Solitary, unstructured time and depression
July 23, 2022 9:05 AM   Subscribe

I work in humanities academia, which entails semesters of intense, highly-structured teaching alternating with long periods of solitary, unstructured time. Those periods are one of my favorite things about the job, but they often lead to bouts of severe depression. Is there anything I can do?

Academics have "summers off" and occasional or frequent periods of research leave. This seems great, because you have complete control over your schedule, but it's starting to ruin my life. I don't know what to do.

Every semester, even if I'm enjoying my teaching and finding it rewarding, I spend much of my time looking forward to summer. During the summer or on leave I will often take a non-working vacation, which is great. But then I go back home and try to establish a fun and satisfying pattern of working (not too hard) and enjoying myself in the sunshine. This is fantastic for about two weeks, where I relax in the absence of stress and work on ways to improve my life. But then the lack of daily social contact (even if I see friends regularly) and externally fixed work hours (even if I try to keep to a schedule) will often trigger something in my brain where I become extremely fragile and ultimately fall into a period of extreme distress and depression. (I am in one of these periods now.) It becomes difficult to accomplish or enjoy anything and casual interactions with friends or lovers can easily send me into a tailspin of paranoia and self-doubt. In the past I have sought medication (sertraline and bupropion) but sertraline was not effective on the timescale on which I've needed it and bupropion made me suicidal; I would rather avoid meds if possible. Talk therapy is helpful in the broad sense but not effective at addressing or preventing these episodes. I take long walks/hikes, meditate, and journal daily, but it's not enough.

For a number of reasons my last year-long leave, three years ago, turned out to be a near-complete waste of time from a research perspective and extremely difficult from an emotional perspective (at the tail end of it the first month of COVID was especially hard, as it was for everyone, but then some friends asked me to move in with them for a few months and I did and it was fantastic). I have a semester of leave coming up in the spring most of which will be spent in a number of foreign countries where I have no social network. I am worried about my emotional state--if it's this hard at home, it will likely be even harder abroad (and has been in the past).

What's frustrating is that all this free time feels like such a gift and I don't understand why I can't develop a healthier relationship with it. I have considered trying to set up some kind of regular writing group but I feel a sense of "time miserliness" where scheduled activities seem like an imposition on my precious, precious free weeks. I don't want to quit my job. Help.
posted by derrinyet to Work & Money (14 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Hi there, popping in to see others' comments, as I relate very strongly to what you have written. The only thing I can offer is that for me, getting up and forcing myself to do ONE small thing by noon each day helps a lot. It can be anything as long as it (a) requires me to get dressed and (b) requires me to physically leave the house and ideally (c) involves mild interaction with other human beings. Something as simple as running an errand, grabbing some groceries, or filling the car's gas tank. The simpler / quicker the better, or I struggle to motivate myself to do it. Once that one small thing has been done, my motivation to do other things throughout the rest of the day goes up.

For me this is a daily struggle and it never gets easier. I keep a to do list on TickTick of errands/groceries/friends to catch up with/books to get at the library, so I don't run out of these little "warm-up motivation trips." The more consistently I keep up with these, the less often I fall into my default state of passive, unmotivated despair.
posted by Anonymouse1618 at 9:42 AM on July 23, 2022 [1 favorite]

I have known retirees who do this with daily coffee or grocery trips.
posted by Lady Li at 9:51 AM on July 23, 2022 [3 favorites]

What has helped me is regular, strenuous, exercise. For me that is weight-lifting. Find something you enjoy doing so you will do it frequently.
posted by jtexman1 at 10:06 AM on July 23, 2022 [3 favorites]

Can you volunteer somewhere that’s meaningful for you? What that looks like will be specific to you, but off the top of my head animal shelters, equine therapy ranches, reading programs, county parks, etc. are some places to look. This can provide structure, meaning, and social contact while still being relaxing and enjoyable in many ways. It may be a bit harder to get involved in a foreign country, I don’t know, but this is the number one thing that I’ve found most people with depression find really beneficial if they’re able to do it.
posted by brook horse at 10:15 AM on July 23, 2022 [3 favorites]

Teach summer school?
posted by humbug at 10:18 AM on July 23, 2022 [1 favorite]

You need an in-person writing group! A group that has an agreement to meet every morning in a public library and write together for three hours. I had one as a social science academic for exactly this reason. Start by just emailing everyone you know in any discipline, telling them "hey folks, I'm going to be here from 9am to 12. Come join me if you want. " And then let it spread by word of mouth. You'll soon have a group of regulars who feel the same way you do.

