“Unacceptable progress” towards degree

The following anonymous guest post is by a doctoral candidate at a public research university in the United States.  In this post, he reflects on making unacceptable progress toward his PhD and feelings surrounding such experience.

I do not think I’d be here today if it were not for my sardonic sense of humor – I would have succumbed long ago to the stress and hypocrisy of the daily lunacy we call life. For the longest time, I was able to laugh away these most unfortunate aspects of human existence, at least while I was “on top” that is. However, I am no longer anywhere near “the top” in any socially relative aspect of my life… and ‘tis the season for funding. This essay is composed of my personal experiences concerning the perverted business of academia, how I am the embodiment of “unacceptable progress” towards my PhD in sociology, and why I’m still here. To be blunt- and to get the more complicated “why” question addressed at the very least – I honestly would not be an active student at this moment if it were not for mindfulness practices. For the first time in my life I am (kind of) comfortable with uncertainty and “letting go”.

Each year, my department conducts the uttermost warped evaluation process of graduate students enrolled in both the masters and doctoral program. In an almost cult-like gathering veiled in mystery, a handful of professors determine the most crucial part of a graduate student’s existence – Funding. Adjectives aside, this “annual review” is a rather reasonable procedure and makes perfect sense in the context of a soul-crushing bureaucracy. But here is the sick part of the whole thing – while paperwork for the annual review is due mid-December and funding decisions are essentially made in January (current graduate students are ranked in order in a top secret list), students are not informed of their fate until early March (via physical mail to add insult to injury). During that 3 month period, every other thought a graduate student has revolves around funding concerns for the upcoming year. This creates a demented cycle of mental and emotional harm which intensifies each day as March approaches. Speaking out against this process is not a perceptible option as there have been repercussions in the past.

For the past 4 years, around this time of year, I would eagerly check my mail each day in hopes of receiving a letter of funding. Each day it was absent caused me to worry incessantly, but this year is different. I am not expecting a letter. I am hoping, sure, but I am not counting on it. In previous years I was the golden boy of the department, an overachiever making acceptable progress towards my degree. Yet after a scuffle with a sadistic professor, a failed comprehensive exam, and 3 outstanding independent studies, I received a notice of unacceptable progress towards my degree completion this past month. I had stumbled this past year for sure. I was not mentally well from June to November following a series of deaths and illnesses in my family combined with a period of no insurance coverage (which meant no doctors visits or medication). Yet now that I am on my feet so to speak, the last thing I need is to dwell on my past failures. This seems to be the plight of civilized humans, to obsess over what could have been and what will become of the future.

“Are you sure you are not just in denial,” asked a good friend of mine when I told him that I am content with my unacceptable progress. This is a good question but I believe the answer to it is ultimately no. I am not denying that I am now officially certified as a lousy student, but rather embracing the fact that there is nothing I can do to change that at this exact moment. If a depressing string of thoughts about my academic fiascoes occurs late at night after a rather productive day, then why should I let it affect me? Instead, I now acknowledge these thoughts and the feelings they temporarily instill in me, and then I situate myself back in the present moment. I am so far managing this semester rather well – even though this essay is in part based on a paper which was late – and worrying about the past and future can only negatively impact me. Letting go of these thoughts of failure or impending suffering via mindfulness practices has been tremendously helpful in my day-to-day life, and therefore by default has also been helpful in the long run.

