On Mattering.

What matters?

What counts?

How can I help you and myself to lift us both up?

I’ve been thinking about things like this lately  as I’ve been trying to evolve myself professionally into a writer/editor of some kind (and I seem to be making some progress there, still seems like small drops in a large bucket.).

There’s also a sense that my plate is overflowing with projects to do, things to try to do well, and some things have fallen by the wayside as lower priorities. Which is hard.

Loss aversion, where humans take losses a lot harder than gains, means we tend to avoid losses as much as possible. It’s why letting go can be hard.

If you asked me in my fully clinically depressed mind of a few years ago if anything I did mattered, if I mattered, I’d say “no, I don’t, my work doesn’t, and the world- even my small world of immediate people I interact with and like- would do fine without me”.

I’m a little beyond that low point now, though far from thinking my writing, the things I try to do for friends (largely seems to be listening), the editing I do, is essential. It’s still hard for me to consider myself a talented human being in an area of life. Or I can dismiss the skills I do have as not valuable to the world.

I’m academic.

This may be the cost of doing basic research and being an academic scientist or a symptom of seeing the world through social media. The first takes a long time to pay off, the second reveals a world where lots of people show all sorts of things they are doing that really matter.

As I was drafting this post, I attended a friend’s wedding. I caught up with old friends, most of whom are moving into new things in their lives, at least relatively speaking. That seems to matter. They’ve grown. Are growing.

No sooner was I done with the wedding than I was off to the National Association of Science Writers conference. And the science writers…all fantastic people I met, all seeming to do a lot of hard work to communicate science well, to tell good stories, to hold people and institutions accountable, doing important work of making the connections that link scientists to one another, and scientists to the wider world.

It’s important work. Is that what I do? I’m not sure. A lot of the time, it feels as though all I’m doing is putting words on the page, perhaps relating a decent story, but one that isn’t essential. I realize it takes time to get to the point of realizing a story that matters. The last thing I want to be is an empty bloviator, however.

What problem do I help people solve? And is it possible I can get paid to do that?

The science writers I met the past two days are a really great bunch of people. Enthusiastic, caring, considerate, open to experiences, curious, and it sounds like from the first two days of workshops I couldn’t be present for (b/c friend’s wedding), passionate about their craft and working to make themselves and the community of science writers better.

There was an amendment up for vote this time around at NASW that was contentious, a vote to allow PIOs and other writers that aren’t what might be considered journalists to hold offices within the NASW.

In the complex media world of today, there may need to be two organizations; one for journalists that is more specialized and the more general NASW because most people practicing science writing professionally may well hop back and forth between the promotional and journalistic roles of science writing/communication– going where the work is (until a standardized minimum income is a reality- which may never happen- we all have to make a living somehow). Even here though, it sounds like everyone wants to do the best by the profession of science writing.

The #nextflint session really drove home how non-traditional journalists (one working for the ACLU) working with scientists (and local citizen scientists) could hold accountable the government charged with keeping drinking water of Flint, MI safe and not doing its job, even covering up and denying the problem. This while the traditional press went along with the authorities public claims until evidence became so clear it couldn’t be ignored by reporters.

Perhaps sub-sectioning is the solution. The NASJ would be a subsection of NASW and could have their own meeting in addition to the broader NASW (and the PIOs could be a subsection too). So even if PIOs and others are allowed to be officers, some independence of journalists is maintained (as each subsection would have its own officers). Other societies have zsections, often based on geographic regions, for instance.

However it resolves (I’m way too new a member of NASW to have voted; so I didn’t). The point is, the issue of whether NASW is a broadly or narrowly defined organization does matter. The people on either side of the amendment think it matters.

Perhaps that’s the key. Individuals think it matters and so it does.

Thinking I matter, matters. And yet it’s hard for me to think I do, even if progressing the past few years.

Does mattering matter to you? What’s a way you go forward and know that you matter (because you do, really)?

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11/1/2016 This post has been updated to clarify some of the writing.

 

 

 

 

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Enjoying Nature.

A friend of mine took me out to see the sunset the other night.

It was a gorgeous night.  But I was distracted. Not really present. Thoughts kept interfering. I have things to write. Stuff to learn, like coding and R stats. Things along these lines (superimposed on actual images of the sunset):

YouShouldBeWritingSunsetFallingbehindNextJobStudyNatureOutHereDidntGetEnoughDone

When people talk about the all consuming nature of working in science, this is what it looks like. Time away feels wasted. There’s never enough time spent. And especially as I’m trying to transition to a new career this year, down time feels like an unaffordable luxury. That even taking care of myself is impermissible too (and that one goes beyond just the sunset…I resent having to take time to go to the Dr.).

