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Stumbling towards grace with self-care in academia

Today, I have invited Kathy McKay to share her story and insights on self-care in academia. Kathy is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of New England, Australia. Her work focuses on stories of suicide and resilience.

Hand on heart.
I am not good at self-care. It’s very much still a work in progress and only became a vague priority when I burnt out last year and fell sick. Self-care is my stumbling towards grace, because it’s far too easy to lose sight of yourself in this work. True, you see yourself all too clearly in the lack – what more needs to be done? What am I not doing? But it’s harder to see yourself as enough – that you deserve to, and that it’s OK to, not work all the time. In all the busyness, it’s far too easy to forget to stop.

Pieces about self-care seem sometimes to be written as prevention, with things to do to avoid burnout. They sometimes assume you can take time off, that deadlines are soft, and that your track record can handle the delay a break will bring.

This is not one of those pieces.

Burnout sometimes does not ring a warning bell. Burnout sometimes looms over you in the middle of the night, clutching at your chest while you gasp for breath, so you wake up the next day and struggle to find the energy to do the basic things, let alone be vaguely intellectual. Burnout makes absolutely everything you need to do during a day hard, even the simplest task that yesterday would not have given you a second thought. And, because burnout can be so closely tied to anxiety and depression, it is also, to paraphrase the brilliant writer Anna Spargo Ryan, dull. The sheen is wiped off everything.

This is a piece to hopefully give solace to those in the grips of, or in the aftermath of, burnout. How do you take care of yourself when absolutely everything is exhausting and there are still a million deadlines due? This is not meant to give you more things to do. God knows, when you’re burnt out the very last thing you want is more things to do. These are things that have worked for me – or at least keep me more mindful to be more caring of myself and provide more useful warnings for when I need to rest. These are things I’m trying to not forget to do amidst the grant writing and the teaching and all the deadlines in between, and when time off is an unavailable luxury.

• Vent to friends.
A caveat here: not just anyone. These are the friends who get it, who have either been in the trenches or are there alongside you. Ones who don’t just say meaningless, placating things simply because those words seem nice to say. The ones who let you cry, or whatever it is you need to do to vent, until you’re ready to go back to the deadline. They are the ones who understand the peaks and troughs of academic life, where a grant can be rejected on the same day a paper is rejected. And when they say meaningless, placating things, it feels a bit better because things tend to get better eventually. Or more absurd.

• At some point you need to eat and move away from the screen.
Self-care is hard. Looking after yourself is much harder, requires much more attention, than not taking care of yourself. Making a nutritionally-dense meal takes far more time than toast. Exercising takes more time than not doing anything. However, the time you save in the short-term bites you later – and bites with teeth. It makes you very sick. Because these things are so easy to push to the side – I’ll eat later, I’ll exercise tomorrow – they’re the ones that I structure into my life with an organisation that is unlike me in every other way. I joined a fitness challenge that came with a meal plan so the part of me that always wants to do well at everything is placated and inspired. I make enormous meals on Sunday to freeze for the rest of the week because I live by myself and there’s no one else to fall back on. These activities as well, when I’m being mindful, also allow a quite space as well, just to be.

• Find a mentor totally outside academia.
I’ve only just started working with a non-academic mentor and, so far, it’s been confronting. The thing is, someone outside academia hasn’t normalised the same things we have and they see what’s not working for you more clearly. Working with this mentor is making me realise how little time I’ve spent since my PhD just doing something quietly, just for me, with no constructive feedback attached. Learning that I am not just an academic, that my identity can be more than that, is both frightening and liberating.

• Remembering the small beauties.

Unexpectedly adopting my demented wonder of a small cat has actually been one of the best things for my wellbeing. She pulls me back into the moment as I watch her stalk a butterfly in the garden (think the Simon’s cat video), or when she decides I am the most comfortable place to sleep. Plus she loathes my phone and will push it out of the way, just as she will steal pens from my hand and hide them under the couch if she thinks I am working too much at home and not paying enough attention to her. And the thing about small beauties is that you don’t have to do anything more than simply look out your window and exhale, just for a moment.

Reading these, you may not agree. Self-care is so tricky because it not only completely individualised (not everyone appreciates my cat) but it’s also not our natural way in academia. How do you turn your brain off when an idea is bubbling in the back of your mind but it’s Sunday afternoon or four o’clock in the morning? Self-care is something I’m training myself to do, and appreciate, and I stumble towards this grace all the time. It’s a learning process like any other.

And I wish you nothing but wellness in your journey.

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