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“And something inside me just…broke”: I Wasn’t Alright, and it was Okay

“And something inside me just…broke.” I saw that quote somewhere and understood it deeply.

I’ve been away from the blog for a while and I have missed it! Postings have been sparse as I have spent the better part of 2018 trying to push my professional and academic career forward. This will be a longer-than-normal post.

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When I started this blog, I wanted it to be a source of information and tales of anthropology and culture. I hope that it has been that and will continue to find ways to be interesting, creative, scientific and fun. Yet, I also wanted it to be a space for community and conversation. I know that this means I will sometimes need to have posts that are more honest and revealing than I may be comfortable with. Well, here is one of those posts!

A couple of weeks ago, I created a post asking how you (the readers and supporters) would feel if I did some deep sharing. I received some pretty supportive feedback. It also sparked a conversation with a friend (a friendship that developed thanks to this blog) about his own concerns regarding how much he should and would share with his online community. This was not about getting some big secret of his chest or something soap opera-y. It was about sharing the challenges he faces as a queer scientist and the variety of intersections that he navigates before he ever enters a classroom or field. He spoke to me about the isolation that he felt throughout his life and said, “…if I can help others feel less isolated and have an easier time then me I want to.”

I know the feeling of isolation that he speaks of. As I think about our conversation, I feel it. I have a visceral reaction. He’s right. And so, I’ll share.

I regularly get messages and emails from other students and people, in general, who want to know how I “keep it all together” or “how I manage to do so much.” They reveal their struggles to me in hopes that I can offer some kind of insight. I hope that no one ever thinks I’m just being humble when I respond, “I don’t keep it together, but I’m willing to share what I’ve learned so far.”

I’m planning on posting a bunch of new content soon and it may all sound really delightful, but it took me a year to get back to this place. This time last year, I was definitely struggling to just do the bare minimum. A little more than a month ago, I attended an online Women in STEM (or something like that) session and we were discussing strategies for engaging minority youth in the sciences. I thought I was going to simply share details about how I approach schools and community centers about bringing my mobile lab into their classrooms, developing curriculum, blah, blah, science, but the session got a little deeper than I anticipated. We were each asked to share our strategies for maintaining our health and wellness as we work, do outreach and pursue our own goals. I laughed exhaustedly, thought about the painful mystery bruises that covered my legs and feet, looked at the bottles of medications and supplements beside my computer, and answered, honestly.

“I was recently diagnosed with extreme anemia, vitamin D deficiency and am being sent to a hematologist for additional testing as I had spent months ignoring symptoms in the name of maintaining my schedule. I feel like garbage 90% of the time. I had been taking a ton of Aleve and Advil to stave off swelling, muscle weakness and fatigue, rather than going to the doctor. The only thing I want to do is lay down. And the crazier part is, I feel much better than I felt a year ago.”

I also admitted that the only reason I finally went to the doctor was because I was leaving to field school in the coming weeks and didn’t want to be sick in a foreign country.

I was too tired to regurgitate all the stuff I read in about in those articles that float around Facebook talking about “self-care.” I knew I wasn’t a practitioner. I tried, but I was a failure at it- at least as it had been explained to me. When life got busy, my personal well-being was put on the back burner. It was what I had been taught and modeled, it was socially supported and celebrated, and so I replicated. And, paid the price. I’m sure I’m not alone in this because many of you have told me as much.

Once I said those words, there was silence. No incoming messages, no unmuted mics. I suddenly was nervous and scared. Then, the floodgates opened!

“I’m pre-diabetic. Too many late nights living off energy drinks and cereal! But I can’t afford to eat outside my school meal plan and the fresh foods are practically inedible!”

“My hair is falling out! My doctor says stress!”

“I think I have depression. How would I know? Who should I talk to?”

It became more of a much-needed therapy session rather than a strategy session. The only reason why I had felt so comfortable opening up was because, after years of keeping things to myself, I was finally starting to feel better and get the right treatment. That moment of rare vulnerability seemed to give others the permission to really say what and how they felt. I didn’t want to complain. I didn’t feel I had a right to. People put in hard work all the time, so I was sure I spent years toughin’ it out. “I probably just need to stretch and drink more water,” was the lie I told myself constantly to help me push forward silently.  I’ll need to go a little further back to explain.

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Once I finished and graduated with my Master’s in 2016, I can honestly say that I underestimated the amount of work that I would have to continue to do in order for my journey to move forward. With good grades, lots of volunteer experience in museums and bio anthro based projects, having maintained a full-time job throughout my entire program, successfully completing a thesis, writing for outside publications, presenting at a symposium, my commitment to science communication and outreach, having completed a field program at a well- respected university, and having a clear idea of the types of research I wanted to pursue, I thought I was a shoo-in for a PhD program! Wrong.

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This was really difficult for me to process. Sure, I’ve experienced rejection before, but suddenly I felt not good enough and inadequate. I had believed that if I put in the effort, did the work and then some, opportunities would open up for me. Up until that point, I’d been quite good at getting at least one “Yes!’

I PUT IN WORK.

