It’s been two months since I successfully defended my Ph.D. I’ve been nagging myself to write some really insightful post giving meaning to my experience and encouraging others to pursue their dreams. I don’t know, something appreciative and pleasant that would tie together the last three and a half years. That way those heroes in my life who took up the nasty job of encouraging me along the way could find closure and receive my gratitude. I feel guilty, but I’ve been too tired for good insights. My memories are blurry, I guess because each minute of it was so charged with adrenaline, like my life was hanging from it. For three and a half years, it felt like I was on a treadmill, sweaty and gross, getting sharp pains in my side, looking down at the timer to see I had only been running for 8 minutes. It was suffocating. And at times I would trip and fall and bust my lip and be spit onto the floor. Like when my manuscript was sent to our competitors. Or our grant proposal was sent to our competitors. Or when I was told finishing on time would be a “tall order.” Or when I was told I needed to start over the experiment that had me coming into the lab around the clock like a zombie. Crying and dazed after these falls, I would look up to see the treadmill still zooming, and reluctantly I would pull myself up and start hobbling along again. The seconds seemed to expand beyond reason. Eventually I stopped hearing the supportive voices of those around me and could only hear the deafening fog horn of the fear of not finishing. After I finally reached what I considered to be enough, I slammed the red STOP button and slowed to a halt. Breathless. Lifeless. I still feel like the ground is moving below me. My steps feel artificial. Where am I? It doesn’t seem like I’ve arrived anywhere. But I guess it’s over. It is over, right?
Tonight at the bus station I watched two little girls doing their secret handshake. They were chanting a synchronous “B – F – F, best friends forever!” laughing wildly and smiling at each other with the sort of trust and glee that only little 9-year-old girls have. Their mothers, both young Middle Eastern women wearing hijab, were not far but were watching their other youngsters, all of whom appeared to have come from an evening school function. The two little girls did cartwheels in front of me, oblivious to my presence and to the presence of the people veering around them to get to their buses. Then they broke into a choreographed dance routine, pointing across the bus way to the beat and singing, “Ra Ra ra-ra-rah, La La ooh-la-la,” the opening of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” I couldn’t help but giggle at this. And then I was sad. There are some people in my country who believe that these little girls shouldn’t be allowed in because they are Muslim. Hopefully these girls are too young to realize the extent of this hatred against them. Hopefully by the time they’re older, these people will have come to their senses. For now, at least some innocent moments like these, moments of complete freedom, remain.
I’ve been taking samba dance classes for the past 6 months or so. And like most things I do for long enough, I’ve really started to hate it. Hehe. No…I don’t hate it, but things about it have really started to rub me the wrong way. I did the beginners’ level of for twelve weeks, and it was so much fun! Each week I would smile ear to ear as I rode the bus across the river reflecting all of the beautiful city lights, knowing I was on my way to the most enjoyable hour of my week. And after each class, I would catch the bus home with such satisfaction, glistening and radiant. I moved onto the second level, hoping I could keep learning new things. It was quite the leap in the skill level of the students to say the least. But I was okay with my skill level, remembering that I was mostly learning this style of dance because I love the music and it makes me feel relaxed and wonderful.
Recently, though, the other dancers have begun to bother me, how they seem to take this as a serious skill that must be mastered and perfected rather than what it is: a dance that people dance at parties, at festivals, at barbecues, mostly while at least a little tipsy if not completely intoxicated. It’s a sexy dance, a joyful dance. It proclaims the beauty and strength of a nation. It’s not an extension of ballet. So since I’m clearly soooo enlightened about this topic, hehe, why does the grace and precision of these other dancers in the class leave me feeling deflated and awkward now?
I didn’t dance when I was little, at least not in a formal instructional setting, but a lot of my friends did. I remember hanging out with the dance moms as they applied coat after coat of mascara on their daughters in hotel lobbies fumigated with hairspray just before dance competitions. I remember staying the weekend with friends and joining in on their ballet classes. I think I even tried out for some dance troupe with a friend once, just because she was trying out and I wanted to part of a real audition. I was always an outsider looking in on ballet, jazz, tap. Yet I never asked my parents if I could take dance classes. Instead I would put on a CD and dance in our living room at night with the lights on so that I could see my reflection in the three large windows. I would make up my own dance moves or copy ones I’d seen and choreograph whole songs. I did that for years. So I guess you could say even though I didn’t “do dance,” I’ve loved to dance my whole life. In college I became very “enthused” (as my dad would say jokingly) with salsa dancing, and over the five years I was in Miami I danced a LOT of salsa, some at the university or at parties, some out in dance clubs. It was a blast.
