05/05/17 – A Day in the Field, Part 4: The Importance of Managing Your Mental Health During Solitary Fieldwork

Note: I wrote this about two weeks ago but was hesitant to publish it until now. Now that the field season is over as of last Saturday, the Before and After seems a bit more clear.

Recent research in cognitive psychology has suggested long periods of isolation or loneliness are as harmful to the brain’s development as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day.

If that’s the case, over the last three months I’ve become the equivalent of a mental chain-smoker.

I was talking with a colleague over dinner about a week ago and it dawned on me that the interaction I had with him was the first time I’d spoken at length with anyone in the same language as me for nearly three weeks. My Khmer language skills aren’t even close to fluid enough to have established a personality in that culture yet, and the Cambodians to whom I speak regularly, even daily, in Siem Reap are happy enough to continue to speak to me in what I call “survival language”. Goods and services are exchanged, only the most necessary words are spoken, and no love is lost or found in any interaction. Any attempt to speak longer than money changing hands is an inconvenience to the tourist hustle of Temple Town, and without saying it outright they usually would like me to stop talking and promptly complete the interpersonal interaction I’m having with them; i.e. “go away, please – next!“.

So because Siem Reap exists to fuel the fires of Angkor, I am a necessary evil and nothing more. My dollars do the talking – there have been many like me and there will be many more. I am an unfamiliar white face with a seemingly familiar foreign agenda. And because anti-intellectualism is rampant across Cambodia, I get continuous looks of disinterest or an eye-roll when I say I’m a foreign researcher working at Angkor. What am I doing looking at piles of monastic blocks when I should be spending three days gawking at temples and then leaving without another word?


For Khmer eyes only.

This attitude makes, for many expats and researchers, a lonely existence here. Especially when the expat community in Siem Reap is typically comprised of ambitious and aggressive Chinese businessmen, busy and introverted French and Australian archaeologists/heritage workers, American missionaries (in Buddhist Temple Town? Yep!), young TEFL teachers (who are typically drunken or cliquey), sun-kissed retirees, obese sexpats preying on teenaged boys, and British deathpats drinking themselves to death at 10 in the morning; as a PhD student who’s just beginning to get my feet dug into archaeology in Cambodia, I really don’t fit into any of the above categories quite yet. Thus, I have very few friends here.

Everyone, said my colleague, makes this realization at some point when they live here longer than a month or two. And one of two things happen: you cure your loneliness and isolation by becoming an alcoholic/junkie or you accept it and go insane. Both don’t end well. Considering I don’t drink unless I’m around other people because addiction runs in my family, I’ve chosen the latter. I admit it: during this field season I slowly lost my mind.

It’s one of the unspoken truths of doing a PhD: you really are in your own world for 4-7 years, sometimes longer. Either in a lab, or in the field, or even at your desk – this is your own research and no one on earth knows as much about what you’re doing as you do. You’ve segregated yourself in this isolated little enclave of knowledge, picking apart past literature and past research for a loophole of originality. Your eyes get tired after spending five to six hours over a microscope, or paraphrasing/translating Volume 5 of 8 of a foreign 20th century genius’s life work, or sorting through monotonous soil samples in a lab looking for tiny seed fragments. It’s only you there, and because your research is so niche and esoteric it’ll probably only ever be you.

My dataset just happens to be halfway across the world in 3x3km ancient city covered in dense jungle. It’s no different, and no one else really goes back into the woods at Angkor Thom because the locals are scared of snakes and the tourists are scared of spiders. So adding to the solitude in Siem Reap I’m also alone for 4-5 hours a day in dense, sound-proof forest with more poison than Poison.

One of many I’ve pulled out of my legs, but this one was almost like an IV sticking into my calf.
In a PhD, no one can hear you scream.

Or, more aptly due to the stigmas that still exist around not having a better-than-perfect outward demeanour, no one wants to hear you scream.

But the reality is that while working and living in isolation in any circumstance, your mental condition indeed begins to slowly deteriorate. And that’s something no one should ignore. Especially you.