What I remember most about my final semester was how horrible it was! I was working full time, still taking classes, I HAD to finish my thesis, we had to move last minute and everything was still in boxes, my back injury was acting up again, so I was in pain (as always), it was the holidays so I couldn’t take any time off, we were supposed to be planning a wedding which I had zero capacity for, and I was filling out my first round of Ph.D. applications. I was overwhelmed and burnt out. My schedule, seeking opportunities, not receiving adequate guidance from my program advisors, and, like many working students, sacrificing my personal health- mentally and physically- my well was dry. With the help of a few urgent care visits and a very understanding partner who made sure the fur babies and I ate and drank water, I got through those last few weeks alive.

When the new year started, the only thing I had to do was wait for responses. As I received rejection after rejection, each one feeling like the end of the world, I thought, “it was all for nothing.” I felt the intense weight of thinking that I had let everyone down and, worse, I didn’t know how to go forward. I didn’t have a Plan B because I didn’t think I could fail- not at school, not when I had worked so hard and had hit so many walls, but busted through them anyway. The truth is, I underestimated the process, even with all the work I had put in. I wasn’t adequately prepared for the process and the pressures of juggling so many things had finally caused me to collapse in every sense of the word.

For months, I was in a daze and didn’t realize how withdrawn I had become. I was depressed, disoriented, exhausted, emotional, disinterested in life, hopeless and lost. My body hurt. I had no energy. I thought these feelings would pass and I just needed to wallow. Months passed, but I felt no better and didn’t know what to do. I felt like a phony, an imposter. Long story short, with the support of my partner, I sought help and guidance of a professional and began rebuilding.

First, I needed to take some time away from the pressure. I also was told to start making a daily task list. Sure, I had done this before, but my task list was now reduced to things I never thought I would ever need to write down- shower, eat, go outside. As I began to feel like I was regaining some amount of control in my daily life, I felt well enough to examine my career and academic goals again. I decided that I would not reapply for PhD programs in 2017. This was a stress that I didn’t think I would be able to handle. There were times I was tempted to go through the process, but I still felt off. I was learning to really listen to myself. No regrets.

Instead, I began to revive my personal relationships with my friends inside and outside of the anthropology community. I’m grateful for the community that I built around me who never lost faith in me and continued to root for me, even though I couldn’t do it for myself. By fall of 2017, I was feeling more like me again, and I learned many of my friends were dealing with very similar issues. We shared our frustrations and fears with each other and I didn’t feel so isolated anymore. Some of you, without even knowing what I was going through, wrote messages to me that were so full of encouragement and motivation, I would cry like a baby! I couldn’t wait to get back to developing content. Some days, I would sit down to write a new post or develop a new series, but I was still struggling. Rather than beat myself up about it, I would find something awesome someone else wrote and share it. As long as I was still sharing content in some way, I was happy.

Yet, it wasn’t too much longer before I started writing again, but going to work still felt like a drag. However, I could get through most days without breaking down in tears, which was promising. I was presenting again, my mobile lab was back in schools, I presented a paper on a panel at the AAA conference, and I started reaching out to anthropologists and professors who I admired (I thank them so much for being generous with their time and investing their time in me) for their expertise and mentorship. I was ready to get my goals back on track!

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One of my main goals was to get back into a lab. Field schools provide hands-on experience and training, but they have always been an issue for me because of the associated costs and the amount of time that I would need to be away from my job. I have worked full- time since I was an undergrad. These concerns make field school prohibitive for many students. The choice was always between gaining experience and expanding my network, or paying my rent. I needed to find a way to bust through this limitation, and I believed or hoped that the right opportunity would help to bolster my chances of getting a Ph.D fellowship. This meant I needed to find a second job that would help me finance the dream. I was ready to put in the work. A year had passed, my motivation had returned and so had my enthusiasm.

On January 2, 2018, I excitedly started a second job in the science communication field. By February, I had been offered an internship position at the Odyssey Field School in Cyprus. The fee had been reduced because of a grant, and the length of time was just long enough that I would be able to really dig into the material without jeopardizing my job or livelihood- meaning I was going to be able to pay rent. I used my vacation time. I was knocking out my goals!

This doesn’t mean that everything was perfect or I was operating at 100%. In fact, something new had started. I was experiencing anxiety and increased and random muscle weakness and fatigue. I wrote it off as being due to a busy schedule and my mattress (even though my bed was fairly new). When I finally went to the doctor, it turns out that my symptoms were due to virtually non-existent iron saturation levels, stress and a vitamin D deficiency. I followed the directions of my doctors. When I arrived in Cyprus, I had a bag full of supplements and medicines, and I felt like an old lady. But by the time I came home, I was glowing.

It wasn’t just the supplements. It was three weeks of not working a mind-numbing desk job that required hours of sitting daily. Three weeks of plenty of sunshine, exercise, stimulating conversations, researching, reading, and finally doing SOME DAMN ANTHROPOLOGY with a small group of talented, amazing people at various points within their journies and levels of expertise.

As the three weeks closed, I began to ask myself, “What do I do now?”

