I googled “anti-climax after milestone” because I wanted to see if my feelings were normal. Turns out, they are.
Everyone who offered wisdom and advice on exams told me I would feel a sense of great anti-climax after they were over. I didn’t really believe them. I thought, how could that be possible after completing something so great? I’m going to be over the moon!
But of course, I should have known this would happen from all my other anti-climaxes. One of them was the thing that spurred my awakening in 2016. The milestone was that I had been admitted to my top choice PhD program, and then I got here and was doing the work and living the life, and once the euphoria of the initial achievement had worn off, I felt depressed, empty, and lost. I didn’t know how that could be.
It’s a thing. If you google what I googled, you’ll see entries for post-nuptial depression, post-partum depression, even post-marathon depression. People get depressed after big birthdays, after presents are opened and dinner is eaten on Christmas. The Thesis Whisperer has an entry about crying after being told the dissertation defense was passed.
Google also recommended I search for “post-achievement depression,” “post-goal depression,” “post-success depression,” and “feeling empty after achievement.”
Knowing everything I have learned about being intentional about the way I want to feel, and understanding that achievements and goals are only small blips on a long journey, I suppose I should have seen this coming. That’s okay. I accept it. I acknowledge it. And here I am writing a post about it.
The first 24 hours after I passed my oral exam (the third and final round of comps), I was utterly euphoric. Literally, colors looked brighter and food tasted better. I had endless energy. I was so ecstatic that I had done it, and it was over, and I could move on with my life.
But then a weird malaise began setting in. The only words that come to mind to describe what I’ve been feeling are emptiness, hollowness, diffuseness, lost, sad, lonely, unfocused, and tired.
I have been single-mindedly focused on these exams for the past 3 months. I mean that. Preparing for them has been my number one priority for 3 months. But even before that, for years, I thought about them. Even before I was reading a novel a day, and spending every waking moment outlining and thinking (so much thinking), I was keeping my eye on this horizon. It hovered and scuttled around the edges of my consciousness at all times.
And now I am past it. My brain doesn’t know what to do. All the adrenaline, the stress, the easily constructed daily task list–it’s all gone. Obviously, in a lot of ways, this is a relief. I’ve been catching up with neglected friends. I went shopping. But I still have the same anxiety dreams every night. Friends say those won’t go away for a while. And I just feel a little blues-y.
The thing that has defined my existence for months is over, and now it’s time for me to rest. I still fight feelings of uselessness in resting. I feel like I’ve been unmoored from a community, from an identity. I also feel a restlessness to start working on the next thing, the next milestone. But I know I should wait a while and take care of myself and check in with my soul and my body.
I am really proud and pleased that I passed my exams. But the anti-climax is very real.
The post-milestone anti-climax is how we learn to enjoy our journeys, rather than putting all hope of future happiness in one accomplishment. The actual exams I took were so short in the span of a lifetime. But the work I did to prepare for them has inevitably molded me and changed me. I met the first requirement of becoming an expert in my field. Even my writing process changed. And those are just surface things.
I must remember it’s the daily doing that really defines who we are.