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When Stress Becomes Incapacitating: Writing My Dissertation in One Week

It was Time to Talk Day back on February 7th. I tend not to purposefully act on days like that – every day presents an opportunity to talk about mental health – and it’s a pretty long time ago now, but on that day I was presented with some concepts for a post I’ve been meaning to attempt to put together for a while. It’s the kind of piece I needed to take some time over, because it’s lengthy and complex and personal and tricky, so it took me almost three weeks to even sit down and try writing. When I did start, I realised that what I wanted to say would be most helpful if accompanied with some context, namely by explaining something which happened back in May last year.

I want to talk about what happens when work-related stress intersects with an anxiety disorder. To do so, I think it’s helpful for me to outline what happened to me during my third year at university while I wrote my undergraduate dissertation. This experience, though extremely unpleasant, enabled me to identify the difference between stress and anxiety, and the impact of them colliding with one another.

I’m not telling this story to boast, or to get sympathy. It was a phenomenally difficult period in my life, but it has helped me understand how both stress and anxiety have since affected me, both separately and at the same time, in my stretch of postgraduate unemployment and the early months of my first ‘adult’ job. I’ll write about these in a not-too-distant future post, but explaining this experience may both elucidate this intersection (and how stress, and even anxiety at times, can have a positive impact), and provide a bit of proof that, even when you think you can’t, you maybe, possibly, can.

I’ve always said stress is good for me. I function well under stress, I’ve said. It makes me do better. One week in my gap year, while I was running an important campaign, I discovered that I actually have two levels of stress: the one I utilised all through school to help me get work done quickly, on time, and to a high standard, and the one that left me uncertain, forgetful, and panicky. This wasn’t the stress I was used to. This stress didn’t enable; it was debilitating. To someone who had always thought of stress as an aid, that there was a tipping point like this was a bit frightening. But it was nothing in comparison to the stress I felt towards the end of my third year at university where, one week in advance of my dissertation deadline – a 40-credit module that my entire degree had been building up to – I hadn’t written a single word.

That gap year experience of stress introduced me more formally to what I’ve since come to know as anxiety. For me, anxiety is a friend of stress; it’s what kicks in once the stress reaches that tipping point, as everything starts to slide away from me. I’ve recognised myself as suffering from some kind of anxiety disorder at least since 2015. It kicked off in the weeks before I moved to university, a life-change I was petrified about, and only got worse throughout my first year.

My first-year anxiety was mostly due to how unsettling I found the shift into university life. But while I felt a lot of personal tumult, work-related ‘stress’, as most of us understand it, wasn’t really an issue for me throughout university. The key thing was, whenever I was struggling, I’d turn to my work. I’d read over and above what I was asked to for my classes; academia was my safe place. My timetable gave me a sense of purpose and routine, and I always enjoyed my research and assignments. I tended not to start my essays until a couple of days before the deadline, but only because by that point I had so much research and planning in my head that the 3000 words just fell out, fully-formed, onto my screen. This was the stress I’d learned to harness at school; it didn’t make sense to other people, but it worked for me.

And so, when third year hit and we were tasked with thinking about our final dissertations – an 8000-word extended essay – I wasn’t that concerned. I struggled to connect with my friends’ stress over it. I was looking forward to getting stuck in, but we had eight months to do it – what was all the worrying about?

That started to change after my first meeting with my supervisor. I was embarrassingly underprepared, and anything but confident in my topic, and I left feeling mortified. I promised myself it would be different next time. Three weeks passed; the next meeting rolled around, and it was exactly the same. I hadn’t touched the material; I hadn’t looked at my reading list. I couldn’t bring myself to, because I was so dissatisfied in my topic, and myself.

Things improved a little after the Christmas holiday. I thought long and hard and decided to change my topic to something more accessible and definitive. My supervisor, when we met in January, was encouraging. Finally I started to feel a little more positive. I even did some actual work, writing 1000 words of it as an assignment in February. For reference, the hand-in day was mid-May.

