So the other day, my Peace Lily died.
I had moved it to my back room, a space in my apartment that faces the alley and gets little light. It did well for a few months, then suddenly started to turn black. Root rot. First, the tips went dark and droopy, so I watered it. Then the leaves turned black fully, so I cut them. New leaves came up green, so I watered them, then they turned black, so I cut them. I cut the roots and repotted it, and watered it some more. On and on it went until there was nothing left. A month or so after the first black leaves, there was barely anything left. I threw it away.
Since coming back to the US, I’ve been struggling to find my footing again. I haven’t felt like myself in a long time, and I’ve been making an effort to get back to that self-assuredness, that self-confidence again. But it’s elusive. As it turns out, this new me is the old me, but I don’t recognize her. So I keep watering her.
It’s been hard to write anything for myself or read anything for pleasure lately. This semester has been… hard to say the least. My family’s a bit concerned for me, which is the last thing I wanted. I’ve started to see a therapist again (I shouldn’t have ever stopped going, boy is therapy wonderful), and I’m struggling to work with myself. I want to be blooming in my new life, but I don’t think that I am. Up until this point, I just kept my head down and kept working. Submitting assignments and doing the work when I could.
When I could.
The Me Right Now.
Most of my days, to be honest, are me putting off my assignments as the work piles up and my house becomes a mess. It’s a daily pruning of some messy dead parts of my life while I continue to ignore the roots of the issue. I am an expert procrastinator, I can play videogames for hours and surf the web until I find just one more thing to research or read or watch to put things off one more time. I’m not sure what’s wrong with me. I just don’t want to do this anymore.
In those endless hours of procrastination, I did manage to do some things successfully. I presented at an international conference at Howard University. I sat in on presentations both in Spanish and Portuguese and was able to make heads or tails of them. I have to remember to be nice to myself as Dr. Camila Daniel told me as she sat in on my Spanish-language class on feminism. I haven’t been in a language course in nearly 6 years, so the fact that I’ve retained as much as I have and can participate as much as I can is remarkable. I should be proud.
I’ve thought a lot about quitting. I’m in a PhD program because I love to learn, I love to explore and think. I’m also here because I can’t keep deferring my student loan payments unless I’m enrolled. It’s the main reason I’m back in the US. Within these reasons, however, I’m don’t yet a see a future for me in this program. I’m not thriving. I’m barely hanging on. While yes, I’m still managing to produce, the amount of stress and pain and torture that comes before that is making the end product a lot less attractive for me.
I realized that I wasn’t doing well when I had to acknowledge that I didn’t want to do something. I pushed this feeling down, however, and kept at it. The facade of having it together started to slip, however, when I started missing assignments. When I started to forget meetings at work. When staying in bed became preferable to success. My leaves have started turning black. I don’t want anything right now as much as I want rest. This has happened before.
It happened during my master’s degree. I didn’t know I was graduating until the day before. I crawled across that finish line and swore I wasn’t doing it again. It happened after my first year of my dream job. I had never felt so incompetent at anything before. I broke down crying in the office and ran outside. The next day just the sight of the building triggered me back into tears. I hated it so much I left the country. Now I’m back, and feeling it again. It scares me. I don’t know if I’ll ever be satisfied with my life.
In the book, “Leaving the Ivory Tower,” Barbara Lovitts enumerates two main reasons for why people leave their PhD programs. The first is “pluralistic ignorance,” when a student feels that they are the only one experiencing their issues, and thus leaving because it’s them with the problem. Everyone else is doing fine, so it must be me, I’m not cut out for it. The second is anomie, an idea introduced by sociologist Emile Durkheim that describes how the absence of norms and structures influence behavior. In this case, a student decides that they cannot conform to the behaviors and norms of their discipline, I’m not cut out for this degree, I can’t do the things they want me to do. I think I have a little bit of both.
Academia is not meant to be easy, in fact, it’s meant to be exclusionary and ostracizing. It doesn’t care if you’re smart or clever, the degree is just to symbolize that you can handle a lot of difficult tasks for a very long time. The system is working as designed when my education is paid for under the condition that I don’t seek work elsewhere and instead I work for the university on a salary so meager I’m just above the poverty line. I’m supposed to manage the workload that I have while also producing extracurricular work not just to get ahead, but to keep up with others around the world. When my job gave me a 9-month contract, leaving me high and dry in the summer, I had to work a temp job on campus that paid me about $600 a month (at least an entire month went by without any work and money at all), that was typical. When PhD students joke about the hell they’re going through in the process to another degree, we’re all supposed to laugh at our collective misery.
I’m not good at the work I do. The real trick of academia, being a high-achiever, or being a young adult is the concern of whether or not the frustration I’m feeling is because I don’t know how to persevere when I’m not doing well at something for the first time, or whether or not I truly am not capable of succeeding where I am. Whenever I share this pain with others, I’m told, “Well, nobody likes their jobs.” “It’s supposed to be hard, you have to get tougher.” I understand then, to these people, I’m whining, I’m soft.
I’m only doing well in school because it’s a skill, a muscle I’ve trained over the years to understand the norms of school, but even that muscle gets tired. I’ve been in school all my life, save two years of travel and work. I’m tired. At this moment, I don’t care to continue. I don’t want to be part of a system that treats people this way. I’m not sure what that means though.
From a young age, I’ve conflated who I am with what I do, what I produce. I’m a student. I’m an academic. I’ve spent so much time being that, that I don’t know who I am outside of it. It makes my relationship with academia a somewhat toxic one, because no matter what it puts me through, I keep going with it. I trim the roots of myself, trying to grow into the role of the perfect student. I say yes to every opportunity, I apply to scholarships only to get rejected. I network with professors to see what I can learn from them. If they did it, so could I. I am inspired, I say to myself after every meet and greet. But that feeling is fleeting and it always passes.
If I were to leave, what would I be? A failure? A dropout? Someone who wasn’t good enough. Someone who couldn’t figure it out. A disappointment. All of my family and friends who have affectionately been calling me Doctor, what am I to them? To me, what would I be? Someone who couldn’t live up to her potential? Someone who failed to bloom where she was? Someone who was smothered by it all. Someone who drowned.
I’m still not sure which way I’m going to go with this. I’ve been considering withdrawing from classes, I have one more day to decide whether or not I’m going to do it. Such an action would force me to reckon with these feelings officially, as I would have to justify it to my advisors and professors in a weird paternalistic sort of way. I’ve been internalizing all of these thoughts for so long, speaking them into existence would make them real. I’m not sure if I’m ready for that, nor if it’s what I really want.
I want rest. I want to just be okay. I’m trying to be what I need to be to thrive, but I don’t think that I can. I don’t know.
Writing this wasn’t fun. I felt compelled to do it while alone in the office at the job I’m not very good at. The words all rushed out and I cried alone in my office. I stepped outside for some fresh air, barely kept it together to get some food, then fell apart again once I got back into the building staircase. The feelings all felt so familiar.
I felt the need to update the blog because this is A Ticket for Two, and I promised to bring you along, but in my efforts to manage myself, I’ve been self-isolating. And it seems like a sort of betrayal to stay quiet. It’s also cathartic to let out my thoughts like this. Maybe someone else needs to hear it. If anything, I can reread this and try to understand myself better. I’m not sure if I should even hit publish but.
Here we go.
Thanks for reading.