- Have it as a drop in commitment. If people don't have to come every day, it's easier to agree to. (But you should go every day to get it started, until there is momentum.)
- Someone sets a timer for an agreed period of writing time. Then you have ten minutes of break and chat. Then start again. Keep going as long as people are willing but have a 'normal' start and end time. I.e., from 9am-12:30pm.
- Make sure you are all in agreement about the balance between socializing time and actual work time.
-This kind of writing group is 100% about providing structure to your summer and keeping accountability/support while you write. It's not about reading each other's work.

My writing group was an absolute savior for me, during a crappy lonely postdoc. I met people I wouldn't have before, who were friends of friends in different disciplines. I also got lots of writing done!
posted by EllaEm at 10:19 AM on July 23, 2022 [9 favorites]

You're a person who needs structure and company. Vacations are fine because you mentally think of them as "relaxation time" and not "empty time." Schedule that writing group.

(I'm interested in this question as well as I'm living alone for the first time in a long time, I work at home, and it turns out that I am less of a hermit than I thought. To the point where I'm thinking of retraining so I don't lose all human contact. Non total introverts, we're out there!)
posted by kingdead at 10:20 AM on July 23, 2022 [3 favorites]

Also to add: this is a very common problem in academia, especially the humanities. You are absolutely not the first person to feel this way, nor the last. So don't feel like it makes you a failure or weird, by any means. Writing groups are the way people solve this problem though. My writing group and those of other academic friends I know even continued over zoom during the pandemic, or while we were all abroad on field work! (yes, that's five people sitting on a silent zoom call writing away!).
posted by EllaEm at 10:25 AM on July 23, 2022 [3 favorites]

My friend had her first depressive episode in college, and for about 15 years afterwards she had roughly one per year, lasting from a few weeks to a few months in duration. SSRIs didn't help.

About five years ago, she started taking 1g of psilocybin mushrooms once a month, and it's worked beautifully. She hasn't had a single depressive episode since :)
posted by Susan PG at 11:17 AM on July 23, 2022 [2 favorites]

It sounds like your brain needs more structure than you're getting during your summers. Maybe I'm missing something, but why don't you go to campus during the week and do your research work in your office during the summer? That way you have structure (that YOU control), you see colleagues, and the change in location can act as a cue to switch from "home mode" into "research mode".
posted by heatherlogan at 3:06 PM on July 23, 2022 [1 favorite]

I honestly don't actually think that loads of free time is a gift, unless through chance you happen to be the type of person who is extremely internally self-motivated for your own personal projects (I have a friend who is like this - I am not). In the first Covid winter, while we were 100% WFH, at my job we were all ordered to take two weeks off at Christmas to use up annual leave and to destress. I managed a week and then had to insist on resuming work early, because a second week with no structure was about to tank my mental health.

There's a reason that long-term unemployment often leads to depression - admittedly in that case there are also financial worries, and the sense of rejection of not being employed. But it's also the acres of unstructured time. You're not at all unusual to find that hard.

Is there any way you can arrange your working life so that you are doing regular, if shorter, hours in the office through the periods of leave, rather than just stoping that completely? Or book in blocks of part-time volunteering at a place that would be meaningful to you. I feel like, if at least part of my time is blocked out, then I can really enjoy the free parts. But if none of it is concretely blocked out, I don't deal well. Maybe volunteer part-time for two weeks, take the third week off, rinse and repeat.

I live alone and my whole weekends got way better when I started doing a 9am exercise class on a Saturday. I'm not a morning person and this was very unlike me, but the early dose of exercise, being slightly sociable, and feeling smug and virtuous for being out and about just seemed to flip a switch in my head where for the rest of the day I could happily either motivate myself to keep being productive, or just enjoy lazing around because I'd already been productive. I know exactly what you mean about the time miserliness but I got over that when I felt for myself just how transformative it was to the rest of my free time to have a certain amount of my time absolutely committed. In fact it's not just me - a friend of mine who also lives alone made the same discovery at the same time and I remember us sharing our extraordinary discoveries with each other like we'd just found the secret to universal happiness!

