Just occasionally, I am reminded that there is a woman, lost somewhere, out there in the ether. This woman is confident, blonde, skinny, and right on track to the career she has always wanted, as an archaeologist. This girl started studying hard when she was sixteen and hasn’t stopped since. She went from college, to an undergraduate degree, to a Masters, without pause, and when she found herself at the end of that without funding for her PhD, she picked up her trusty trowel and went off into the world to gain more practical experience while she waiting for that funding to materialise.
It did. Nearly two years later.
Unfortunately, in those two years, something had happened to that woman. Something so profound that by the time she started her PhD—in fact, a good year and a half before she started her PhD—she was no longer able to work. Not really. Not to the standard to which she was accustomed and her peers expected. This woman lost her mojo big time. This was due to a combination of a then-undiagnosed mental health condition wreaking havoc on her personal and professional life, and a series of extremely traumatic, and not entirely unrelated events, culminating in a house fire that consumed most of her belongings and a good chunk of what she had managed to get done on her thesis.
This woman was me.
I often wonder what happened to her and if I will ever see her again. I am still struggling, four years later, to finish that thesis. My brain no longer works the way it once did, and while I find I can write, when it comes to thinking the way my former self thought concerning archaeology and gender theory, I am at a loss.
I look at notes I made years ago which, at the time, made perfect sense to me, and I know they are the fully fledged outline of my thesis. I know too that I no longer have the capacity to understand them in the manner I once did. I have thought long and hard on this matter, in those brief times—like today—when something has reminded me of this other woman, and I find I still do not know exactly what happened to her.
Was it the chemical changes in her brain, caused by bipolar disorder, which literally altered the manner in which she thought?
Was it the incredibly strong medications she was forced to take, just to regain some semblance of control?
Was it simply a matter of trauma, preventing me from getting back to her way of thought, to her way of life? Is it simply that it hurt so much to live through it all that I cannot bear to even look it that direction, let alone attempt a journey back to her?
Despite having thought at length on this matter, I had come to only one conclusion: that woman was gone.
This morning the postman delivered a letter containing my new membership card for CIfA (Chartered Institute for Archaeologists) of which I have been a member – on and off, depending on my financial situation – for ten years. I stood in the kitchen looking at it and wondering why I was still paying £120 a year to be a member of an institution for archaeologists, when I’m no longer an archaeologist.
I haven’t been on a dig in more years than I can count, and the last two I did participate in were a nightmare due to my health. If it seems a long time since I’ve been on a dig, then it’s even longer since I’ve published a paper, even though I had two under my belt before I even started my PhD.
Despite gaining a scholarship for that PhD–the Holy Grail, as far as I’m concerned–I began it in 2009 with a rather lacklustre attitude, and progress got progressively worse as it went along. I became increasingly ill. Eventually I had to give up teaching, something I’d done since the beginning of my Masters course and always loved. This was partially due to my own ill-health, and partially due to the fact I was caring for my then-fiancé, who had just been diagnosed with cancer.
Despite my best intentions to get back to work in my third year, once his surgery was out of the way, the fire, our subsequent break up, being forced to move back in with my mother, financial troubles, extreme depression, and the equally extreme medications I was taking put paid to anything else for the rest of that year and much of the next. Since 2008 I have not had a year that hasn’t been severely marred by my struggles with mental health.
My work has suffered for this almost as much as I have.
As a woman who has always defined herself by her work and her abilities, that in itself is difficult to contend with, yet it was not the worst thing. The worst thing was realising that I had to dedicate those few times I was capable of working to doing something that would earn much needed money. Gone were the days of scholarships and student loans. Here were the times of state benefits and unemployment. I had two degrees and was still working on a third, yet I was unemployable. I had two options – manage on Job Seekers Allowance and slowly be driven insane by the knowledge that I was utterly useless, or start my own business.
I chose the latter.
You might wonder why a person in my position, who was already under the strain of extreme circumstances and terrible ill-health, would willingly decide to take on the unimaginably difficult task of starting a business alone, from scratch. I could have stayed on Job Seekers. My bipolar disorder meant that I qualified for Disability Living Allowance, in addition to Job Seekers allowance. I had somewhere to live and wasn’t expected to pay rent, or household bills. I just had to take care of myself, and Dexter.
The problem was that between my own ill health and the very unhealthy relationship I had just escaped, I was in debt amounting to about twelve thousand pounds. And that wasn’t including my student loan. I had to repay that debt if I was ever going to have a chance of moving back out of my own and having my own place again. Independence is more important to me than I can possibly express, and spending three and a half years staying with my mother, while necessary, has tested my patience to the absolute limit. More than this though, my financial situation rankled. I couldn’t stand the knowledge that I had been so foolish as to allowed things to escalate so far. I had to earn money. That was my priority.
And so my thesis fell by the wayside. Between the lack of time to work on it, and the long periods during which I was unable to work on anything, I was simply unable to find the time. More than that though, I couldn’t bear the sight of it. It represented everything I had ever wanted in life, it represented all that I had planned for my future, a future I would now never be able to have.
My dreams of being an archaeologist and university lecturer were well and truly dead and buried.
Why even bother finishing it?
Why keep paying £120 for membership of an institution that was in no way relevant to this new life I was desperately trying to build?
I stared at that card this morning wondering if I should cancel the subscription. I even went so far as to check the letter for details of how to do so. I had just got to the point of creating an email to tell them I would not be renewing this year, when I stopped, and sat fingering the little laminated card instead.
After a moment I deleted the email, took my expired membership card out of my wallet, and proudly replaced it with the new one, all the while staring at the latest draft of my thesis, which I have been desperately trying to complete.
My dreams may be dead but there is something I’d forgotten.
I’m an archaeologist: I’m bloody good at digging shit up.