Filed under: PhD chat | Tags: death, fieldwork, grief, interviews, loneliness, PhD, positioning, research, vulnerability
I’m finally reaching the end of a challenging year. This second year of the PhD I have spent planning and carrying out fieldwork. I have travelled miles around the country, I have met a host of different faces who shared with me their stories. Stories about how it feels to lose the person you love, stories of how to recover and how to fail, stories about how to help and support flourishing. I’ve encountered great generosity, I have encountered disinterest and rejection, I’ve been blessed with luck and chance and been challenged by obstacles and blockages.
If I could do it all over again I would do it differently. I procrastinated away months due to fear: fear I wasn’t ready, fears over my ability, fear I wouldn’t find the data I needed. I faced many ethics committees and bureaucratic hoops to jump through. I learnt research was a lot about unanswered emails and phonecalls and fruitless journeys into forms and admin. I learnt a lot of people really don’t care about your little project or they just don’t get it.
If I could do it over again I would do it differently. But I’ve realised I couldn’t have learnt the lessons any other way. And I’ve got so angry at it all. Angry at the process you have to go through. Angry at the loneliness – angry at the loneliness most of all. I accept now that the isolation and loneliness is an inextricable part of the PhD process, but its not an easy acceptance. Because its preposterous really. And many people will not understand what I’m trying to say. And there lies the seed of the loneliness: no-one can understand what it feels like to be me in this research.
I have written in the past about researching your own life and the crises and freedoms it can bring. It was a hideously painful article to write, but more painful was the research experience from which the article was borne. The PhD experience has been different after clearing those cobwebs, but still the research encounter has left me feeling heavy and burdensome. I left interviews feeling much heavier than I began. I would go home and curl up in my bed with a fuzzy mind. I started to feel tired before the interview would begin as though in anticipation of the burden I would be carrying home later. It was such a long journey to access and find participants by the time it came to meet and speak to them, I was already exhausted.
The burden though was not something given to me by the participants – sometimes it was – but it was me too taking something from them. I was over-identifying, putting myself in their shoes. What if that happened to me? What if I lost the person I love most? How would I live? Being able to feel is what allows me to enter the world of my participants. This is essential to capture their story. And yet in the process of entering, becoming immersed, it is easy to lose oneself and boundaries as a researcher. I couldn’t tell where my stuff ended and where their stuff began. I was reliving my past through them and I was imagining a future that hasn’t happened through their telling of their past.
But when it became too much about me I was no longer listening to their story. Empathy is a delicate balance of which there are no clear guidelines. It was an ongoing negotiation that only became easier when I became more confident in my capacity as a researcher. Even if that confidence was a performance, the maintenance of composure provided a boundary through which I could control what I let in and what I didn’t. It was a filter of sorts, a necessary one because it protected me from taking it too personally, and it protected my participants from me distorting their stories.
People always want to know why you are doing the research you are, what are your motives, what is your reasoning. I am still searching for the right answer to that question. I haven’t quite measured my distance from my research object, I don’t know how I stand in relation to it. Sure its personal. But its also pragmatic. Its contradictory and conflicting. There’s no easy way to describe that relation.
Undertaking the fieldwork for this research has put me in a vulnerable position professionally, mentally and emotionally. Professionally it pushed me into situations I wasn’t at all comfortable and so I avoided and avoided and nearly gave up. It pushed me to very unpleasant places that I can’t look back and simply say I am glad about because it helped me grow. I think there may have been nicer routes to learn the same things. At times I have wondered why I was inflicting such a situation on myself for so little return. I can’t blame it all on any one thing. It was everything all together, and having no control over emotions that would make me come undone again and again. I made no sense to those around me a lot of the time.
I couldn’t have learnt the lessons any other way. It had to be messy and heartbreaking. I had to feel isolated from the person I love the most because it was a journey I had to take alone. And it feels sad, but in that sadness is a purpose. Just as in the stories people so generously allowed me to listen to, the sadness has a purpose. The purpose is in writing a story that hasn’t been told. And its a story that can’t be told from outside. So whether it pains me or not, its a story that has to be told from the vantage point of the liminal space of the researcher. And that’s okay because in the space of liminality all types of things can happen. There’s possibility and alternatives in the liminal space even if there’s no certainty and stability. That’s how things happen: just close your eyes and take a leap. But if you can, I ask, keep holding my hand as I venture down the rabbit hole.