Perhaps the single largest stressor in my life is uncertainty. But in a paradoxical moment of clarity, I am now certain of one thing – that I will always be uncertain. I have never known the concept of “job security” and doubt I ever will, but that is part of the fun in life. I do not want to live a rationally ordered existence where one works to live. I rather enjoy spontaneity and wrinkles in life’s “plans”, and the ideal of omniscience tastes kind of bland. To be human is to feel, and perhaps this is part of the reason why negative experiences feel so bad – pain, misery, suffering, depression, etc. We do not want to have those feelings so we take measures to avoid situations where they may occur. But when the uncomforting notion of uncertainty is embraced as a constant and we let go of the desire for a predestined life, uncertainty becomes less distressing. I do not know where I will be or how I will secure life’s necessities come next fall and there is nothing I can do about that fact. Will worrying help improve my life situation? No, but I cannot help but to worry. In being mindful of worrying over uncertainty, I acknowledge the feeling and bring myself back to the present moment. Additionally, this is an empowering process (I am in control of my life right now) whereas worrying is a depowering process (I have no control over my fate). In an odd way, we gain power by surrendering power. We want control over our “fate” but this desire can overwhelm us with worry, guilt, and ultimately stress. Though a philosophical metacognitive argument, I believe that by letting go and enjoying the moment, we reclaim power over ourselves.

What I have been describing so far may seem self-defeating, judgmental, and critical in a negative manner. When I say that I am “the embodiment of unacceptable progress”, I am appealing to my own critically demented sense of humor. I tend to be a satirist and like to push negative aspects of my life into the realm of the absurd. Laughing is the kindest, most rewarding condition I can bring about myself. If I imagine that the professors who secretly make funding decisions do so in some kind of a dark ritual involving robes and goat blood – and this thought makes me laugh at the (very real) ridiculousness of the process – then I am better off for it. I know of nothing more loving than that.

I cried the entire day when I assembled my annual review this past December. After over 12 agonizing hours of reflecting upon and writing down my achievements and shortcomings (mostly shortcomings), I had a narrative of merely 1045 words to sum up the most painful year I have experienced so far in my life. I have not – and will not – receive any feedback on that most personal narrative either as that goes against protocol. So what good did that distressing day of forced reflection do to my then-present psyche? None whatsoever as the next few days in particular were spent more or less in a state of emotional and physical recovery. If I was aware of this then, I never would have engaged in that activity of needless suffering. I would have submitted a blank sheet of paper (if anything) to the annual review committee. The end result is me not getting funded, yet the approach I took was one of intense judging and self-loathing.

I have become accepting, even welcoming, of uncertainty as it relates to my future. This enhanced awareness has allowed me to reframe some situations in a more holistic light and eschew others altogether. I have no clue where I will be next semester and I am perfectly okay with this. I have even put some semi-serious applications into rather prestigious job openings – I did not get “hung up” on getting it right, but rather had fun writing the cover letters and such. Who knows what will happen. Maybe my passion for teaching will come across more clearly and I’ll get a call back.

Shit happens and it will forevermore. As a life-long overachiever, I have always strived to evade shit but was lost to the fact that I was centering my life on and around shit itself. Through my deliberate and rigorous avoidance of shit, my life had become shit. Shit happened and it will happen again, but right now as I write this paper, there is no shit in my life. It’s all good here. Even the cat boxes are clean. And that’s how I feel about my life right now as an “unacceptable progress” student. I may not complete my PhD by the time I am 30 years of age (a little over 3 years from now), but I feel “clean” by accepting this.

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The Anxiety Inscriptions

In this post, Lain Mathers reflects on zir experiences managing anxiety and graduate study.  Lain Mathers is a doctoral student in Sociology at the University of Illinois Chicago and the Assistant Editor here at Write Where It Hurts.

It is mid-February as I begin writing this post. I am sitting in my apartment at my computer, my hands floating apprehensively above the keyboard. This is an odd sensation considering the fact that usually I type so intensely that the tiny plastic squares pop off of my laptop and onto the floor. I can feel the words I want to write just out of reach, curled up in the darker corners of my brain. I start to feel my chest tightening. “No, no not right now, please not right now,” I plead with my brain. We have a constant dialogue going, but as of late it’s taken on a significantly more dominant role in those dialogues. I’ve come to know this feeling. It’s like watching a tornado bellowing toward me while being fastened to the ground. As the tornado gets closer and closer, I eventually give in to the fact that I will be swept up in the debris of my own internal natural disaster.

