Five years on – part 1.

It is coming up to the anniversary of my stroke, and I find myself reflecting, in various ways, on where I am now, a whole five years later. I’ll write about different aspects of my recovery in other posts, but today I want to talk about the change in my employment. I’m a knitwear designer now, but as many of you will know, in my pre-stroke life I was an academic, teaching eighteenth-century literature and writing books about eighteenth-century women. One of the things I’m asked most frequently – particularly by academics – is whether I miss working in academia. . . here’s my response.

From a very early age I wanted to study literature. I loved reading and was horribly precocious. I worked my way through the shelves in my school and local libraries and then rapidly devoured everything on my parent’s bookshelves: Joseph Heller, Spike Milligan, Iris Murdoch, Giovannio Guareschi, Patricia Highsmith, Josephine Tey. I recall being reprimanded for reading my mum’s Georgette Heyer novels when far too young to understand them. I also vividly remember, after receiving a radio for my ninth birthday, hearing an interview with someone who mentioned that they had read the Prisoner of Zenda by the age of nine. I was horrified! I had not read the Prisoner of Zenda! Time was passing me by! I had better get a move on reading all those books. By my early teenage years my aim was more determined. I was going to University and I was going to be an academic. I went to York, took my B.A, and stayed there to pursue a Masters and a PhD. I was appointed to my first academic position at the University of Sheffield at the age of 24 – before I’d even submitted my doctoral dissertation. Between then and my stroke (at the age of 36) I taught eighteeth-century literature in three different Universities. I never lost an interview, and was successful in every job I went for. I worked extremely hard. My research was well regarded. I wrote books. I received grants and awards. I was promoted.

But I wasn’t happy. I loved reading, I loved research, I loved writing. I loved the world of the archive and ideas. That world made me feel alive! I was passionate about eighteenth century literature and culture, and about women’s writing in particular. But there’s a lot more to being an academic than being a good scholar. In the UK, permanent academic posts in the humanities are hard to come by, and hard fought for. I was surrounded by junior colleagues who were constantly jostling for those positions, and suffering while they jostled. I saw committed, talented intellectuals failing to be appointed to academic positions, and cobbling together meagre incomes from part-time teaching posts. I had a position. I had a succession of positions. I was one of the lucky ones. I should have been grateful. I tried to be grateful. But I just didn’t enjoy my job. I didn’t enjoy teaching – I was never really able to relax – and though I hope most of my students would say I was a reasonable teacher, in all honesty, teaching wasn’t good for me. I tried to get on with it, and to do it well, but in some sort of deep fundamental way I was simply never, ever comfortable in the classroom. In the academic positions I held, there was of course an awful lot of teaching and there was an awful lot of administration too. Though it certainly wasn’t the life of the mind or anything, to be honest, I was fine about the admin – I took on roles with lots of responsibility (chair of examiners, chair of graduate studies) and rather enjoyed building efficient systems and implementing them. What I did not enjoy implementing, however, were nationally determined policies with which I profoundly disagreed (such as aspects of UK anti-terrorist legislation concerning foreign students) and there were also many institutional policies and practices I had a very hard time accepting (such as actively recruiting poorly-qualified graduate students from notoriously oppressive (but wealthy) regimes simply in order to swell dwindling institutional coffers).

I felt I should be grateful – but I wasn’t. The workload was immense and ever-expanding, the job was demanding and tiring. Teaching, marking, preparation, admin, and an insane mountain of email bled into what little time remained for writing and research. There was less and less space for the actual scholarly, intellectual aspects of my role, the things I really loved and by which I was inspired. I kept myself going with the impetus of the next sabbatical, the next grant that would pay for some longed-for time in the archive. By 2009, I was profoundly unhappy – in fact, I actively hated my job. I began to nurture wee pipe dreams about what life would be like if I went part-time. There would be more space for knitting and pattern writing (with which I’d recently become obsessed) and perhaps I could actually find the time to research and write my next book! On top of the day-to-day grind of my job, the deleterious mental effect of its demands, compounded by increasing feelings of entrapment and desperation, I was being dogged by a micro-managerial colleague whose treatment of some members of staff – myself included – amounted to a form of bullying. I have worked with lots of difficult people in different University environments, but this person was on another level entirely. In November 2009 I hit a low point. Since I’ve been a teenager, I have always found the Autumn and Winter months incredibly difficult mentally, and this was particularly so in 2009. My seasonal mood disorder was familiar and inevitable, and I had ways of coping with it – but in this instance its effects were compounded by job-related stress, general unhappiness, lack of sleep, and a horrible colleague. That November, I found myself suffering from severe depression, paranoia and disturbing psychotic episodes, during which I experienced altered states of perception, and suicidal ideation. Things became critical: after a particularly disturbing and dangerous episode, my GP firmly insisted I took some time off work. After having felt I’d turned a corner, I returned to my job in January 2010. On February 1st, 2010 I had a stroke.

