Eight months ago, I thought I was having a heart attack. I had been in the library, trying to work on a paper, when suddenly my heart was out of control, my breathing became frantic, and everything was spinning. “I’m dying,” I thought, and my heart rate seemed to kick up another notch at this realization. As my thoughts and my body spiraled out of my control, the only coherent thought I remember having was “at least I won’t have to finish this stupid program.”
Now, the “stupid program” in question is the graduate program that I had enrolled in as a frantic “I don’t know how to be an adult and find a job and I don’t know what to be when I grow-up!” gesture. The other people in my undergraduate class seemed to be divided into two camps: either you were going to graduate school, or you had no idea what you were doing next year but it probably involved taking the first low-paying job/unpaid internship you could find. I wanted the certainty of going to graduate school, and so I clung to the certainty of what I was going to be doing like a life raft.
In hindsight, of course there were doubts. I sobbed my way through the graduation ceremony. I spent the summer trying to convince my friends and family to convince me not to go so far away. After all, my undergraduate college had been two hours away, which had often felt like an insurmountable distance. My graduate school was over 1,000 miles away. Unfortunately, my friends and family were all extremely supportive of my decision, and they were even excited for me. “What a great adventure!” they enthused. “You’re so lucky!”
But I didn’t feel lucky. I put off finding an apartment until the middle of July, spending more time looking at local job listings than I did at apartment listings. The more time that went by, the more trapped I felt. By the beginning of August, it became pretty clear that I was GOING TO GRAD SCHOOL, whether I liked it or not. Again, in hindsight, I still had plenty of outs at that point. I could have made the decision not to go, even then. I had only put down a small deposit on the department, and I could easily have contacted the program to get out. But, cowed by the enthusiasm of the people around me and paralyzed by my fear of what I would do if I wasn’t in school, I left for my program at the end of August and tried to enjoy the moving trip/vacation my mom had generously offered to come along for.
Sometimes, there are situations in life that overwhelm you. While I was testy and nervous the entire three-day drive out to my new apartment, the final straw came as my mom helped me to decorate my first apartment. I wanted to go home. After driving my mom to the airport on her last day, I sobbed the entire drive back to my apartment, and spent the next three days completely alone, crying more frequently than I had since I was a baby, sequestered in a strange new apartment in a strange new city.
Of course, maybe if my program had been outstanding and inspiring and warm and welcoming I would have perked up, like everyone told me I would. “You’ll feel better soon,” they soothed over the phone, over Skype, via text. I soaked up the encouragement, but in a way it felt like more expectations that were being set up for me to fail at. What if I didn’t feel better? What if things only got worse? “Don’t have a bad attitude,” my mom warned me, and so I adopted a stiff upper lip which promptly began to quiver as I battled my way through learning to use a public transportation system for the first time.
The first two days of the program were a sort of crash course in how to be a TA for the department. Even people who are good in a subject area have weaknesses, and mine is definitely grammar. I know how to use grammar, certainly, but when it comes time to blurt out whether something is subjunctive or a dangling modifier or a comma splice, I’m lost. Of course, the first two days of the program were grammar boot camp. The students around me were, for the most part, at least two or three years older than I was. They had all taken time after their undergraduate degrees to have life experiences, and then had made a decision to return to academia. I had never been out. Again, people told me that I was at an advantage. “You’ll remember how to do everything,” other students sighed wistfully, and again I felt the pressure of expectation crushing on my chest, as physical as any other sensation I’ve ever had.
Those first two days convinced me I had to get out. I would lose money, of course, and I still wouldn’t know what to do, but I had to get out. The next three months were torturous. My support system weakened under the constant use and eventually all-but disappeared. My mom was fed-up with having to field calls where I spent forty-five minutes sobbing about how I wanted to come home, and she sounded put-out when she would tell me that it didn’t matter what I did, she would always be proud of me. The tone of her voice made it clear to me that she would not be proud of me if I came home, and that would set off another crying jag.
The classes were awful. The other students were awful. Everything around me was awful. I kept trying to find my balance, trying to figure out a way to deal with life, but I was overwhelmed. I lived just outside of the city where the other people in my program lived, and so I was geographically isolated. I spent more time alone in that year than I ever have before. A roommate might have helped. Paying a little bit more in rent and living in the city might have helped, too. Being more willing to get out and go to events by myself where I could have met people might have been beneficial.
When December came around and I was able to return home for the first time, I was a mess. My flight was cancelled, and I found myself hysterical at the airport. I managed to get onto the next flight out, and it is a testament to my emotional distress that when I was offered $350 to go on a flight that left two hours after the earlier flight by one of the desk agents looking to free up more space on the earlier flight, I said no without hesitation. “I have to get home,” I told her, and marched away. Winter break had been intended as a time for me to finish up my papers for the first semester, which were not completed, and to figure out what I was going to do for the next semester. I wanted to drop-out. I never wanted to go back. I spent the first half of my break at home sitting on the couch, living in my pajamas and avoiding my final papers. If I didn’t finish those papers, I thought to myself, I couldn’t go back even if I wanted to.