At this point, generally, when I can feel a panic attack coming on, I resign to it. Over the past few months, I’ve learned just how neurological and out of my control those events are, and that trying to resist them (and largely failing to do so) leaves me feeling significantly more exhausted, disappointed, and angry than if I just allow myself to lean into them, tear apart a cardboard box or two, and then sit quietly on my couch and listen to Rilo Kiley, Neko Case, or The Yeah Yeah Yeahs in the calm after the storm.

See, I’ve known that I exhibit symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (or Generalized Anxiety Condition, as I prefer to call it, since I am working against the internalized and institutionalized stigma that the ways my brain operates means there is something inherently broken about me) for a while. I’ve had nervous ticks like compulsively picking at my skin since as early as I can remember. I can be thrown into a state of total disarray over a two-lined text message that I’m afraid someone other than the intended recipient will get a hold of. I’ve found large crowds overwhelming for a long time, and regularly get up two to three times throughout the night to make sure I’ve locked my doors (so that no one can get into my apartment) and unplugged all the kitchen appliances / blown out all the candles (so that a fire doesn’t start when I’m asleep). On my walks to school, I try to replay my morning routine to make sure I locked the doors and unplugged the appliances, and if I can’t remember I will often text message my roommate (if he is home) to make sure I did. If he is not home, it is not uncommon for me to turn around and walk back home to check (even if I am only a few blocks away from school). I have to get to the airport or train station at least three hours before my trips out of town because I am constantly terrified that some catastrophic event will happen that prevents me from getting where I’m supposed to be, and I am known to check the pockets in my jacket up to 15 times before leaving my house, sometimes one right after the other, to make sure I haven’t accidentally lost my wallet, keys, or cigarettes.

All of these are symptoms I’ve learned to manage over the years. For example, I just plan my travel accordingly; I allow an extra 30-45 minutes before I go to bed to check the locks and plugs. I say out loud to myself that I locked my door as I leave my house in the morning so when I run over my morning routine repeatedly on my way to school, my own verbal affirmation to myself will be part of that narrative. And, historically, when I would get the occasional panic attack (every couple of weeks or months), I would allow myself to just experience them and make sure to try to get as much sleep as possible and drink lots of water.

Writing has also been a huge part of my anxiety management. For the past 14 years, I have been writing regularly in a journal. Presently, I am in my 94th book, and have no plans of stopping any time soon. Since I was old enough to hold a pen writing has been the place where I can document the conversations I am constantly having with my brain about all of the things I need to be worrying about or else something terrible will happen. Putting them down on paper both makes them feel real and also like something I don’t have to carry around in my head anymore (it can get quite crowded in there). Writing is the place I go during panic attacks when nothing makes sense and I can’t even really form complete sentences, yet something about the feeling of pen on paper keeps me anchored to this world. Writing is, without a doubt, my most significant and important survival strategy when it comes to my mental health.

So what do I do when I can’t write through the anxiety? For those of us that find a deep comfort in writing, the inability to do it is incredibly destabilizing and painful. Recently, I had to confront this question in a wholly unsettling manner.

For people who live with chronic mental health conditions and/or trauma, we know that triggers can pop up and derail our routines for hours, days, weeks, even months. We also know that triggers can come in the most unexpected contexts and magnitudes. So, just because one is perhaps prepared to handle a situation that has previously triggered them doesn’t mean they’ll be able to negotiate a totally new trigger with as much familiarity.

So, when my understanding of my life was recently upset by conditions entirely outside of my control, and unlike any trigger I’ve previously experienced, I began having panic attacks on a daily basis. Not only did they start occurring more frequently, but also at unexpected times compared to when they’ve previously boiled to the surface. By this point, though, I had convinced myself that writing was all I needed to settle the rush of chemicals in my brain. “Just write it out, Lain, you’ve done this hundreds of times before.” Yet when I sat down to put the chaotic words on paper nothing flowed. I was in a state of mental and emotional quicksand, sinking faster than I could get my words to secure me to this world.

