I almost don’t even know where to begin with this story. All I can say is, if I had a chance to write an open letter to fellow graduate students, I would have a lot to write about. I’ve tried to be as professional as I can with any discussion related to my academic life, but, here now at the end, it’s no longer just professional. It’s personal. It hits deep. It, in some ways, has defined me.
Today, Friday, September 10 is my deadline to file my dissertation. The stakes if I miss the deadline? Two quarters’ worth of tuition… roughly eight grand that I’d have to pay up front and out of pocket because no more student loans for me. I’d been working on my fifth chapter since May and as of Monday of last week, it had already been through at least three major overhauls (And let’s not even get into the fights I had with the computer labs that were never open due to furloughs and management changes and that no longer have the program I need, only a trial version that is lovely enough to crash every time I try to do anything remotely useful on it, and even when I caved and bought the dang program it still didn’t work. Let’s just say that being a student at a public university in these times of economic woe is not fun.)
So that Monday, I had just finished a major overhaul and could see this deadline looming and was praying everything would pass muster. What I hear from my committee that Wednesday night is that I still fail to grasp how to present this kind of information (though until that email, nobody had really told me either). The recommended changes are not few. I begin to freak out because in all this process I have felt like I’d been wandering in the dark without any guideposts, only guard rails to bump into when I’ve gone the wrong way. But it’s no longer May. It’s now a week and a half from my deadline, and I’m trying to work while bouncing between houses living out of suitcases because our apartment decided it was also a good time to get an all-invasive mold infestation, and what I hear is that I still just don’t get it. So I sent a couple of worried emails asking what to do, where do I stand, and is there any hope of the goal in sight.
And I wait. Sickened, tired, and nearing the end of my capacity. (I’m really giving you the Cliffs Notes version of this saga.) Then, Friday, a week before my deadline (and a day before I was also supposed to leave for a very good friends’ wedding) I get an email back saying basically, what you’re going through right now? This pain and drama? You brought it on yourself.
And I broke.
I had already been sobbing my way through the week, and these words pushed me over the edge. The picture from Wednesday’s post? That is from this day I’m talking about here. (I realize I’m not painting a very good picture of my committee right now. In this process there have definitely been times when I could and should have communicated better with them, and there are times when I wish I had gotten a little more clear communication from them. They are actually very helpful and kind people, concerned for the well-being of their students. And they put in major hours trying to help me get done before my deadline. I really did ask a lot of them here at the end. I think, just when it comes to crunch time, lack of communication results in major frustration, on both sides.)
I stared at that email. I walked away from my desk, wandered through the house and into the garden. I was floating. I was detached. I cried and I crumbled and I fell. I was done. Simply done. I had no more left.
And yes, objectively, those words are truth. I decided to pursue this degree. I decided to try for this deadline. I’ve made mistakes along the way. I am responsible. I made those decisions as best as I could with what I knew at the time. But they are indeed my decisions.
But when you’re hurting, to be told: you deserve this? It broke me. And if it were up to only me, I would have walked away right then. I would have looked back on the past years’ worth of time, money and effort, shrugged, and walked away.
I sat on the porch swing. The sun shone down and twinkled on the glass panes and the flowers. It was such an ethereal moment. As much as I hurt, sitting there in the garden with nothing left but tears, I began to find a shred of myself again. I found that, underneath everything that had died, there was one tiny little beating pulse left. I couldn’t go a step further by myself. No, I couldn’t do that. But if I were to have any hope of trying one more time, I would have to do it with someone by my side.
I called my parents and told them I was coming home.
I called my dear friend and shame-facedly told her I couldn’t come to her wedding. She understood. Oh my god, she understood.
My hubby and I packed up our things and drove down to my parents’ house. The minute I saw them and my mom said, “my baby”, I found my center. I felt whole again. How is it I’m thirty years old and still can go home to my mom and dad and find my center? I don’t think that will ever change, and I don’t want it to.
My mom is such a fighter too. I told her the whole story and … well, you just can’t be around my mom and not be infected with her fighting spirit. It wasn’t long before I picked myself up out of the dirt and pulled my boxing gloves back on and got back into the ring.
We worked through the weekend. It was so blessedly fortifying just to have my mom in the same room and my dad pacing about. I sent emails to my committee, working hard to clear up our problems of miscommunication and to honestly own up to my part in where things went wrong. I sent more emails to clarify what I could do to make things right. Meanwhile, my parents fed me and cheered me, steered me straight, and told me they knew I could do this. When I told them I was broken, they said there’s no such thing. Failure doesn’t exist. My husband went off to the wedding with only a bag of goodies I had put together for the bride in my place. At 5 p.m. on Sunday, I thought of her walking down the aisle, and then went back to work. At 6 p.m. on Sunday, I got texts saying they were officially married, I cheered, and went back to work.
And finally…finally… midnight on Monday I had it done. I tweaked a few things early Tuesday morning, and sent it off with a prayer.
Then, I got an email back in response to a question I had about something seemingly minor, and the response was…everything you just did? You now have to do over again.
This is Tuesday. Deadline is Friday.
I couldn’t believe it. But still I worked. I still had some fight left in me and I chugged and chugged to work something out. I didn’t have to redo everything after all, I just had to add a little bit extra to acknowledge the issue that needed attention. And after much scurrying of emails and flurrying of typing and fixing and fretting, one day before the deadline I got the go-ahead to file.
I made it. It’s done. It tore me down, stripped me of everything: strength, pride, ego, even my sense of self. I did get lost along the way. For a long time I was lost and became someone I didn’t really recognize. It was a very dark place. But then I went home and found myself again.
It’s only when you’re stripped of everything that you find out who you really are and what you’re made of. Me alone? Might not be enough. But I’m also my love, my family, my husband, and my amazing friends who reach out and understand.
Circumstances don’t define us. At any moment, our lives can change and we can choose to walk in any direction. What defines us is the direction we choose to walk in.
I choose to walk in the direction of love.
I just happened to pick up a degree along the way.
Join in with everyone trying to find the bigger picture in life.