“Why are you running?”
For the last couple of years life has felt surreal. I know I’m not alone in this feeling. For most people it started with the pandemic and consequential lockdowns, and lingered long after restrictions were lifted. Ever since then it’s felt like world events are amplified and far more frequent, but then again it might be that we’re just more aware of them.
Like many others out there I exited the other side of pandemic with a fairly different life. In lockdown I learnt that I was experiencing autistic burnout, both as a result of my the life I’d been living previously and as well as various other things, including the amount of change happening both as a result of the pandemic and independently of it. I closed my piercing business in 2021, meaning that when everyone else started going back to work as the lockdown eased and getting back to life I was stuck in a state of limbo. During the pandemic I made the decision to go to university, but my course wasn’t due to start until September 2021, so I had a few months before any kind of regular routine would resume. I’d had some other business ideas I’d come up with in lockdown on a back burner for when I had time and opportunity but a few months didn’t seem long enough to really get anywhere before I’d have to switch my focus to uni so I left them burning a hole at the back of my mind.
Normally, a few months off would be a dream, but the world wasn’t quite back to normal so it just didn’t feel the same, and after spending all that time alone in lockdown I didn’t really need more time to myself. Since everyone else was working I had to fill my days with something, so I turned my attention to decluttering my flat and creating an environment that worked for me. It was actually really enjoyable and I ended up taking lots of photos with the intention sharing what I’d been doing and how it was working for me as content – two years later I’ve posted nothing, but the ideas haven’t stopped piling up.
At this point I had had no real structure in my life for a long time, so starting uni was quite a transition to say the least. I don’t think I’d really recovered from autistic burnout (and I still wouldn’t say I fully have now) and I certainly wasn’t used to being around that many people. For the last couple of years, almost all of my energy and focus has been reserved for uni because that’s all I could afford. I made a few short videos at the start, as well as a longer video after being diagnosed with Autism and ADHD (though it was way later than I’d planned to), and I wrote a few fleeting blog posts about tech, psych and other stuff. I felt like a bank account with too many debits and unauthorised withdrawals but a whole lot of stuff on my wishlist. It wasn’t just about having no energy for business or creating content either, I was fascinated by some of the things I was studying but I just did not have the energy to delve as deep as I desired.
By the end of my first year I was determined for my next one to be different. To cut a long story short, it wasn’t. Despite not taking on any big projects during the summer and trying to minimise the demands on my energy, I wasn’t quite where I needed to be. But I was in the right place for life to hit me hard, and it did. I spent most of the year focusing on getting the grades I wanted, determined not to let life’s unpleasantries rob me of my academic validation. As shitty as the circumstances were, they paid off. I made the decision to focus on the modules that mattered and I was very happy with my grades in all of them. I could see a clear improvement in my critical thinking skills and felt more able to engage with the topics I was studying (and that’s around the time I wrote this post).
The Price of Freedom
On the surface you’d think – heck even I did – that everything is lovely jubbly now right? And to an extent it was, but underneath the good grades I’d new I’d traded properly engaging with the university experience – going to lectures, making connections, and just generally getting my money’s worth – for grade security. I’d gone from always faffing around and trying to submit work within an hour of the deadline to finishing and submitting three pieces of work a week before they were due. It wasn’t that I was magically cured of all ADHD, it was just that something so good was motivating me to get everything out of the way. I’d picked up drawing again and had the urge to create more so I kept reminding myself that if I could just get the assignments done I could completely focus on creating, and so with that I started using lecture time to do my assignments and that’s how I got them in early. I started earlier than I usually did, I procrastinated less, but I still produced good work – possibly even my best work – all in a bid for the freedom of summer. It just goes to show that tasks really do expand to fill the time available. This advice is prevalent throughout Productivity YouTube, but I’d never put it into practice because ADHD advice is to generally give yourself more time for things knowing you might go on a side quest. When I started the assignments I wasn’t expecting a huge change in when I completed them, I was just trying to get them out of the way ASAP. While I think the strategy worked to get me to the break I needed to recover from life events and find some joy, I felt a bit shit about it. I’d technically done what I needed to do, and I’d even done it well, but I hadn’t taken advantage of my time as a student, the lecturers, the resources or the community. It was like I was a lodger paying rent but not really part of the family – there was a barrier between us every time we passed in the kitchen, like I live there but it’s not my home.