This was even more unsettling because writing is not something I just do for personal pleasure or comfort anymore, it is part of my livelihood. I began to tell myself elaborate stories about how I will never be able to write again and my career as a sociologist is doomed to failure. I walked nervously around my apartment, screamed into pillows, ripped apart cardboard boxes, and smoked countless cigarettes to try and dilute the quicksand feeling but nothing worked. It was in this moment that my brain and I began to have a serious conversation and one unlike any talk we’ve had before.

“Maybe you should talk to someone, Lain. Maybe you really need that.”

“No, brain, I can manage this. You’re just really fucking with me right now. It’ll pass.”

“Will it?”

“It has to.”

“How do you know? Maybe you’re just like this forever. Maybe I’ll never stop.”

“Maybe I should talk to someone.”

“Should you, though? How do you know it will help anything?”

“I don’t.”

Before making an appointment with a therapist, I held my journal and a pen in my hand, so desperately hopeful that I would have some kind of breakthrough by just acknowledging that my mental condition is real, that this experience is out of my control (despite how much control I like to believe I have over it). Nothing. So, I made the appointment and had a flurry of panic shortly after doing so.

Over the past few months, I’ve started more openly acknowledging that I not only live with generalized anxiety everyday, but also that it profoundly influences my life in ways I never expected it would. I am continually learning that maintaining anxiety management strategies, such as writing, is one important component in a large equation of other management mechanisms, such as (for me) therapy, medication, painting, supportive friends and loved ones, and plenty of alone time. I am still learning to overcome the stigma associated with chronic mental health conditions (especially one like anxiety, that many people don’t believe to be real), and the path to figuring all of this out certainly defies the American ideal of a linear progress narrative.

Yet, here I am, in late March, sitting at a café finishing this essay that you are presently reading to the sound of Rilo Kiley’s song, “A Better Son or Daughter” and occasionally picking up the “I” and the “O” keys off the floor. The routine of bending over every seven or so minutes to fetch the tiny, plastic, lettered squares off the ground is a welcome reminder that I am still here, anxiety and all.

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Recovering from Graduate School: Rewriting the Trauma Narrative

Eric Anthony Grollman (@grollman) is a Black queer feminist sociologist and intellectual activist; they are an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Richmond. They are the founder and editor of the blog, Conditionally Accepted, which recently became a regular career advice column on Inside Higher Ed.  In this post, Dr. Grollman reflects on negotiating and making sense of trauma related to graduate education. 

“What’s the deal with this PTDS book,” my parents asked when they last visited me. Common understandings of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – the mental scars that soldiers, survivors of sexual violence and childhood abuse carry – certainly don’t call to mind any aspect of my life. My parents even sat through my talk on intellectual activism at the 2015 Conference of Ford Fellows, in which I attempted to identify the structural and cultural factors of graduate school that inevitably led me to be traumatized by my graduate training. But, maybe they assumed I was using the term “trauma” to be provocative or dramatic. With some embarrassment, I had to explain that I was, indeed traumatized by grad school, experiencing the symptoms of complex trauma, which is not (yet) officially classified in the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual (the major psychiatric guide for mental disorders in the US).

When my therapist pointed out the trauma – really only repeating back to me comments I had made just moments before about being traumatized – I also resisted. Seriously, who gets traumatized by educational training? I wasn’t physically attacked, I was not raped or sexually assaulted, and I did not endure torture or extreme warfare. Coursework, a qualifying exam, a master’s thesis, a dissertation, and some teaching experience – these, on the surface, are about equipping me with the skills necessary to become an independent scholar, the skills necessary to obtain a PhD and, ideally, a tenure-track job. To help me to begin to see the trauma, my therapist encouraged me to write a trauma narrative.

So, I took some time to write down every challenging, offensive, and potentially traumatizing event or condition that I could draw from my memory. In the midst of writing about one memory, I would have to make a note to write about another that came to mind. “Oh, how could I forget about that!” I thought several times in this process. In the end, I had nearly filled a 70-page spiral notebook with such memories. When I flipped through the notebook, I asked myself, “who wouldn’t be traumatized by all of this?” Guilty of being an academic geek, I took the time to identify some common themes: 1) repeated exposure to and witnessing of microaggressions, stereotypes, and discrimination; 2) devaluing of my research interests, in particular, work on my own communities (i.e., people of color, LGBTQ people, and, especially, LGBTQ people of color); 3) the undermining of my career choices, namely eventually becoming a professor at a liberal arts college; and, 4) an explicit attempt to “beat the activist” out of me through the graduate training.

