We’ve all experienced highs in our lives as we reach the top of a big wave that may have swelled for a long time: winning a prize, securing something we’ve been working toward for years, getting married, having a baby, buying a house, going on a big trip, starting a business. I wonder if we spend so much time preparing to reach the top of that wave that we forget to get ready for the low that might follow.
It’s certainly true for me. After I unveiled a big sculpture this past summer and reveled in all the celebrations surrounding it, Montreal’s 375th anniversary, and the pride of the Haitian community there, I took the train home, happy and exhilarated from all the excitement. A lovely man sat across from me and we ended up chatting. He told me about his new retirement, and I told him I was on the way home after an exciting few weeks, describing what I’d been up to.
He replied, “Well, it’s happened to me before, these big highs, and they’re often followed by big lows. Make sure you watch out for them and take care of yourself.”
I have to admit, I felt a bit smug. I thought there was no way that I, level-headed and practical, would take myself that seriously. I was on a train back to my normal life and loads of work that I’d had to put aside for the unveiling. I didn’t have the time or the inclination to get melancholy; I had to get busy!
But I found myself quite discombobulated for many days after the event. I couldn’t identify what was wrong; I just couldn’t focus on anything. I kept finding myself daydreaming, or looking up coverage of the event online. I tried and failed repeatedly to snap out of it. Then it finally twigged: the man on the train was right! I was indeed coming down from a high point, and it was harder than I imagined.
It almost felt as though I were an astronaut returning to earth, re-entering the atmosphere and feeling the pull of gravity again. I had to ask myself, what’s next? Will I ever feel that kind of excitement again? Will I ever match that accomplishment or was it my last hurrah?
I was quite anxious about that question. I’d visit my studio and feel displeased with all the work I’d put aside to work on the commission; it all looked so ordinary and even odd. I couldn’t imagine what I could put in my next exhibition.
In my work, I was behind on a few deadlines and forgetting other things. I was saying “Come on, Dominique; this is your business, you love your work and who you do it with—get a grip!”
It turns out that these crashes are actually a thing, are fairly common, and have a name—post-project depression. In that these lows are often preceded by great anticipation, monumental effort, and a “birth” of sorts, they’re a bit like post-partum depression. In fact, thirty years ago, a New York Times article described the lows experienced by famous writers like Jack Kerouac after completing books as “postwritum depression.” So those of us who have had a wave crash down on us are in good company.
I did eventually find my feet again. Once I realized what was happening, I let myself slow down, even cancelling a few events because I didn’t feel I could be really present for them. After that felt comfortable, I picked up the pace, getting involved in planning a big conference. (Incidentally, the conference just happened last week, and it was another crest—and I’m feeling the low of the crashing wave as I write this!) I recognize not everyone can slow down at work after a major event, and if that’s you, then I invite you to see which non-work items you can cross off your list. Letting yourself order in food, hiring a one-off house cleaner, skipping a few days of social obligations—if any of that is possible or helpful, do it without thinking twice.
Aside from everything I learned from working towards the creation and unveiling of the sculpture, I walked away from the whole experience with two nuggets of wisdom that I carry forward into my life.
The first is to be ready for the low that may come after the high, and be patient with ourselves as we experience it. It’s not normal to always be on a high—or, for that matter, to always be low. It’s normal for us to go up and down as though on waves coming in and out with the tide. Let’s let go and work with that flow, rather than expecting the highs to always last or telling ourselves to just get over and move on from the lows.
The second is that we must keep doing the little things that bring us joy. For me, that’s visiting my sculpture studio. So even though I couldn’t work much, I just went for a few days, spending time with my sculptures and touching the clay. I checked in with my colleague at the studio and encouraged her work, and eventually got back into the groove. Whatever it is for you, do it until it brings you joy again!
I think if I’d been a little more open to the man on the train’s message, I would have been better prepared for my disorientation after the unveiling. This time around I was ready: After my wonderful conference, I’m meditating, drinking a cup of tea, and doing a lot of nothing. And I trust that I’ll come together, find a rising wave, and be able to pursue my passions again soon.
Have you had the post-high blues? What are your favourite strategies for dealing with them?