No one used to watch me when I was dancing. Sometimes I could pull my mom away from making beef stroganoff or spaghetti if I pleaded enough so that I could show her some new move I had made up. Even when I was older dancing salsa, I would mostly be colliding with other couples dancing on the tiny dance floor. With the whole room spinning, I lost track of the people standing outside the dance floor looking in. I still think that’s one of the best things about Cuban salsa. It’s like being a kid again, making yourself dizzy on purpose.
Now if my samba teacher watches me, I notice her cringe. She comes over and tries to help me improve my posture or the flow of my arms, but I know that I don’t look as graceful as the other girls. I still look very much like that girl dancing in front of the living room windows. But here’s the thing that I would really like to get off my chest: NO ONE is watching!!! NO ONE gives a shit!
In fact, no one is watching anything that you’re doing. No one cares that you run, that you bake things from Pinterest, that you eat at food trucks, that you spend your weekends at hipster bars, that you are a vegan or that you have gone sugar-free. No one cares how I dance, how you dance, or how great or stupid we look. And since no one cares, can’t we just put on a song and enjoy it? Are we allowed to do anything in our perfectly manicured lives anymore just for the hell of it?
When I was growing up, adults always told me how responsible I was. Some friends’ parents even told me that they preferred their daughters to hang out with me because I was so responsible. Which makes me wonder…what did their daughters do when I wasn’t around??? Hmmm…I never really knew what it meant to be responsible, but I assumed that if everyone says I’m responsible, then I must be. It wasn’t until recently that I realized I had never taken full responsibility for many aspects of my life. It’s not that one day everything went crashing to the ground and that I was left staring at my mess of a life. It’s just that for as long as I can remember, I would wake up, go into school or work, and walk home, always carrying around this feeling of pity for myself. If something didn’t go according to plan at work, I would feel wronged and frustrated, not at myself but at the lab environment or even at the riddles of nature itself. At home I would feel sorry for myself for not having enough time in the evening and for having to cook on a weeknight because Sunday had slipped through my fingers and so on. In psychology this is referred to as “victim mentality,” a learned personality trait in which a person tends to regard him or herself as a victim of the negative actions of others, and to think, speak and act as if that were the case — even in the absence of clear evidence (or so Wikipedia says). The thing is, it was never obvious to me that I had a victim mentality because I didn’t actually think that people were out to get me. It was more of a general “life’s not fair” attitude. I had these underlying beliefs — “There’s not enough time in the day,” “No matter how hard you try, you can’t get what you want,” “You’re not supposed to enjoy everyday life,” etc. — that would run in the background in my mind and make me feel grumpy and wronged. Yes, sometimes I would stop and remember that I actually had it pretty good and should feel grateful, but these moments of appreciation were not big enough to pull me out of the pity trap. Then I started researching victim mentality online. There isn’t a lot of information about how to get out of a victim mentality other than “Stop believing you’re the victim!” haha. But I did stumble across this good article, http://www.forbes.com/sites/annakupka/2012/10/03/5-steps-to-transform-your-life-step-5/. And I can say that the first three steps have transformed my life dramatically. The first step in particular “Take responsibility for your life,” made me finally understand what responsibility means. For me, it means that I’m the “conscious creator” of my life instead of the victim. Now I can see that things that happen to me are just like shifts in the wind or different combinations of cards dealt to me, situations to which I must creatively adjust my sails or my game and continue on an altered course. I don’t have to get frustrated and feel sorry for myself when things don’t go as I expect. In fact, it’s more fun to embrace the challenges presented by the unexpected twists in life. This may sound too chipper for this blog (right?), but hopefully it helps someone out there in cyberspace at some point, even if that person is me in the future. There’s nothing worse than feeling like a victim all of the time. But the good news is that it’s possible to change your victimhood just like it’s possible to change nearly everything in your life…once you’ve taken responsibility for it, that is.
