“I’m a grad school drop out.” He smiled up at me from his chair as I stood next to him in a dimly-lit room. I offered a shrug and smile of my own.
“There are days I wish I could say the same.” I noted, and waited for the story to continue. I didn't go to work yesterday. Spent some time thinking of excuses over why I couldn't go today. But I made it - gritted my teeth and forced myself into the car, out of the garage and back into the world of work.
“It started out OK. I was part of a large class – about three times what the expected for that particular department. So when faced with something so new – such a big group of students – there was turmoil in the department.
“Some faculty wanted to do the right thing – honor what they’d told us during recruitment, adhere to the guidelines that had previously been in place. But others wanted to change the rules, take advantage, switch everything around. There just happened to be more people in the latter group. So, as a student, there was no feeling of certainty or power.”
I nodded – that’s not just true of students. I’m lately left feeling helpless a good deal, watching the world with a mixture of fear and confusion, trying to determine if my perceptions match reality, if someone’s going to hurt me, how I can protect my bruised heart from more pain.
“So what happened?” I asked. Grad school – life – can be unpleasant. I vividly recall bringing a handbook to a meeting near the end of my graduate career and saying, “This isn’t right! You can’t just make up rules at the end!” But you can. If you hold the upper hand when it comes to power, you can devise new rules, disregard old ones, ruthlessly play with someone’s life.
“Well, there was an exam. I took it at the end of my second semester. Failed.”
I made a sympathetic face, but waited for him to continue.
“I studied more, took another semester of classes, then took it again. Thought I did pretty well. Knew the material. But my advisor called me in and told me two things. No, three things.” He corrected himself, holding up the appropriate number of fingers.
“First, I failed. But I’d been very close. Second, if he’d known how the other professors were going to score the remainder of the exam, he would have scored his portion higher to make sure I passed. He didn’t feel that overall exam was fair and regretted that he hadn’t done something to help me. And third,” He finished, looking down at his index finger before curling it into his palm, “one of my classmates had my same score, but for a couple of reasons, she had been granted a conditional pass. I would not be afforded the same favor.”
It’s difficult, I decided – then (at my defense) and now (after this personal thing). I’m driven by an obsessive need to understand, to know, to talk. I don’t shy away from conflict – it’s how I figure things out. I like to argue – when there’s mutual respect but disparate opinions, there’s an exquisite place where you can hear and be heard, where the exchange of information can be passionate yet loving. Where – especially as I get older – I don’t need you to change your mind, think the way I do. I just need you to acknowledge my feelings, indicate you can see why I feel this way. That you like me anyway.
Of course, I want you to change your mind, see life the way it appears to me. That way I can get what I want, and I do enjoy that. I understand as much as I’m going to about my recent personal situation. I’ve considered my motivation in even greater detail that what I’ve written. The final email exchange illuminated several points which had been muddy. I get it, I think. As did I understand what happened around my defense. I saw their points – I didn’t agree – but I understood. And it gives me a basis for moving on, for letting go. It doesn’t make the process easy or painless – it still sucks and hurts – but there’s a certain power in at least comprehending why things didn’t go my way.
“So I took the test again,” he continued, “and finally passed. I was relieved more than anything – done with classes, moving forward with research, doing literature reviews to complete this plan for my thesis work.
“Then my wife – somehow – got herself pregnant.”
“Women.” I said, with a shake of my head and giggled when he laughed. “We can be so difficult sometimes.” He made a face of what I took to be strong agreement, then went back to his story.
“So I took a leave of absence when she wasn’t able to work anymore – I needed to make more money and we agreed that I’d leave the lab, work for a couple months, then return to start research for real.”
“And?” I said.
“And,” he said, letting his eyes focus over my shoulder as he remembered events that had unfolded before I’d been born, “I got a letter a week later saying that my fellowship had been terminated. That I could return to have my tuition and fees paid, but that my stipend was gone. Obviously we needed money – we had the baby then – so I was working full-time, and trying to finish up this literature review so that I knew my proposed research would work.
“I was tired,” he shook his head. “Unhappy. I didn’t know what I was doing this for. But I’d started it, so it seemed like I should finish.”
I understand that too. There’s a certain pride and focus that’s admirable in that. Once I’ve chosen a path, I’m walking the darn thing until it’s impossible to do so. I try to control that urge to stubbornly cling to the route I originally chose, but, well, that obviously doesn’t go so well. The will to believe that I was correct, that other people will see the wisdom and overwhelming desire in my decisions and partake of their roles in my plan, is incredibly strong.
