Losing myself

Let me tell you a story.  There once was a girl from Iowa who grew up in a lower class family whose parents had to work many hours a week just so that the family could have the necessities.  In junior high, this girl decided that, in order to avoid her parents fate, she should go to college.  But, since there was not enough money to send her to college, she would need scholarships.  To get scholarships she knew she needed to have a really good academic record, therefore, she resolved to get all A’s in high school.  She thought she would be able to get into any school she wanted with this kind of record, but alas, her school didn’t have honors or AP classes or weighted grades so despite having the top grade in her class, she wasn’t able to get into her first choice school.  However, she was able to go to a good school in Boston.  So, despite never having been to the city of Boston, she headed there for school, alone, confident she would be able to handle whatever problems there were.

While in Boston, the girl had her second major depressive episode (the first was just before junior high) and it had a negative effect on her classwork and relationships.  But, she persevered and was able to graduate with a reasonably good GPA and honors.  At the time, she didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life except to move to a large city in the midwest because that was where her boyfriend was going to school and she was sure she would marry this man.  So, having very little in savings and no job whatsoever, she moved to this large city, confident she would be able to be hired to do something even if it was only waiting tables.  She first got a job at a store selling lingerie  but eventually was able to get a job as a tech.

Then, the girl decided that she would really like to backpack around Europe.  So, she planned and planned and despite never having been abroad before and having very little safety net should it all go horribly wrong, and despite speaking very little of the languages for the countries she was visiting, she took a long vacation from her tech job and went with a friend and stayed in youth hostels for three and a half weeks while visiting four countries.

After being a tech for several years, the girl decided to go to grad school.  She got into a good school and that was when she had her third major depressive episode and it was such a doozie that she started seeing a therapist and eventually started taking medication.  And she fought the depression really hard and after years of therapy and medication changes and tears and fear it would never get any better, she got better.

Now, let’s talk about another girl.  This girl is trying to finish her PhD.  She’s desperately trying to write her thesis while in the midst of a major depressive episode.  For reasons she doesn’t understand, she is filled with anxiety about very simple things like going to the grocery store.  She has to summon up courage whenever she wants to leave the house.  She is totally freaking out about going to a conference and about all of the things that could go wrong there (and worrying about money on top of it) even though she went to this conference once before and it was great and it’s in the same location and some of the same people she met last time will be there.  She seems to have anxiety all of the time and has to take something for it.  She has to work like crazy just to be able to focus for two hours a day on her thesis.  The rest of the time is spent worrying or reading a book, or watching TV because those are about the only things she can handle.

I do not understand how I can be both girls in the story.  Something has happened to me.   Somehow, I went from being a person who had no problem taking big chances to a person who’s afraid to take small risks.  I went from being a person who had lots of ambition to a person with no ambition.  I’m not exactly sure how it all happened.  It doesn’t feel like it should have been able to happen, and yet, it did.  Some of it, I blame on grad school.  I never had such great self-esteem to begin with and it really took a beating in grad school.  Now, my self-esteem is so low as to be practically non-existent.  How I’m going to get through my defense in this shape I have no idea.

What seems clear to me, at this point, is that I need help.  I have a doctor and I love her but we can only communicate via email and the phone.  I think I might be better with a doctor here, except I’m scared to try to find one (what if the first person I talk to is no good?).  I think I need a new therapist, too, but again, I’m scared to try and find one.  I’ve just about reached my breaking point, though, where i feel so bad, I’m willing to do something scary like find a new doctor just in the hopes that I will feel better.

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18 thoughts on “Losing myself

  1. I’ve been reading your blog for a while, but I’ve been too apathetic to comment, even though I wanted to. I feel like I’m in the same situation. I was so disciplined and productive as an undergrad and now I can barely force myself to think about my research because it makes me so anxious. I feel like quitting and getting a crappy retail job so I don’t have to worry about being good enough (although I probably still would). The loss of ambition would be horrifying to my undergrad self.

