Throwback:Is good for-the-research good for me?
Updated: Feb 17, 2022
I wrote the following in January 2021, and never shared it, because I couldn't quite get it right. So here it is, imperfectly:
Show of hands - how many of you knew that The Pill isn't vegan?
An earth-shattering spanner was thrown in the works of my dry veganuary as I dutifully analysed the patient information insert in my pill packet (also, the guidance hasn't been updated since Jan 2019 and therefore seems to contain inaccurate information, of which more later). Alongside 0.03mg ethinylestradiol and o.15mg levonorgestrel and a series of equally reader-friendly ingredients is lactose monohydrate, aka milk sugar. It's apparently safe for most people with lactose intolerance due to the tiny quantities involved, but I was pretty shocked by the discovery. Proudly reeling it off to my partner, I joked that it's yet another example of things that are good for my research, but not so good for me. (Other examples include being patronised to the point of negligence by healthcare professionals).
There have to be some limits; there are things we don't discuss because of stigma, because we have been convinced that they aren't interesting. The whole reason I started this research was frustration at the expectation for women to suffer in silence, to put-up-with because they're lucky to have what they have, and the science doesn't bear out their experiences so they should just get on with it and stop complaining. I passionately believe that there is value to be found in sharing our experiences, even where they seem mundane. I also worry now that I may be a hypocrite because there are some parts of my story that are essential to my work and I'm not willing to share them. So how to proceed? Do I treat myself as a subject, interview myself and protect my confidentiality? Is that honest? I know that I will find a path, probably invoking ridiculous metaphors and sight-gags to offer the important bits without compromising my actual, non-research, offstage life. This confrontation with my own limits is valuable; it must inform how and what I ask of others in my research going forwards. I want our stories to be heard, but not at the cost of our peace. Is that enough? Perhaps it is radical to insist that we don't have to broadcast our trauma in forensic detail for our experiences to matter- surely we can talk about affect, about impact, about aftermath, without having to spell out inciting incidents? The only question is how...but I've used too many question marks already, so that's a question for another day.
The de-delineation of our work and home spaces makes it hard to switch off, and sometimes hard to switch on - the work is always there and you could always be doing it. Without colleagues or contracted hours or (and this is my greatest sadness) library hours, how do you know when, or what, to do? I've been leaning far too much into the 'intuitive eating' approach of working when I feel like it and trying not to beat myself up when I don't, but the work needs to get done, and part of my work is determining what that work is to then do it! I think on the PhD you are your own student, teacher, manager and employee. It's a lot of competing interests to synthesise; it requires you to be nurturing and demanding, exacting and forgiving, expert and ignorant. It's helpful, then, to benefit from the wisdom of actual supervisors and mentees, letting you practice the roles a little.
I spent the second lockdown living with my sister (a full-time freelancer) and my partner (a 9-6-proper-job-haver). Apart from the obvious joys of their company (and shared capacity to indulge me), it was an intriguing juxtaposition of style; my sister shares with our mother a tendency to carry on working through the evening, and has cyclical ebbs and flows with the intensity of her activity, whereas my partner starts work at the same time every day (which, by the way, is completely deranged when you work from home), and finishes when the days' tasks are completed and it's slightly before or after 6 pm. I had a go at both styles; gratefully piggybacking on his office hours, or smugly staying in bed as he got up and then riding waves of inspiration into the evening. Survey says; I don't do consistency.
I'm instinctively comfortable with the 'desk work' of academia; I am safe with a semi-difficult text and a notebook and regular tea breaks, perhaps especially because of this strange year, wherein the very idea of making and sharing performance has become dangerous. It is ironic given the focus of my actual work on failure, risk and cheerful humiliation that I have retreated to the written; it feels like residue from the anxious perfectionist teenager I inhabited, certain that she wasn't funny and that her worth as an actor was in serious, 'proper' shows where she could be word-perfect and make everyone cry; the cobwebs of a version of academia where right answers existed and could be identified, absorbed and regurgitated; where I could demonstrate my 'cleverness' by having actually read the book.
That person disappeared at the very precise moment of August 2016, at the National Youth Theatre, when I was first seriously introduced to drag, to Paris is Burning, to clowning, to myself as a poet, as a funny performer, and as vulnerable. It was also there that the wonderful Claire Rammelkamp (now of Wonderbox, also originating from that transformative summer) introduced me to the term 'gaslighting', now so ubiquitous, and gently guided me towards the vocabulary I needed to process my hurt. I visited a friend in Paris and triumphantly announced (to her considerable bemusement) that 'I think I have really low self-esteem!'. Which, as we all know, is essential in comedy. I suppose I'm feeling a little as I did in that cinderblock studio in 2016, after the Brexit vote but before the end of optimism, that I'm in the process of un-learning. I feel as vulnerable as I ever have, under-experienced as a professional and overcompensating as a student. I feel confident and self-assured in the same breath as hopelessly inadequate to the tasks I have set for myself, and the expectations I have invited my betters to place on me. You ever have so much to do that you take a nap instead?
The spectre of cancelled work and the significant experience it would have given me feels inhibiting; how much more interesting would I be if I'd started fresh from a triumphant/disastrous run at Assembly? I have to own the opposite though; how much more sleep, vegetables and reading have I consumed precisely because I didn't? I feel (and I'm lucky here) that I really did nothing in 2020, that the productive first three months belong to the previous year, and mostly what I did was sit, and gain weight, and feel sorry for myself. I will have to shift that perception; to apply the sewing skills I built to constructing a fabulous drag character, the rudimentary guitar-playing to songwriting. I'm not sure where the sourdough starter features in performance yet, but leave it with me. (Something about yeast infections? Maybe some things can stay just hobbies.)
I'm going into the new year with a commitment to rigour; to taking myself seriously as a creative, and through doing that, make really stupid work that has a good laugh about some really bleak statistics, and creates a space for the experiences that we don't bother trying to understand. That's my new year's resolution. That and Dry Veganuary, and not buying any clothes in 2021. Let's see how it goes.