TW: PTSD, sexual assault, child abuse
One of my mentors warned me that graduate school takes a toll on mental health, but I figured that since I had suffered from mental illness since I was eleven, I would be alright. I was wrong.
I was fine for the first year and a half. Yeah, it was stressful. Yeah, I had a few panic attacks, and the all-nighters sucked. I felt inadequate at times, but I had it under control. After three semesters, I decided to stay longer and get my PhD in history, and from my relationship with the department, I did not think I would have a problem getting into the program. The head of graduate students had even encouraged me to apply more than once. I was confident I would be accepted.
But when it came time to write my personal statement, I was stuck. The first one sounded fake and inauthentic- it just wasn’t me. To truly explain where my need to study history originates, I had to talk about my childhood sexual abuse. And that was something that my parents had taught me not to talk about. Once I realized that anything that did not mention my molestation wouldn’t be true to myself, the words started flowing onto the paper. I wrote about how I will never see justice for what happened to me, and how that drives me to dig up stories of injustice from the past to expose them. I need to tell their stories even if people didn’t believe them at the time, or believed that what happened to them was insignificant. I believe them. I think they are important.
I knew it was risky, but I was comfortable with my relationship with various professors in the department to be okay with feeling vulnerable. But, I was waitlisted. Of course, I was devastated. It felt like I was being punished for telling my story. When I asked my advisor what she knew about the decision, she asked around and found out that I was the number one choice for two people on the committee, one of which I had not even met. But problems surfaced because of my interest in public history over academic history, raising old tensions in the department between the two fields, but I never truly believed that explanation. It felt too convenient. Not that my advisor did not support me, she did. I think she genuinely believed that the decision was about my interest in public history, but it always felt like an excuse to get rid of me.
A couple of months later I was officially accepted. Yay. But by then, it was too late. My original rejection had erupted repressed feelings from when my parents found out that I was molested by my sister. After months of therapy I know that this happened because my dad is also a history professor, so being rejected by a whole committee of them after telling my story felt like how my parents reacted when they found out about my abuse. They punished me, not my sister. I was cut off from my friends, I was sent to counseling. I was the one controlled and told not to talk about it because it was in the past and hadn’t happened for over a year. After I stopped going to counseling a few months later, they never mentioned my abuse again. Getting waitlisted brought back the same feelings I felt then – that what happened to me doesn’t matter.
In the wake of the department’s decision, I entered a deep depression. I did the bare minimum and did well in my classes to hide. No one would suspect all the rage inside of me if I continued to do well. It’s how I got through high school so I was not new to this game. But I was not able to finish my master’s thesis. I just did not have the energy to deal with my own writing or be around my thesis advisor whose husband was part of the committee that rejected me.
The semester ended, but my depression did not. I had an upcoming trip to Europe with my parents that summer to look forward to. I dreaded the day I left for home, scared that all my repressed feelings that had surface the past few months would explode. I could barely leave the couch, checking my email was even a chore. I felt useless, and I was crippled by my anxiety. As the trip approached, my anxiety continued to increase. But then everything was fine, and the trip was amazing. Slowly the anxiety began to disappear.
I started my third year feeling refreshed. I felt ready to finish my thesis and be productive once again. I even started to go to therapy because I knew I needed it. Everything was on track for the first month, but then I was sexually assaulted by two strange men I met at a hotel bar while I was out of town for a conference.
It took days for me to realized what happened to me was assault because I couldn’t remember what happened. I could only remember regaining consciousness when I started puking in one of the beds in my hotel room. Naked. Not the bed I remember sitting in before I blacked out.
But I continued with school like nothing had happened and hid behind a fake smile that I’ve mastered since fifth grade. That week I had to read Claudé Levi-Strauss for a theory class, along with other sexist readings. Levi-Strauss rambled relentlessly about the incest taboo, which naturally triggered memories of my childhood sexual abuse. As I continued reading while trying to ignore the flood of memories flashing across the inside of my brain, he then started to discuss the traffic of women from father to husband. Thinking about this exchange of women’s bodies caused my mind to spin to the faint memory of those strange men using and violating my unconscious body. I couldn’t focus, the words started bouncing to the margins of the page. I couldn’t see clearly. My heart began to race, my stomach was in knots. That’s what PTSD looks like. But I still had to try to continue reading.
I also had a response to the readings, and the next morning, after my PTSD flashbacks, I struggled to find the words. The rage still burned inside me. I decided to write down those feelings instead of torturing myself to try find something else to discuss. It was the only way I could process the material and sit through the class discussion. I spent the entire class arms crossed with a scowl on my face because I was angry I had to read that shit. I’m still angry.
My professor didn’t appreciate my written response. The next week he cornered me to tell me I was unfair and overly critical to poor Levi-Strauss while I gave others, like Foucault, a free pass. He asked me why I had such a problem with last week’s reading out of genuine curiosity. But I couldn’t answer him because at that very moment I realized how much my abuse and my assault affected my studies. Others didn’t have to go through the flashbacks, the trauma, when they’re reading for class. Without reliving that trauma and risking vulnerability, how am I supposed to explain myself? As I fought back tears from this realization, my professor looked at me for an answer. I told him I would do better and left the room as quickly as possible. But I started bawling as soon as I closed the door, and I began to walk aimlessly around campus with tears rolling down my face.
Something bad had happened to me, but I continued to internalize it and ignore my depression and PTSD. If I finished my classes, I’d be alright.
But I still haven’t finished my thesis. I knew that it was bad that I hadn’t and I needed to do something about it. So, I went to a psychiatrist who prescribed me anti-depressants and anxiety medications. It’s been months, and I still haven’t found the right balance.
When the head of graduate students (different person than when I first applied to the PhD program) confronted me about not finishing my thesis, I had this great response planned about why I had been struggling. Instead, I fell apart and just cried. I felt like such a disappointment, to myself, to him, to my peers. Why can’t I get myself together? After I left his office in tears, I knew I needed a new strategy. I decided to have my depression and PTSD documented through the Office of Student Disability Services. I felt stronger if I had paperwork and a whole office supporting me even if it does mean that my advisor and professors got a special email about it. Once I was documented, I approached the head of graduate students again and explained that I have felt like I hit a brick wall and I’m working through it. He understood and assured me it would be okay, but I felt pitied. I don’t need pity. I need support.
So, I’m still here in graduate school. Still in therapy, still attend a support group for survivors on campus that meets weekly. I hope I can get a fresh start this semester, but I know every day is a challenge. I’ve spent this summer forgiving myself for my assault, but I also started to process my childhood sexual abuse. I can’t escape these memories, and they’ve only been exasperated by being a bridesmaid in my abuser’s wedding this summer. I must be patient with myself, and I hope others will do the same.
This is a plea for those of you who mock trigger and content warnings, for those who dismiss depression and anxiety as normal in academia- to take the time and think about my struggle as a graduate student. We need to change how academia treats survivors and mental health. We must do better. There is no reason for people to struggle like I did.