Fast-forward to the Easter holidays. I had a module essay deadline on the last day of term, and another on the Friday of the first week back. All my academic energies were focused on those, and the brain-power they took was really draining. I had a lot of very complex personal stuff going on at the time, so things that were usually easy had started to become difficult, and things that were hard – like writing a big essay – were exhausting. Now there was just the dissertation to do, but I had nothing left. There were six weeks to go.

I had a supervisor meeting. I lied about how far I was. I tried to read the right articles and take the right notes, but I couldn’t concentrate. Flashes of thought were spinning round my head, so fast I couldn’t ever pick one out just to find out what it was; so fast I couldn’t stop watching. The dissertation was the only thing I had left, the one item on my to-do list every single day, and it was the one thing I couldn’t get done. Three weeks before the hand-in, I opened my laptop to try and do some work. My situational stress collided with my aggravated anxiety disorder; I swear I felt the impact in my brain I looked at the blank word document in front of me, tried to inhale, and suffered a huge panic attack. I can’t do this.

I’ve actually become pretty accustomed to panic attacks, but anyone who suffers from them will tell you that knowing what they are doesn’t make them all that much easier to get through, or all that much less frightening. Over the years I’ve developed for myself a number of useful grounding techniques that help me cope with and manage them, but, worse still, not one was working for these particularly aggressive attacks.

The stress of it had wrecked me. I’d felt unsupported throughout the process, and my stress over it had inflamed my anxiety disorder, which in turn prevented me from asking for help out of fear and shame. Now, it felt too late. My friends who had struggled with the dissertation early on in the year were now well underway – in fact, some of them were just proofing their final drafts while my wordcount was still zero. There were 8000 words demanding to be written, but I didn’t know who to speak to, let alone what to say.

I managed to book an appointment with a doctor, via an uncomfortable and impersonal service where I first had to type out everything I was struggling with and then re-tell it to a complete stranger over the phone as though they were double-checking my testimony. I went to my pastoral supervisor at uni, too ashamed to contact my dissertation supervisor, to talk about getting an extension. I spoke to her for about an hour and a half about everything that was going on. She wasn’t convinced I had the official grounds for more time.

I went to the doctor; my best friend and housemate, Greg, who had been with me through every minute of this struggle despite his own difficulties, drove me. All I wanted was an extra week. In an astonishing case of bad timing, I was due to go away to California for seven days to watch my sister graduate from her Masters programme at UC Berkeley, and the dissertation deadline was the day my flight would land back at Heathrow – I wouldn’t even be in the country to hand it in.

I was confident (in as much as I could be confident in anything beyond another panic attack happening at some point that day) that the week away would help my brain reset; in a new space I’d be able to start writing, and an extra week at the end would be the buffer I needed to make whatever I’d come up with something half-decent. I knew I could write 3000 in 18 hours; I was sure I could do 8000 in two weeks. I just needed a break from it all; a new space to reset myself.

The doctor was an older man. Grey-haired and fine-lined, like a pencil sketch, he cut me off almost as soon as I started trying to explain my situation to demand that I specify exactly what my symptoms were. He seemed to want me to bullet-point my experience. What had taken ninety minutes to explain to my supervisor a few days prior, I was forced to summarise into the following: I’m having daily panic attacks. I can’t do my work, or focus on anything. I can’t sleep more than three hours a night. I can’t eat; I’ve lost a stone in weight, and my periods have stopped.

When asked when this had started and why, I commented that it had been around Easter, when my long-term relationship had ended, and because of the personal stresses I was under that were out of my control. I needed to be put back in control, and the only thing I might be able to change was my dissertation deadline. I needed an extra week. It felt like a lifeline.

I won’t ever forget the words he responded to this desperate plea for aid and comfort. These are normal responses to the stressors in your life, he told me, and I won’t help you.

It was that won’t. Not, I can’t help you, because of whatever non-existent bureaucratic issue he could come up with. I won’t help you. It felt like You are not deserving of care. It was followed by him glancing up towards the door, which I took as my cue to leave. I even thanked him on the way out, something I still kick myself for.

I took myself out to Greg’s car and wept for half an hour. He drove us home. I sobbed some more. An hour and a half passed before I was able to come to my senses a little. What do I do now? I choked out through my tears. You have to do it, he told me. You can. You don’t have a choice.