There was a great Law and Order: SVU episode on the dangers of solitary confinement and isolation a while back, as well as its effect on mental health. Christopher Meloni (Agent Stabler) was attacked and pushed from a rooftop by a man who spent eighteen years in solitary confinement who was simply scared of anyone he thought wanted to put him back there (i.e. a cop from the SVU team), but because Stabler didn’t quite understand what made the man act the way he did he decided to go into voluntary solitary confinement for 72 hours. Even in the span of three days he became enraged, introverted, antisocial, and when the jailer came to let him out he attacked him as well; thus, he attempted to drop the charges against the man who’d originally assaulted him.

Of course, that’s a very extreme (and fictitious) example, but it does give some weight to the idea that extended isolation is unhealthy. Humans are social creatures – even those who are introverts still like a dose intimate interaction when they feel like it, even if it’s with a cat or five. So when we’re deprived of that meaningful (and I don’t mean the hello-buy/eat-pay-goodbye Temple Town Hustle) human contact and stuck in our own minds for long periods of time, we begin to feel the side-effects.

That, in many cases, is the most important reality of the PhD program. Extreme mental gymnastics with long, solitary hours.

And the crazy thing is we all signed up for this enthusiastically.

The realization that isolation was taking a bit of a toll started for me about seven weeks ago, maybe two weeks after my advisor went back to Canada, when I noticed I was voicing my inner dialogue a lot while doing fieldwork. Venturing as deep into the jungle as I do, I have to often talk myself out of situations where I’ve passed my energetic plateau, or I think the enormous spider right in front of me is about to jump on my face, or I’ve tangled myself in so many vines that I can’t move my legs without stabbing myself on a thorny stem like the one above. I’m on my own, right? Who’s going to get me back on my feet and keep moving? Me. And if I fall down, get hurt, collapse of exhaustion, or die, who’s going to know where I am? No one (except maybe a Cambodian police officer who opens the right document on my computer and finds my daily field schedule which I stick to religiously).

If you look closely you’ll see that I accidentally dropped my GPS in there.
So you have to essentially be your own coach, psychologist, personal trainer, and advisor, and those roles that would usually be filled by people were now filled by my own outer-inner dialogue. It’s still me, I just end up filling the silence with more than the typical distant Gibbon barks, cicada screeches, cricket chirps, cracking branches, and bird calls that fill the forest.

And sometimes you might be lucky enough to see one – that was definitely the highlight of my day.
I began to reach out more to friends and family back home in mid-late March when all of the non-expat archaeologists all went back to their universities for the spring – most excavations and surveys end before April/May to avoid the hottest part of the year. But the problem is that Skype and Facebook Messenger only go so far – people need to actually see other people face to face to get the same effect as a real social interaction (unlike Mr. Zuckerberg would have you believe – I don’t actually have 500 friends). There are positive chemical changes that come with being near and interacting with people – I don’t think I’ve had a good dopamine or seratonin rush since early March.

Then, around early April, Mother Nature cranked up the heat. The daily high swung from 32 (38 Humidex) to 38 (43 Humidex) between March and April, and even when I started working in the morning instead of the afternoon the heat was inescapable. Wearing a hat doesn’t make much of a difference in the woods because of how dense the canopy is overhead, but that same canopy traps the heat from the sun and both soaks your clothes with sweat and barbecues your brain. I started to get twitchy as the insects roared louder – the cracks and crunches around me were suddenly amplified and made me incredibly jumpy. I was convinced I had some sort of Cabin Fever, similar to that day in mid-March where I couldn’t find my way out of the jungle – if I was a cartoon I’d have synchronized blue sweat droplets pouring down my face and my eyes would be two infinite spirals.

If I hadn’t started adding electrolytes to my water bottles when I got back from Laos, I don’t know whether I would’ve been able to handle this last two-week sprint to the finish in order to catalogue everything (I recommend Royal D, Sunny D’s Gatorade-like cousin).

And with that I threw myself into my work like a codependent obsession – without a GIS Map, a 3D model, or an article in front of me I’m either incredibly bored or I let my daydreams wander down some extremely dark avenues. My blank mind flooded (and still does) with constant delusions of grandeur, odd fantastical thoughts, megalomania, flat-out rage, often accompanied by insulting comments to the first person I see, and a streak of unwarranted arrogance unprecedented in even my worst undergrad days (and my friends from Queen’s know how I used to get) – the list goes on. I could literally feel my sanity collapsing and pressure began to build up in my head. For days at a time there was no one but me to express a single emotion towards. And that’s just a pile of shit waiting to happen.

