The Shadow Monster: 4 things I wish I’d known about doing a PhD with OCD

Milly Morris

stranger-things-super-bowl2-700x350

(Credit: Dr. Nicki Smith’s analogy about the monster from ST2 being like her writing process inspired this article)

Don’t think about a polar bear. 

…you are thinking about a polar bear, aren’t you?

Now, I bet you are trying not to think about a polar bear, which is making it even worse. There’s now a gigantic white bear dancing about your brain, taunting you. The more you try, the clearer it will become before you can almost see it’s teeth and pearly white fur.

Everyone gets these kinds of intrusive thoughts, the ones that pop into your head and potentially cause you mild discomfort or stress. But then, for most people, these thoughts float away and allow you to move on. For those with OCD, however, these thoughts can be debilitating. No matter how hard you try to get rid of them, they won’t go away.  There is a common misconception that people with OCD wash their hands religiously or spend five hours a day flicking on and off the light switches. In fact, OCD can range from constantly replaying an incident from one’s past to experiencing recurring and disturbing images in one’s mind.

To me, OCD is like the Shadow Monster in Stranger Things 2. It is not felt or seen by anyone except you, even though you are sure that everyone else can hear how loud the thoughts are in your head.  When an obsessive thought takes hold, it’s like an icy grip on your chest and stomach. You can’t move or think outside that worry, the fear is all-encompassing and debilitating: I can’t believe I did *that*, how long before everyone finds out my true nature? These obsessions multiply and mutate when you are alone, becoming distinct from the initial worry until you begin to doubt your own memories and blur the lines between the obsession and reality. I once read that OCD feels like being a stone in a stream, whilst your friends and family are fish. They change and move on as you stay rooted and unchanging, permanently revisiting and analyzing memories of potential mistakes and bad deeds. You constantly feel that the Shadow Monster is lurking behind you, biding it’s time until it can leap out and reveal your true self to those you love.

When I started my PhD, I knew that it would be difficult. 80,000 words is, let’s face it, too many words. What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was the intense impact that the research process would have on my mental health. Doctoral research includes long solitary hours staring at a computer screen, a complete lack of structure and the persistent question of “is anyone even going to read this?” (answer: probably not).  This is accompanied by precarious teaching contracts and financial worries, which makes the PhD a perfect breeding ground for poor mental health. For that reason, I decided to cobble together some (hopefully) helpful tips for looking after your mental health whilst studying for a PhD. These don’t necessarily apply to just OCD, but they have been some small tricks that I’ve learnt along the way.

1. If it isn’t going to happen, don’t force it. 

There are days where you sit down at the computer and bang out a thousand words before lunch (I didn’t say they were “good” words). These days are few and far between. Often, when I’m feeling particularly anxious, I can go days (and sometimes) weeks without writing anything. I will stare at the computer, hoping that words come to me, but they just won’t. This gets worse if you try and force yourself to write, becoming a cycle of anxiety and annoyance at oneself for not “working hard enough.” Indeed, it can often feel like you are “slacking” whilst everyone else is at their “real job.” In these instances, be kind to yourself. Go for a walk, to the gym, read a non-academic book or write a blog about something that interests you. Something completely separate to the thesis that you enjoy. When you come back to writing, you’ll hopefully be able to focus and you won’t feel unproductive.

2. Talk to people that you trust. 

This is something that’s particularly difficult when you have OCD as obsessions manifest themselves in thoughts or fears that the individual is particularly ashamed or embarrassed about. Airing these thoughts to people that you trust, however, can help you to feel less alone in your obsessions and to separate rational thought from irrational spiraling.

3. If you can, exercise helps!

I like to run whilst listening to podcasts (favorites being Russell Brand on Radio X and Criminal). This really helps me to get space from my anxiety and to concentrate on something else. Exercising, if you are able to, wears out your body and helps give you some peace of mind. I’ve found that going for a run before I start my thesis works builds structure into my day and makes me feel slightly calmer for when I start writing.

4. Tidy space, tidy mind (I’ve turned into my Mum)

Having a clean and homely space to work in has been a really important part of writing-from-home for me. It’s something that really helps soothe anxiety and stress and I find that if my flat is a mess, then I can begin to feel overwhelmed with my workload too. The lack of structure is one of the hardest things about a PhD, and so keeping things tidy stops your mind feeling “cluttered” and allows you to feel “on top of things.”  However, if you are having one of those days where a shower feels like the hardest thing in the world, perhaps do something nice for yourself like light a candle or paint your nails.

5. Your obsessions don’t define you. 

It can often feel like you can’t get away from your worries and that you’ll never be able to move forward, let alone finish a PhD. I’m the worst for this, as I often let myself disappear down a rabbit hole of despair and shame. Here, I’ll try and take my own advice: you are much more than your obsessions and fears. Try and remind yourself of the good parts of your personality or the times that you might have made people happy, rather than that potentially “terrible” thing you did five years ago.  It can feel impossible, but it’s important to try! Hopefully, this will mean that the Shadow Monster becomes smaller and smaller, until it is a distant and unfamiliar memory.

One thought on “The Shadow Monster: 4 things I wish I’d known about doing a PhD with OCD

  1. Thank you for this post, Milly, I really relate, having OCD myself (going into my 4th year of managing it without medication, which is a victory for me!)

    I struggle with the lack of structure a lot, especially being on the DL programme. I try to structure things with plans and deadlines, but then I obsess and over do it, spending a long time organising things instead of producing…

    Anyway, onward and upwards, one day at a time!

    Liked by 1 person

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