Was my stroke related in any way to my poor mental health? On a purely physiological basis I believe it was. As a result of the depression and psychosis, I had lost quite a bit of weight and by that point was around 6.5 stone / 90 pounds (I am depicted thus in the photographs for Manu). My blood pressure had always been on the low side of normal, and due to my weight loss and general malaise it had become even lower. When my stroke occurred, my blood pressure, from its usual ultra low point, spiked to a high point, as it was suddenly elevated by by the stressful thoughts that were running through my head. This sudden spike in blood pressure caused two quite normal blood clots to pass through a hole in my heart and find their way to my brain. In the milliseconds before the stroke occurred, I was worrying about how, in a forthcoming meeting, I was going to defend my sanity to my micro-managerial colleague. She didn’t cause my stroke, but I’m sorry to say that for me, she will forever be associated with that moment.

It is perhaps something of a ludicrous cliche that stress and stroke are related (“she was so stressed out, she had a stroke!”), but the very real physiological effects of poor mental health certainly give one pause for thought. While many strokes in young people are cryptogenic, the cause of mine was pretty clear: I had a hole in my heart creating a leaky passageway between my arterial and venous systems – put a couple of clots into the equation and I was a ticking time bomb! Perhaps what happened was inevitable, and I would have had a stroke at some time in the future anyway. But it still seems significant that it occurred at the very point when my mental health was at its poorest, and when my physical health had suffered severely as a consequence. I’m not sure what a neurologist would say about this, but my stroke has certainly impressed upon me the relatedness of mental and physical health, and the real importance of looking after both.

Sometimes I am annoyed at myself for not realising sooner just how ill I was. How could I let myself get into that state? Why could I not acknowledge I was so severely depressed? Why did I rush back to work when I still wasn’t well? Part of the problem was something pretty common in sufferers of my particular kind of nuttiness: a complete lack of insight into the severity of my condition, coupled with a total inability to be objective. When you are in that state, depression makes perfect sense. Suicide makes perfect sense. There’s something unanswerable about it. And when it gets to the stage where you are seeing things, and believe that your mind is responsible for changes in the light and weather conditions, and you should probably be sectioned, and are only saved from ending your own twisted, unreal reality by a brilliantly understanding GP and a wonderful and equally understanding partner, things have really got to change. If I’d realised how ill I was, perhaps I would have made that change. But I simply didn’t grasp the critical nature of my situation, and I could never bring myself to give up that scholarly dream: the dream I’d had since I was nine.

My stroke meant I had to walk away from academia. It was initially tough to do so – I did grieve about it for a while, feeling I was giving up so much intellectually – but I look back now and I have no regrets at all. The things I enjoyed about it – the research, and the writing – are things I still enjoy, and can now pursue with much more creative freedom. How I wish I’d known I could run a business, and that it could be fun! People are, in general, much much nicer in the world of knitting, design, and small publishing than they are in universities. . . . I am now able to pursue and develop ideas from the things that inspire me, to work with people I genuinely like in a wonderfully creative industry, and to make things I really believe in. I find my work massively enjoyable and completely fulfilling – and it comes with the additional benefit of supporting me financially.

I was recently asked what I missed about my academic job, and I could honestly only think of one thing: a thing so shallow and inconsequential that it is barely worth mentioning (but I shall tell you anyway). I miss getting dressed to go to work: I used to really enjoy styling clothes, putting outfits together, and donning something smart on a daily basis. Nowadays I mostly sport what Tom refers to as my bumpkin suit – a suit that befits a country-dwelling person who runs her business from home and spends a lot of time outdoors in all weathers. But then I still get to dress up whenever I feel like it, and I still enjoy exercising my styling acumen putting together outfits, particularly when photographing my designs. So, what do I miss about academia?

Absolutely nothing.

Islay snaps

sandbruce

1: Bruce loves the beach

portnahaven
machirbay
2, 3: Great photoshoots in my favourite locations

portcharlotte
4. tasty crabs claws at the Port Charlotte Hotel

billysbench
benchdetail
pimpernel
5, 6, 7: Discovering Billy’s Bench near Bowmore, and a Scarlet Pimpernel growing through the shingle at Portnahaven

skies

8. Fine weather for walking

crag

wazzstrider

9, 10: The first time in four and half years that, while away, I have not been bothered in one way or another by my health or my physical limitations. Am I really so much better? Or have I merely finally adapted to my “new normal”? Either way, it felt pretty good to climb up behind that crag, to see that view.