    I hope you find some help and can get some of your confidence back. Could you ask your current doctor if she knows anyone in your area so you at least have a recommendation?

  2. What a tough time you’re going through now. I have a couple of thoughts to share.

    First, I think it’s a good idea for you to find a new therapist. Finding the right person can be such an incredible help! This brings me to my second thought, which is about my axiety finding a new person to cut my hair. My sister, who died in February, has been cutting my hair for the past 4 years. I was never wild about going to a salon and letting someone cut my hair, but my sister was good at it and I knew I could always ask her to cut it when we saw each other. She knew my hair. So, getting my haircut has been a great source of axiety. I got my hair cut before my wedding in April, but didn’t cut it again until just two weeks ago. I wanted to find a new stylist, but I was worked up about finding someone who would do a good job AND wouldn’t move, change jobs, or otherwise disappear and make me repeat the process of finding a new stylist. I’ve been talking about getting my hair cut for months now, but just kept putting off the difficult task of finding someone to repllicate my sister’s talents. Finally, in a moment of boldness and haste while getting ready for a party a few weeks ago, I went and did it. Luckily, I got a great haircut from a nice stylist.

    I know that finding the right doctor or therapist is much more complicated than a hair stylist, but what’s the worst that could happen? Maybe the first person or few people won’t be a good fit, but there IS someone out there that can help you get through this. The next time you’re feeling emboldened, out of desperation or whatever, pick up the phone and give a call. You can do it!

    I also want to thank you for continuing to blog. I hope that 2010 brings you greater health and happiness, and I look forward to reading what you have to share. Keep taking care of yourself and doing what you need to do to make it through each day!

  3. Hi –

    Are you in the Pasadena area? If so, I have a few good recommendations on therapists for you (it’s so hard to find a good therapist and so emotionally draining, I don’t blame you for not wanting to get out there…

    It’s so true that graduate school can wring you out and leave you feeling worthless and horribly depressed, but you will recover when you finish. Someone very close to me is going through the same thing right now and it’s gut-wrenching, but it will get better!

    • I was in the Pasadena area but now am in the San Francisco area. Thanks for the thought, though.

  4. Hi, I’m a first time reader, first time commenter here (*waves*!) I felt compelled to respond to your post, I really feel for you and what you are going through right now – I was paralyzed with anxiety over the last year of my PhD, I swear I didn’t write a thing for about 2 or 3 months there and the guilt was overwhelming. I should have sought therapy and anxiety meds, and didn’t, so you are ahead of me at least in that way – if I could go back I’d definitely do that part differently.
    I’m on the other side of that experience now, and actually love science again, but I sure remember the hell part. Anyway, my sympathies and empathy going to you across cyberspace, email if you want to rant to fresh ears.

  5. I can totally relate to your story. I’ve always been on the shy side, but in high school I was always speaking up in class, taking risks, trying new things. The same was true in college to a certain extent, but I started having anxiety problems. Sometime between college and grad school I turned into a different person, one too shy to ask questions in class or try to make new friends. 6 years later and I’m on meds for the anxiety and trying to get my guts back as I interview for post-doc positions. I often look back and wonder what happened to that tough, confident, and outspoken girl and left this timid person with a serious case of impostor syndrome in her place. It’s been tough, and it still is, but I feel like I’m slowly starting to regain some of that confidence, and I’m trying to get the good qualities of that high school girl back.

    All of this is just to say that you aren’t alone, and that you can find your way back, at least somewhat. For me, the meds and an amazing boyfriend who makes me talk about my fears and issues and then helps me figure out how to overcome them has been a huge help. I guess he’s my live-in therapist. I hope you can find the help you need, and best of luck getting better.