So maybe something you do with other people every morning? A sociable dog walk or exercise class or meditation class or adult education class or volunteering role. I feel like it needs to be something that's not dependent on you to organise it - better to be something that you're obliged to turn up to, that you don't have the opportunity to cancel or let slide.

Similarly, do you have to spend all that impending free time overseas? How about making the trip shorter so that you can genuinely enjoy it? It's easy to think "I'm so unusually fortunate to have lots of free time, I must spend it on something worthwhile and wring as much as possible out of it by spending the whole time away adventuring." But it can be hard (IME) to admit that the isolation of adventure makes you miserable, and to give yourself the gift of actually doing less and stopping when it ceases to be fun. I once went on a trip on my own for 4 weeks but after 3 weeks I was DONE. Incredible trip, I absolutely love the place I was visiting, every moment was thrilling but oh my God I just wanted to not be wandering around on my own, having to decide my own plan for the day, every day. And that's OK.

Alternatively... you literally say this is ruining your life, so maybe it's time for a radical change. You said moving in with friends was great during Covid - maybe you need to move permanently into a house share situation where you have other people around, or get a lodger if you have a spare room?

I feel like maybe you need someone to give you permission to not feel grateful for all these acres of free time that are supposedly a perk of your job. I'm happy to be that person.
posted by penguin pie at 3:54 PM on July 23, 2022 [2 favorites]

I had a similar problem when I moved from a middle management job to being head of a non-profit, where I have intense boom-and-bust work cycles plus almost complete control of my own schedule. When Covid hit, working from home went from being a treat to a problem within about a week as I discovered the limits of my own introversion.

What has worked for me is creating my own loose structure Tuesday-Thursday anchored around two professional networking meetings so that I always have something on my calendar, even when it's slow. Scheduling my other meetings on those three days means that I have to hustle a bit, which keeps me motivated, and having Mondays and Fridays open gives me time for strategy, planning, and dealing with any real emergencies. It also allows me to take a day off or a long weekend with minimal disruption.

Having a couple of weekly anchor points, whether it's a writing group, a weekly trip to the office, and/or some kind of volunteer commitment, might be just what you need. My only other advice would be to avoid packing your schedule too much, which could lead you to rebel and put you back at square one.
posted by rpfields at 4:17 PM on July 23, 2022 [1 favorite]

I remember your previous questions about life in academia and just want to say that I feel you. Most people I know have difficulty with the two situations you address in this question. As for the first, I have found online communities like the bootcamps hosted by the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity to be helpful. I use my PD funds for this kind of thing, but I know other people whose institutions cover the cost. As for the second, it was a turning point for me when I learned that so many other people struggle during long research trips. One thing that helped me is to banish all thoughts that these trips are like a vacation and that I should enjoy them and/or be grateful for the opportunity to travel. It is an amazing privilege to travel in order to further one's research, but it is also a taxing work obligation. During these trips I make a point of allocating time and energy to taking care of myself, just like I do on conference trips.
posted by mustard seeds at 8:19 PM on July 23, 2022 [4 favorites]

HARD SAME. Writing this from my office where I am currently wallowing.

Couple things:

Is the problem that you are working too hard and are miserable or are unable to work at all (and are miserable)?

For the former I think it's a scheduling more active and restorative rest thing.

I am, though, the second type of summer professor. Here are some things that have worked for me:

1. Yes, writing groups. I miss my writing group so much. Do you want to start a writing group? Lol (but seriously).
2. Working at coffeeshops. Especially during your research travels. Your day has a destination! It's a coffeeshop!
3. Tracking pomodoros on a sticker chart.
4. Body doubling IRL with a friend or even, on the worst mental health days... watching study with me YouTube videos.

Good luck. We will all be course prepping and then under a pile of grading soon enough.
posted by athirstforsalt at 11:58 PM on July 29, 2022 [1 favorite]

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