“Go to college,” they said. “You were made for that environment.” Meaning what? That I was made for the rigor of school, studying, and long chemistry labs? Or perhaps that I was meant to enjoy the stereotypical frat parties and drink cheap booze under a waning moon. Who am I kidding—it was totally the former. The former being a life, if you could call it that, of reading textbooks and spending hours doing online inorganic chemistry problems in an effort to achieve that elusive “A” in a weedout class. I did well in school, but everything else fell to pieces around me while the work took over my vacations, friendships, and sleep.
In reality, I could do school, but I couldn’t do life. There were a couple of classes that no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get an “A” and sometimes not even a “B.” Perhaps it was due to being chronically malnourished from years of anorexia, or maybe my brain just wasn’t made for that line of thinking. Regardless, school was my life, and thus if I failed at school then I failed at life, because school was how I earned my worth as a human being. But, I made it through undergrad classes, semi-intact, and floundering half-heartedly through my recovery from anorexia. I was accepted into a graduate program in Tennessee, and so I packed up my belongings and drove myself from Texas to a new and exciting segment of my life, where I thought things would be better. “Go to grad school,” they said. “You did so well in undergrad, you love to learn, and it will be hard, but it will also be wonderful.”
Fast-forward two years to where I have been hammered into a harder, more cynical, and different person than I was when I started. I am plagued by the suspicion that I chose the wrong path by embarking on this graduate school journey. I have learned so much and I wouldn’t change the person I’ve evolved into, but the psychological toll has been difficult to handle. Sometimes I suspect that my brain is not equipped to juggle all of these equally strenuous commitments—12 hours of classes accompanied by mountains of reading and paper writing, thesis writing, working in research labs, going to concurrent field experiences on the weekends, internships, studying for comprehensive exams, and so much more. I’m smart, don’t get me wrong. But my brain isn’t quite resilient enough to handle all of those expectations while also struggling to meet the unrealistic expectations of a tyrannical advisor, and while also maintaining my mental health. I’ve cracked so many times, and it’s been a miserable past two years dominated by a program that has made me feel like shit.
Prior to starting, and during, grad school, I have been working on attaining a better balance in my life. I can compartmentalize with the best of ‘em, but my school compartment was always the biggest one. Now my compartments have adjusted to allow for a more well-rounded lifestyle that includes doing things with friends, dating, eating fun foods and having some alcohol, loving on my kitties, exercising, getting a healthy amount of sleep every night, and being OK with being happy. But grad school summers like this one throw off that balance and push me back into a lifestyle where I just study, peck away at documents in my computer, watch Netflix on the weekends, and avoid sunlight like I’ll turn to dust if it touches me. I realized yesterday that I haven’t done anything for fun with friends since late May, and I’m miserable and depressed. This is what happens when my brain’s stress and anxiety threshold is demolished, and in months like these I think that maybe I wasn’t meant for grad school.
I will finish because I am so close to being done, but I can’t say that I would do it again if I had the choice. Would I have inevitably become the person I am now without this program? In so many ways I cherish the person that I have become, but I also hate the process that shaped me into this. I want to have a more balanced life, and I no longer want to hide behind the shield of academia. I live the life of a lifelong learner—yes, from textbooks, but also gleaning all I can from the beauty and pain of being a human in an imperfect world. I’ll know in future years whether grad school was worth all the mental anguish I’ve experienced, but as of right now, I still suspect that maybe I wasn’t meant for grad school.