Taking stock

After a rather tricky few weeks, I’ve had some time to think, and to reflect on where things stand for me, healthwise and workwise. It is fair to say that I am really very busy at the moment — far too busy for things not to become difficult when I’m not feeling my best. So, after taking some advice, I’ve decided, with considerable regret, to step back from many fun projects I’d agreed to be involved in, including all events, talks, and teaching for the coming year. This means, for example, that I won’t be attending Woolfest, or Shetland Wool Week as I’d planned. I’m very sorry about this, but am sure you will all understand. Staying on an even keel has to take priority and I’m hoping this decision will enable this to happen.

busy-ness

It has been an up-and-down sort of couple of weeks here. On the down side, I have not been feeling my best; there have been many more bad days than usual, and, most frustratingly, I’ve had to cancel several occasions to which I was really looking forward. I suppose some sort of energy-fallout was inevitable after the eventful and fun-packed few days of Shetland Wool Week, but still, there is nothing that dampens ones spirits more than weighing up activities in terms of their toll on ones reserves. On the up side — and it is a massive up — I appear to have almost made a book. Entering ‘Kate Davies Designs’ in the empty box that asked for ‘Publisher Name’ on several forms has made me foolishly excited, and I am really enjoying this stage of the process, which is involving some contextual writing, and the singular pleasure of seeing my patterns, photographs, and essays all laid out on the page. Some great people have been integral to this project, and every day I find myself more happy to have the opportunity to work with them, more and more amazed that this is what I actually DO. So, despite the fact that I have found myself cursing the stroke more than usual of late, really, its all good.

I’ve not been talking here much about what’s been involved in designing this new collection or in developing the book (I suppose part of me has been concerned – not unreasonably – that something was going to occur to scupper the process) but I think you’ll all soon find that I won’t be able to shut up about it. In the meantime, here are five images which give you a wee taster of each of the books five sections, each of which contains an exploratory essay, photographic lookbook, and a pair of Shetland-inspired designs.

MORE SOON!

In other news, having found myself in the singularly odd position of not currently working on one of my own patterns, I have signed up for Woolly Wormhead’s Mystery Hat Knitalong. Woolly’s designs are so innovative and stylish, and her patterns so well written that I know I will enjoy the process, and end up with something amazing to stick on my heid! The only issue is that, having successfully applied a rigorous ‘work-only’ policy to my stash for the past couple of years, I find myself without any suitable yarn. It might be time to treat myself to a tasty new skein . . .

well-being

A post for my own benefit, and for those of you who are interested in how I’m managing, health-wise.

On a routine visit to my GP yesterday, she pointed out that it was the first time I’d been to see her since May. Given the regularity of my visits to her surgery over the past two and a half years, this is an unusual but entirely happy state of affairs. So, it occurred to me yesterday that I am, in general, doing much better of late. This does not mean that I am recovered or anything: I still get hit with the occasional horrible, crushing bout of post-stroke fatigue; I still find ‘noisy’ public situations difficult and tiring; I still suffer from sharp, intrusive headaches and have weird moments of vertigo; I still limp about with a tiresomely unreliable left leg and have to sleep ten hours a night to have any hope of managing the next day — but I am certainly managing. Tom puts it this way: the bad days are still as bad, but there seem to be less of them. Reflecting on how I’ve handled the past (extremely busy) few months, I genuinely feel that I have turned some sort of a corner. The key difference, or perhaps shift, is this: I don’t have to always think about how I am feeling. Because my energy levels were so low, I was constantly having to weigh up each day’s activities in terms of their inevitable toll. An afternoon would often turn on an impossible equation (you can cook a meal or take Bruce for a walk, but not both ) and there was no space around these (incredibly basic) getting-by activities for anything that would, in my new world, count as work (reading, designing, thinking, writing, responding to email, a trip to the post office). As well as being physically debilitating, suffering from any sort of chronic health condition takes up an awful lot of mind space. If you are thinking about how much energy you have left, or how much pain you are in, you really don’t have the resources to think about much else. I suppose all that I am saying is that I feel that I have more of those resources.

On reflection, I think this recent feeling – of being a bit more capable – probably combines two factors: first, the actual incremental improvements in my condition that I continue to observe, and second, my adjustment to the realities of my post-stroke ‘normal’ — by which I mean that I am much better, and much more rigorous, at making sure I have the right amount of sleep (this really is the key for me), at eating regularly to maintain my energy, at limiting the number of things that I say ‘yes’ to, and at just fitting the right amount of stuff into each day. Put simply, I take care of myself so that I can manage to do the things that are important to me. I suppose, really, this is a basic rule of well-being, that anyone, not just someone who has had a stroke, might adhere to.

b r b

Just popping in to say hello. I have been under the weather for the past week, and am now really rather unwell, and a bit grumpy to boot. I think I was getting used to my “normal” being a wee bit better than this . . . now, suddenly, I am back to feeling too tired to dress myself and it is really frustrating! There are things to be done!

At least there are some things which don’t require too much physical effort. Like playing around with this soft, Springtime palette, for example. . .

I often find myself feeling grateful for the solace-giving, restorative powers of sheepy wool and needles. When one is feeling ropey, knitting really comes into its own, I think.

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