I have continued to work through my therapist to begin to recover from the trauma. The initial and, it seems, hardest step has been to name the trauma. It has taken some time to stop denying that grad school could be so bad, that I was somehow too weak to survive traumatizing circumstances, or that it is my fault for not leaving at the first sign of trauma. I, like most others, would never expect trauma to be one of the outcomes of graduate training. So, blaming myself or denying the trauma doesn’t help.

Once my therapist and I opened that door, I began to grow impatient. Now what? I wanted some sort of homework to do outside of therapy sessions, though I learned that was not my therapist’s approach. So, I looked into buying workbooks that I could do on my own. Unsurprisingly, most that are out there focus on what my therapist calls “big T Trauma”: sexual violence; war; child abuse; being robbed; having your house burn down; and, natural disasters. My own struggle with complex trauma – “little t trauma” – is the result of prolonged trauma that is interpersonal in nature, and likely occurred at a key developmental period (early adulthood, in my case). Since it is not included in the DSM, there are few workbooks that even mention it, let alone offer resources to help recover from it. But, I eventually found one that does: The PTSD Workbook (second edition), by Mary Beth Williams and Soili Poijula.

I’m not as far as I’d like to be into the workbook, but I find that digging into traumatizing experiences is not something I care to do daily. But, so far it has been helpful to address it head on. Recently, I completed one of the exercises in which they instruct readers to “[t]hink of another person who has gone through a similar event. Knowing now what most helped you survive, what would you say to that other person?” I don’t think that I followed the instructions, but I ended up reflecting on something much more powerful. I ended up rewriting my trauma narrative, albeit an abbreviated version.

Rewriting the Trauma Narrative

Let me give some context. In the process of naming the trauma, I have closed my memory around all that was taken away from me in the process of completing my PhD and obtaining my current tenure-track position. I entered my PhD program in sociology as an activist with a desire to study racism in queer communities using qualitative methods. I figured sociology would be more likely to open doors to gender studies, sexuality studies, and even student affairs than the other ways around. A desired joint PhD with gender studies was discouraged. A desired graduate minor in either sexuality research or gender studies was discouraged. An intended dissertation in trans health was discouraged. I also learned to self-police my interests; for example, I selected a qualifying exam in social psychology rather than gender, sexualities, or race/gender/class/sexualities. I left graduate school with a PhD, trauma, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, a cute boyfriend, expertise in medical sociology using quantitative methods, and an acute awareness that I must hide any activist work or community service. The 28-year-old me was hardly an older and wiser reflection of the 22-year-old me.

That is, in my efforts to identify just how traumatizing graduate school was, I have focused almost exclusively on the negatives – what I have lost, what I compromised, what dreams have been dashed for the sake of job security. This has been a necessary step for me to stop denying how bad grad school was and blaming myself for the trauma. But, the unintended consequences of this focus is that I have lost sight of the ways in which I did survive and thrive, pursued my dreams and values, among other positive highlights of those six years. A while ago, I tried to write a positive-focused complement to the trauma narrative, and only came up with missing the excellent restaurants in Bloomington, IN and the friends that I made there. I also met my now-fiancé there, who moved to Richmond, VA with me. And, my excellent training – despite the compromises I made – opened a number of doors in terms of jobs and professional networks. So, hey – at least I don’t regret my time there. But, that effort felt like settling for an otherwise traumatic experience.

