Stop Looking for the Emergency Exit
Tomorrow brings the beginning of my second semester of grad school. For those of you who don’t know, the first round brought quite a few punches. Anxiety, stress, and panic became my new best friends. My family worried that I wasn’t eating (because I wasn’t, really) and my friends barely heard from me. I remember sitting in a bar last summer with a bachelorette party talking to a guy about his grad school experience. I believe his exact words were “you’re going to want to tear your hair out and you’re going to feel like you’re drowning most of the time but, if you love what you’re learning, it will all be worth it.” I laughed his words off a bit saying “ok, thanks, I’ll remember that” thinking it couldn’t be that bad. Oh no, he was right. That’s what it felt like.
Lesson #1: there’s a difference between listening and understanding.
Through 3 classes and 27 students to teach, I was challenged to my core. My mental health was tested and my concept of self was pretty much thrown out the window. The confident, strong, self-assured young woman I had known was replaced by an intimidated, scared, overwhelmed girl. I sat in class the first week listening to my professor outline the syllabus for the semester. It was that list of readings you hear about in horror stories from grad school that is literally more than is humanly possible to read in the given time. She discussed the research for the semester we were expected to conduct and the final paper we were to write. I was surrounded by PhD candidates who didn’t look nearly as panicked as I felt. All I could think was “I can’t do this; I don’t belong here.” I left that class holding back tears while pulling my phone out of my backpack to tell my parents that school was too much for me and I couldn’t do it. Two blubbering phone calls (I’m a stress crier – I’ll be the first to admit it), a picnic in a park, and a well-timed frosty later, I was convinced to try.
Lesson #2: Ice cream can fix almost anything.
Lesson #3: It really is okay to cry.
Try is all I could do for weeks. At no point after that lunch was I committed to being there. I was still looking for a really good reason to get out. I was uncomfortable and I was overwhelmed but I found a way to make it through each day. One day at a time. I caused myself the most pain when I tried to figure out how I was going to manage the work that was due two months from that day. Yes, I was stressed about work that I didn’t have to do yet. I know, I’m my own worst enemy. Throughout my first round in the ring, there was a nasty little pressure that kept eating away at me. I always picture an evil little soul-crushing version of my voice on one shoulder and a sweet, kind, grace-giving voice on the other when I think about this. The soul-crusher was perfection. I had never realized how much that immense pressure had shaped my entire life until I was in grad school. During the first couple weeks of classes (when I was struggling internally but kept a smile on my face) I met a woman for coffee who I hoped would become a mentor. She asked me what my message is when I work with young women and I told her I encourage girls to be brave instead of trying to be perfect. She said “Well that’s great, but you seem so perfect! Your appearance, your education… is that a difficult message to deliver?” Not only was the weight of that word placed on my shoulders once again, but I was reminded of exactly why I’m passionate about this work. I may have looked “perfect” on the outside, but, internally, I was searching for something to make me believe in me again. I know I’m not alone in that. What she didn’t know or see was the way my brave was being tested every single day.
Lesson #4: Many times a struggle isn’t visible on the outside.
Lesson #5: When the work is at it’s worst remember your why.
And so the soul-crushing pressure to be perfect followed me through the semester. That is until I found myself laying on an air mattress in the middle of my living room breathing faster than I could control, tears streaming down my face, unable to move, calling my mom. It was my first anxiety attack and it was terrifying. I couldn’t slow my breathing and I couldn’t actually feel myself moving. I could see my limbs moving as my mom was yelling at me to find a paper bag, but I don’t remember consciously feeling anything. I will never forget what she said to me when I started to breathe slowly again. “You are enough. Cammy, just as you are you’re enough.” After that moment I knew that I would kill myself in one way or another if I didn’t let go of my expectations. No one, NO ONE, else expected me to be perfect and trying to be would only drive me to the brink of insanity. It was time to let go and accept good enough. Good enough still gets things done. And, ultimately, done is far better than hurting yourself for an unattainable standard created by a culture that capitalizes on insecurity. But, that’s a blog for another day.
Lesson #6: Let go of stories that no longer serve you.
Lesson #7: No matter how old you are, you’re never too old to need your mom.
One morning, while riding the train to campus like any other day, things started to change just the slightest bit. I was reading an article for class when logic was louder than fear for the first time in months. “Deep down, you know you can do this. You don’t want to believe that because it would be easier to get out but, if you’re really honest with yourself, you know you can do this. Looking for the emergency exit sign in your life is only preventing you from becoming everything you’re capable of. This is your choice. Stop it.” It wasn’t an emotional breakdown or earth-shattering moment of clarity we hear about in so many stories of the heroes we admire, but it was my shift. The mountain that was too high to climb started to look more like a rocky road in front of me. It was time for me to be the hero of my own story.
Lesson #8: Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.
Lesson #9: growth and change will never feel comfortable.
Now, the broken pieces I mourned early in the semester are simply the shell of the person I used to be. Now, I can’t go back to doubting what I can and cannot do. Now, I know what I’m capable of and, in the coming weeks, greater challenges will force me to unlock a new determination I didn’t know I had. In the same way we’re not frozen in one moment for our entire lives, we’re not supposed to be one version of ourselves for the duration of our lives. Time forces us to try new things, accept change, and, quite possibly, drink an amount of coffee mixed with sugar that we know isn’t healthy. Chapter two starts tomorrow and, if I know anything about grad school, I’ll probably get knocked down again. The fighter comes out when we decide to get back up.