This is an honest and very truthful sharing of what I now call “PhD-hangover” (a terminology bought from a dear friend). I hope to reach many of my fellow PhD colleagues and many others, who go through a phase of transition. Have faith. Trust. You will make it back to your dreams.
Many famous authors seem to have experienced their greatest creativity and best flows of writing in times of darkness. The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe are only one of many examples. This story, among many others, displays spot on the huge turmoils Young Werther is going through, facing life itself.
In this post, I would like to share a very dark period of my life. I have to confess, as I lived through it, I could not find the words to describe what I experienced. Words always used to help me to make sense of life and the world. Yet, this time, they escaped me and I was left alone with a lot of darkness.
Once you have experienced the light, darkness hits you harder.
They say, once you have seen the light, once you have experienced real empathy, joy and happiness, darkness and sadness hit you a lot more. I can very much agree with that. One year ago, I did not really understand that sentence. Instead, I wondered, how people could get so totally lost in their darkness, in their negative feelings, and hopelessness. Although I tried to help friends out of it, I also had an ambition to keep some distance from their darkness. I did neither understand nor want to partake in it. To this day, I would agree that it is fair to consciously keep distance from the darkness of others. But I also hold that I can now better understand what darkness makes of the human being, where it takes us, and how it whispers with its hoarse voice. The blessing of the human being is that we forget. We forget about good times as well as bad ones. Yet another reason for writing this post — because I do not want to forget, I want to maintain the capability to understand light as well as darkness, their deep connection, and the strength with which both can attract us.
When the darkness began
But let me take a step back. I finished my doctoral dissertation a couple of months back. The last steps toward the finishing line already took a lot of energy. Every single day before handing the final thesis in felt like having to roll up the stone of Sisyphus, just to start over again the next day. I was so tired, so exhausted, but I knew, the end was in sight and this is what kept me going. Once the thesis was defended the exhaustion kicked in. Like a dark dust, it dazed first my head, next my body, and finally my entire existence. I wanted to be alone, sleep, do nothing. Everything was so exhausting. Initially, I thought that this exhaustion was just part of finishing a really big life project — and it definitely was part of that. Yet, I never assumed the darkness itself would stay that long.
Everything was just a little too much — meeting friends, doing work, going to yoga classes, travelling. All I wanted was for this darkness to leave me alone. But it didn’t. The voice of darkness began to whisper gradually louder. First, it whispered of fears: “You will not be able to sustain yourself. You will soon run out of money. Look at your earnings. They are little. But how will you ever get more.” And the existential monetary fear that is so closely linked to survival started. I lost touch with my inner trust in abundance. Suddenly, everything was about money, saving, scraping the pennies. I have always been a good accountant for my private life. I had never been fearful of not having enough before.
The voice whispered “You are not a nice person.”
Next the voice whispered: “You are not a nice person. You are not likeable. You are boring, plain. No one will hire you, no one will be your friend.” Besides being too tired to talk to my friends, I now really started to fight with them. If you don’t like yourself, you don`t like anyone. You get cranky, very critical, and annoying. I am writing this with a little smile on my face. Yet, back then, I was very lonely and I did have no clue, if I would ever get out of this dark, lonely spot.
Especially, since that voice would not stop. I tried meditation, breathing, silence. Nothing. The voice kept dragging me into places I had never been to before. “You had dreams once,” it teased me, “haha, big dreams. You? You can`t even think a proper string of thoughts. Your PhD is worth nothing, your ideals won`t save you.” Slowly, my dreams began to fade away. On some days, I would try really hard to reconnect with those dreams and visions of the future. Yet, there was plain nothingness. I did not feel myself any more. Let me tell you, I arrived at a place of feeling nothing. The beauty of the world, the kindness of the people, amazingly delicious food – nothing spoke to my soul any more; nothing touched me any more; nothing moved me any more. All I wanted was to be alone.
The only thing that sometimes called me back was the love itself. In rare moments, it would touch me, embrace me, and sing softly of that girl that had once told everyone to dream big.