And it’s not as if I am exactly enjoying work either. I still feel burned out a lot of the time. Still, after a few hours, and eating something, this time lapse my friend Holly Pierce took is pretty incredible:

I know time away is important, but it’s hard to feel that it’s OK to take time away until I get my life more settled. I hope that happens, but it’s still hard to see how it happens. I hope there’s a time when I don’t feel like I’m burning my candle at both ends.

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Getting Convinced.

Last month I was really depressed. I was burned out. I wasn’t excited to do the things that people do. The dark thoughts were there.

Unfortunately, a lot of that is still true this month. I’ve been taking steps to mitigate these feelings. I’ve kept going, despite not wanting to. And there are projects that I am making progress on. It’s slowly moving me towards a better version of life, but I still am not able to break out of the depressive thinking– at least not fully.

I submitted a manuscript. I’m not excited about it, though.

I co-wrote an article for the National Postdoc Association Newsletter. I’m a little more excited about that.

I wrote one of my more ambitious posts on Quiet Branches, linking the past to the present. I sought input from an author of a study and did a lot more research than I have put in the past. I’m pretty proud of it.

And I got asked to have my blog brought into a blog network, which is exciting. It does feel validating, that maybe I am a “real” science writer.

I went to the Future of Research Conference for a day in Boston, which was really good. I networked! (I got a free book on storytelling in scientific publications from Rafael Luna of Harvard Med School!). I’m glad I took a long day to go.

I even applied for something, putting together a cover letter, resume, and a writing sample in a few hours. Whether I get the gig or not, I feel like putting that together that quickly is real progress.

These are the good things that happened last month and a half. I’m sure there are others, but as you can see, a lot of them still revolve around work, side projects (that I do love), and little outside of that.

How do I move forward from here? Where do I go? I’m still frazzled.

I’ve tried taking care of myself better with some success. I’m not exercising enough, running hasn’t happened other than a few short runs and one short race on a perfect fall day.

And as both commenters to my last blog post here noted, this is a long battle. Self-compassion matters. Having access to a therapist is important too (I am lucky in this regard). And taking time off, which I have done a bit of, feels more like my body telling my brain to take a break. And I even have a tiny in-real-life social life.

I have gotten better about asking for things and I don’t really fear rejection in most contexts, it’s just something that I find likely to occur still and am pleasantly surprised when it doesn’t.

Hopefully, I am learning. I hope I’m putting better content into my brain than bad. Garbage in, garbage out, as they say. It doesn’t help that the garbage can come from inside my own brain at times.

Am I just being busy for the sake of busy? Am I just distracting myself from what I should be doing? Am I just stubborn (tenacious maybe the more positive spin on that)? These are questions I keep asking myself.

Life goes on. I am trying to keep up. And keep swimming.

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ineluctable.

I recently learned the word inelcutable.

It has the same latin root as reluctant. Luctari, or “to struggle”.

The word means unavoidable or inescapable. The inelcutable sunrise.

I heard it on an NPR radio show ‘A Way With Words’ all about language. and the way it was described, when I heard it, really struck me. I was tired and it was 6:30am when I heard it, so the first thing I had to do was to figure out what the word was. I didn’t get it at first, but luckily in this era of podcasts, I found the episode and the word a few days later.

It brought up for me the frustrations I’m having being a postdoc, trying to figure out how to have a career beyond it and just the sense that for me,  it seems that a lack of change is ineluctable.

I’ve been working to manage depression and do other things to improve life. Be present. Meditate. Exercise. Learn new things via the growth mindset. Take risks. Get out of my comfort zone. I have done a lot of these things and maybe I need to do it more, or better, or differently, but not much has changed. And that’s frustrating. I am still trying, but it still feels like outward change is simply not possible.

I am writing more. I am engaged in several fun side projects and I am trying to learn some new things too. And I think I’m networking.

There was a discussion on Twitter yesterday about how academics rely too much on external validation, don’t act on our own intuition, and are risk averse/not resilient.

The first two are true of me, certainly. I have tried to cultivate my own internal sense of intuition and to trust myself more, but still have a long way to go and may need to be out of academia to really instill that in myself. Risk aversion is still true of me…except when I’m talking openly about depression on the internet (which may not be a real risk, just plain stupid…seems to be a fine line). I live in fear of becoming someone obsolete, just eking by…which I kind of do now, but it feels better than that. I do live rather minimally, but aspire to more.

