I Can and I Will: Rebuilding an Anxious Mind in Time for Orals

A person with long brown hair, wearing comfortable clothes sits in their living room cross-legged, sideways to the camera. Their head is tilted away in a stretch, their arms are relaxed in their lap.

 

This week we have a PhD candidate taking us through her life-changing experience of reckoning with her anxiety, all while being in the midst of a critical point in her candidature. Read more about how she worked through that phase and arrived at some important insights.

It was a moment of silence that convinced me that my anxiety had become too loud to ignore.

It was Thanksgiving afternoon, and I was with my now-fiancé’s, then-boyfriend’s family in an outrageously large beach-house that my own family would never in a million years have been able to afford to rent. I love my future husband’s family: they are big-hearted, generous, loving, exuberant people for the most part. Their exuberance does mean that they are constantly loud, and the large number of children on his father’s side only add to the din. Occasions spent with them always come with a feeling of constant or incipient chaos which I usually need at least a few days to recover from. And on this particular Thanksgiving afternoon, in the middle of frying turkey and roasting stuffing and steam wafting up from freshly-baked pies, I dropped a glass.

It was full of hard cider, and heavy in my hand. I’m not quite sure if I was turning away from a thick granite counter, or talking to someone, or why exactly I didn’t have a strong grip on it. It just fell out of my palm, and shattered, and splattered all over my feet, and the entire shrieking, chattering, laughing lot of them were shocked into silence by it.

They recovered quickly – they swooped in on me, clucking and soothing, asking if I was alright, bending down rapidly to sponge up the frothing alcohol away from the toddlers. I couldn’t hear anything. There was a rushing, roaring haze in my ears. I leaned over and used several paper towels in the quest to scoop up the shards, but my hands were shaking. Before the cleanup was done, I fled. I stumbled down the hallway to the room David and I were sharing, sat in the middle of the bed, buried my face in my knees, and sobbed wildly for half an hour.

How dare you, I said to myself, sometimes in my head and sometimes out loud. What the fuck. You stupid piece of shit.

A few days later, I sat in the middle of our bed at home and called the intake number for my university’s counseling service. This time, it was my voice that shook. A few days after that, I was in an office, describing how awful I felt to a psychologist. Simply saying, out loud, how much I was struggling made my voice crack and my body wobble.

Who is this sad little person who’s so broken? my mind asked, as though from very far away. How the hell did this happen?

*

In retrospect, I don’t date my anxiety to that moment. I don’t even date it to the worst summer of my life.

That summer was summer 2015, after my second year of graduate school, and I was left alone in a foreign country to do funded research in an archive for six weeks. My partner and I had been together for almost three years at that point, and had grown almost laughably co-dependent. From being someone who relished privacy and hated living with other people, I had become someone who couldn’t fall asleep without leaning on him, or at least a pillow which approximated his shape; the very evening he left to go back to the States after presenting at a conference, I started regressing to a collegiate diet of microwave meals and simple starches. By the end of my supposed time in the archive, I had actually spent more than half my days lying deep in the crevasses of the massive leather sofa in the apartment I was borrowing from a relative, my secret shame at wasting an institution’s money – unbeknownst to them, as their supervision of my time was only casual – still not propulsive enough to get me out the door. I bought myself some souvenirs, went home, cuddled our cat for hours, and promised myself I would be better.

It was a horrible summer, which has crystallized into the best representative example of the paralysis my anxiety brings down upon me. But there were signs well before that. There were the periodic mild depressions I had come to expect three times a year ever since my sophomore year of college, week-long mopey times which I fancifully called my ‘blue’ periods. There was my compulsive habit of making to-do lists which I could already readily see often become obsessive or useless, as I planned my days down to the half-hour and inevitably fell into a funk when I inevitably didn’t fulfill my own ludicrous expectations. There was the slow ratcheting up of tension in my mind and my body for hours before every meeting with my (lovely! dedicated! inspirational!) PhD advisor – a tension which would always be unjustified and which I would scold myself for afterwards, as I floated away from an inevitably affirming, efficient, and helpful talk.

I’ve come to think that the seeds of all this first came out of hibernation and started growing roots when I was an undergraduate. There was my reaction to the well-meaning (male) TA who gave me an article about Impostor Syndrome when I was twenty-one: some days I silently, pathetically thanked him for giving words to the inadequacy I felt, and on others I cursed him for ever making me think that there was in some way something wrong with me. There was my reaction to the avalanche of success I was showered with as I graduated with my BA, with honors, with separate award-winning theses in two departments: no. There must be a mistake.

I must be a mistake.

I am in a prestigious PhD program at an Ivy university. I coped with coursework because it was mandated, because it was necessary, because it was a task easy to understand. Once that structure was left behind, however, the challenge of setting out on my own, for myself, was not just impossible but actually incomprehensible. During that summer of 2015, and as Year 3 began, I started to shut down into a state which relied on only one thing to keep me dragging myself forward – a warped sense of duty. Anything that ‘had’ to be done, that ‘should’ have been done, I did. In the depths of my paralysis, I organized a highly successful two-day conference. I showed up on time. I taught thirty students in twice-weekly discussion sections, and received stellar evaluations.