I’m coming up on the 6-month mark of my PhD research in Brisbane. And I have NOTHING to show for it. I can say that calmly now because I’ve spent a good month panicking about it already. I haven’t published any new papers. I don’t have any numbers to crunch or any points to plot. I have more holes on my coffee punch card from the cafe in our building than I have PCR gel images. And yet I’m done beating myself up about this perceived lack of achievement (or at least I flirt with the idea of being done with it, as I stare into my frothy coffee). Because I’m starting to appreciate research for what it is, and that’s a whole lot of activity even when there appears to be nothing happening. There is a reason that research is so slow. Looking over grant proposals in the past, I often wondered how it could possibly take a group of intelligent researchers so long and so much money to study what they’ve set out to study. But six months of nothing has made it obvious to me: for every mosquito experiment that is published, there were tens or hundreds of experiments before it that didn’t get published. There were mosquito colonies established, mosquito colonies killed, mosquitoes that failed to produce eggs, failed to mate–you name it. In research there are DNA primers that don’t bind, primers that bind to themselves, primers that bind at mysterious temperatures. There are plans to do field experiments and plans that literally get rained on. Or there is a cyclone (like last week). The amazing thing is that through all of these twists that most people would find terribly annoying, researchers persist. And the cool thing is, well, I’m starting to be able to identify as one of those researchers. Granted, there’s nothing to show for it. But I guess I’m finally okay with that.
Sadness is a cloak I’m wearing for a while. It’s heavy, not particularly warm, and it doesn’t bring out my eyes. Only fate will determine how long I must wear it. Unlike depression, which sneaks up on you slowly like a skiddish, black stray dog, sadness is a sudden plunge. It’s that part of the roller coaster where you know the drop is coming, but you have no way out of it, so you just scream. It’s panic. You’re able to survive the adrenaline of it because you know it will be short lived. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not the next day, but soon enough you’ll emerge from sadness and see sunshine. You will survive it, even if you’re a little stunned afterwards. That’s the implicit promise that cones with it. In this way, I think sadness is most certainly preferable to depression or grief. You almost wonder why you need to feel it at all, given that you know that there is an end to it. What’s the big deal? Why be so hysterical? Unfortunately with sadness, there is no choice about if and how long you will bear it. We’re all frightened children when it comes to sadness. It’s an uncomfortable cloak to wear. Almost unbearable at times. Now that I’ve been sad for a few days, I worry for myself. I don’t know if my eyelids can swell much bigger. I’m not sure if my normal, optimistic self will be waiting for me at the other side of this tunnel. It’s somewhere on the spectrum between unsettling and terrifying (I still can’t make up my mind where).
I came across this article on Psychology Today offering some potential explanations of why people get so depressed at Christmas time (http://m.psychologytoday.com/blog/wired-success/200912/why-people-get-depressed-christmas). According to the article, this is the time of year with the highest incidence of depression. The explanations that I found interesting include, “Other[s] get depressed because Christmas appears to be a trigger to engage in excessive self-reflection and rumination about the inadequacies of life (and a “victim” mentality) in comparison with other people who seem to have more and do more…Other people report that they dread Christmas because of the expectations for social gatherings with family, friends and acquaintances that they’d rather not spend time with.”
It’s true. Self-pity or self-hate does tend to show up in nearly everyone’s stocking at Christmas. Expectations are high at Christmas, and no one seems to actually live up to the perfect holiday cards they send out (if you are even “good enough” to do that!). You’re bound to get lots of questions from distant relatives at family gatherings about your life, making you nervous about how’ll you’ll explain your latest failure/achievement without seeming pathetic/arrogant. Even though I’ve experienced a great deal of self-confidence over the past year, Christmas has a way of breaking me, making me wonder, “Am I actually weird for making these life choices?” and “What will people think of me?” I’m assuming that a lot of other people can empathize with these holiday-induced self-torture sessions. What do we do about it? The gift of self-pity is bound to show up now and then around Christmas, but this year my strategy is to simply not unwrap it. In other words, it’s to give my mind no time to reflect on anything which could make me feel down, including my usual box-office hits: “Just remember, family matters,” “You should probably contact some of your old childhood friends while in town,” “You’ve been enjoying life too much,” and “You should brush up on that German now that you have down time.” I’ll do anything it takes not to let myself run through these favorites, even if it means dropping right then and there to do 20 push ups (realistically, no). Maybe it’s okay to take a break from self-reflection for a few weeks if it means I’ll walk out the other side in one piece. Maybe I can choose how much of the holiday madness I’m willing to sign up for. Hmm, I’ll reflect on that and get back to you.