Today’s post is inspired by Mbak Amie’s post here. It’s also a tribute to Mental Health Awareness Week, which occurs on October 2-8.
Doing a Ph.D. is a challenging process. Let alone doing a Ph.D. in a foreign country where you have to relearn how to do everything from point zero. Coming to Davis with a scholarship, I was under even more pressure to succeed. I couldn’t afford to go home without my degree. I have to prove that they didn’t grant the fellowship to the wrong person, that my parents did not make a mistake by letting me travel thousands of miles away and live on my own, that my employer did not make the wrong investment on me.
The thing is, problems do not only arise from your academic life, but also from your daily life.
Three years ago, I was in a really bad roommate situation. It was building up over one year, until I couldn’t deal with it anymore and I had to move out of my apartment, which I had lived in for a year before this childish adult moved in. In Davis, the lease system is adjusted to the academic calendar with one year commitment from the beginning of September to the end of August the next year. Most landlords request their tenants to sign the lease months before moving in. I decided to move out in the middle of September, meaning that finding a new place to live and finding someone to take over my lease would be very difficult. I felt trapped. My landlady was less than supportive and she accused me of trying to bail from responsibilities even though I’ve told her so many times that I would still pay rent until I found a subleaser – I just wanted her permission to sublease my room. Period.
After two weeks of continuous phone calls and internet search, I finally found someone to take over my lease and got a one bedroom apartment in downtown area, which became my home for the next three years. Just when I thought I would be able to start being happy again, the unthinkable happened. Two individuals I considered my close friends did something that wounded me deeply in response to my roommate feud. It’s still hard for me to specify it here, but in short, I felt betrayed. I felt like they rubbed salt to my wound. I decided to cut contact with them completely. This is particularly difficult because we have the same circle of friends. It’s like going through a divorce and having to share custody of your kids. Things get to the point where I can’t even stand looking at their faces, so to avoid them I stopped hanging out with other people too.
I understand that it is unfair to make my friends choose a side, yet every now and then it hurts to see a picture of my friends hanging out with these people, and it’s a jab to my stomach whenever someone casually mentioned their name in our conversations. I felt like no one understood how I felt. I was constantly in a personal battle of convincing myself that I was in the right, yet a part of me kept questioning if maybe I was the root of the problem. At times I would feel so lonely, and I’d have bad thoughts in my head while I was working in the lab, cooking, doing housework, or even when I was just sitting on the sofa watching TV. I must be such an asshole that they did this to me. Maybe I am a people hater. Maybe I deserve it. Maybe I should have done things differently. Maybe I am the horrible roommate. Maybe I should just suck it up and pretend nothing is wrong. But wait, if they’re my friends, shouldn’t they have my back? Every day over and over and over again. It was emotionally draining. At my worst, I would think: Maybe it’s better for everyone if I just disappear. Or maybe nobody would even care that I’m gone. I was starting to have these flash images on how I would end my life, how my ashes were blown by the wind into the gutter and everybody laughed in the background. Dramatic? Very. However, to me that moment, it was very real.
Now don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I didn’t have anyone to talk to. Sean was very supportive the whole time. He let me vent and told me numerous time that what happened to me was indeed horrible, that I was not to blame. However, I found it difficult to believe him. I thought he was my boyfriend (back then), so of course he had to take my side.
Things got really bad that it affected my ability to work in the lab. It amplified the “I’ll never graduate” chants that were already in my head since the beginning of my grad study. More breakdowns coming. I just wanted to forget everything and be my normal self again. I thought about calling CAPS, a free student counseling service at UC Davis. This is not the first time I considered talking to someone at CAPS. There were numerous occasions in the past where I felt like I need to talk to a professional because I wasn’t so sure how to interpret my feelings. So many times I’ve had the phone in my hand, with the number for CAPS pressed in, and I would stop myself from dialing.
Where I am from, talking to a psychologist or psychiatrist is weird. There must be something really wrong with you. Either that, or you are a big whiney – there are people who are in worse conditions than you are, so why are you being ungrateful about your life? We are constantly being expected to live the perfect life, where problems do not exist.
One day, after trying so hard to blot my tears and hide the fact that I was crying in the lab, I finally made the call. I walked away from the building where I worked and made an appointment. I felt like a big weight has been lifted off my shoulder.
The next day, I was paired with a senior graduate student in training to be a psychiatrist. He was very welcoming and calm. He let me say whatever I had in mind before he led me into a discussion to explore how I really felt and why I felt that way. From the three sessions I had with my counselor, I learned that I grew up being told that disagreements and controversies should be avoided. Hence, if I have a problem with another person, I feel obligated to keep it to myself. If I express my feelings to that person, then I’m the problem for causing such a discomfort. That’s why I was in constant guilt for standing up for myself. On the other hand, because in the past I tried to ignore my problem with a person, my subconscious was slowly building up that irritated feeling, like a ticking time bomb. When this mental time bomb blew up, something that might seem small in normal circumstance suddenly became a big deal. Because it was a big deal, I was forced to stand up for myself, and the evil cycle went on.
I was encouraged to voice myself more. I slowly learned to say what’s bugging me instead of keeping it to myself. Some might think it’s a very American thing to express what you have in mind for your own sakes, but hey, it worked for me. The bad thoughts came less and less frequently, and I could function again.
I have yet to completely recover – I don’t think I ever will. One thing I discovered from the whole process is that it is perfectly fine to admit that things are not doing fine, and sometimes you need help to understand yourself. To quote Mbak Amie, “It’s okay to not be okay.”
P.S.: Most universities in the US provide counseling services free of charge for their students. If you are a student at Atma Jaya Catholic University, Pastoran Atma Jaya has a similar program. You do not need to be a Catholic to request their service. For religion-neutral counseling, you can ask for a referral to the Faculty of Psychology from your academic advisor.