A couple of weeks have passed since I frantically sealed and handed over the final exam paper of my undergraduate degree, and found myself deeply embedded in a stress cocoon I had been unwittingly creating for months. In February, I had said goodbye to a full-time hospitality management position I had balanced alongside my studies, choosing for the first time in years to prioritise not only my education, but also my general wellbeing.
Exhausted of 5am wake-up calls and of wasting away precious class time desperately applying the principles of mind over matter to my closing eyes, I looked forward to the freedom of quiet research mornings in the library. From here on out, if I didn’t read a prescribed 400-page memoir about Connemara, it would be entirely my choice. An evening spent watching the latest Netflix show or going to the gym would no longer cause persistent guilt. Instead, it would be a celebratory act of freedom.
The harsh truth quickly seized its chance to intrude on my final semester fantasy. I saw with sobering clarity that I was about five months behind on my dissertation research, and that every deadline I had carefully pencilled into my planner would come as certainly as the day I worked my long-anticipated last shift. Netflix and leisurely reading were surely out of the question, and I felt foolish for letting myself entertain the fantasy for so long. Now more than ever, it was time to get to work.
Over the next weeks I finessed a routine: I would get to the library at 9am every day, precariously smuggling a flat white past the security guards, sketch out a daily to-do list, and accumulate a pile of books tall enough to shield me from the eyes of my library neighbour across the desk. These cut out my workload for the day, and I skimmed my way through 19th century American poetry anthologies, critical analyses, letters, and notebooks until rush-hour traffic faded away in the evening. On the bus home, I stared blankly at passing industrial parks, the inside of my head a vortex gathering speed, whirling with words and phrases from the day’s reading, arranging and rearranging until they no longer made any sense.
All I knew was that I needed to gain control of my days again, so I filled them with new habits and routines
As my research expanded, time seemed to contract. Deadlines came and went as I waded through a sea of submissions, crossing off each day on my calendar, determined that the next one would be more productive and efficient. Lunches with friends could always be rescheduled, the gym would still be there when my dissertation was handed in, and dental appointments could most definitely wait a few more weeks. I searched for pockets of time to study more, trying to alleviate guilt about date nights with my boyfriend by scheduling quick library sessions on weekend afternoons, and optimising family dinners by making the most of the quiet stillness after everyone had gone to bed, reading at my desk until the sky went grey. I thrived only on progress, imagining myself inching closer to the finish line every day. Reading for pleasure, cooking real food instead of relying on hummus toast and student buffets: all of these things would be accessible soon.
Sending the final draft of my dissertation to be bound, a day before it was due, afforded me my first full night’s sleep in a month. I found myself wandering the streets of Dublin in a daze after I handed the book into the School of English office. I had expected some great euphoric weight to be lifted, but beyond a few congratulatory messages from friends and family, I saw no tangible evidence that I had accomplished anything at all.
By the end of the day, I had made a study plan to see me through my final assignments and exams. I would have to focus now more than ever, and there was certainly no time to waste. I repurposed my familiar routine, and gradually closed the gap between me and that last circled date, the final exam. The seal on the paper, the act of handing it to the invigilator, the dull ache in my writing hand afterwards – all of these were emblems of promised land. And yet, no expected feelings of pride and accomplishment followed. I found myself strolling aimlessly through the city once again while the vortex in my head spat out questions: what was I going to do now? What was the next deadline? Had I accomplished anything at all? Would I waste away my days now when I could be doing something far more productive? Was my degree even worth it? Should I have kept my job after all?
I didn’t know any of the answers. All I knew was that I needed to gain control of my days again, so I filled them with new habits and routines. I needed to incorporate more exercise and meditation, to carry on learning Italian, to read more fiction for pleasure, to read more non-fiction to expand my worldview. I tracked all of my progress in my trusty planner. For hours I switched browser tabs, researching internships and grad schemes, signing up for job alerts and redesigning my resume. The following day, I did it all over again. By the end of the first week, I was exhausted. My sleeping schedule was off, and every time I heard, saw, or even thought of the dreaded f-word (future), I broke out in a cold sweat. Was this really the freedom I had envisioned for so long?
The truth came to me like an intervention. Caught mid-sentence in a long ramble about a selection of online courses I had discovered that day, I saw a flicker of worry in my boyfriend’s eyes, and knew exactly what had been missing from my life this entire time. I didn’t know how to relax anymore. The one habit I had entirely overlooked and cast aside for months, years maybe, was living itself.
My sleeping schedule was off, and every time I heard, saw, or even thought of the dreaded f-word (future), I broke out in a cold sweat. Was this really the freedom I had envisioned for so long?
I had deprived myself almost completely of the moments that happen between items on to-do lists, between work and classes and deadlines and goals. These moments are often shared when we offer care and attention to our loved ones, but they also occur in the private mental space we allow ourselves to occupy. I am trying to stretch this space now like a stiff muscle, fighting the urge to work unnecessary overtime when there is no assigned work to do. It is an active process. Against my instincts, I close tabs, switch off alarms, change direction on my morning walks. I don’t skim books anymore – I want to read every word. I breathe deeply through the panic-inducing realisation that currently, there is no plan. Slowly, the stress cocoon is loosening its grip.
The search for greater balance will define the next few months. Although my formal education is complete for the moment, I know I will be learning and working every day of my life. There will always be another deadline, another daily routine, another to-do list. I have learned that I can’t forget to live between the lines.