  6. Yeah. I think it is really good that you are writing all this down.

    Finding a new doctor is such a pain! I recommend breaking it into steps. Step 1: make a list of doctors that you could call, i.e. that are in the area. Step 2: Try to find reviews and recommendations to help you cull that list (I suggest looking on Yelp for both of these. Also, you might want to specifically choose someone with a PhD, experience with grad school could be helpful to you). Step 3: make a list of things that you might say when you call this person and/or a list of things that you will ask this therapist when you meet them. Step 4: figure out how you will decide if this therapist is a “keeper.” Decide how many chances you will give them, that sort of thing. Step 5: Consider calling someone. You don’t need to think about step 5 until you are through steps 1-4.

  7. This post resonates with me like you wouldn’t believe. We come from VERY similar backgrounds, and I too relied on scholarships to go to school. I moved and DID marry the boy I was sure I would (my high school sweetheart), but it didn’t end well. After a major breakdown, which happened to coincide with a divorce, I decided to change as much about my life as possible. I quit my job (as a research assistant) and moved halfway across the country for graduate school (not quite Europe, but I’ve been thinking about that recently).

    I had a second breakdown shortly after moving here, and was placed on medication to help with a very deep depression. I managed to pull myself out of it, but with family drama, working on my thesis and life in general I’ve slipped back into the pattern you mentioned you are experiencing. I can’t give you words of wisdom as others have, because I am going through a very similar experience myself. I don’t say the same thing, because that is presumptuous, and we don’t in fact know each other.

    I know how hard it is to realize you aren’t the same person anymore, and you don’t necessarily like the person you’ve become. I know reaching out to a REAL person is harder than most people make it out to be because I’m to scared to do it myself. There is safety in anonymity. The thought of looking someone in the eye and telling them how I actually feel about myself is more than I can handle…. In another life, before marriage then divorce, and before graduate school, I was fearless. A beauty queen and cheerleader who would walk in nearly nothing in front of thousands without a second thought and now the idea of sitting one-on-one with a stranger paralyzes me with fear.

    If you need to talk, or vent, send me an email and I’ll be sure to respond (post a comment on my blog so I know to check my account. I only check my gmail account once a month otherwise).

    If you don’t mail me, I understand… but it might do both of us some good. I hope you find something that helps.

  8. hugs to you honey! be brave and find a new therapist – and keep blogging so we know you’re OK!

  9. Hugs, and empathy.

    I look back at things I did as an undergrad and wonder where the hell that woman went. Ad how to find the energy and the will to even try and get out of my cosy, dismal little rut. I hate that the depression steals the things I admire about myself, my work ethic, my discipline, my concentration, my enthusiasm. I hate that some days it’s so hard to get up and get out of the house that I barely make it to the store before it closes. I too need to find a therapist this year and it seems a huge, impossible mountain of a task.

    But… I made it into a faculty job, and I DO that job, and sometimes the science is so much fun I can’t believe I get paid to do it. I’m a bit down at the moment, but I’m learning to live with and around it, and you can too – this too will pass.

    I love the internet – knowing that other people go through this has made a huge difference to me, and I hope knowing you have not just friends but companions on the road out here helps you as well.

  10. I didn’t read the other comments, so I apologize if I repeat what others have said.

    I have to say that I agree that grad school probably has something to do with it. I had a very similar experience in my PhD – it just brought be so far down.

    I know what you mean about seeming to be two completely different people. I just turned into someone I didn’t like during grad school – super negative, low risk taker, depressive, anxious, etc..

    Thankfully, I finished in July and life is SO much better now. I just feel better than I ever did over the past 4 years. Even with the recent events (miscarriage), I feel better than at some moments during my PhD.

    Not sure if it helps at all, but I sincerely hope you find ways to get through this time, and just know that things can get better after it all. (((hugs))) to you.

  11. As hard as it is to change therapists, it is very much worth it, despite the fear I imagine you’re feeling. If your gut is telling you that your current therapist isn’t working for you, it’s important to listen. Not listening turned into a lot of time (and money) wasted for me.

    That said, if you feel able to bring up your concerns about the dynamic between you and your current therapist, your therapist may be able to adjust his/her approach to your sessions. I’ve found that to be really helpful — it at least gives you and your therapist a shot at making things better before you have to go all the way through the process of finding someone new.