But work for myself? No. Write my master’s paper for the MPhil? Prepare my prospectus? Draw up my orals lists? No. Those weren’t for other people, for those who counted on me. Those were only for myself; those only mattered, truly mattered, to me. And I wasn’t worth it. After all, I was a stupid piece of shit who dropped glasses and found showering and eating to be the most boring things I’d ever done and had lied to a museum about being in their library when I was actually sprawled on a couch checking my email every fifteen seconds and not even capable of alleviating my loneliness by opening up Skype and dialing my easily-accessible boyfriend.

*

By the time I made that intake call, I was incapable even of reading a book, which I had always been able to do even in my blue periods or on that horrible leather couch. I remember my first meetings with the first counselor as quite brutal. Being a fan of the classic 70s show M*A*S*H, I sometimes think of her now as the psychological equivalent of the army doctor Hawkeye Pierce as he hurried around a muddy compound, having to decide in less than two seconds which soldier should receive which triage rating. I spoke about believing I had failed my parents. I spoke about being a perfectionist, and how I thought I never deserved anything good that I had been given or that I had earned. I spoke about how school, my haven since I was nine years old and desperate to survive in a new country, had become what I thought was my greatest failing. I spoke about white lies I had told, like any other reasonable human being, which I thought mandated fatal punishment that I had yet to be dealt.

On the morning of my second visit, she also arranged for me to have my first meeting with the external counselor whom I have been seeing ever since. I don’t recommend having two therapy sessions in one day – it feels rather like the top of your head has been hacked off with an icepick and the insides of your skull scrubbed with steel wool. But my current counselor has always been gentle. She can see it in my face and hear in my voice when I can feel things rising up my throat and choking me.

“Tell me,” she’ll say, quietly. “What is this bringing up? What are you feeling?”

The PhD brain actually helps when it kicks in under those circumstances, as it tries to protect you against the destructive habits of the anxious mind. It says Oh, wait, I know how to do this, and works incredibly hard to analyze things you don’t even have the words for. It lets you talk around things, tries to keep you from circling perpetually down into the drain that is you being unbearably ashamed of how you’re reaching for the box of tissues your therapist places within your reach.

A month in to my therapy sessions, I had a pressurized conversation with my mother, who was full of well-meaning incomprehension about my inability to ‘Just do it.’ This upset me so much that I suddenly sat down at my computer and somehow wrote eight hundred words of my MA research paper. I didn’t want it to happen like that, and it was the conclusion of the piece rather than any useful analysis, but it was the first substantial work I’d done in nearly a year, and when I wasn’t eking out a sentence here or there, I started taking pleasure in the simple act of baking again.

Two months in, I was astounded by the newly-rediscovered concept that I could enjoy my work. Then I was astounded – and shocked, and saddened, and cast down – at the fact that that idea had become astounding.

Four months in, my advisor was happy with the directions the paper was going in, and approved of my plans for my prospectus. Perhaps most important to me was that I went into a meeting with him happy and eager to talk for the first time.

Eight months in, ten minutes before my oral exams were due to begin, I was walking across campus and realized I was whimpering. Small squeaking sounds of distress were leaking out of the corners of my mouth as I approached my department; my hands were sweating, and my knees trembled. I tried to breathe, and said, out loud: I can do this. I CAN do this. I can DO this.

I am capable. I can do this.

I will do this.

I did. And every time I think back on it now, I smile, because nothing – nothing – in my academic career will ever be that difficult, ever again.

Over the course of my recovery process, I have realized that the process of ‘getting better’ never seems to end. A week of therapy would feel make me feel hopeful; a month later, I’d look back and see that I was never really better, but maybe this week would be the one that I could call an endpoint. Today, nearly two years on from that Thanksgiving, I know that there is no such thing as an endpoint when it comes to the health and life of the mind, and I still have my misgivings about certain things. I wonder whether medication might have helped me sooner; I wonder about some low-level mental and physical symptoms I have that I suspect might be indicative of adult ADHD; I am frustrated sometimes with the fact that it takes so much goddamn constant effort to remind myself to be okay.

I wish I was better at describing the journey I’ve been on to my fiancé: much of our loving, home-focused relationship works via implication rather than being able to talk about the things that are most important to us. (I can’t say I blame him for this, given that he was dumped by an ex-girlfriend the day after he passed his orals, and needed more than six months to recover. I think you’d want life to be simple, after that.) But we are engaged, now, and despite the inherent silliness of the institution of marriage my socialized female self can’t help but feel that the permanence of my ring, and the excitement of knowing I am dedicated to someone for life, are more essential steps in rebuilding myself.

I don’t intend to spend any more time on that couch. In fact, I think that if I ever see it again, I’ll burn it. And I’ll laugh, and I’ll cry, and then I’ll find a way to go on.

Because I can.

The author is a fifth-year PhD candidate studying early modern history. She is currently researching abroad and keeping rigorously to her newfound system of coping mechanisms to make sure ‘Summer 2015’ doesn’t happen again!

 

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