I knew I wouldn’t get much time to figure it out. Within 12 hours of arriving at JFK, I was back at work and it was almost two weeks before I got a day off. I felt immediately bombarded. I could feel the panic coming back. I found it hard to concentrate and wanted to retreat. The drastic change in ways of living and work that I experienced in just 24 hours was bumming me out. I was happy to be back in Brooklyn and with my family, but that was it.

Transitioning back into my daily routine, which I didn’t like at all, has been rough. A month has passed since returning from Cyprus and I still struggle with the balance, but there have been many changes that I’ve made and love! I am driven and excited to find new opportunities and get ready for this year’s application season! Weeks away has given me lots of ideas for new content on the blog. I’m excited to share my internship experience and to introduce a new series that is inspired by my time away.

But before I move on, I want to say that depression ain’t no joke!

“Several studies suggest that graduate students are at greater risk for mental health issues than those in the general population. This is largely due to social isolation, the often abstract nature of the work and feelings of inadequacy… But a new study in Nature Biotechnology warns, in no uncertain terms, of a mental health “crisis” in graduate education.”—https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2018/03/06/new-study-says-graduate-students-mental-health-crisis

I thought I was immune. Too strong, too dope, too Black to fail. I’ve always had an ability to “bounce back,” so when things got beyond what I had experienced, I didn’t know what to do. Academia is hard as it is, but increasingly complicated lives make it even more difficult, and I don’t believe that institutions do a great job of addressing those pressures. As a Black woman, particularly in a field where we are wayyyyyyyyyyyy underrepresented, I often feel like my successes, as well as my failures, become representative of an entire, global population of people. This is an unfortunate reality of marginalization and lack of diversity. I’m put into situations where if I don’t show up or take my seat at the table, it may be a very long time before another Black person, woman, or both, gets to be present again.

All of these layers, along with managing an autoimmune condition, complicates an already tough, sometimes toxic, environment. Many of the grad students in my cohort, myself included, have experienced exploitation, disappointment, identity crisis, and a whole multitude of -isms in places and from people, we would have never expected! All while trying to produce top-notch work, on limited sleep, poor nutrition, trying to stay engaged with causes that we love, and managing personal lives. Fear of the job market once we graduate, dwindling research funding and opportunities, guilt for not being as available as we’d like to be for family/ friends/ partners/ kids. We start to feel isolated and our feelings of inadequacy along with everything else begins to chip away at our minds and bodies. Then, there is the added component of feeling like if someone finds out that we’re struggling, they may take advantage of it, or not give us that job promotion or deny us entry into that program we really want and are qualified for. We don’t want to be seen as weak, so we keep it all inside until all of those conflicts begin to pour from the orifices of our bodies whether we like it or not.

Some of us manage to take breaks, others leave the work completely, and some are lost.

It’s almost ridiculous, to me, that my field of study is all about the holistic experience of being human, but when it came to myself, I did so much compartmentalizing that I could not see how different aspects of my life were affecting its totality. The work that I had to put in required much more than bath bombs, face masks, and some alone time. Getting my **** together meant I had to get really real with myself, boundaries, my health, my house, my relationships, and what I really wanted and the plan to get there. I’m so fortunate that I was able to begin to figure things out with the right help, tools, and support.

And! You know what else I’ve done since I’ve gotten back from Cyprus?! I’ve tried to spend more time with people that inspire and motivate me and who I have fun with! I also started doing this ‘Monday reset’ thing, and I feel like it’s had a really positive influence. I’ll do a separate, much shorter post about what that is later.

I want to thank everyone who supports the blog, shares my posts, comments, chats with me via social media, emails, etc.! Many of you have openly shared your struggles and fears with me. I’m honored that you feel comfortable enough to open up to me, so I want to do the same. I’m not some master of time or possess a magical instrument that makes my days longer or less bitter.

I don’t know how much or if there are parts of my experience that mirror yours, but I do know that things you’ve told me have been reflected in my own life. I’m doing my best to figure it out, too! The world feels like a chaotic mess right now and many of us are trying to keep our heads above water. I wish the best for you. Feeling awful sucks up one side and down the other!

Remember:

  • ‘No’ is a complete sentence.
  • Desk sitting is really bad for you.
  • Make time to do the things you love.
  • You don’t always have to be so serious.
  • Don’t be afraid to take a break.
  • I believe in you! (Click here for the song my mom used to sing with me when I was little and I still sing when I need a little boost) ❤

Let’s try and be cool to each other, be nice to ourselves, and make the world “suck a little less.” Please feel free to continue to share your thoughts and comments with me.

On the note, let’s get excited about for all the new content and posts coming in 2018 starting this week!!!!!!!!!!!!!

 

FYI: Because I have insurance, I was able to have access to services and treatment that many people don’t have. If you are in school and think you need support, I would encourage you to start at your student health center. Some schools offer mental and physical health services. Also, look for local non-profits who may be able to help guide you more easily through no cost/ low-cost options. I’ve also found really supportive and helpful places online. Seriously, ask Twitter. 

 

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