Saturday, August 23, 2014

Getting out of grad school alive

I started grad school fifteen years ago next month, and the other night, as I was falling asleep, I had a vivid recollection of the apartment I lived in for my first four years and what falling asleep there had been like. It was a narrow studio, longer than it was deep, with my bed only a few yards from the front door. Under the door, even in the dark, a bright strip of light from the hallway shone in. Every second or third night I'd be unable to fall asleep, convinced that the framed poster that hung over the head of my bed was going to crash down in the middle of the night. So I'd take it down and hang it back up in the morning.

I've been trying to figure out what I've done in the past fifteen years, and finding the list wanting--professionally I'm perfectly on schedule, if that's the right word, but haven't done anything grand--but then I went back to the journals I kept in grad school. I kept a journal for a dozen years, from roughly ages 17 to 29, but haven't so much as laid hands or eyes on them in a decade. They lived in a sealed-up cardboard box, which I moved from place to place and then shoved in the back of a closet. Until now, I'd never had the nerve to re-read them. I knew what was in them, basically, and didn't want to revisit it.

But yesterday I did, and the experience was. . . surprising. I'll say more about that in another post, but reading the ones from my first two years of grad school make it clear that I was a lunatic. I remember with some clarity how depressed I was, and some of the reasons why, but that's not the same as reading entry after entry about walking home from class crying, about weeping at this party or that party, about my increasingly elaborate and paranoid social fears. No wonder I slept badly.

It's hard to believe how late I stayed up, how little I slept, and how much I drank. In retrospect it's clear that most of my friends were lunatics, too--even the ones who weren't literally alcoholics or addicted to drugs were in crazy, anguished places. My journals are full of worries about this friend who seems to have lost a quarter of her body weight, and that friend who's having an affair, or the other who's picking up strangers in bars. And I recount, drily, the story about this one falling over backwards in his chair or another passing out face-down on the table.

So though I was going to come up with a list of what I've done in the past fifteen years to make me feel accomplished and cheerful and whatnot (M.A.! Ph.D! Tenure-track job! Articles! Tenure! Book!), I have to say, I'm just glad we all survived.


Miss Self-Important said...

Oddly, the pleasure of self-recognition in other people's stories is not diminished by its being the recognition of misery.

Miss Self-Important said...

By which I mean, me too, just minus the subsequent professional attainments. I really like these posts where you lament grad school.

Flavia said...


I live to serve.

Yeah, I think it's important to remember the bad times--for lots of reasons, but some of them professional. Whenever I find a grad students or junior fac twitchy or needy or insecure (or self-aggrandizing or whatever), it's good to stop and remember that this just goes with the territory, and that they're almost certainly holding their shit together better than I did.

Flavia said...


I'd totally forgotten that line! But yeah, I think I always assumed he was sitting in the kitchen sink. The dripping kitchen sink.

It was spooky. I never expected to be there for four whole years. (And get this: the building was named "El Dorado." Such false advertising!)

PhysioProffe said...

This whole discussion is also reminding me of the kind of super-spooky dream that usually comes when I can't really fall asleep well: I am having a nightmare but I know I'm having a nightmare, so I force myself awake to avoid the terrible nightmare thing, and then after I wake up, the terrible nightmare thing keeps happening! Because I am still asleep and having a nightmare! These usually end with me screaming at the top of my lungs and PhysioWife waking me up. Lolz.

Anonymous said...

Funny, I recently nearly dug out my old journal, but dreaded the idea and was happy to skip it (I wanted to confirm a fact, not relive my embarrassing neuroses). Still, you're absolutely right that it's good to remember these periods and have empathy for those living through similar periods now.