted to have everything I ever wanted with no compromises. But sadly, that’s not how life works. Life is about compromise and sacrifice. Sometimes that means compromising one dream for another, forgetting about one aspiration for the sake of something else. This has been a hard truth to learn and I’m still not completely sure I’ve made the right decision. But I’m slowly coming to terms with my choice and will have to learn to not have regrets. On a positive note I have made the resolution to still live overseas, but only after I finish studying.

NB: If I do change my mind I can downgrade my PhD to an MPhil then complete my PhD elsewhere, but then that would take up a few extra years as well.