The Second Time Around



In a week, I’ll begin my second year as a PhD student. Or, perhaps more accurately, my fourth.

I tried getting a PhD right out of undergrad, and I got into a good program with excellent funding. When I flamed out after two years, I was sure I’d never go back, yet here I am. I tried my best to learn from my mistake; I chose a field that I cared more about, I made sure the department was a good fit, and I’ve worked harder in my classes. I think I’m doing better this time around, but every day I wake up terrified of screwing up again.

The anxiety didn’t originate with grad school, but it was certainly compounded by it. For a while, I tried to pretend that the rising stress wasn’t a big deal. Even after I started my new program, the anxiety aggravated other health issues so badly I had trouble eating. I still pretended I was alright. I spent my first year experiencing moments of panic on a daily basis. Classes that, in retrospect, I should have enjoyed, I spent in a state of low-key dread.

What made it so hard for me to accept that my struggles were real was the fact that I thought I had no reason to feel anxious. I have excellent funding, a supportive advisor, and the benefit of experience on doctoral study. I shouldn’t feel like my throat is about to close up every few hours. Other people have real problems and mine seem to be solely in my head. What right do I have to claim a mental health issue when I’m so fortunate? That argument didn’t seem to fix anything.

I received an official diagnosis before summer and went on medication shortly thereafter. I have a good therapist. Both help a lot. I still find it hard to talk about my struggles to anyone besides my spouse. I am trying to learn to be kind to myself, which has maybe been the hardest struggle of all.

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