But what my colleague said over dinner, a dinner that I was half an hour late for (which is extremely rare for me despite happening a lot in Cambodia – I’m usually obsessive about being on time), is that while we unmarried barang are almost always loners in Southeast Asia, I’m definitely not the only one to have felt this way doing research far away from home. He called it a “mindset of insanity”, which in many ways is terribly problematic and makes me question why people put themselves through those torrid personal conditions in the first place.

Well, it’s obvious isn’t it? We love what we do enough and the consequences become secondary.

Part of me blames myself for a bit of my (hopefully temporary) various mental breakdowns. Maybe I’m too needy. Maybe I haven’t been as good a friend as I should’ve have been and that’s why I only get one-word answers back from all but a few people. Maybe I was reaching out to the wrong people, as the only poor soul regularly on the receiving end of all this bullshit was my girlfriend. Or maybe it’s the universe’s way of making me work for that $30k grant I was just awarded…

…alongside three days of dry hypothermia, losing all my luggage except for my field equipment to Beijing’s Airport Hell, battling a lung infection for over a month, credit card fraud, bi-weekly bouts of food poisoning, stepping on a beehive, possibly finding the remains of a monk in the woods (that’s next week’s story), close to a thousand red ant, mosquito, and spider bites, and definitely at least ten thousand thorn-pricks…in the span of three-and-a-half months.

But that’s one of the bigger issues facing the de-stigmatization of mental health issues: self-blame, however hard it is not to do. Doctoral research can be a grueling task in any faculty, but we also need to take a look at ourselves in the mirror once every few weeks (if not more frequently), especially during the intense periods of research, and say: if the thoughts going through my mind are fucked and are making me unhappy, I am not weak, but am I still okay?

As PhD students and candidates we all plan and prepare our own projects, no matter what the physical and mental cost is of completing them. My blood is probably 1-2% plant venom right now, and my brain is about as scrambled as a bag of cats being poked and prodded by a bayonet. So what, then, is the solution (besides, of course, not spending three months of fieldwork in a tropical jungle)? And how do we go from “am I still okay?” to “I am okay”?


The moment I started doing that, acknowledging that something wasn’t quite right instead of denying it as just another one of my personality flaws, I was immediately able to begin to make changes to balance my productivity with my happiness and keep those darker thoughts at bay. I did this by keeping busy – not in a “I must work 24/7 way” but in an “I’m going outside to do something fun today!” way.

Of course, when you’re already outside every day, I think about what my mom used to say when all the other kids on our block were playing road-hockey and I was swinging alone on a swing in our backyard: “Go more outside!”

And, more often than not, that worked! On days where I had nothing to read or data to crunch, instead of getting angry at nothing or over-exhausting myself on an extra field day, I rented an E-Bike or hired a tuk-tuk and went somewhere – Kbal Spean, for example. Or, if I was simply too exhausted on a field day to walk back to my tuk-tuk let alone fill out a cataloguing sheet, I sat down and watched a spider take on a moth in a fight to the death for an hour and then kept going after chugging an entire 2 Litre bottle of water. Yesterday to kill some time after I found out the EFEO Library is inexplicably closed until June 4th I went to the Angkor National Museum to compare sima stones.

Hmmm…cut from the same cloth, perhaps?

Quelling the darker thoughts that many PhD students are faced with, especially those of us in isolation in high-intensity situations with a lot riding on the results of our work (i.e. all of us), is integral in succeeding and surviving the doctoral experience. We all have our own ways of dealing with the stress, expectations, and much more often than not mental ups and downs (and in my case mild depression, OCD, anxiety, and sporadic panic attacks based on the failure of the latter two) but we all seem to try to only be able to cope.

The next step is to solve. How? Well, that’s my next step too. It’s a step too rarely taken because coping is so much easier or the obstacle seems too great. But in my case isolation was the cause, so the solution is…less isolation. So to my friends at home, my family, expect to see more of me when I get back to Toronto. This summer is going to be amazing, and I can’t wait to share the positives of this otherwise incredibly successful field season as a way to combat the negatives.

Next Entry: The entry I promised last time – the end of Fieldwork Season 1 at Angkor Thom, the highs and lows (besides for this low), and a look forward to a vacation in Thailand, work in Ayutthaya, and the new frontier of Sri Lanka.

Andrew Harris

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