When I named our blog Mama Nervosa, I thought it was sort of ha-ha funny. Oh, I’m so neurotic! It’s so amusing! But time has shown that it was a rather uncannily accurate descriptor, at least for me (maybe not as much for Jen). Obviously, a lot of my writing, especially around quitting grad school, has dealt with dark and intense emotions. And sometimes, my writing about motherhood veers towards the anxious, confused, or unhappy. Since day one, I’ve wanted to represent myself and my reality in a frank and hopefully funny way, although it’s not as funny as I wanted it to be.
Thing is, this has been a tough six months for me. Quitting grad school is incredibly difficult, as we have documented, and I have struggled with it. But really, it’s more than that: quitting grad school shook me to my core, and now it’s bringing up a bunch of really messy, dark stuff that’s been dormant, too. I’m now dealing with deeper, more longterm problems that have been on hold or deferred or ignored while I was in grad school. The last 2-3 months have been extremely hard for me, emotionally, even though on the surface everything worked out fairly well (I have a good job and necessary income: things could be so much worse). But I liken it to lifting up a rock and peering at all the gross stuff beneath. Or cleaning a room that seems rather messy but then you get in there and realize, oh shit, this is going to take me all day. The depression and unhappiness that led me to quit grad school is just the tip of the iceberg. The confusion and identity shifts that quitting brought on go way deeper than just the vocation I was aiming for, or the kind of student I wanted to be.
Piero… via Compfight
JC has written eloquently about the mental health problems that plague graduate students. Grad school is a breeding ground for depression, hopelessness, and disillusionment, and I certainly suffered from all of those problems as a student. But I think that even beyond the obvious stressors, the culture of graduate school sort of arrests our development and growth. We end up trading water in a stage of life that’s not quite adulthood, but beyond adolescence. The continuous cycle of renewal — a new school year, a new job market season, a new semester, a new round of courses — can (at least for me, I imagine for many) act as a feedback loop which it’s very hard to break out of or think beyond. The endless chance of renewal makes it so much easier to wait and see and defer dealing with a problem. I’m unhappy in school, but maybe next semester will be better. I hate coursework, but let’s see if getting out of it makes me feel better. I no longer love this field, but this other one over here is really exciting and I can move in that direction.
Thus, you never deal with the problems of right now. You can deny, deny, deny, until you break down and quit. You can be terribly unhappy but certain that a solution is right around the corner. It’s so alluring to stay in that world because then you don’t have to face the fears and horrible outside world. I know because I lived that, over and over again. Fear kept me in school. Certainly, the grad school culture of perpetual hope and refusal to discuss/acknowledge anything negative or weak or worrying encouraged me to avoid pain and avoid dealing with problems in the same way it encouraged me to go into deeper and deeper financial debt.
I think that I expected quitting would break that cycle and that stepping into the light of the real world would fix me. I mean, I knew it would be a tough transition, but I truly believed finding a paying job would fix me in a certain way. That the benefits of real life, money, time, etc — all the things denied to me in grad school — would overwhelm the sadness and uncertainty. That I wouldn’t be sad anymore.
But now I am not only dealing with the fallout from quitting, I’m dealing with a backlog of personal issues that got denied and deferred for most of my twenties. I’m dealing with my psychological debt, in a way: suddenly facing a huge payoff because I kept borrowing more time. I’m dealing with immense darkness and feeling awful. I’m spending a lot of time meeting with psychiatrists and therapists. (I’m so deeply relieved that I have health insurance and the means to pursue these options.)
I’ve wrestled with sharing this because I am afraid that people will be like fuck that! I’m staying in grad school! I still think quitting was the right thing to do. I’m glad I have a job. I’m glad I’m not still stuck in that cycle of magical thinking. But I want to be honest with you and everyone about the toll grad school may continue to take on us, long after we leave. Anyone who’s ever been in a 12 step program or faced dealing with some major trauma knows that you reach a point where you can’t go on living this way anymore, but you are also terrified to try to live without the things you’ve been clinging to. It becomes both impossible and necessary to change yourself completely. I’m standing on that precipice right now. The only thing I know for sure, from past experience, is that hope is on the other side. I’d rather be struggling towards hope than running in the opposite direction. I had to quit to get this point.
So, quitting might not always be pretty, but I still think it’s better.