I finished the papers. Overall, I did pretty well that first semester. I was in shock. The grades confirmed to those around me that I was obviously fine, and that if my anxiety or my emotions or whatever was going on hadn’t impacted my GPA that I was obviously fine to go back. In a spectacular display of when a parent does something they intend to be supportive and loving but backfires, my mom bribed me to go back. “I’ll take you on a trip when you finish,” she said. “And I want you to come visit in February,” I replied. “Fine,” she said, and the deal was struck. If my mom thought my finishing the program was important enough that she would resort to bribing her 22-year-old adult/child, I figured that it must be pretty important to her.
So, the first week in January saw me back at the airport, my eyes swimming with tears and my heart racing out of control, ready to board another flight back to my empty apartment and my empty life. I kept up a good attitude for the first few weeks, and my February crash was interrupted by my mom’s week-long visit. Here I think it’s worth mentioning that in my grad program, at least, work was spaced sporadically. In the spring semester, my three-course load was reduced to a two-course load. Courses, for the most part, involved weekly two-hour long discussion-based seminars. Each course had a final, 20 page paper, and some courses had one or two in-class presentations that had to be prepared for. One class had a weekly reading response due, but that was the exception. The assumption must have been that with just reading to complete each week, students could get ahead on their thesis or their final papers or could be super keen and do outside research about the novels we were reading. I used the time to mope. I started putting off my reading assignments, which often left me reading an entire Restoration play in the hour-long bus commute I had before class. The only responsibility I couldn’t put off, and which became the bright spot of an otherwise awful program, was being a teaching assistant. The first semester, I had led weekly tutorials where I got to teach students about grammar and writing. The second semester, I simply became a marker, but there were only two papers over the course of the term, so it didn’t take up much of my time.
My desperate attempts to cheer myself up that semester were numerous. To fill up my excess amounts of free time, I volunteered for four hours a week with a community group that offered free tutoring to students. I applied and was accepted to present at a graduate conference. I organized and acted in a theater production. I started to live my life like I wasn’t struggling through school. This semester was, course wise, worse than the last semester. I was having a difficult time getting along with one of my professors, a young lecturer who spent most of our classes lecturing and not letting us speak, and the rest of the time grilling us about French theorists and the strange books of postmodern poetry we were reading. I participated in these discussions, but my grasp of the vocabulary was limited, and I struggled to find meaning in what I was doing. This feeling of being adrift was only intensified when my first thesis supervisor became ill, and I was shuffled around the department to a new supervisor who made me change my thesis topic and seemed vaguely disinterested in me as both a person and a supervisee.
Of course, time passes and I left for home again as soon as I could, which was the first week of April. It was essentially a repeat of my winter break, except this time I also had to prepare a 10 page presentation of my thesis for the dreaded colloquium, a departmental event where the MA students would present their theses to be picked apart by a room full of vindictive cohorts and professors. Fun. After almost four weeks of being at home, I returned to the airport and felt alright. After all, this time I was going back for an indefinite period of time, and I had already decided that I would come home as soon as I couldn’t take it anymore. Surprisingly, the thesis colloquium went fairly well, in spite of the fact that I had only finished my paper the night before.
I had decided to stay at school for the month of May, but to come home in time for Memorial Day. Unfortunately, my few friends in the program had all left for home immediately following colloquium, and so I found myself more isolated than I had ever been, and my daily trips to the library became exercises in futility. I wasn’t getting work done. I was going insane. The heart attack feelings started up again. After two weeks, I booked a one-way ticket home. The next time I would be coming back, I vowed to myself, would be only to move.
So what’s the moral of the story? Even as I struggle through this summer, as I’m supposed to be writing a thesis that I can’t seem to get started on, I’m not sure what the lesson is, yet. Asking for help doesn’t always work–it isn’t always a magic solution. Other people can’t tell you what to do, and they can’t make decisions for you. Being an adult is about learning how to make your own decisions and live with the fallout. I’ve mentioned to a few people that I think I should have dropped out of my program after the first semester, after giving it an honest try, and they’ve responded that I’ll be glad I did it in a few years. Maybe I will, maybe I won’t. But what I’ve now learned is that help is something that best comes from yourself when it comes to the big decisions.
As for more immediate concerns, however, help is always appreciated. When I know exactly what I need from people, then I can ask for help. When I’m having an anxiety attack at 2 am, I know I can text my friends or my brother just to have someone to talk to. I know that when it’s July 1st and I’ve only submitted 7 pages of an 80 page thesis, I can e-mail my dad and ask him for help in organizing myself and becoming more productive. I know that when I can’t stay in my empty apartment any longer I can ask my mom and step-dad to let me stay with them for a few weeks. So maybe that’s what becoming an adult is about. It isn’t about doing everything on your own or being totally independent. It simply means that you learn when and how to ask for help, and when to do things for yourself.