Sunday, January 22, 2012


Last week, two days before my paper critique presentation (the last step in the comprehensive exam process), I lost it.

I could feel it coming on - the exhaustion, the muddled thinking, the panic, the inability to get to sleep or stay asleep, the obsessive studying and note-taking (did I really need to write and re-write and re-write the four characteristics of a geographic information system?) - and I knew there would be consequences, but I kept thinking that I just needed to shove all that aside, pull myself together, and get through the presentation. And I almost made it. I almost managed to plow through before I lost my mental cookies.

And then Tuesday came along, and someone said just the wrong thing, and I came to a screeching halt. I felt so low, so depressed, so anxious, and so very out of it. I can't really explain it - I felt utterly detached from reality and unable to ground myself. Everything seemed so loud and looked so dim. I came home from school that day and went straight to bed, where I cried for three hours. Then I wrote to my advisor and said that I was struggling. Then I proceeded to not fall asleep for a while, and then I woke up at 3 a.m. and couldn't get back to sleep. All the while knowing that I needed to have a polished written critique submitted to my committee by 5 p.m. Wednesday, and a polished 20-minute presentation ready to deliver by 1 p.m. on Thursday.

On Wednesday morning, I dragged myself to my old therapist's office. I had bags under my eyes and I wasn't thinking clearly. I was dizzy. I kept spacing out; he kept asking me how present I was and reminding me to stay with him. I told him that I felt like I was really, truly on the verge of a breakdown and that the thought of continuing to live with these mood swings - as I have for most of my life so far - was unbearable. I told him that sometimes the thought of death was so nice. Not that I would ever do anything to myself - I wouldn't, because I wouldn't do that to my son; I wouldn't ruin his life - but for as long as I can remember, when things get bad it's comforting to think of not being here. I remember being 13 years old and obsessively planning my funeral, just because it helped calm me down. But this time I was scared, because I was so very out of it and I had such a tenuous handle on... everything.

When the hour was up he did the typical "Well, it looks like we're out of time" therapist thing, but when I stood up to leave and fumbled through my wallet for the check, he hesitated and said we had a couple more minutes. I sat down again, and he gave me some suggestions - one of which was to go to the student counseling center and talk to them about medication. I have tried hard to avoid medication for reasons I don't totally understand. Perhaps it's a control thing. Perhaps it's a fear that the medicine won't work, and then what will I do? What will my options be? Perhaps it's the worry that the medicine will work for a while, and then it will stop.

But this time I think I'm ready to try it. What happened last week truly terrified me. It's not like comprehensive exams were the scariest thing in the world, nor should they have been as stressful as I managed to make them. I think they were just the straw that broke the camel's back... Between that, and my mom getting sick, and traveling last month, and having this cold that won't go away, plus all of the other things that are always running obsessively through my head anyway, plus what just may be chemical issues in my brain that I can't control, I shut down. I broke.

So in two weeks I have an appointment with a psychiatrist. I know that by then I may be feeling fine. I may have forgotten what I felt like a few days ago (and what I still feel like, a little - these episodes leave an emotional residue). But regardless, I'm doing it anyway, and I'm going to make sure the doctor understands that despite my placid and friendly-looking exterior, I need some help.

One of my friends sent me a link to a blog entry about a guy who was afraid to go on medication but found that it made a real difference for him. It's a Christian blog, and I'm not a Christian, but it was moving and helpful and comforting anyway:

I especially relate to this - this feeling that I can't rest, I can't make my mind stop, I'm a failure, life is rushing by and I can never quite catch it: "My life had been wasted. I'd accomplished nothing, and the sorrow of it all was descending on me. The vanished years! I've done nothing! Where did the time go? Life is too fast, rushing by like a freight train, and I couldn't get on it... I'd previously lie there and think about how I blew it on the air this morning; how I never should have quit talk radio; how I shouldn't have said that one awkward thing five, 10, or 25 years ago;  how I'd wasted whatever I'd been given; how I'd failed to provide a yard for my kids to play in; how the years were slipping by, and, though my wife said differently, I just knew I wasn't doing enough as a dad or a husband or a child of God."

In the two years that I have known my therapist, he has never recommended medication. I'm not sure that's really his thing. He has recommended talking, meditation, yoga, tai chi, and rest. He has recommended opening up to other people and taking some risks in order to develop friendships. He has recommended relying on my family when things get tough. He has recommended that I call him if I need to, even if it is 11 p.m. on a Saturday night (he doesn't mind and he will call me back, he says). But the other day, I think he could see that I have kind of hit my limit. I think he could see how scared I was and how tired I was - of myself.

