The ‘One year ago’ Trap

One year ago, 17th July 2014, I finally sent my dissertation supervisor my first chapter. After spending two and a half months fighting the worst writer’s block of my life, after having rejected at least three topics I half-heartedly researched, July found me in a very bad shape. My whole academic life hung by a thread. Deeply depressed, I suffered from panic attacks and insomnia, and I had pretty much given up on everything. And then, out of nowhere, I had an epiphany and decided to write on how Charles Dickens handles prisons in his fiction. My supervisor, who at this point was worried both for my academic progress and my well-being, gave me the green light, so I started working on what we both agreed had to be the topic of the dissertation. I wasn’t confident, but there was no turning back. With only a month to plan, research and write a 15000-word dissertation, the alternative choice was to give up, drop out and go back to Greece without my MSc, and with the knowledge that I had wasted a ridiculous amount of money for nothing.

Something magical happened: the minute I started making notes for my newly chosen topic everything started making sense. I knew what I was doing. All the doubts I had for myself erased themselves. I regained my trust in my academic skills, my mood improved, I felt motivated again, and I even fixed my sleeping patterns. I worked and worked, spending crazy hours in the library, writing as if my life depended on it. I checked and double-checked, refusing to make stupid mistakes or typos. I woke up and slept with Dickens, I walked around having Dickens on my mind, I breathed Dickens. Most importantly, for the first time in a long while, I felt alive. The tricky part of being a post-graduate student is that you spend your days studying and writing. It’s a boring routine that can quickly become monotonous. There is, however, a special kind of adrenaline rush this life can give you: when you realize that your argument makes sense, when you find critics supporting your soon-to-be thesis, when what used to be in your head starts taking a life of its own on paper. I was on this rush 24/7. I was exhausted, but truly happy.

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Books and coffee, Dickens and caffeine. Happiness! (photo taken on 15/07/14)

17th July 2014. I sent my supervisor what I had written so far. I was terrified, but I also knew that it was good. I was proud. The feedback he gave me some days later made me even more confident to keep writing. I submitted my dissertation four days before the deadline. I was ecstatic, I had done what two months prior seemed impossible. I was happy, but I also felt hollow, as if something was taken from me before I had the chance to give it a proper goodbye. All of a sudden, I stopped being a post-graduate student, and simply became an adult. I moved back to Greece out of necessity, and since then I have been trying to pick up the pieces of what used to be my life, only one year ago.

“One year ago” is a dangerous mentality. It’s easy to obsess over the past and forget that there is, in fact, a present. I am haunted by a romanticized version of my past. Nostalgia is sometimes misleading: instead of remembering all the stress and pain I went through, my memories are only of the happy times. Reminiscing can be healthy and motivating, but it can also become an excuse of simply giving up. For instance, my mentality right now is “The best is behind me, why should I even try?” I understand how wrong this is, but I just can’t shake off the feeling that one year ago I was at a better place.

One year later, I’m still not over it. I miss my life as a student, I miss the purpose it gave me. I miss the endless hours I spent at the library. Surely, I have romanticized what was most likely the most stressful time of my life, but still, I would go back and do it all over again, and this time I would do it right. The transition from the sheltered life of a student to the sudden realization that adulthood has finally arrived is one I still haven’t been able to master. I wish I could go back, study for another degree, another Masters, even for a PhD. This is not an option, thanks to my country’s economy. I wish I could get a job and leave all my academic wishes behind. This is not an option either, at least not in Greece. Every day I fight with nostalgia, resignation, anger, depression and paralyzing stress. Every day I think in “what ifs”. What if I had stayed in Edinburgh? Maybe I would have escaped what Greece is going through. What if I had applied for PhD programs? I wouldn’t be able to afford them, just more salt to the wound. What if I had been a better student throughout my MSc? Maybe I would have the confidence to apply for scholarships and funding.

One year ago, I was slowly coming out of a mental and emotional crisis that almost destroyed me. One year later, I am drowning. I feel broken, as if everything has been in vain. Some days I forget to live in the moment. Instead, I consume each hour by reminiscing, keeping myself busy with what ifs. It’s not healthy, I know, but right now it’s all I have, and I’m not ready to give it up.

 

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