Monday, May 27, 2013

Mental Illness and Grad School: You aren't alone

As I bind up these various articles, notes, and papers  into neatly-made subject-specific binders for my comprehensives, I am left to reflect on past  years and the struggles I have had.  Currently, I am not even half way done with my courses and the tower of binders is higher than our coffee table.  My roommate faced a similar situation in January while studying for her comps.

But it gets me thinking.  There's a LIFE in there.  There's my academic life- the good, the bad, the awful, the REALLY good.  There's a student just on the verge in there and an academic ready to publish in there.  Well, on that last part, I can dream, right?

In there, I manage to see that even during the worst times of my life, I've managed to take good notes and keep it relatively together.  There have been points when I honestly didn't feel like living was the best option in my life.  Most of those points were pre-grad school but my first year here was hellacious.  It was wrought with financial difficulty when the university made an accounting error and granted me no money for 3 months.  It was full of more financial difficulty and physical pain after an emergency surgery left me with a $3500.00 hospital bill in the middle of my second semester.

And yet, here I am.  I'm the strongest I've ever been.  It hasn't been an easy week, after all.  My roommate is dealing with tough shit, too.  Everyone is.

Recent talk of mental illness on twitter got me thinking about things.  Several people have been talking about this on my feed.  One commenter noted that she was dealing with problems that seem to be similar to issues that I have with OCD but didn't want to be "labeled" or have it reported back to her supervisor.  Grad students worry about such things.  Hell, I worry about this blog labeling me in some ways but I think the blog shows that there is far more to me than OCD or bipolar disorder.

Most people wouldn't see me and go "yep, she's got a mental illness".  A lot of people are surprised to find this out if they ever get to know me well enough.  I certainly don't TRY to hide it.  If someone is to ask me, I cop to it because I want to show people I'm NOT afraid.  And that's a personal prerogative   Not everyone has to be so open.  But I don't appear any different.  I do well in my program.  This year is a year that has been rough because I have been diagnosed with something new.  PTSD is now the new word.  Another diagnosis - oh, joy!

But my therapist said something to me that stuck.  How many people can you think of that you would label as being "OCD" or "bipolar"? "No one," I replied.  But then he asked me how many people I know have mood or anxiety disorders in academia.  I counted in my head for quite some time.  He then asked me how many people that I had known had had panic attacks.  I counted some more.  There were more people than I could count on fingers and toes.  And, while these disorders may be "labeled" something, I don't label the person that.  I doubt that anyone else does the labeling thing, too, despite a high prevalence of mental illness and anxiety disorders among academics.

It's not a surprise that many of us have such similar issues.  Grad school is incredibly stressful.  It can be down right impossible.  You work 80 hour days, you take your work home with you, and the only people you generally hang out with live with you, work with you, research with you, and share your interests.  It's a giant, stress-induced fishbowl of epic proportions.  We're talking The Hills for smart people sort of drama!

I work in an office with 14 of my colleagues - basically all in one big room.  We know WAY too much about one another and boy have I seen a lot of panic attacks.  I've talked people down and they've done the same for me.  So I know many people who suffer from similar illnesses.  But they are still just people I know, respect, and talk to on a daily basis.  They are friends and colleagues.  And no one judges them for it - or they really shouldn't.  That'd make them terrible people.  As long as you do your job and aren't a total ass, no one cares.

But that doesn't mean you should suffer.  And labels only matter if you let them.  I don't think of myself as bipolar, for example.  I, like many people in my family, suffer from the disorder but I am still probably the most functional diagnosed person in my family.  That's a source of pride in some ways.  I'm NOT the disorder I was so afraid to be labeled as.  I did not want to suffer the way I have seen other family members suffer.  I did not want it to be this ugly mark on my record.

But, you know what?  It's not.  As long as I don't let it.  It's not easy to do that.  It's easy to get sucked in and scared.  I'm not saying that it hasn't taken a long time.  It's taken three years of intensive therapy, maintenance, and drugs to get me to this point but that success is on me.  A lot of other people do the same and you'd never know.

And really, everybody's got SOMETHING.  If it's not mental illness, it's a death in the family or something major.  One of my colleagues lost his father last year.  His father was dying while he was taking comps.  I have had friends that have suffered from really bad illnesses themselves while dealing with the stress of grad school.  Some people have families or start families.  Everybody's got something that makes things hard.

So, don't feel alone.  Just feel like you have the right to be stressed and you have the right to talk to others about this stress - especially medical professionals that CAN help.  And feel that no one has the right to define you with a stupid label, sure.  But get that help and hold your head high.  The only other choice is to throw your hands up and give up.  Fuck that.  You're a grad student.  You came this far partially because you ARE crazy for wanting to do this to yourself and partially because you are insanely motivated and WANT this.  Don't let anything take that from you.  You are a million, billion times stronger than that.

Sunday, May 26, 2013


In the last week or so, my life has changed in oh-so-many-ways.  This has led to me wondering, "am I directionless?"

