Writing through a Pandemic: Thesis, Anxiety and Covid-19
11 August 2021
When I wrapped up my fieldwork in September 2019 and returned to my academic setting, I was hopeful that I would segue into the writing process with little resistance. What I had discounted was the impact my fieldwork had on me — physically, emotionally and intellectually.
While my fieldwork provided me with the opportunity to build and nurture relationships of friendship and trust with my interlocutors, who helped me learn more about the land-based contestations and issues that were part of their everyday, it was also far from easy. As I have written elsewhere, sexualised harassment was also part of my fieldwork experience (Nair Ambujam 2019, 2021). However, the impact it had on my wellbeing became clear to me only after I returned to my Institute when I had a moment to pause and appreciate the gravity of all that had transpired. The subsequent breakdown, anxiety, confusion and disbelief contributed to my inability to write. As I advanced to the fourth year of my PhD programme in Anthropology, I knew I not only needed an extension but also needed to find ways to go back to my fieldnotes, develop ways to reacquaint myself with them without a visceral reaction, and most importantly, learn to write.
Writing, therefore, was something I dreaded. Moreover, I did not know how to start or where, for that matter. With the clock-ticking and anxiety mounting, I crafted several writing plans, none of which materialised. I would stare at my laptop for hours together without having written a single word, an action most PhD students would relate to, I am sure. Yet, I also felt alone. I felt like I was the only PhD candidate out there struggling.
I signed up for programmes on writing, managing procrastination, and tried to take full advantage of the resources that were made available in my academic setting. While these sessions certainly helped me return to my desk feeling inspired, there was no progress in writing. Words simply failed me. At one juncture, I remember waking up in the middle of the night feeling that I would not finish the PhD programme — something I had given my all to. Other times, I would wonder if I was just setting myself up for failure. Anxiety and stress that came with these thoughts finally began to take a toll on me. And, this took me to a therapist.
Several sessions of counselling later, I finally got around to writing — slowly but steadily. Therefore, when in early March 2020, I had written close to 2300 words, I was elated. I thought to myself that my writing was finally kicking off. At the time, I believed that by February 2021, I would be done with my writing and would even begin revising my draft. I would later find out how these were misplaced objectives and dreams. On 11 March 2020, a few kilometres from where I was standing, the Director of the WHO declared the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) as a global pandemic. At the time, I had no idea what was about to change for me.
Days later, Geneva went into lockdown.
Everything except hospitals, groceries and pharmacies were closed. However, unlike some neighbouring countries, in Switzerland, people could still step out for walks or a run.
Initially, I felt unfazed by it. I was in a space of privilege — I had the space to socially distance, I had a support system, finances were not an issue, and I knew I had no reason to complain. Staying extremely close to the HUG, I was privy to the work done by doctors, nurses, ambulance staff and other healthcare workers. In solidarity, for the first two months, we’d stand by our windows and clap at 9:00pm everyday for a few minutes. On the other hand, I was acutely aware of the bleak circumstances back home in India. I was grateful for the space I had. Staying at home, therefore, was not going to be a problem. I told myself that considering the PhD is a largely independent and isolated project, one which also saw me stay cooped up in my room trying to write and/or read for days together, the lockdown’s impact on me should be minimal.
In the months that followed, I realised that I struggled with writing; my chapter was not moving. Even though officials in Geneva encouraged people to step out for walks, I stayed in. Between 14 March and 10 June 2020, I stepped out 5 times. Each, a 25-minute visit to the grocery store to buy essentials. All my activities were confined to my room. With the collapse of the difference between personal and professional spaces, my room became where I did everything. It was the place where I relaxed, where I dealt with my anxiety and my depression, and the place where I tried to work.
Once the restrictions began to slowly ease, I felt that perhaps my writing pace would pick up. And it did, momentarily — when I finished writing my first chapter, only to reach a state of rest later. Inertia of rest was a constant dreaded ally. Amidst all this, back home in India, COVID-19 related deaths rose: some from the illness, but mostly because of state apathy. Some died of starvation. The brutality unleashed by the state’s indifference, which also sought to rally its supporters through mind-numbing theatrics, was difficult to come to terms with. In fact, no one should have to come to terms with that. As difficult news kept cropping up, writing paused again. This time for much longer. All the while, the anxiety of not finishing my thesis on time and the fear of not being able to do justice to my research kept haunting me.
Anxiety, thus, became a constant companion. Anxious of what was happening back home. Anxious about how to manage my writing. Anxious about finishing the programme. Anxious about simply moving out. My writing, therefore, was lost in a sea of anxiety.
I moved to the US in late 2020 to pursue a fellowship. The change helped. For the first time in months, I wrote. And I finished my second chapter. Thanks to the unconditional support of friends, I was able to slowly find my way through this abyss of lost words and thoughts. I finally began to write properly in December 2020. By then, I was also painfully aware that I had to churn a chapter a month to make up for lost time and be in a position to submit by June 2021. Soon, however, I realised that June was not an option. By March 2021, I was only done writing 4 chapters. I had my 5th core chapter, an Introduction and a Conclusion, to finish. There was no way on earth that I would finish writing all of this by April, giving me sufficient time to revise and submit. Therefore, I pushed my internal deadline to August.
By May, I was still struggling. Having completed only 5 core chapters and an unfinished Introductory Chapter, I was afraid. Fear of failure has accompanied this process. This, even though the PhD, in many ways, teaches you to fail. You grapple with failure, acknowledge it, and then move on. I moved back to Geneva, quarantined again, and tried to get my feet back on the ground. This was, by no means, easy. Job search, postdoc hunt, and thesis finalisation were a few things I had to juggle while also wondering about how to deal with a tax situation and funding issues. I pushed the deadline once more: this time, to September hoping that I would meet it.
Today, it is the 11th of August. 19 days to September, and a familiar sense of anxiety has cropped up again. As I revise my thesis draft and find ways to make it palatable, I also recognise the efforts behind editing a thesis. It takes time. And, I do not have it. Not because I cannot take more time to revise and edit, but because taking time means postponing other equally important activities: furnishing job applications, submitting postdoc proposals, interviewing for these opportunities, and finally, to momentarily appreciate the gravity of each rejection before moving on.
Inadequate sleep, excessive caffeine consumption, and a substantial amount of time in front of the screen characterise these past months. I do not necessarily see the light at the end of the tunnel. Nevertheless, I hope to see it.
I look forward to finally knowing that the thesis is ready and done. I look forward to moving it off my desk. And I look forward to not being anxious about another thesis related deadline.
Writing through the pandemic, in many ways, has been unsettling. Through lockdowns, isolation, and limited social engagements and physical contact, writing practices have changed. There is unparalleled exhaustion, whose source I am yet to discern. But there is also guilt: with all the time I had in hand, how did the writing take longer than expected? Lurking behind this is also an unfathomable terrain of loss, anxiety, and trepidation. Writing through a pandemic, as I said earlier, has been certainly unsettling.
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Update | 20 September 2021
Thesis submission: CHECK.