Resilience is something I think I may actually have. I (so far) have successfully been managing depression and slowly coming back to life from having stalled a few years ago. I still feel grey and not vital, with an internal drive for life, experiences, enjoyment, etc. but one reason I’m anxious for change is so that maybe a new place will spark that in me again (I know, I’ll always be carrying my own brain, which may be problematic).

I still think academia is not the best place for good mental health (unless you’ve made tenure, perhaps). And leaving may be the best thing for my soul. I don’t want to ever feel the ineluctable conclusion is figuring out how to remove myself from the gene pool. And I still feel too close to that thinking. And that is scary to me. And while I hope I’m alone in thinking that about myself, I’m sure there are other academics that may be thinking along similar lines and that is why I write this blog. We’re not alone.

Despite frustration. I still am not giving up. I don’t know why. I do have some people that still care about me, for one, and I still feel like I can be useful…somewhere. Maybe a connection I make, maybe something I write, taking a chance. I think I’m willing to do the work. I just also need to pair it with a life as well. I hope that that is an ineluctable outcome.

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Closing the gap.

I still see signs of depression in my brain. That’s hard for me to admit since I’ve been working to manage better for years. Lately, I feel exhausted and frustrated with myself though.

The National Institute of Mental Health has a list of symptoms and signs of depression (copied and pasted directly from the linked page and my evaluation for myself is indented):

  • Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” feelings
    • What do I feel about things? I still feel anxious at times, but more than anything, I do have “empty” feelings. There’s emotion there, but it’s a null set, or at least that’s how it feels to me; it’s a perception problem. It’s like there’s an empty place in my chest (and I know, that’s not where feelings come from).
  • Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
    • These have intensified recently. I really question if I can improve my skills, have I been learning? I only have a limited lifetime, so just when does hopefulness and optimism become more default?
    • Can life get better? my honest answer is “probably not” right now, at my best it’s a “maybe”.
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
    • Yes, yes, and yessish…this last one is where I feel it sometimes, but know there are things I can do and actually do do sometimes. Am I improving, growing? The feeling I have is one of being stagnant.
  • Irritability, restlessness
    • Kinda…yes. especially the former.
  • Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable, including sex
    • What do I enjoy doing? And am I doing those things? Often no. It always seems like the effort and time are crushing constraints. And it feels like anything I do isn’t fun/pleasurable, exactly, it’s just something I do.
  • Fatigue and decreased energy
    • Yes, and yes. This may be getting less sleep, but I rarely feel energetic or excited.
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions
    • Yes, possibly (I don’t seem to care about details in too many situations), and yes, decision making is still really hard for me; even small ones.
  • Insomnia, early-morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping
    • I am up past midnight most nights, I wake up around 5am most mornings, try to sleep til 6 at least or 7…then the cat insists I get up to feed him.
  • Overeating, or appetite loss
    • I have eaten less this year. I think I’ve lost weight, though I haven’t stepped on a scale lately.
  • Thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts
    • Unfortunately, yes. the former. They’re not insistent, nor do I take them at face value; they’re thoughts that come up and I dismiss them as temporary, fleeting, but my sense is healthy people do not have these thoughts. And they aren’t thoughts I would act on.
  • Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that do not ease even with treatment.
    • Unsure on this one. It is perfectly possible. I have aches, pains, headaches, and more; but that may be due to exercise and not taking the best care of myself.

So given these signs, how can I say I’m doing better? I still feel like there’s a gap between reality and my perceived reality. Making time for meditation/mindfulness may help; it’s something I’ve gotten away from the last few months. And how do I experiment more to figure out how to get myself into feeling better?

I need to think about it more.

But this assessment just goes to show the the road from feeling crushingly depressed is a long one. I’m not completely under its false narratives anymore, but still haven’t totally given way to new ways of thinking, cultivating a healthier mindset.

The component I’m missing may well be social too. I need to interact more with other people, the world, engage in real life with fellow human beings. I do this in fits and starts now, but I hope I can do it more often. I am still scared of spreading my depression to someone else. Trust me, I don’t wish the depressive thinking pattern on anyone.

I know things take time. But it is frustrating to realize I still have these feelings, even a year after feeling like I’d made a lot of progress. And in some ways I have, really. I am better at recognizing and addressing my depressive thinking in my own brain.

And I am more anxious than ever about being open about it (hello insurance cos and potential employers! I’m self-disclosing medical info! But you know, it shows I’m a bold person…so that’s good, right?). But here I am, showing up, telling the internet how I am doing. I hope it helps someone.