I've broken up with my long-term boyfriend. That's the first major thing.  Well, he broke up with me.  It's a long story and it was sudden but he has a lot on his plate and I have a lot on mine.  It's for the best.  That's okay.  The way he did it was far from glorious (would it ever be?) but this is the first time I have had a breakup and haven't worried about my ex running to badmouth me publicly every five minutes. That's kind of a big deal.  Our relationship was good until it wasn't.  I took on a lot of his emotional baggage and it stressed me out.  I had no clue how much stress I'd endured on his behalf until it was over and I finally slept for the first time in weeks and had a good sleep.

When it all came crashing down in the end, there was no warning.  He made a decision and it stung.  But, despite that, I feel okay.  I cried a little and then moved on.  It does hurt to love someone and then lose them.  But you also take the good with you.  The things you learned are always priceless whether they be good or bad.  And, in this case, they were mostly good.

With that finished, there was the usual department drama and then nothing.  Dead silence.  The grading for the class everyone loathes to TA the most was done.  And it seemed the clouds had parted.  Then, my roommate suffered and awful kidney stone and I have seen hauled her to the ER twice in the past week.  She's in misery and it kills me to see her in pain.  She's one of the only people in the world I would trust with my life so I care a lot about her.  She was the one that saved me when I needed emergency surgery back in 2011.  She held my hand and was with me until I was in recovery.  She drove me to that ER.  It still means the world to me that she did it.  But it still stresses me out because now I feel like I can't take the meds I need to sleep.  None of this is anyone's fault - like most things in life - but life is rarely fair and makes sense almost none of the time.

I'm exercising and forcing myself to eat because of this lack of sleep.  Three things reset my body and make me not so prone to upswings in mood (code: mania).  One is eating. I tend not to eat when stressed or upset.  The second is exercise.  I need this to stay balanced.  The biggest one is the third - sleep.  People with bipolar disorder are all different but many will face trouble sleeping and will need medication on board to do so successfully. This is my problem.  If I take the med I need the most, I really can't drive.  But, if my roommate needs me to drive, I need to be able to do so.  It's a catch 22 that I hate but I have no control over it, unfortunately.  So, I don't sleep.  And I would rather do that then let her down.

Not sleeping means mania and mania is bad.

It hasn't all been bad, though.  However, I felt initially that I was directionless post-breakup.  We had been making plans.  Things seemed to be more in control until suddenly they weren't.

Now, everything is open again.  In some ways, this is good.  I don't have to worry about another human being during this transition phase.  I'm my own woman again making decisions just for me.  However, it still feels as though I have very little structure.  And as someone who loves structure - enough to devote a life to studying that structure in the form of bureaucracies - it's really a bitter pill to swallow.

However, they say when one door closes another door opens.  For me, that's in the form of random responses to cold emails I sent out last week.  I have gotten some great offers to come up to Canada at the end of June.  I hope one of the places I go will sponsor me for a Fulbright. It wouldn't come at a better time. I need something (well, something other than comps).  So, they are saying "come on up" and I am going to go.  I'm going to make the best, most epic road trip know to man or womankind out of it.  I'll visit friends and see new places and make a long ass drive through some of the prettiest country I could imagine because that's what I do now, I guess.  I don't have any other obligations.  I just have this.

So, maybe directionless is a bad way to put it.  Maybe, instead, I should refer to it as a new juncture.  It's not that I lack direction.  It's that my future is wide open.  And maybe that is a good thing.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Would you talk to your boss that way?

"I deserve an A" was something I heard a lot this semester.  And every semester but this one, in particular, was pretty awful.

Entitlement.  It's a problem I deal with on a daily basis and it's everywhere.  It's not just something common in undergrads.  It's common with people of all ages and Americans, I have found in my travels, are pretty bad offenders.  We have EVERYTHING it would seem and we have a desire to have even more stuff on the spot.  And, for the most part, we can get most things either at the drop of a hat or at the click of a mouse.

I think that's part of the entitlement problem among undergraduates.  As we all know, higher education is more available to students from upper-middle-class  and wealthy families than anyone else.  It's natural that these kids have had more and feel entitled to more.  I hate to say it but I was once one of these kids.  While my parents made me have a job, didn't buy me a car and forced me to ride my bike places, and demanded that I make good grades, I still had relatively well-off parents who were able to pay for the 100 grand that my education must have cost me.  They paid a large part of my costs while I was abroad.  And, to their credit, I graduated with very little debt.  I was lucky.  And before living abroad, I was probably a bit of an entitled snot.  However, despite this, I never backtalked to a TA the way that these undergrads often talk to myself and others.