Depression had never interested me
I have always loved books, but I never read super depressive stories. In 2016, most of the movies that received Oscars were pretty depressing, too. I tried to watch them, but as for books, I rather wanted to stay away. Depression was just not that interesting to me. Maybe it could have helped to know a little more about depression or burnout.
By chance, a friend told me of the effects of a real burnout. He mentioned that people with burnout would easily forget the simplest things like what they wanted to shop; they had a hard time concentrating, would be really tired most of the time, and very motionless. When he talked about this, my head was silently nodding. Oh yeah — I know what you are talking about. But the truth is, I didn’t really know it. At least, I was not aware of it. Only when he mentioned all those things, I could see them in my actions, too.
Suddenly, it all crashed down on me
Then the world collapsed. Everything inside me went dark. I went along my favorite beach - a place that used to make me so happy and that had always felt magic. When I was there, however, I felt nothing. I forced myself to walk along that beach for hours. I could not reach my friends on their phones, I was running out of battery, and I was utterly alone. After many hours, the waves brought back some feelings. They hit me with loneliness, sadness, and uncountable tears. There I sat. The sun was about to set, the horizon started changing colors, and I cried, and cried, and cried. It felt so good to be crying. Although I knew back then that this was only the beginning of the way back. But it was a start.
The feelings did not all come back at once
Don`t get me wrong. The feelings did not all come back at once. But they did come back step by step – first, mostly in the shape of sadness. I was so sad about myself. God, what a pitiful victim I had become. I worked and worked, and yet, all I wanted to do was to apologize for every little accomplishment all the time. Because I never felt it was enough. I got the grade for my PhD – and again the victim squirmed because the final mark was not good enough. I climbed a 3.000 m peak of an amazing mountain, and all I could think of was that I am getting fat, old, and unattractive. The darkness was still there. Yet, with every passing day, I met it with more emotions. The dullness of before was shifting. Until that day when the numbness and exhaustion came back with full force. It was like I couldn't lift my feet any more. My head was so heavy, my entire body like a ton of dead weight. I only wanted to sleep. Instead, I dragged myself out of the house and went for a walk. Tears started streaming down my face, and I swore to myself that I could no longer live like this. I forced myself there in the darkness, somewhere in nowhere, to go back to that treasured box of memories. I opened the box and the little dreams were still inside.
Somewhere in a box I recollected my dreams
I cried and cried and promised myself that I would not ever live like this again; that I would never give darkness such a great chance to conquer my every being again.
I couldn't say that things changed instantly. But my perception changed and some of my life energy came back.
The following month was mostly about meditation and yoga. My body was so sore and I cracked my back so badly several times that I needed to find a good chiropractic very quickly. In other words, even my body had fallen victim to this darkness, which is probably of no surprise. But I told myself to show up on the mat, no matter how hard it was. Even when my hamstring distorted – from sitting in the car ironically – I kept going. Sometimes after the practice, the tears came back, sometime the love did.
I was in a phase of transition
With the love came the recognition of transition. I was in a very important phase of change. We all go through times of change. Some of these phases come lightly, almost unnoticed. Some, apparently, hit us harder. They make us question our belief, persuasions, values, paths, and prior decisions. While they hit us, they wrap us like a cocoon, too. The outside world becomes very distant. We fight off friends and loved ones, we struggle with our jobs and actions, and we loose touch to our intuition and empathy. Yet, deep inside remains a little glow of fire, a tiny glimpse of dreams and hopes. There is this 5% idea of what we want to do with our lives — and it is exactly those few percentages that gave me a hope and a string to pull myself back.
After consciously deciding to spend time with myself again, even if it meant feeling the darkness, I began to accept little side projects, too. Doing them made me aware, how much I enjoyed, for instance, giving workshops, interacting with people, or teaching yoga classes. All of that definitely forced me to go out of the circle of loneliness. Yet, as I did it, I experienced those moments of simple joy again. The people in my workshops and classes listened, they put into action what I recommended them to do, and they realized that it worked for them. Suddenly new and innovative ideas were filling the rooms, and the yogis had this peaceful glow in their faces, when they left class. Seeing them made me happy and alive.
