2016: A Review

Everything changes so quickly these days.

Last year was my most academically challenging, without a doubt, moving into conservation has been gruelling at times. The course is relentless and I had to really fight to keep my head above the water at times. All the struggle aside it was a very successful year. My grades were good. I did some exciting work, I got to work at a couple of fantastic sites and institutions. However, this accomplishment has applied fresh pressure for this year. Not only do I want it, I now know that I can do it. With this will only come more anxiety. I’m afraid I’ll burn out, or burn up.

As part of my conservation training I travelled to Çatalhöyük, Turkey. This was my first time to the country, and I travelled just days after an Istanbul airport was bombed. It was a huge deal for me. I often feel I struggled with the social situations on site more than the work. I’ve always hated breaking into a group and the closeness of the team at Çatalhöyük was intimidating. They are wonderful people, and I am pleased to say I got there in the end. It really was life changing and has left a lasting ‘if I can do that, I can do anything’ impression.

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Awaiting the group photo. Photo courtesy of Scott Haddow.

For the family 2016 was another demanding year. After losing my Grandma the year before we said a sudden goodbye to my Aunt. It was a strain we all felt, but my father felt it the most. I’m very lucky my close family are so wonderful and supportive; we are all there for one another. I know it’s been worrying for my parents to hear of my anxiety and occasional depression, but they should know that it is their love and encouragement that has got me through the year. With the family’s first baby on the way, 2017 is going to finally bring us together after so many years of hardship.

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Kings Affair: budget Sadness and Joy from Inside Out

For the first time ever, dating has had not great impact on my year! What I did do was a waste of time. It can be easy to forget how difficult people can be. All I found was echoes of the disastrous relationships I’ve been in in the past. So: no boys until the dissertation has been submitted.

Academic and social confidence often still alludes me, but I am at peace with myself. I know who I am, and I know what I want. It sounds so corny to say. Since being unattached I have found time to develop my skills and interests; I’ve started this blog! For the first time I really put myself first. For my health, my education.

I’m beginning my applications for future employment and positions. It’s a competitive world, conservation, and that brings concerns. Article 50 is set to be initiated in March. I’m dreading the impact that will have on the, already underfunded, heritage industry. Now is not a good time to be an unemployed twenty-something. These national, and international, issues aside I’m hoping 2017 will be better. A fellowship, or job, a distinction, and a long overdue opportunity to relax. I don’t think I’ve had a good night’s sleep since 2012.

Coping With Loss

It has been a long year, running alongside the difficulties in Cardiff has been the deteriorating state of my Aunt, Delia. She has suffered from Schizophrenia and after many complicated years and campaigning by my father, she had found herself in sheltered housing in Essex. In her final eighteen months she began to turn into herself again, enjoying walks on the beach, all the soaps on TV and going to lunch with my mum. With this development, the relationships she had once had with family began to heal, she took a special interest in my sister and I’s education.

Unfortunately, all the progress was halted when in early April Delia was diagnosed with stage four gallbladder cancer. We were told that nothing could be done and that she didn’t have long left. They were reluctant to give us any estimate, but my Dad guessed 4-12 weeks. We always knew that an illness would creep up on Delia, she smoked like a chimney and had not had a good diet for many years now. But we weren’t expecting it yet. My mum was also quite ill when the news hit so the family was under a lot of stress.

When I returned to Cardiff after being at home I wasn’t able to see her due to time constraints. It turns out the family dinner was my final opportunity. My time at home had really improved my mood and anxiety levels, and I coped better than I had before the Easter holiday. However, whenever I spoke to my parents I asked how she was, and found myself asking if we had any idea how long yet. Waiting for the news became worse than the news itself for me, and I was always looking out for that phone call.

Delia got an infection at the beginning of May and spent the first weekend in hospital. We were told she wasn’t going to make it. At the time I was working to reach the pile of deadlines I discussed in my previous post, I had one, maybe two, essays left to complete. The possibility that she may survive didn’t really cross my mind and I began to mourn her. Again, the bad news didn’t come and I became comfortable again with the situation. I had asked my mum to write her a card, as I had failed to do so due to work stress, and was glad I had. I wanted to be sure she knew I was thinking of her.

She was in hospital for a few weeks before being discharged. It took a little longer than expected as her dependency level increased and they had difficulty sourcing nurses. Once home, she stopped eating and my parents began to plan for the worst.

On the 27th of May she passed away. She had just seen my parents and her sister was present at the time. She was at home and had access to her cigarettes. She died surrounded by family, knowing she was loved. I found out while visiting a friend and struggled to enjoy the remainder of the trip.

Once back in Cardiff I spent all my time with friends, and tried to take my mind off it. I struggled to sleep, and if left alone with my thoughts too long I found myself breathing heavily. Coping with death is different for all, but for me it became physical. My chest was tight, a feeling I had became familiar with, and my shoulders  felt heavy. But I didn’t cry. I’d cried in May. During that difficult weekend, and the days that followed, I think I’d done much of my grieving.

The funeral was arranged for the 10th of June, and I spent the week leading up to it at home. I was glad to be home. I’d finished university several weeks ago and without my friends in Cardiff I wouldn’t have coped well with the news.

I became very anxious the night before, unable to sleep, and the feeling followed the next day. There was only a small number of us present for the service, making it feel incredibly personal. Although seeing someone I went to school with carry the coffin into the chapel was very odd. All the music choices were fitting, particularly the White Horses theme song performed by Jackie Lee. My Dad was unable to complete his reading, and that was perhaps the hardest part of the ceremony for me. I had seen him cry before, only a year ago at my Grandmothers, his mothers, funeral. There’s something very vulnerable about seeing your father cry.