So, back to the prompt from The PTSD Workbook. I began my answer to the question about what I would advise to others, presumably to prevent being traumatized, with: “In the thick of [grad school], I attempted to maintain activities, relationships, and projects that were not valued by my program, but that fed my spirit nonetheless.” From there, I listed example after example of the things in which I was involved during my time in graduate school. Contrary to the sentiment that I left graduate school anything but a sexuality scholar, I identified plenty of examples of the ways in which I clearly demonstrate active involvement in this subfield. I published two articles on sexualities that were co-authored with people outside of my university; in fact, my advisors only became aware of these papers upon noticing them on my CV. I also started one on trans health late in grad school, which was finally published in September 2015. As the founder of the short-lived Campus Coalition for Sexual Literacy – an initiative through the Center for Research and Education on Gender and Sexuality as UCSF – I organized a few events to promote sexual literacy on campus, including a conference on transdisciplinary approaches to sexuality research. I attended a few conferences and workshops in the field of sexualities. And, I also was involved in service on campus and in the community that promoted community-building for LGBTQ people, as well as healthy relationships in the queer community. I could go on…

In essence, I rewrote my trauma narrative. In this narrative, I didn’t sell out, I didn’t allow others to dictate my career, and I wasn’t powerless. Rather, this was a narrative about pushing back against mainstream expectations in sociology to build my career as a scholar-activist whose work focuses primarily on sexualities. This narrative allows me to recall ways in which I defined my career for myself, with necessary compromises along the way. Would the trauma have been worse if it weren’t for feeding my soul with sexualities work and activism? Or, was the trauma the result of defying mainstream expectations in sociology by pursuing such work? I’m not certain at this point, and cannot actually say what could have been. But, I’m in a better position to say what actually was. Yes, I was traumatized; but I was no passive victim.

I hope through speaking openly about the trauma, about the efforts to “beat the activist” out of me, and the training that attempted to steer me away from studying my own communities to make it easier for current and future marginalized grad students to weather the challenging circumstances of grad school.


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“Hope” Springs Forth: New Article Out in Sociology of Health and Illness!

In this post, Xan Nowakowski reflects on a recent publication in Sociology of Health and Illness concerning the personal, political, and structural experience of managing chronic conditions in everyday life.

Hello readers! If you’ve been following WWIH for a while, or just know any of us editors outside of the blog, you may have heard a bit about my new article in Sociology of Health and Illness. It’s a critical analysis of my experiences with a prescription drug that has excellent benefits and a lot of potential side effects, and the many sociological lessons learned from trying to find the right balance between the two.

A lot of the illness management literature deconstructs major changes in health status, and the impacts of these events on identity formation and performance. This literature doesn’t yet contain as diverse an array of information and analysis on the day-to-day nuances of living with chronic conditions. I’m hoping to inspire other scholars to delve more into that area, and to do so with a richly intersectional perspective on relationships between health and social life.

To have this article published in Sociology of Health and Illness is a dream come true, and the product of about two years’ worth of work. So I’m thrilled to report that “Hope Is a Four-Letter Word: Riding the Emotional Rollercoaster of Illness Management” is now available online, along with an accompanying video abstract introducing the piece. The print version of the article will appear later this year. In the meantime, if you want to read the article and are having trouble getting access to the online version, just drop me an email.

I also encourage everyone to share the link to the online version with others who may be interested in this topic. I quite deliberately constructed this article as a narrative with theoretical commentary, not a research methods piece. It’s accessible for a wide variety of audiences, not just academics. I wrote the paper with patients, families, clinicians, advocates, and caregivers all well in mind. WWIH readers will recognize a lot of our key themes here: intersectionality of multiple social positions and roles, gender performances and violations of norms, racial and ethnic inequality, symbolic interactionism as a tool for understanding health experience, and of course a hefty dose of storytelling!

An essential contribution of this piece is detailed insight into the interplay between personality and social structure in the experience of chronic illness and the management thereof. By using my own voice to explore the complexities of different theories of social inequality, I hope to help build new ground for dialogue about what chronic illness feels like day-to-day that can inspire improvements in both community support and clinical care. I also hope to open doors for other scholars who occupy one or more marginalized social locations to share and critically analyze their own stories of illness management in everyday life.

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