But I also know that I can push myself too far. Offer more than I have to spare. Both with the defense and this recent personal matter, I had no idea how far I could fall. How badly it would hurt when I hit the ground. The pain was beyond my scope of experience, and my confidence – the stubborn nature, the cheerful willingness to continue on in the face of disappointments, the belief that things work out for a reason – shattered. First professionally – I’m paralyzed by self doubt at work, folks. And now personally.
“So I was two weeks into my lit search, almost finished, and I found a paper that solved the problem I had proposed.” He cleared his throat, shook his head. “They did it differently than I would have, but the question had been answered and published. It was over. So I sat and thought, then told my advisor. He said I’d have to reformulate a focus and plan from scratch. So I looked at what I’d done so far – all the courses and tests and departmental politics – then all the literature searching and writing and planning – and realized it’d be another year until I could start experimental work.
“It wasn’t worth it. I just didn’t want it that badly. So I left. Got a job. Worked. Had my family.”
I looked down at the paper he’d handed me. I’d come to see him about some administrative issue, and since I’d respectfully arrived far earlier than I could have, he took care of me right away. But as we waited for paperwork to process and print, we talked. And though I’ve met him before, I’d never been invited in his office. We’d never exchanged much more than a polite nod in the hallway. I’m not sure why he invited me in today – perhaps he had time, maybe he had a story I needed to hear, perhaps my face is the equivalent of a sign that says “I’m fragile. Please be kind to me.”
There’s no shame in taking another path. I know that – it’s better to act when you’re really sure part of your life isn’t working. My life isn’t working. But I’m so afraid that I can’t figure out what to do about it – I just keep doing what I’ve always done. Being unhappy and worried. Wondering where I’m going from here. Trying to find motivation and focus where there is none. Working to feel pleased with the accomplishments – the first of my thesis papers was published online recently and I looked at it today. Accepted the congratulations of my co-authors. Made a mental note to add it to my CV. – when I really feel curiously numb. I have to schedule meetings to trick myself into going to work. I’m buried in documents – all these words on paper that describe these grand plans – and I just don’t care.
And personally? I’m closing my eyes and shaking my head here. The bright side is that I’m letting go – my heart released its grip on him and while I’m not completely over it – there are times I miss him or wish it had been different – I’m getting there. While it’s nice to think we might someday be friends, the likelihood is that I’ll become a cringe-inducing memory for him, and he’ll become… something else for me. I don’t know, actually. I can’t tell from here. And it’s depressing – that I loved someone with this genuine intensity and it’ll just... go away. It’s gently easing back. I understand I’m done with that. There’s not a lot more to say.
Except I’m scared here too. People are supposed to like me! Especially those I get to know – those I love. So now I feel pitiful as I view each new person, timid because I don’t want to overstep. I don’t want to assume people like me, as was my habit, because it’s so humiliating to be wrong. I don’t want to get hurt again. I don’t know that I can cope with another failure. I’m not sure it’s worth it.
But I don’t know what to change. My personal views now mirror my professional problems and I feel like a little mouse in a cage. When threatened – even if the perceived threat is ever so slight – I find a corner, bury myself in the bedding material and stay very still. Hope nobody notices me as I just wait and hope to avoid attention – positive or negative – because it seems safer. And I need more than anything to be safe.
So it’s not so much that I’m lost. I’m hiding. Almost all the time – carefully considering my steps, feeling suspicious over people and motives though said feeling is foreign to me, wondering when the next blow will come and what will become of me when it does. I’m stable – or rather more stable than I was. The pills are helping and I’m recovering more every day. But leaving my house is hard. I just want to stay here, locked inside, in complete control of who and what enters.
But I went to work, interacted with people, had meetings, answered questions, accomplished some research tasks. And heard stories, only to return home and wonder what it all means. Where to go from here. I won’t hide forever – I promise. But it’s almost unbearably appealing right now.
Yet I also can picture a day - perhaps far in the future - speaking to a student who may not be born yet. Talking over my own struggles - whether professional or personal - and knowing that while it was miserable, confusing and scary at the time, it all worked out in the end. I found my way through it. I know that life is rather exquisite and ends up pulling together - our decisions eventually make sense, the fear eases back, and we find a path that is perhaps a bit easier to walk. Or at least that's the hope.