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The answer to life, the universe, and everything (not really).

I’ve been quiet here lately. But I’ve had things going on. Go check out my other blog The Quiet Branches where I write about plant science each week– it’s been a fun project. Then it has also been a crazy few months in the lab trying to meet several deadlines. And I’ve been taking more online classes. One in learning R and statistics…it’s only going OK on that front. The time it takes to concentrate and truly internalize everything is probably more than I actually have, but I think I am picking up a few things at least. 

I need a career and to feel like I have a life. It’s been really hard to sense that I do have a life even though I know the mere passage of time that I am aware of is life.

I realize I’m not entitled to anything. I am grateful for what I have. This is a call for more humanity out there. It may be there. I just can’t detect it because of where I am or maybe I have faulty sensors. I find it sometimes though.

I’ve been thinking a lot about work and how I really want to carve out a space to not make it all of who I am anymore. In fact, it cannot be all that I am anymore. That will kill me. I am more than my work.

Setting that boundary is difficult and doesn’t seem all that acceptable in the world of work today. Companies/employers are not your friend. And will basically take whatever they can get from you of value. And they don’t care what your life is outside of work so long as it doesn’t interfere with your work.

I’m sure I’m not the first to notice the blurred lines of work and life in modern times. And it seems like there is little slack for life events these days as a lot of us try to do as much as possible to prove our worth. At Tenure She Wrote, @SciTriGrrl wrote a post a few weeks ago about time management and carving out time for people that priorities at work that are truly important.

Prioritize until it hurts is something I’ve heard entrepreneurs say.

Hustle.

Everything will be OK…unless something goes wrong.

Perhaps it’s possible to work through that fever.

The science must go on.

In the entertainment/creative/pro-sports industries, they work sick all the time I hear. Unless you really can’t get out of bed, your’e at work. At least in those industries, they have brief periods of intensity and then they’re off for a time until the next job comes along and it’s intense again for a period of time. I’m not sure science is quite like that.

 

If you can’t get out of bed due to illness for a day or two…maybe you’re not cut out for being in that industry.

Now let’s say it’s not the flu, but depression or other mental illness that you’re working to manage. Or imagine a sick kiddo and need to stay home with them. I fear the mantra of “you only have value if you work” is the only acceptable way to have value in today’s world (at least in the US). It’s OK until some challenging thing happens and knocks you out of the game, no matter how resilient a person you are.

It’s like species being able to adapt to climate change. Some species undoubtedly will be fine and adapt quickly enough to the rate of change.

Others. Not so much.

Internal value doesn’t matter. The fact that I am enriching myself by reading ,writing, learning stats/R/coding at some level despite the fact that I’ll never likely be a master of any of it, trying to socialize more, being a decent person, helping friends do things. I hope these things are valuable. But fear they’re not. In and of themselves, they don’t produce money and therefore are not valuable.

I am exploring career options beyond academia and it’s really jarring to deal with the fact I feel like I’m basically killing all the training I have and starting completely over again. I know I’ll bring something of what I’ve learned to whatever I go on to do, but worry it’s not enough, never will be, and that basically ,I am useless. I really try not to think that way because obviously it leads nowhere good. At the least, it makes me beat myself up. At worst…

It is a hard mental habit to break.

I have to find evidence to reject the null hypothesis that I am not lifeless.

If the goal is to prove your’e so valuable and in demand that you never have to worry about anything ever, do you get to take breaks? Ask for help? Or is asking for help saying you can’t do things on your own, acknowledging humanity, and there’s just not room for that in the world. Humanity is not valuable.

Except that it is, of course. Why are we working except to keep humanity going. Even for-profit industry has a component of providing a service to the world.

Look like your’e interested, but not too interested, you don’t want to seem desperate, but also not completely aloof either. Where’s the right line? When do you cross it?

All the above thoughts indicates that I probably need to socialize more with close friends. Vacation. Something restorative I haven’t had in quite awhile. Being human in front of another human, not a robot.

I want a pub trivia team to go out with and have fun. And I haven’t been able to build one so far. But it will be a part of my life some how. Until then, I have Good Job, Brain at least.

What is it I do that no one else can? I freely admit my struggles on the internet…that I’m human. I don’t think I’m alone or remarkable for that. I hope I’m not alone in my thoughts. I have learned to manage my depression, which is not nothing, but again, I don’t think anyone actually cares about that.

I can write a lot of words.

