Sometimes our research can take us to dark and difficult places. In this guest post, Dr Kathy McKay shares her experiences and offers advice for finding the light.
Last year, I worked on a study and analysed interviews where people talked about their lived experiences of a suicide attempt and the support offered afterwards. These were incredible stories, powerful stories, but they were also full of pain and disconnect and, for many, marked the beginning of an ongoing struggle. They were hard to be immersed in and, more than once, I was left in tears.
So, on the afternoon I finished the analysis, I bought the most frivolous, ridiculous (and, obviously, utterly brilliant) thing I could find: a hat for my cat. And not just any hat but a black, hand-stitched-in-Australia one made to resemble a lion’s mane. While I see enormous charm in the hat, my cat was inspired to violence and has taken to biting me until she can get it off.
So, apart from buying my poor-suffering cat things she does not ever want, how do I deal with the darkness?
Because, the thing is, some topics of research are always going to bring feelings of sadness. They should. Some topics should always afford a degree of discomfort. They should challenge. They should make you question what’s not working in our society and encourage you to explore alternatives. Dealing with the darkness makes you question how and why we normalize things, and humbles you into realising how shaming and exclusionary norms can be for people who don’t quite fit. And , if I stop feeling sadness, it will be a sign that something has broken in me. That I have lost my empathy, my ability to be OK, to sit in the rubble with someone and just hold their pain. It might also be a sign that I have become too self-centered – too focused on myself to acknowledge others and to question the worth of my own comfort.
Yet, for all the dark, there is so much light in so many people’s stories. And when you do good research – and by ‘good’ I mean more than rigorous methodology; something that is also person-led and empowering – those findings will shine a light on voices that have never been heard before, and people who have been told their story doesn’t matter. This precious potential is worth any amount of sadness I might experience. Anything I feel – anything that discomforts me or makes me cry – is so much less than what the people sharing their stories have felt and experienced. Grounding any project in honouring the stories told, and the voices of those who tell them, makes any darkness lighter and any load easier to carry because the project has a purpose that isn’t purely academic. The human purpose of the study is as valued as the academic one.
It’s also important to know that you never have to dwell in the darkness alone. I have a village of people who I trust to support me when I fall apart, to help me debrief and cry, and to encourage me back to work. These people understand why this work is important, and why I want to work in this field. They also understand that coffee and frivolity and absurdity are deeply valued, especially on afternoons when the analysis is hard. That sometimes cat hats take away the overwhelming nature of the darkness – like pulling the tail of the monster that hid under your bed when you were a child. The brilliant Sarah Wayland writes that you can only swallow so many sad stories: there is a need at times to buffer yourself with layers of absurdity, small beauties, and hope. As Siobhan O’Dwyer talks through in her beautiful blog, you need to take care of yourself as much as you take care of others. And so you find those things that nourish you. For me that is Mic Eales’ artwork – it constantly inspires me as it acts as a battle cry to do better work always, but still makes me smile. And Mic’s apple hat is one of my very favourite things in the world.
In this way, vulnerability is a strength in a field that deal in darkness. It keeps our feet firmly grounded in the all the beauty and fragility of being human. It makes us better researchers because it makes us more than researchers and it helps us identify and connect with those who can help us navigate through it. We should never be afraid of the darkness because there is so much potential for life inside, so much potential for meaningful connection, so much work that inspires passion and makes your heart beat even when you have no idea what to do, and your next step is simply to trust in the stories….
Want to shine some light on a difficult topic? Need to find like-minded researchers to help you navigate the darkness? Join Piirus today and find collaborators who share your passion.
Kathy McKay is a postdoctoral research fellow in the School of Health at the University of New England, Australia. Her work focuses on stories of suicidality, trauma, and healing among marginalised populations and in works of fiction. She is bossed about by her small tortoiseshell cat Laks and is currently cooking her way through Nigella Lawson’s Feast. You can find more of her ramblings on The Second Plan B and Twitter.