The service was wonderful though, and the Three Counties Crematorium did a great job. Maybe better is the wrong word, but I felt at peace with the situation when we returned home. A peace I still feel now.

Five Deadlines and an Interview

As most of you will know April and May tends to be a tense time for students. We have deadlines followed by exams and if you’re unlucky other deadlines will follow. My deadlines have included three essays, one lab report, and a project note book (PNB, a long and time consuming summary of all the conservation research, work and thinking you’ve done). I was also offered an interview for a travel grant to help fund my summer placement in Turkey. Wonderful, and unexpected, but it took me back a bit. To cope with the incoming wave of stress I applied for extensions after the Easter holiday, and received them for all the essays and the PNB in the end. Without them I’m not sure I would not have been able to hack it.

For this post I wanted to talk about why some people need extensions. I know it can be frustrating watching people get more time on something that you’re working hard for, especially since everyone has something to worry about. As with everything it’s very personal. We all react differently to our problems and we all work differently.

My anxiety has always had a detrimental affect on my university work. Lack of concentration is my biggest foe. It’s taken me days to get through an article, and I cannot account for how I spent the time. The initial lack of concentration is then paired with a determination to do anything but the essay or research I had planned for the day. I loose days watching endless YouTube videos and turn my attention to more enjoyable projects. By the late evening the regret has started to set in. I write to do lists and think about how I should have done something. This will be followed by an hour or two of trying to work, often to no avail. Then I’ll go to bed. I won’t have achieved anything and I’ll feel awful for it. But that’s not a bad day.

On a bad day it can take me hours to get out of bed. These days aren’t racked by panic or fear; there’s nothing there. On those days I can’t do something I enjoy let alone something I need to do. The few months between Christmas and Easter were full of these days. But I’ve been lucky; spending a week or two at home over the holiday has helped a lot. I was able to keep going, and have largely kept my head above the water.

In the sea of things I needed to do and were worrying about in the run up to May the interview sunk. I did limited preparation and put off booking the train tickets. My train from Cardiff was late and I made it to the interview with seconds to spare. However, the lovely people of the Zibby Garnett Travel Scholarship made me feel very comfortable and I kept my head. Although my lack of prep came through I was able to demonstrate my enthusiasm (which I am not lacking!). I am lucky to say they have elected to provide funding for the trip. It’s a wonderful opportunity! The panic that rose and fell as I travelled was kept under wraps and I was able to be without it.

This is not the first time I’ve had extensions, as I struggled through an exam period during my undergrad. It is, however, the first time I’ve really needed them. It’s like trying to read a book in a language you don’t understand. Like trying to write an essay while someone throws things at you. Like trying to read a book while the words disappear.

I have worked very hard this year and I do not want my grades to suffer because my head has been elsewhere. Attending my classes regularly was a good way to get to me to the university and help retain a sense of order in my life. By using extensions I was able to prevent a disaster and keep my anxiety behind the flood gates.

Depression and Anxiety Awareness Week

I’ve been thinking about writing a blog for a while now, but as its Depression and Anxiety Awareness Week it seemed the perfect time to start.

My history with depression and anxiety is short, I’ve only been on medication since January, however I’ve frequently found myself at low points over the last few years.

Like many I have had difficult relationships, including issues with my partner’s mental health and emotional and verbal abuse. Those five years caused me to withdraw and become emotionally distant with those around me. Not only that; it left me with low confidence in all aspects of my life and myself. Crying and arguing in a café in Paris will always dark time for me. I visited doctors at various points during these years however the boyfriends were used as scapegoats and I never received any serious attention. I sought non-medical routes as well, and though counselling helped, I only really recovered post-break up.

Lets jump to the end of 2015 and I’m in a new city, doing something I’ve been working towards for a while now (and love), and it all starts to slip away again. Stress and the need to be productive struggle against each other, ultimately resulting in more stress. By Christmas I was no longer sleeping properly and no longer enjoying anything. However, it was not until I went home for the holiday that I realised that it wasn’t normal. I was fighting back tears in the kitchen while my family laughed watching TV, but when I returned to them I was normal. I kept it all together, not wanted to ruin Christmas, until I was dropped back off at university and within hours I had a break down on the phone. It was only then I realised that this wasn’t normal, and its only now that I can see I haven’t been normal for a long time.

I had my first panic attack in January and with that sought help from my doctor. Since then I’ve been placed on anti-anxiety medication and anti-depressants, they have helped. For me, however, it’s the anxiety that keeps coming back. Sleepless night and mornings of waiting for mild panic to subside are still a regular occurrence. I am coping better though, I am able to focus better on bad days and have concurred social anxiety at an international conference. My second panic attack occurred minutes before I was set to give a presentation, and somehow I managed to maintain my composure and deliver.

For the first few months I was ashamed. Why couldn’t I cope with things others could? Although I still have that question I can see now that the why doesn’t matter. What matters is that I don’t let it affect my life. I’m planning a trip over the summer and I refuse to back down due to my fears.

I’m very good at hiding my feelings, but I no longer want to. It’s a part of who I am and probably always will be. The further I bury it the more viciously it attacks; so its time to bring it to the surface.

Depression and anxiety are often hard to see, but for many it hangs over like a dark cloud. We need to be help, but not patronise. Support but not shelter. Awareness is the first step.