Isolating the problem; or, Isolating: the problem.
It's strange how we can feel lonely in a crowd. When I first moved to Edinburgh to begin my PhD I was lonelier than I've ever felt. Even though I felt strongly that leaving my husband* and family and relocating to Edinburgh to take on this project was the right thing to do, I still felt completely isolated. Even more disheartening, it took me a long time to find my footing in Edinburgh. I didn't have a good support or social circle and I had a very hard time feeling like I knew where I stood in the university and among my peers. Returning to Canada for Christmas that first year, I felt hyper-aware that I was placing vast distances between myself and the people I love. It was shaping up to be a long, rough three years.
*I didn't actually leave my husband in the way that sounds. I mean I physically left where we lived together and went somewhere else. We will be celebrating our 10th anniversary this summer.
When I returned to Edinburgh after that Christmas break things started to change. I made a few friends, got involved in some departmental committees and programs, and eventually fell into a rhythm. By the time I started my second year in Edinburgh I well and truly belonged.
Fast forward a few years, and now I'm back in Canada. Part of me now feels homesick wherever I am. When I'm in Edinburgh I miss my home and my husband and family. When I'm in Canada I miss my wonderful Edinburgh peeps and the city—Edinburgh became a real companion and support to me. I love you Auld Reekie! I now feel like I have friends and family stretching across the world and in a sense it's hard to imagine ever being alone.
On the other hand, academia is an isolating business. Now that I'm back at home surrounded by loving family, I'm separated by an ocean and seven time zones from that academic circle in which I thrived. Not only did I excel in Edinburgh, but so did my thesis.
Just before Christmas I sent my supervisor a completed, albeit bad, draft of my chapter from hell. It nearly killed me. It was a really hard slog to cobble that torturous mess together into some semblance of ideas and formed sentences. I tried talking to my mom and husband about the difficulties I was having with the intricacies of medieval astro-medicine and the aristotelian concepts of time, but unsurprisingly they didn't have much to offer by way of advice. Again, I felt completely isolated and thought from here forth I was facing this thesis monster alone.
Then I spoke to my dear and wonderful friend Phoebe. A fellow medievalist, she had just successfully defended her PhD and came away pretty much entirely unscathed. She listened to my issues, asked helpful questions, offered some suggestions based on experience and understanding and I was off again with renewed confidence and energy. I couldn't have finished that chapter without her. Phoebe, you're the best!
I'm discovering that in academia or other professional capacities, and frankly just life, we go through phases of isolation and reconnection. Even when others seem to be willing to help pull an oar it's easy to feel as though one is driving into the wind and going nowhere. Then, all it takes is one little whisper, the right words, or the right tone, or the right person at the right time, and suddenly it is as though the sails billow full and momentum grows.
I guess what I'm trying to get at with this longwinded analogy and flighty metaphor is that sometimes, regardless of circumstances, feeling isolated is inevitable. It doesn't last. Eventually the right person will do the right thing and the shutters will fly open and there will be a crowd milling around as though they were there all along.