    • The problem isn’t so much that I don’t think that my current doctor gets me as the fact that she’s halfway across the country so we can only have phone appts. I always intended to find a therapist here, it’s just been so difficult to get myself to do it. But, since I feel so bad I think I need to really work on finding someone nearby because it’s hard to keep doing phone appts.

      • Oh, that’s a tough situation :(. When I was commuting between my husband’s city and my own, I had one or two phone sessions with a therapist and that definitely didn’t work for me. The later ones I worked with emphasized independently that phone conversations can’t replace in-person sessions, and I believe it. I’m sorry the phone appointments haven’t worked for you. For what it’s worth, getting referrals from your current person is def. a good idea. I went that route when I moved in permanently with my husband after our long-distance stint finally ended, and it cut the search process down a lot. Or at least, it made the process feel less intimidating.

  12. Just one more comment to let you know that you’re not alone! I really appreciate you sharing your struggles, difficult as that may be. I also appreciate everyone’s comments, since they remind me that I’m also not alone. *group hug*

  13. Even for someone without other depressive episodes finishing the dissertation was almost crippling emotionally for me. Finding a new therapist with experience with a PhD issues is probably a good idea. Some universities also have support groups for PhD students which might help you realize how ordinary it is to struggle with this, writing one good hour each day will eventually get you there and expecting too much from yourself can be paralyzing. That being said, find a professional and I really like Yolio’s idea of how to break that down into a more managable process.

  14. I first have to say I didn’t read anyone else’s comments but want to give you my own.

    I wanted to cry when I read your post. I also lost myself in grad school and I’m still trying to get myself (and what I feel was my life) back. I had major depression and one Christmas broke down at my parents house. My mom threatened to drag me to a doctor if I wouldn’t go on my own. It was bad. There were many causes, the situation I was in as a grad student was horrendous, something no one should have to endure, and life at home wasn’t too great. I was dealing with a loved one, and still dealing with, who is an alcoholic. I had no refuge and crumbled. I cried constantly. Didn’t even want to watch tv because I cried at commercials. I didn’t want to go out because it was exhausting pretending everything at home was okay. This wasn’t me, I was always a happy positive person and hated what I had become.

    Result – I saw a doctor, which I highly recommend. It wasn’t as scary as I thought it would be, and I wish I had done it sooner. It at least gave me someone impartial to talk to. I finally agreed to take medication, which did wonders.

    Things got better once I graduated and changed my environment. As a result, things at home got somewhat better because my attitude was better. I’m still not the same person I used to be and don’t think I ever will be. But I’m getting better. I tried to go off my medication which was disastrous. I should have know better with my background because I know some of it is genetic, and it runs in my family. I’m now back on the medication and will be indefinately. I can live with that because it’s better than the alternative.

    My concern and recommendation for you – I feel like I’ve been through exactly what you’re going through. See a doctor for medication and see a therapist to talk to. They don’t have to be the same person. I talked to my PCP, cried when I told her how I’d been feeling, she gave me medicine. But I went to somoone else to deal. Do it. If you don’t like the person. Switch. There are a lot of people and just keep looking until you find the right one.

    I don’t think I could have completed my degree if I hadn’t gotten help. I was falling apart at the seems.

    Get help. And if you need to talk to someone who understands and who has a sympathetic ear and will listen – email me. Your post just brought so much back, it pains me to see you going through it too when you don’t have too.

  15. Definitely get a new doctor!!!!!

    it’ll be so worth it in the end. I think most of the previous comments have said most of what should be said. but just let me add that having no ambition/being apathetic is such a huge part of depression. it’s not you. it’s the depression. once the depression is under control who knows how you’ll feel about finishing your thesis or your career. one thing I’m sure of (having been there myself) once the depression is under control your motivation/energy will come back. maybe not for what you were passionate about before but for something.

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