The Horrible Year

Today, at the university, I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror.  There was Anxiety at my left shoulder, and Depression at my right.  Insomnia was at home, taking a nap so she could keep me up later.

And a thought came to me. It was, “You will never do anything harder than this.”

I’ve done some difficult things in my life. I’ve gone to Harvard Law School. I’ve passed the New York and Massachusetts bar exams. I’ve worked for four years as a corporate lawyer, in Manhattan and Boston. One memorable day, I billed twenty-three hours (out of a possible twenty-four). But I haven’t done anything as difficult as my doctoral dissertation. This is as hard as it gets.

The Horrible Year is not a specific year, but a concept. It refers to the fact that, any time I have tried to change my life in a significant way, it has taken me a year longer than I anticipated. The first time I applied to graduate school, desperate to leave the law and study literature, I did not get in. Although I had a perfect score on my subject GRE, my essay was all wrong, not at all the sort of essay the schools were looking for. I had to wait and apply again. But the second time, I not only got into almost all the schools I applied to, I also received a full scholarship and a stipend high enough that I was able to attend Odyssey one year, and Clarion the next. And because I spent that extra year, that incredibly depressing extra year, working as a lawyer, I was able to pay off all my law school loans. So in the end, the Horrible Year was good for me, as thoroughly unpleasant things sometimes are.

I’m in the middle of a Horrible Year, teaching full-time and revising my dissertation and yet at the same time trying not to let my writing career, which matters to me more than almost anything in the world, slip altogether. But I keep reminding myself that the Horrible Year ends, and although this is the most difficult thing I will ever do, it’s also the foundation on which I will build all the wonderful things, all the things that will become the life I want for myself. With a Witch’s Cottage, and books that people will want to read, and the freedom to pursue all the projects that I’ve wanted to pursue for so long. And contentment, adventure, and perhaps, yes perhaps, even joy.

Take that, Anxiety and Depression and Insomnia.

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6 Responses to The Horrible Year

  1. zunger says:

    That is a very wise thing to remember. I’ve had a few of those Horrible Years as well — senior year of undergrad and the third year of grad school stand out in my memory — and each of them, in retrospect, taught me that I was capable of surviving much more than I ever thought I could.

    During the first of those years, a phrase came into my head one day and resonated very deeply: “training days.” I started to use that phrase to remind myself that I was pushing myself beyond every conceivable limit so that the things I would do in the future would seem simple and practiced by comparison. And that turned out to be right.

    Perhaps it says something about our respective psyches that I thought of these as training and you describe it as a foundation; one uses the language of exertion, the other of construction.

    Either way: remind yourself, don’t forget to take care of yourself, and make it through this year. Beyond it you will create something truly extraordinary.

  2. emily says:

    You’re very inspiring!

  3. I truly sympathize, Dora. I just came out of a Horrible Year (more like a Horrible Year-and-a-Half) in which family problems and health problems combined to slow my writing down to a crawl and make painting time virtually nonexistent. The climb back from such a year isn’t instantaneous, however. When you finally push that Big Rock out of your path (the dissertation is done, the family crisis is over), there’s always a space of time when you stand there exhausted by the effort, and overwhelmed by the number of things (or people!) you’ve neglected during the push all crying for your attention now…while you say to yourself: “But the rock is gone, and I should be happy, not more tired than ever!”

    Don’t forget to go easy on yourself during that transition time between the end of the Horrible Year and the beginning of the Good Years to come. It’s a normal part of the process: the initial elation when the rock finally moves off the path, followed by a dip into depression or exhaustion as a year’s worth of stress catches up with you, and then the slow-but-steady rise of energy and creativity as your new phase of life begins.

    Good luck, my dear.

  4. Keith Glaeske says:

    Your post reminds me of something a very wise woman once wrote on one of my undergraduate papers: “You can’t expect the happy ending in the middle of the story.”


  5. Thank you all for the very good advice! I’m going to remember it and hold on to the idea that the Good Years are ahead, because I want to be healthy and productive, and to have a happy ending, and all that good stuff. Terri, I’m so sorry to hear that you’ve been going through one of the Horrible Years too. I hope things are better for you now! Hugs, Dora

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