The summer of 2017 was special
The more workshops and talks I gave, the more I had to travel. This summer was very special. It was not at all a beautiful and sunny summer all time. Initialy, it was a summer of storms, rain, hail, and wind. It definitely reflected my inner being. I cannot ever remember a year, when the storm had hit me more often being outside. Three times I came home totally drenched. Once a taxi driver kicked me back out of his car into the pouring rain, telling me, I was too soaked. Another time, the wind turned my umbrella around and, thus, destroyed it. After a whole day of giving workshops, meeting people, and forcing myself “out there”, I was standing in the middle of Munich, totally drenched, and I couldn`t help it.” I shouted at the wind and, probably, the entire universe: “I seriously hope all of this is worth something – because I am fucking tired of fighting. I just want my life back. I want to do something worth living. I want to dedicate myself. I want to be happy. Fuck, I just want to live again.” It poured out of me without thinking, yet I knew, this was the truth and I did not care for the weird looks of the passers-by.
That same night, I heard there would be new baby to our family, which made me so happy. I took it as a first apologize for the darkness. I don`t want to blame the universe, or destiny, or god, or however you name it. But I had come to notice that besides loosing touch with my feelings, optimism, and dreams, I had also lost my deep trust in the guidance of the universe. That came back the subsequent week with a mantra during yoga and meditation. I suddenly had this mantra in my head: “God acts through us. We are here to serve – and by doing exactly this, we do what we are supposed to do in this life.” This mantra started to resonate in my head constantly. It calmed me, and gave me faith in my own tiny steps again. I don`t want to say that I think, we are here for only one reason. But I think that we are here for some, and the more we are capable of listening to the universe (or god, destiny, …), the more we act according to our own capabilities, wishes, and dreams.
Another week passed and first people began to contact me about jobs. Suddenly, strangers told me that I would easily find a well-paid job, that they would like to hire me, or work together with me. Nothing felt totally right, but just hearing why they would like to work with me, reminded me of my own expertise again. A little pride about finishing the dissertation, gathering all that knowledge, and finally being able to translate it to the real and practical world began to grow. Eventually I could even stand still sometimes and tell myself, “I am proud of you for having accomplished this PhD”.
The week after I got THE call. For the first time in a long while, the bubbles of excitement and curiosity inside me rose. Like magic, things just seemed to fall into place. My dreams came back, my hopes were at the horizon again – and finally it had become a real Berlin summer. After all this hard time of dragging myself up the springboard, I had eventually managed to get closer to the edge. Down there were so many opportunities, chances, and promises again. I just had to jump and reach for the stars. That I decided to do: First, by allowing smaller decisions to come, next by making bigger ones. A pang of curiosity and excitement filled my inner being, and so much seemed possible.
Now.. it is to take it from here and see what happens.
Why do I share this story
Maybe you are wondering by now, why I am writing all of this down. Everything I shared today is deeply personal, dark, and the story comes to an end without being finished at all.
Well, I am writing this down because I take it as my responsibility to be there for others. I hope that my sharing will help everyone going through a period of transition to understand the darkness a little better. I also hope it will help them — you — to hold on to this little string of hope, which connects you to your intuitions about your path. Even if the intuition is only 5 %, I want to ask you to start digging deeper into those 5 %. Dare to talk about it, dare to fill the dream with colors of hope and excitement. No matter, what the others may say, no matter how crazy. It is your dream, it is your path, and it is what will guide you back to the voice of the universe, trust, optimism and — light. The moment you hit the light, you will see the beauty of the world, you will cherish all the delicious food with delight, and embrace every friend and beloved one with as much love as you have never felt before. There will be tears of joy and happiness. At the meantime, you will know that you are still in transition. But you can face it, because you are capable to connect darkness and light. You know it is all one – and you are part of it – you always have been and you always will be. Maybe it feels great, greater than you can bear at some moments. The darkness appeared to be great, too; so does the light; so do you. But you know now what fear can do to you, where it can take you, and how it can shake you. You know its face and its whispers, and you have learned to say “no”. You have learned to be “you”– in light and darkness. Now, go spread the word, be whole, be present.
Spread your wings and dream your dreams.
A big thanks to all my wonderful friends, family, colleagues, and the little angels everywhere for your support and love.