Just last week, I found a student treating me like I was completely at his beck and call.  He had a paper due on Friday.  He'd known about the due date for WEEKS.  I'd sent 3 emails reminding my classes about this due date - in my box by Friday on class time with .do and .log files attached.  He'd even come to my office hours to clarify a couple of things and said, "I think you'll like the improvements I made when you read it tomorrow."  Yep. Well, he emails me a 10 PM to let me know he can't hand it in because he is going on a leadership retreat and won't be on campus after 7 AM.  I shoot him an email back because it's urgent and say, "Look, I wish you would have told me sooner.  The mailroom doesn't open until 8 and you need to have me a copy."  He then sends me an email saying, "Can you meet me at 6:30 AM?"

Now, this is not a student that has ever been disrespectful.  He's a good kid.  He tries at least.  And I don't think it was intentionally disrespectful but it was just that - disrespectful of my time.  He didn't plan well and suddenly it was MY job to go out of my way?  I don't think so.

On the first draft of this paper, another student sent me a terrible message via email at 10 PM stating that my lack of replying to his email an hour earlier was "unfair" and that he was "disappointed in me".  Excuse me?  I deserve admonishment because you waited until the night before the paper to start it and expected me to respond at 9 PM.  Unbelievable!

In these instances, I often ask and have said in class, "Would you talk to your boss like this?"  I'm in charge of their grade. I'm the leader here, ostensibly. And to talk to me in such a patronizing manner is NOT okay.  I made this clear to dead-eyed stares.

Why do they not "get" it?

Well, I have a couple of theories.  The first is of entitlement which is related to the second theory.  The way they have always gotten a trophy is translating to a situation where they don't "get it".  They were told they could get the job they want right out of school.  They were given whatever they wanted as children.  I was part of this generation in some ways, too.  I'm about 3-5 years older than them - not that much older.  But that A is "deserved". It's not earned.  They are owed it.

The second is that, much like my younger sister, many of them didn't have the opportunities to get part time jobs.  They didn't have an economy that was allowing them to get hired.  And so, many of them didn't get the wonderful experience of working a crappy job for a likely awful boss.  They don't "get" hourly terrible work. A lot of them are journalism students or intern at the statehouse and these jobs are what some would consider "dream jobs" for an undergrad.  The journalism school and our department are GREAT at placing students and getting them real-world experience - much better than my undergrad.  This is super important and admirable.

However, they get jobs that are "fun" this way.  And a lot of them work about 10 hours a week in a situation they elect to be in. I have no doubt that they do not backtalk to supervisors but, in general, their jobs are "fun".  I think they just have trouble "getting it".

I fear for those going on the job market this way.  Have we prepared them for the "real world"?  I don't think so.  Work is a four-letter word.  Sometimes it sucks.  Sometimes you want to scream at your boss or get all passive-aggressive but you can't because you need to pay the bills.  And, sometimes your boss is riding you because they are right and they know you have the goods to deliver but you need a "push".  I am not sure we are teaching them that.

Not all students act like this.  Some are amazing, motivated, inspiring, and the nicest kids to work with.  It's the few that make me want to beat my head against a wall on a regular basis that I am talking about.  Most of my kids are awesome.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Well F*ck, That's Over

Today, I woke up with a flurry of emotions.  I had two papers to turn in.  Two LAST papers.  Two papers that were pretty much done a week ago that I've putzed with for the last week.  I just had to make a couple of changes, proof, search for contractions, etc.  In an hour, I'd basically be done with them.

However, I didn't want to get out of bed.  I didn't want to get up and move.  I was just so incredibly overwhelmed that I couldn't manage it.

My boyfriend thought I was nuts.  He had already gotten up and decided to walk my dog for me because, well, he's a nice guy.  He probably had no clue, or so I thought, what was going on.

And for that reason, I didn't want to say. When he asked me what I even had left to do that day, knowing both of my papers were due by about 4 PM that time, he assumed I'd say, "Oh, well, nothing really" and get my big butt out of bed.  However, I just burst into tears and sobbed.

It wasn't until this morning that it had dawned on me that it's over.  Really over.  Coursework is done. Yes, I am electing to take a summer course this summer - mainly because I want to learn more about communication and content analysis but this was my last semester. I never have to do this again, right?

And now what?  Comps.  I immediately said, "I'm going to fail comps."  But he denied that and assured me that I wouldn't fail my stupid comps because, well, he's my boyfriend.  And he's just telling me what all the other faculty members I know have been telling me.  So, he's not in the minority.

But it was clear that I had been delaying handing things in for the first time in my life.  What do I do from here?  What can I do?  It's frightening and today, it's real.

So, I've talked about it a lot leading up to this point but today it hit me.  I've got to pass these comps.  I'm gonna study like I mean it but no one can ever be assured a pass.  And then what?  What do I do after that? Work on a dissertation?  I'm just so floored that I feel this way.

I rode my bike because, well, what else was I gonna do?  Yes, of course, I have a stack of papers to grade and sure I'll have finals on Friday but my calendar is free for a bit.  I deserve a break, right?

I rode my bike with strength- abandon even!  I mean, what else was I gonna do?  It's stressful to think about the future.  It's normal to feel that way. But I feel like everything's changing.  The bike may be the only constant.