:: Coming out from under a crushing deadline doesn’t mean you’re going to be happy. It can mean the opposite.
For the last two months I have been writing ferociously trying to meet a crushing book deadline.
I just didn’t see how I was going to make the deadline. Every time I wrote a chapter—I should say rewrote—I felt that I was even farther from the deadline than I’d been before.
I say rewrote because when I submitted the book proposal, I already had a draft, one that three different friends had read and liked. But I believed it needed to be better, much better. I believed that first draft was total garbage.
I spent two furious months rewriting the book two friends, trading pages workshop-style. Their feedback was great. I rewrote each chapter, and then rewrote and rewrote. Each week, each day, I saw that deadline stomping closer.
And then I’d look at a chapter, or at the news, or at the latest research, I would see so much more that I needed to include, that if I didn’t include then I would fail. Then I would panic more, staying up late and waking up choking at 5:30 in the morning, frantic about the book.
I’m not sure if I’ve ever felt this way about a book I’ve written. It’s possible, but I don’t recall. I do recall feeling this way about the bar exam, but that was nearly 20 years ago. I recall feeling this way when I was pregnant, a constant, inchoate fear that I would lose my baby. The panic, the ceaseless, ceaseless panic.
The cortisol released when you are in a state of chronic stress doesn’t do your body in favors when you’re talking about preventing premature labor. My water broke six weeks early—I did go into premature labor. One of the things the doctors discussed with me was whether I’d been under chronic stress while I was pregnant. Their questions felt a bit like blaming the victim, but they were not wrong. I had been. I’d had a book deadline. I’d been teaching four courses on two campuses as an adjunct. I was worried about money, my career, and new motherhood, and how to square them all.
Yes, my life was stressful.
For the past two months, until this past week, my book was crushing me like a boulder. I didn’t know that I needed an intervention, but boyo, did I. Fortunately, one came, in three parts.
(1) The Journal Editor
I wrote and submitted a law review article before the frantic book-writing time, it was accepted, which would have been great news except I was too panicked to feel anything but, well, panic.
The journal editor assigned to my piece, a professor whom I respect, wrote to me and praised my writing. He said something like, Your writing is really good and clean and I basically only have a couple of line edits for you two citations for you to look at. In fact, he’d turned around my edits in less than 24 hours.
Now, when I submitted this article, I thought it was trash. My friend Ariane had to basically force me to submit it, insisting it was not trash, that it would be an excellent contribution to an important subject. (“Front-Line Faculty and Systemic Burnout: Why More Faculty Should Attend to Law Students’ Mental Health and the Inequities Caused by Faculty Who Opt Out”—you can read a preprint if you’d like.)
When I got the email from the editor, I thought, Well, I guess article isn’t trash after all. That’s when I got an inkling that maybe my perspective on my own writing was a little off.
(2) Do Less
The next phase of my intervention came in the form of an article I read by Karen Costa (“The Next Phase“). I read it while researching my book, but her words made me take a step back:
In my experience, burnout has only one solution: do less. I first like to try to put bandaids on it instead. I’ll do some yoga. I’ll exercise more. I’ll bake in some lavender essential oil. I’ll take a bath (sorry, I love baths, but a bath is not all-powerful folks). None of it works.
Do less. Our access to that solution depends on our privilege, of course. Our institutions and leaders need to help us do less. Maybe instead of that workshop on stress management, you give people some time off.
(Emphasis added.) The phrase kept pinging around in my head, bumping up against the panic like a pinball. Do less do less do less do less.
I knew I was not Okay. I knew I needed to Do Less. But I didn’t know how.
(3) Ariane Tossing My Own Advice Back at Me
Of course I had to call my friend Ariane to figure out how to do less. I shared with her the email from the journal editor, and my insight that maybe my book wasn’t so bad.
Recall that Ariane had read that journal article before I submitted it, when I thought it was total shit and she said no, it is not total shit. When I said, maybe my perspective on my book is perhaps maybe a little like my perspective on my article she said, “You think?”
Then I told her about Do Less. She said that sounded about right. So we set about figuring out how I could do less because honestly, I just didn’t see how I possibly could. After all, I had to write the book.
She said, “Just stop writing your book.”
I said, “What?”
She said, “Just stop revising. It’s done.”
I caught on, feeling her idea, getting excited now. “I could just put my new ideas into footnotes so I won’t lose them, and when it goes out for review if I need to add them back later they’ll be there.”
She said, with a small amount of (deserved) snark, “You’ve given me that advice approximately 1000 times. The second half of that advice is that you’re going to delete all of those footnotes later.”
She was right. My “This Project Is An Octopus Consuming Me With Its Scope Creep” solution is to put the scope-creep ideas in footnotes. I’m not sure if it’s a good day or a bad day when someone throws your own advice back at you.
So I grabbed my laptop and did those things. I stopped revising. Instead, I polished up what I’d written—in one day—and, dropping all of the unfinished (totally extra) ideas in footnotes, I sent it off.
I felt immediately, immensely lighter. I couldn’t believe it, actually. The boulder that had been crushing me was suddenly gone.
I thought, Everything is going to be better now.
I was so, so wrong.
This past week I’ve been feeling darker and darker. I’m on the edge of tears every hour. I haven’t been able to figure out why. Then, this morning, while walking the dog with my husband, I said, “I think instead of someone who has been crushed and had a burden lightened, I’m someone who is on Speed and is coming down from the high.”
I’m crashing. Hard.
Yes, the book-boulder is gone. But so are the drugs that had kept me going through that period of chronic stress, the natural Speed that I’d been living on for weeks, months—longer than that, probably. When I say “natural Speed,” I’m referring to cortisol and other stress hormones your body sends out when you’re being chased by a bear.
Or, say, when you have a book deadline with which you have an unhealthy relationship.
According to the Mayo Clinic, “The long-term activation of the stress response system and the overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones that follows can disrupt almost all your body’s processes.” This overexposure can increase your risk of anxiety, depression, headaches, and sleep problems.
Once the book went out, once the stress hormones left my system (and they did! I can feel it! my resting heart rate drop by ten points this week), I didn’t suddenly feel happier. I felt the opposite.
I feel depressed. There is no other word for it. Now that the drugs are gone, I want to lie down and not get up again. The smallest things make me want to cry, and it’s completely inexplicable to someone who isn’t inside my body.
I’m not sure if others have experienced this feeling—I’m sure you have, obviously. And I haven’t had time to do the research and I frankly don’t fucking feel like doing it.
If you’ve been here, if you’ve taken your comprehensive exams or your bar exam or your boards for whatever; if you’ve finished a massive project that had you staying up late and tortured you with anxiety dreams and had you waking up unable to breathe for weeks or months on end and then once you finally finished the project that feeling you thought would be happiness is the opposite?
That’s where I am, and you are not alone. And good gravy in a boat do not feel guilty about it.
That when the boulder was gone, that feeling of lightness I expected never came.
Instead I feel how what I now realize I should feel. A boulder crushed me for weeks and months, and taking it away only means that I am, still, crushed. Eventually I will heal. Just not today.
If you enjoyed this piece, you will enjoy my book, LIFE OF THE MIND INTERRUPTED: ESSAYS ON MENTAL HEALTH AND DISABILITY IN HIGHER EDUCATION, available at lifeofthemindinterrupted.com. Buying my books is a great way to support the online writing that I do for free.