I did get through the critique, by the way. After my therapy session I came home and slept for two hours. Then I hauled myself out of bed, somehow wrote something that my advisor said was thoughtful and comprehensive, and put together a presentation that, while not an oratory masterpiece, served its purpose. In all honesty, I have no idea how I did it. I really don't. I'm just glad it's over.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Aim for results, not accolades

The past two months have been relentless and exhausting, so much so that I could feel myself stumbling through life in a total daze, losing perspective, becoming ungrounded. First there was the conference in early December, then there was fieldwork, then there was the Christmas trip to see family, then there was a bout of bronchitis that hung on for weeks, and then there were my Ph.D. comprehensive exams.

Throughout the last six weeks the exams have been at the forefront of my mind, and I've been studying for at least a good five or six hours a day, if not more. Oftentimes my family would go to bed and I'd be up reading and taking notes. I'd get up in the morning, eat breakfast, and break out the books again. I took one day off - Christmas - but otherwise, I was loathe to give it a rest. In the short history of my department's Ph.D. program, no-one has failed their comps and only a couple of people have received conditional passes. I did not want to be the first person to totally bomb, especially because there were two other women in my program taking their comps at the same time, and we're all in the same subfield. That would be humiliating - to fail as they passed. All three of us worried about it. All three of us were freaked out about struggling through while the other two skated by. And all three of us were horrified at the thought of being compared to one another (we still are).

The exams started on Thursday of this past week. I knew they'd be tiring, but I felt ready. I guess I wasn't prepared for just how draining they would be. The question sets I received were doable, but they were also really long and challenging. I spent nine hours on the questions on Thursday, another three hours on a second batch of questions yesterday, and then had my oral exam yesterday afternoon. I did my best, but it's hard to maintain a high level of quality when you've been sitting there, thinking and writing, for an entire day. I know some of my responses were weaker than they could have been simply because clarity and concision fizzled away by the day's end.

I passed. My friends passed, too. I have mixed feelings about the entire experience. On one hand, I feel great that this is over (save for a critical paper review next week, but for some reason that seems less intimidating than the exam) and pleased that I got through it. I'm proud of the three of us as a group - three women in science, marching this long road together. The comprehensive exam is a big hurdle in the Ph.D. process - and we surmounted it.

On the other hand, I find myself ruminating on the things I missed or didn't explain well enough. They had told us that during the oral part, they'd focus on test answers that were fuzzy or incorrect and help us work through them. Of course all three of us had some fuzzy answers, but for some reason I felt really bad about mine. Why is it that I think I should be able to get all of the right answers, all the time? Why, after three decades, do I STILL believe that I need to be perfect? Why do I still want to be the best, the smartest? It's ridiculous, and I see that... The oral part actually went really well in many ways. They'd wanted me to get to a certain (and pretty obscure) conclusion on one of the written questions, but I hadn't, and so we addressed it step by step. Even though I showed them that I knew all of the concepts and equations needed to get there (even managing to remember some pretty complicated diagrams and drawing them on the board), and even though it led to a productive discussion about possible future research, and even though they seemed to enjoy the conversation and think I did well, all I could see was where I had failed.

There was even a part of me thinking, "They shouldn't have had to ask you ANY questions. They should have looked at you and said, 'We have nothing to say because you got it all right!'" Which is beyond ridiculous. It is a Ph.D. comprehensive exam. The point is to put you on the spot and test you and challenge you. And the question that I only "did okay" on was a tough one: the answer was elegantly simple but in all honesty I would have never, ever gotten there on my own - even if I'd studied for two more months - because I would have never been able to see the problem from the perspective my advisors wanted me to see it from. I needed their help to get there. I am trying to be okay with that - with not being able to get everywhere without help.

My only resolution for 2012 is the title of this post: Aim for results, not accolades. Or in the words of actress Helen Hayes, "My mother drew a distinction between achievement and success. She said that 'Achievement is the knowledge that you have studied and worked hard and done the best that is in you. Success is being praised by others, and that's nice, too, but not as important or satisfying. Always aim for achievement and forget about success.'"

I have spent so much time in my life worrying about what others think, trying to figure out how to gain their approval and be their "favorite." Looking back, that tactic hasn't gotten me anywhere. If anything it's held me back. How many times have I quit jobs or other endeavors because I wasn't the best, because I didn't win, because someone else did better?

Now I've found a field that I love. I get up in the morning excited to do the research I do. I could talk about it all day (fortunately for those around me, I hold back). Perfectionism will not be allowed to mess this up for me. I'm trying to forget about winning people's approval and focus on meeting the daily, weekly, and semester-long goals that I set for myself. I have high expectations and standards: if I meet my own goals, eventually I will get to where I want to go. Ultimately, that's what will allow me to achieve - not praise from other people.

At any rate, at this point I am relieved, tired, and - annoyingly - sick again. Antibiotics killed the bronchitis but they couldn't prevent this new cold virus that I seem to have picked up overnight. So now I'm going to spend the day resting, playing, and eating, and NOT looking at books, thank God.