That was then
The summer between my second and third years of grad school I slipped down the rabbit hole. That’s how I’ve come to refer to the period I spent struggling with anxiety, following my last qualifying exam. That period was well documented here, in real time. But the short(-ish) version is that about a month before my last exam, I started having more frequent panic attacks and bouts of insomnia. Given that I’ve always tended toward physical manifestations of stress, I sort of shrugged it off and figured I was about right on schedule.
Things were pretty bad by the time the exam actually came up, but at that point I was expecting everything to go back to normal as soon as I handed in the test. Except it didn’t. Things got progressively worse – more frequent panic attacks, until I essentially never felt like I was breathing comfortably, incessant insomnia, vertigo, hypochondria, and the growing sensation that I was losing my mind. By the end of the summer I sought help and by the following year I was sufficiently on the mend yet enamored with therapy and stuck with it for a few years, really digging into things. In the end, it was great.
But I remember very distinctly, a few months, or maybe several months, into therapy, worrying that I was permanently broken. Feeling like I was broken. And the main worry was, how can I ever trust myself to handle this level of stress again? I was specifically worrying about my defense, still a few years out, but surely, I imagined, tougher than what I had just come through, and how was I going to manage that without falling apart again?
This is now
I got through my defense, with barely a mental health hiccup. Don’t get me wrong – it was tough and stressful, but by then I was more than back to fighting weight. Because that’s the amazing thing about doing all the work in therapy – you can’t imagine it’s possible when you’re in it, but not only do you get better, you get even better. Stronger.
I mention this now because I’m just back from easily the most stressful couple of weeks of my life. Makes everything in grad school seem like a cakewalk. Ok, the grad school stuff, inaccurately, had more emotional hooks attached, but objectively, the last couple of weeks have had far higher real world stakes.
And I was in a bad way – got myself into that mental space where I feel all flat and even though I know better, I completely lost the ability to do anything good for myself – stopped exercising, stopped meditating. Hell – I stopped masturbating! I was so low on serotonin that I burst into tears on a nearly daily basis*.
But. I got the work done. And I wasn’t anywhere near the edge of any holes, rabbit or otherwise. Indeed, I didn’t even think about my history of anxiety until I had been back for a few days. I didn’t like the stress, but I didn’t fear it either. And I managed it. Ok, perhaps not with aplomb. But with utility.
And I came back to a partner to whom I can say, I just need to curl up in my pajamas tonight. I don’t have the strength to leave the house tonight. I just need you to be nice to me. I’m in a really bad mental space right now. It’s going to take me a few days to recover. And he wraps his arms around me and is kind and patient and doesn’t judge or freak out when I tear up after sex and just need to be held for a bit.
I did the work to get here –to be mentally strong enough to withstand the stress and emotionally aware enough to recognize my limits as I’m rushing toward them and present enough to appreciate and be with a true partner. It’s work well worth doing, and well worth pausing to appreciate.
*clearly, I don't want to have, nor should I have, the sort of job that makes me cry everyday. This was a narrow, special set of circumstances, but I'll also be taking steps to avoid repeating it in the future.