It took me a while to realise this. I started the summer focused on relaxing, but it wasn’t long until my attention turned back to uni. I knew my last year would be hell and, after the success of my second year, I wanted to make sure that I was in a place to to get the grade I wanted. I started planning my dissertation with my supervisor and eventually started the process of applying for ethics. For weeks of my break, uni was still my focus. It was interesting because my dissertation is on a topic I’m keen on, but it wasn’t motivated by interest, it was motivated by perfectionism.
The Fire In My Belly (And The Rain I’m Running Through)
After my ethics application was submitted I finally got some time free of the pending doom of a deadline and it was probably the best part of my summer. Doing the day to day work had felt like such a chore at the time with all the background research, paperwork and sitting at a desk nonsense, but once it was done I felt good about having done it. I’d already shown myself that I can do things way before the deadline and to a high standard, but I’d also shown myself I could do it when I didn’t really have to. The freedom of doing what you want for a few weeks is always better if there’s not a looming task at the back of your mind. I always find when I procrastinate or put off deep work I can’t even fully enjoy whatever else I’m doing because at the back of my mind I know I’m going to have to do it eventually. That’s how I convinced myself to make a start on those three assignments early last term, knowing if I focused on creating I’d have to put everything on pause whenever I eventually (an inevitably) do the work. It was the same this time except instead of having a whole summer of freedom (as I’d originally planned to after my last term) I just had a few weeks.
Knowing my time was limited only made me determined not to waste it. I’d spent the first part of the summer thinking I’d have plenty of time to do x, y and z but never actually scheduling time to do them and so them not getting done. I wasn’t going to make the same mistake again. These last few weeks of freedom before my last year felt too precious to waste. I spent a lot of time drawing, making memes, getting the most out of therapy, thinking about the future and letting my brain run wild. It ran so wild it reached the bundle of business ideas I’d pushed to the back, tripped over a stack of personal goals and collided with abandoned trains of thought that had been stopped in their tracks. For the last few weeks I’ve started to feel alive again, like I’ve been woken from a protective coma. I’ve felt the sun on my face and the fire in my belly. I can feel the warmth from the fire, from my people, from the future and from the cheese that is this feeling and I don’t want to lose it. I am by no means cured of the big sad that engulfs me (or burnout for that matter) but I feel like if I keep the fire fuelled I can use it to cauterise my wounds. Uni starting again feels like rain. It’s refreshing after being in the heat of the fire, but it sure has put a dampener on things.
There have been times during my degree that I’ve been tempted by the idea of pursuing a psychological profession. To me it’s like an unfamiliar chocolate biscuit. It looks nice and I might like it, but there are other chocolate biscuits that I know I like that won’t risk tainting my tongue. On some level I feel like it is my duty to try this chocolate biscuit, but the tin it comes has been thrown at me a few times. I didn’t start this degree for a career change, but it felt like something I should at least consider. For the most part I plan to stay self-employed after I graduate and because of that I sometimes wonder why I don’t just drop out so I don’t have to walk in the rain. Dropping out is nothing new to me, I’ve dropped out before the finish line almost every time I’ve been in formal education. I am a serial quitter, and I generally see that as a good thing. I’m not one to be a victim of the sunk cost, but something is telling me not to quit or take a break. My gut is telling me to see this through, and you can find yourself in all sorts of trouble if you start ignoring your gut. If I’m not prepared to quit for freedom, living under the rain of education is unavoidable, so I need to keep moving forward.
The advice we’ve been given is the infamous “It’s about the journey, not the destination” and not to make it about grades. Now I don’t know about all that not worrying about grades nonsense, but when I was watching art tutorials during my few weeks of fun they stressed the same thing: It’s about the journey, not the destination. It was true then for that and it’s probably true for this now. I do feel like I need to take more time to appreciate the journey and this period of my life in general, but I’m also full of dread at the thought of embarking on the journey ahead of me.
But I can’t just stand in the rain and let my fire go out. This is the last sprint and I have to give it everything I’ve got. I’ve got to pace myself but also run fast enough that I don’t drown along the way. I’ve got to head for that finish line yet still embody the experience around me. And I have to keep fuelling my fire without losing my focus. And if I can’t keep a roaring flame, I must maintain embers if I am to stop myself coming out cold and comatose on the other side. Here’s hoping being proactive this summer serves as an umbrella!
What sprint are you running?
Wherever you are, keep going