I can listen. I can synthesize ideas, edit writing, and think about the bigger picture as well as sweat details. Perhaps sweating details way too much. I think things through and am deliberate (which I honestly do not feel is of any value in the fast-paced world of today).

I can take a lot of punishment and push myself hard when needed, but certainly need recovery time too. I’m human. I’m sorry if that’s an inconvenience for the world.

Just where do I fit? What exactly do I need to get there?

I’m in the science-verse (but note, not at the center):

The science verse is big. I hear there is something beyond it, but it's a horizon that doesn't feel open to me right now. Is there an invisible black hole holding me in the science-verse? So much within it I haven't explored either.
The science verse is big. I hear there is something beyond it, but it’s a horizon that doesn’t feel open to me right now. Is there an invisible black hole holding me in the science-verse? So much within it I haven’t explored either.

What is beyond? I am trying to see and navigate that way. I just hope I can land there, realize there’s some slack in the line where I can work hard, but have a life outside too (my cat demands it…and having time to do taxes is important too). Heck, even staying somewhere in the vast science-verse would be OK with me. I just feel my value lies not at the bench, but in helping others do great work.

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Thoughts at the end of a long day.

Yesterday, I was grooving to music, I was feeling energized and OK about the week. There was a picture of a weasel that jumped on top of a flying woodpecker. I was exhausted, but not bad.

Then today.

It was a long day in the lab. I talked about the science and safety behind GMOs and how possibly, a corporation that makes GMO plants could be compatible with a sustainable and environmentally friendly food system (assuming not all of us are going back to growing all our own food again in the world). I had to help an undergrad, my experiment that I needed for a deadline I’m trying to meet didn’t work out. This in light of Bill Nye’s apparent change of mind about GM technology and how it may not spell environmental doom (he always struck me as one suspicious of a for-profit business being in charge of food…not that it was inherently unsafe). I am a bit jealous that Bill Nye got to visit Monsanto…if I could have a job where I get to visit biotech companies for a living, I’d take it. I loved my tour of New England Biolabs last year.

I listened to Cara Santa Maria’s Talk Nerdy podcast eps from the last two weeks. Indre Viskontes and Joe Palca were the guests talking about their careers, science communication, and paying for it. Dr. Viskontes made the point that in a competitive world it makes sense to do the thing your’e great at…because then you’re competitive. And especially in underfunded fields like science communication, that’s probably true. What am I great at, though? Have I gotten good at something in my life? What do I passionately care about? I still feel disconnected from a sense of that. Is it a vestige of depression, or am I just one of those passionless people?

I read Terry McGlynn’s post about Moneyball and what it might teach academia. How best to measure academics? Efficiency, effectiveness, results, papers? How much pressure do we put on one person to do all the things? What if you’re better at some things than others? How does it all balance out? And how do you figure out if you’re a good fit?

And then I heard Sweet Briar University was shutting it’s doors at the end of this semester. I know many alumnae of Sweet Briar, though am not very familiar with the institution other than it’s a small liberal arts college in Virginia. And that it’s an institution a little like the one I went to in Salem, OR, Willamette University (I donate what I can to them…but I’m a poor postdoc still). The SLAC or PUI is the kind of institution I would like to work, if I were to become a faculty person. And due to economic strains I was not fully aware that some at least (perhaps many?) have been under.

I feel sad for my friends losing the site of their alma mater (they’ll at least always have their memories of the place together), the faculty and staff at Sweet Briar, but also am mourning what seems like a loss to higher education and perhaps realizing more strongly than ever that my place doesn’t feel like it’s in the academy anymore, but I don’t know where my place is. I still have a hard time articulating why I’m valuable to myself, let alone to a place where I’d work. Because fundamentally, that’s what we do in work, ideally, add value (or at least reduce costs). And hopefully we solve people’s problems without resorting to trickery/deception/bad business practices. I like to write. And maybe there’s a career in that somewhere. Or marketing…I love spreading ideas, but a good product is worthwhile too.

Mostly, I want time to be able to think and process. And to integrate a life outside of work into my schedule of work (not balance, exactly, but you know, it’d be nice to try dating again…maybe see friends on a regular basis; maybe the only way that happens is if you work with your friends now).

We are nowhere close to equitably spreading resources around. And it seems increasingly true that there are a few winners, and the rest lose out. There will always be hard choices to make in resource allocation, but I hope teaching, spreading knowledge, and pursuit of the intellectual things that enrich and advance our society (including science & humanities) don’t go away from the world completely.

I still need to figure out a plan. And a long day in lab didn’t feel like I was moving towards it.

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