Mediated Memory, Memory & Heritage, Representation

Emotionally Demanding Research in Lockdown

Lauren Cantillon

One definition of ‘emotionally demanding research’ is ‘research that demands a tremendous amount of mental, emotional, or physical energy and potentially affects or depletes the researcher’s health or well-being’ (Kumar and Cavallaro, 2017, p.648). There is an ever-growing literature on how to protect the mental wellbeing of a researcher or research team when working on emotionally demanding projects, but how may we take this knowledge and apply it in the lockdown conditions that many of us now find ourselves in? From speaking to colleagues, the isolation and general disruption of recent months has added a fresh layer of difficulty to already tough projects. By being upfront and honest about my own experiences I hope to encourage more public conversation(s) about how to work through what can sometimes be debilitating emotions and feelings. I also want to highlight a seemingly common gap in Arts & Humanities graduate/researcher training that no amount of resilience workshops can hope to fill.

After over a year of reading and listening to women remember sexual violence during the Holocaust, by March 2020 I thought I had figured out (on the whole) how to manage my own emotions in relation to my material. Then a global pandemic happened, and you know the rest. I write this from a privileged position; neither myself, my partner, or any family members have (knowingly) had the virus. The one friend who did catch it early on has fully recovered and is back at work. While I am facing a level of financial precarity in the long-term, many of my part-time jobs were already done remotely. I have no dependents (human or animal), but I do have access to a shared garden – as a Zone 3 Londoner in a one-bed flat I have never appreciated this outdoor space more.

The blurring of my home and my research project has always been something I worked hard to avoid; I worked from spaces on campus or treated myself to a few hours in a coffee shop. Now – my desk in the living room, no door to shut it behind – my project has spilled into domestic space, on many occasions dominating the home I share with my partner. Previously, keeping some form of separation enabled me to switch-off from thinking about research, but the lockdown has made it inescapable, relentless even in the space that is supposed to be where I rest.

With the closure of campus buildings also came the removal of the day-to-day support of my fellow CMCI PGR cohort. While we have somewhat migrated onto digital platforms (WhatsApp voice notes, Zoom/Skype/Teams video chats, and department efforts like CMC-Hi) it is not the same. It sounds ungrateful, but digital media does not, for me, allow for the spontaneity or intimacy of an in-person conversation. Recently I undertook some oral history training, during which the instructor discussed the importance of being able to pass on what you have heard after listening to traumatic memories (the idea being that the pain associated with the original story should be lessened with sharing). Coffees, meeting for lunch, agreeing to write in the company for a few hours have always been a vital outlet for talking about my research and listening to colleagues’ work in return. Without these opportunities at present, this has put pressure on my partner who, while never-endingly patient, supportive and a kind human being, is not equipped to take on what would normally be several peoples’ worth of offloading.

Lockdown was established at an unfortunate time for my project, colliding with my realisation that about 40% of the women who form my data were sexually assaulted underage. I (naively) did not anticipate this aspect to my project when setting out and am finding the literature relating to child sex abuse the most draining and upsetting thing to work through while isolated away from my normal support systems. With one newly arrived book, I can only manage 3-4 pages at a time, and in the days that follow I have experienced disturbed sleep, loss of focus, and a lack of motivation to re-engage with the material, which ultimately makes me feel like I am not being productive enough.

Luckily, I am supported by a supervisory team who fully appreciate the emotionally demanding nature of my research project and that the current pandemic conditions have only added to this. Maintaining a healthy mental wellbeing specific to working with memories of sexual violence and associated themes has been a priority from the earliest days of my project, but as I have noted above, these unforeseen conditions of lockdown have brought new challenges. Writing this blog has been an opportunity to re-examine the literature around safeguarding the emotional wellbeing of the researcher during emotionally demanding research. Not all the advice translates in our current world, but I was heartened to see parallels with my own organic attempts at self-care.

I try to avoid programmes that depict sexual violence (Williamson et al., 2020), a lesson learnt from watching three episodes of Mindhunter and becoming a sobbing wreck on the sofa. One day I will watch Unbelievable but now is not that time. Fresh air and exercise (Kumar and Cavallaro, 2017; Rager, 2005; Sikic Micanovic et al., 2020; Williamson et al., 2020), as well as spacing interviews apart to avoid an intense working period (Coddington, 2017; Sikic Micanovic et al., 2020), are also common coping strategies. With encouragement from my supervisors, I am trying to harness my emotions to power my research and analysis work. I am not always successful (I find anger and frustration much more galvanising than fear) but it is an interesting way to navigate the personal emotions heightened by the lockdown. Kumar (2017) describes something similar, in that her advisor encouraged her to value her emotional responses as part of the research process.

At an institutional level there is little (at KCL) specific to emotionally demanding research in lockdown, however generic guidance on ‘looking after yourself’, procrastination, and worry, rumination and insomnia may provide some support. The Doctoral College have put together an online mental health ‘toolkit’ available via KEATS, but it too is a generic offer for PGRs across the college. As there was a gap for training around emotionally demanding research for Arts & Humanities Faculty PGRs prior to lockdown it is little surprise that a gap remains today. Fellow CMCI PhD researcher Linda Clayworth and I have designed a workshop series to try and begin the conversation at KCL. Other groups at Sheffield, Edinburgh and Exeter are also working to raise awareness around the need for more training and support.

Navigating emotionally demanding research in lockdown is not easy, but it is less difficult if faced with others. I am not the first to say (write) this, but from my own experiences of feeling isolated and from talking to other people in similar positions I think it needs repeating – louder and louder until we are heard by our institutions, the friends and family who want to support and help us, and each other, researcher to researcher.