Adventures in Mental Unwellness: Grad School Edition

When I applied for grad school, I thought I had things figured out – at least, as “figured out” as one’s future can be in advance. “Follow your passion,” “Do what makes you happy”…while my inner cynic scoffs at these platitudes, there was another, more hopeful part of me to which they rang true.

I didn’t expect grad school to make me happy, per se. Again and again, I had been told before going in that grad school is an emotionally draining and incredibly stressful environment. But when I accepted my offer to UVA’s English doctoral program, I hoped that my love of what I study, at least, would make the difficult experience worth it. After all, I had already been through a minor existential crisis about being an English major once in undergrad, and that had ultimately reaffirmed how much I cared about studying literature.

Grad school, though, is a whole ‘nother ball game. Of course, I had been mentally preparing myself for this. But it is one thing to know something in the abstract, and quite another to face it head-on. Or, more precisely, to have your worst fears about academia hit you all at once with the speed of a bullet train.

Maybe I’m overstating things a little, but that’s probably as close as I can get to describing what grad school was like for me over the past year.

On my cohort’s first day of orientation, a wise upper year had told us, “Everyone in the program has imposter’s syndrome.” That had been very reassuring at the time, and I’d tried, at particularly difficult moments in my grad school life so far, to recall that statement and to internalize it. And yet my experience of imposter’s syndrome cut much deeper than I had anticipated.

There’s something peculiar about the English graduate program milieu that makes you overanalyze every little interaction you have with anyone else in the department. We are trained to overanalyze what we read, but when I entered the program, it became more and more difficult to disengage from this mode of thinking when I wasn’t studying. I found myself becoming increasingly performative, unconsciously basing my sense of self-worth on the judgment of other people – my professors, my peers, and so on. I think all English grad programs condition their students to think that way – to strive to present or perform better versions of themselves. This is especially true in particularly cutthroat programs that foster competition among their students, but even though there isn’t a toxic sense of competitiveness at UVA (quite the opposite, in fact), I still couldn’t help but measure my achievements and my work unfavorably against that of my colleagues, who, in my view, belonged here that much more than I did.

The more I interacted with fellow members of my first year cohort, the more I questioned my place in the program. They all seemed to be so eloquent and hardworking, but instead of being inspired by their example, I only grew more critical about my own competence. My peers were doing intellectually fulfilling work and networking with all the right people, while I only wanted to watch TV in my spare time. I became more introverted and socially awkward than I’ve ever been, because I was tired of trying to recalibrate my persona to better match up to that of my overachieving colleagues. I could barely make an effort to connect with professors outside of class (even though establishing good relationships with professors had been so emotionally and intellectually fulfilling in undergrad, and was part of what compelled me to apply to grad school in the first place), because I didn’t have a clue about what kind of research I wanted to pursue and didn’t want them to find out I was a hack. Because I was so concerned with struggling to perform a better version of myself, my self-perception became dangerously warped. When colleagues complimented me on a presentation I gave, for example, I couldn’t help but wonder if they were just being nice, because I’d become too unsure about my competence to know whether any of the work I was doing was valuable.

This was only the beginning of the program, and I knew that more challenging work would follow later on. So I expected coursework to be manageable – for my graduate seminars to just be more advanced versions of my undergraduate courses. And that is in fact what they are. But under these particular conditions, coursework became much more difficult than what I had prepared for – I seemed to have become a worse instead of a better reader. Whereas I’d tried my best to be a lively and interested participant in my undergraduate classes, in my new seminars I struggled to utter anything coherent – or anything at all – and wondered if I just couldn’t understand or interpret assigned readings as well as everyone else. Sometimes, in particularly dense texts, words on a page would become meaningless strings of letters to me.

I couldn’t write my essays with the same schematic efficiency with which I was used to tackling them. Essay writing had always stressed me out more than any other type of assessment, but I always tried to be strategic about it: I knew what I needed to do, and how much time I needed, and was able to follow a schedule for the most part, even if the end result wasn’t always satisfactory. Since coming here, however, the strategic game plan I became so accustomed to following had broken down almost completely. This past semester especially, I only found myself staring into the space between knowing what I needed to do for a particular writing assignment and actually doing it. I couldn’t get the words out.

I became terrifyingly ambivalent about departmental social events, because I knew that I would feel too self-conscious to socialize properly if I went, but isolated from potentially fun and generative interactions if I didn’t. I began to sleep too much, or too little. I would deliberately stay up very late, way beyond any legitimate point of wakefulness, because I didn’t really have anything look forward to the next day, other than the work I was avoiding. I’d made myself an emergency pick-me-up YouTube playlist in anticipation of particularly bad days, but on most days when I’ve really needed something to lift my mood, I couldn’t bring myself to even open any of the links. I would just stay in my room, and cry a lot, without being able to discern exactly why I was crying other than because “I was tired.” Sometimes I even struggled to leave my room to do the most basic things, like eating or taking a shower. In short, I became very depressed.

This is not my first encounter with depression. I was clinically diagnosed when I was nineteen. I have been to therapy, and taken antidepressants, though ultimately I’ve found that the most useful thing for me was to do little things on a day-to-day basis to keep my triggering emotions under control. It worked for me in undergrad – for a while, I was “better.” But the thing about depression is that even though it can be treated, there’s no complete cure. It’s like you’re sitting at the bottom of a well, trying to climb closer to the top, and sometimes succeeding. But sometimes you can slip and fall, and discover that what you’d previously assumed to be the bottom of the well is a false bottom, and that you can fall even lower. Grad school revealed a false bottom for me. I thought I’d gotten better, but after I came to grad school, the irreconcilable gap between my desire to be a good student and my inability to do so made my unhealthy thoughts that much more overwhelming and debilitating. I’d hit a new low, and am still trying to crawl my way up.

I haven’t told many people about being depressed, not because I’m ashamed, but because I’m afraid that people will treat me differently. This is a part of who I am, but it doesn’t define me. When I’m not in an especially bad funk, I can turn my self-deprecation into humor, and in making fun of it, make myself feel better about it. I can be fun and sociable. But I kept it mostly to myself, because I didn’t want to deal with the stigma, the damaging stereotypes that people still have of what depression means. I didn’t have the mental wherewithal to tell people that I couldn’t just change my mindset and get better. I was afraid of being handled like a delicate object, of people telling me I should seek help, drop out of school, and so on (especially because variations of all of these things have been said to me before, on occasions when I was feeling particularly vulnerable). Worse yet, I didn’t want to be dismissed as “crazy” – I didn’t want to be more socially isolated than I already felt. But finally, I had to confess – I had to get the words out, even if they end up doing me more harm than good. It isn’t my job to demystify depression to anybody, but I wanted to be honest. I wanted people to understand that, even if my depressive thoughts may overwhelm me without warning, I can make decisions for myself. Even if I may not always succeed at it, I am an adult.

I’m not confident that I’ll get better. But I’m not convinced that leaving grad school would be the right thing to do, either. I think it would be too simplistic to identify grad school as the “cause” of my depression, even if it exacerbated many of my worst symptoms. But what’s to say doing something else would make me “happy”? I’m not ready to give up on grad school just yet. I’m struggling to rekindle my former love of what I study, because there was a time when I was a curious and inquisitive burgeoning literary scholar, and I miss that.

I have new challenges to look forward to next year, and of course, more time to think about if this is what I really want to do. For now, though, I think I’ll stay where I am, because even if it’s not always fun and not always rewarding, coming to terms with my depression in grad school has nonetheless been a productive learning experience. And so, in spite of all the difficult things I’ve been grappling with over the past year, I’d like to keep pursuing this, as though it were an adventure.

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