Anxiety is a paradox. By making you terrified of being backed into corners with no escape, it puts you in that exact situation, and then it removes all your abilities to rescue yourself. I was convinced this was going to break me. But Greg was right: I didn’t have a choice.

So I did it. To this day, I don’t really know how. I managed to just start, because if I didn’t, everything I had worked for – everything I had struggled through while at uni – wouldn’t have been rewarded in the way I felt was deserved.

I wrote on the plane at 40,000 feet while everyone around me slept, my laptop screen on the dimmest setting so it wouldn’t distract or wake anyone. My mum brought me cold brew from the coffee shop a block over in the mornings before she and my dad left for museum trips and San Francisco city tours, while I sat alone in the living room of our AirBnB with my phone set up to timelapse myself as I’d found it brilliant motivation to work. I tanned my legs on the patio and made friends with the neighbourhood cats that stalked the garden and sunbathed on my lap while I typed.

Halfway through the week I took an entire day off to go into San Francisco – my one actual holiday-day of the trip – because without it I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep going. On the day of Rosa’s graduation, I went up to Berkeley in the morning and then straight back to her place to write. I never recovered from the initial jetlag, instead using it to write through the night. Towards the end of the week I’d moved across to the flat my sister shared with her fellow Masters candidates who understood perfectly the pressure I was under and encouraged this panicked undergrad with knowing comfort.

I finished my dissertation at 4am six days after I started it, nine hours behind UK time, and 6,000 miles away from the library and the hand-in desk. My housemates, who continually stunned me with their encouragement and generosity, came to my rescue: the only requirement was that the pages were printed and bound together in some way, so I just asked that they be hole-punched and treasury-tagged, but Emily went into town to get some proper binding spines for them. I slept for a couple of hours, watched Moana with Rosa, packed a suitcase, and headed to the airport.

It was the worst flight of my life, which, after everything, I found a little unjust. My body reacted to the final lifting of the horrendous stress, and my periods kicked themselves off again. Let’s just say it’s pretty much the last thing you want on an eleven-hour night-flight when you’re in the seat furthest from the aisle.

Almost as soon as we landed I checked my phone; it was pretty much dead-on deadline-time. My social media feeds were full of my coursemates posing with their professionally-bound dissertations in one hand and a glass of champagne in the other. There was a huge picnic in the sunshine, everyone smiles and bubbles and laughter. It hurt. By the time I’d get back to York, the celebrations would be over; some people would even have already left. I deserved to be celebrating, too. As we taxied from the runway, the tears spilled over; tears of exhaustion and relief, of pride, and of pain.

My phone buzzed again. Emily had sent me a message; a bunch of pictures, and a video. We wanted to take some celebratory pictures for you. The boys had done every cliche dissertation pose in the book, and also pretended to throw it in one of the campus water features because they knew it’d make me laugh. I cried some more. I couldn’t wish for better people.

I got back to York eventually and life continued. The other stressors – the ones out of my control – didn’t go away for some time, and 2018 still had its fair share of challenges to throw at me. But the knowledge that I had written that dissertation – getting to the top of that great big mountain that simply did not want to be climbed – was something I would, and will continue to, hold on to, when stress and anxiety joined forces again as I entered postgraduate life.

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2 Comments

  1. February 27, 2019 / 7:31 pm

    Well, Lucy. That was a ‘catch-up’, and how! You certainly took that dissertation to the wire! I was feeling tense just reading about the imminent deadline. Now looking forward to reading more, about what happened next. 🙂
    (Sorry to read about you and G. I’ve been in that situation, more than a few times.)
    Best wishes as always, Pete.

    • Lucy
      Author
      February 27, 2019 / 7:33 pm

      Hi Pete,
      Tell me about it!! Looking back on it now it all seems a bit mad, and I definitely wouldn’t recommend it… but it worked out in the end, just about.
      Thanks for your thoughts – it’s never easy, but such is life. I hope you’re well; I have plenty to catch up on from you!
      Best, Lx

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