My survival secret: more from the other side of hell

On the evening of Sunday, March 23, I was wandering around campus, looking for a place to eat before class. I knew where everything was, but I still felt lost. Over the course of the semester, I had made a habit of carrying food and books with me wherever I went, but all of the spaces that allowed for both eating and studying were occupied. I had planned to do work with my extra time, but instead I spent at least half an hour trekking all over, scouting spaces. Eventually I gave up, settling onto an antique bench in an empty hallway. I spread my assortment of packaged foods over the deteriorating fern-colored velvet cushion. I stared at it for a few minutes. Upstairs, a chamber choir had started rehearsal. The music came drifting faintly down the stairwell. I felt so, so alone. I reached for my phone. I opened the Facebook app. I scrolled through my news feed. I saw a beautiful tribute that Nicole wrote to her brother.

That’s when the breakdown came.

See, aside from the losses Nicole already wrote about, we also lost two colleagues in the first few months of 2014. This was on top of the dear friend and role model that she mentioned, who we had also had the joy to work with for many years. What’s more, I suddenly lost a business I had had for almost seven years in January. Meanwhile, I was writing a thesis and working full-time. I commuted to campus four nights a week, and I ate almost all of my meals in my office, in my car, or in a public space on campus. And financially, I was completely strapped.

The first four months of 2014 were unequivocally the hardest months of my life.

Yet, here we are. I made it through the semester. I wrote an eight-month thesis in three months, and did a damn solid job. Nothing blew up at work. I stayed healthy. I didn’t even catch a cold from the undergrads.

But how?

You’ve probably heard about the importance of having an emergency fund. I have a small one. It grants an invaluable degree of peace of mind. But a financial emergency fund isn’t the only kind of fund you need. I didn’t realize it when I set out this semester, but I also kept an emergency fund for time. That is what really got me through, and it’s a practice I intend to continue.

You might remember that I had developed a pretty intense schedule for the semester – 9am – 10pm on weekdays, and 10am – 1opm on weekends. This was designed to include a cushion, and I used every bit of it. I also set some serious limitations on outside demands on my time. Fridays were my only “free” nights that could be used for social events (with very few exceptions). I probably used a third of them to catch up on cable TV teen dramas on while doing my laundry, and another third for big-batch cooking. I got really, really good at saying no.

All of those time blocks and limitations created an expanse of time specifically for studying – more than I theoretically needed. The trick was not letting that excess time fill up. Here’s why: I spent a ton of time studying and writing, but I spent more time trying to study and write. If you’re going through something (and you’re human, so you’re probably going through something), then you never know when you’ll actually be able to do the work. Sometimes this is due to outside influences, and sometimes it’s our own brains. We can’t predict when we’ll be able to focus, or which days we’ll be brilliant and which days we’ll be kind of dumb. Having that extra space in my schedule meant that I was able to grieve when I needed to grieve and work when I was able to work, without falling too far behind. When I had a mini-breakdown, I didn’t make it worse by feeling guilty for not working. When I slipped a little behind after another blow, I just caught up the next week. And so it went.

That’s my secret: space.  I made other kinds of space, too – emotional space, physical space, intellectual space – but by far, the most important kind was time space (not to be confused with the space-time continuum). As Nicole wrote, “badasses know that every single thing that comes their way is survivable.” It’s true, but you’ve probably heard that you need to breathe to survive.

Going through a rough time? Make the space. Breathe. You’ve got this.

2 thoughts on “My survival secret: more from the other side of hell

  1. There’s this video on YouTube that’s about a man who lost control of his plane. He screams into the microphone something like, “Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! I’m crashing!” He can see the ground coming up to meet him, and he is hysterical. The air traffic controller, on the other hand, is cool as a cucumber after a summer rain. He patiently, calmly tells the pilot to let go of the stick, put the plane engine on idle to end the spin, then pull back on the stick to level off easy. The pilot does as he is told, and he takes control of the plane.

    In life, like in flight, and like in many other things, we need to stop panicking, let go of the stick, and listen to what more experienced people have to tell us. So, yeah, breathe… Take it easy. Relax. Even if you drop of out of school/work/etc., it’s not like those things won’t be there when you return to them.

    Burnout will be the end of us all if we let it.

    • That’s a great example, Ren. It can be incredibly hard to relax, but there’s no clarity in panicking.

      The nice side of that is that, when the really terrible parts pass, the clarity sticks.

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