No one prepares you for the post-PhD PTSD. I'd said it with a hint of laughter behind my voice, but remembering the months of pervasive and palpable sadness that followed the completion of my doctoral degree, it really wasn't funny at all.
Yesterday, a friend of mine wrote about his experience with job searching and specifically the feelings that arise as the school term begins without him. I chewed the inside of my cheeks reading his accounts of filling out application after application, interviewing, sending follow-up emails to interviewers and yet still remaining without a full time position. I clinched down hard; that was almost me.
I graduated with my PhD in May of 2016. At the time of graduation, I had a full-time job already and liked it well enough that I was not searching for anything new. Six months later, my situation had changed. Paired with anxiety and depression from a traumatic life experience some months prior, the sadness that began around the time of my final oral defense festered and grew so quickly that by the end of the year, I had to work with my doctors and psychiatrists to treatment plan because I was a wreck. By January 2017, I was taking four pills a day, all for anxiety and anti-depression and nothing I did seemed to ease my symptoms.
At first, I thought it was solely due to issues with my job. There had been a situation there that left me feeling unappreciated and demeaned, to say the least. However, when I moved home in March and stepped away from full-time employment while I relocated from San Diego to Atlanta, I realized that my affect had been altered way before work drama began. Nothing was more illuminating than the job search that would soon commence. To say it was a mind-fuck would be putting it lightly. On a daily basis I asked myself:
- Was it worth it to get your PhD?
- With so many people obtaining graduate and professional degrees, do you even stand out?
- Is your experience really rich?
- Should I have spent more time researching?
- Writing ?
- Networking ?
- Working full-time while in graduate school?
Then I got salty. Angry. Why is it so easy for other people? How are opportunities coming for them? What am I doing wrong? What if higher education is not for me and I need to completely re-evaluate my life? Should I have done faculty instead of administration? Am I qualified to do faculty? Am I even really qualified for anything?
My mind spun wildly trying to figure out why I was having so much trouble finding a job that fit my skill set that paid more than circus peanuts. I felt like an imposter. And then the cynical and honestly, quite cruel voice of depression grew. At times I convinced myself that people were upset with me. That perhaps I had some something wrong in my months, years as a graduate student and my committee or former supervisors were pissed, blackballing me from opportunities. It's irrational, I know, but trust me, at the time I was convinced (this is what depression does to you). I grew skeptical of relationships, questioned the strength of my professional network, doubted my skills abilities and assets, and flat out denied the possibility that the right thing had simply not come along yet. I was certain that my unemployment was caused by some deficiency in me. I was not good enough, and as a result, I was unemployed.
I had days where I stayed in bed and cried. I had other days that were easier to shake off the mean reds, and I found comfort in my faith and the belief that something wonderful was coming. Still, even after a wonderful interview with my current institution, when I did not hear from them after a few days with an offer, I started up my long list of "this is why you're not good enough" claims. When I accepted my position I did so with a small smidge of doubt; are they sure? Are you sure?
It seems so counter that after earning one of the highest educational accolades that anyone would feel so unworthy and insignificant. Yet, it was precisely that process that continually asks you to prove yourself that left me with anxiety so paralyzing I developed frequent migraines and muscle spasms to accompany my atrocious negative self talk. Even the fact that I felt so crummy served as a trigger. How ungrateful was I to not derive joy when I have such privilege? My lack of ability to have perspective and find the silver lining made me feel worse about my post-grad blues and paired with my distrust of those around me, my struggle was largely silent.
In an act of desperation, I wrote briefly about my anxiety and doubt in a Facebook group of student affairs professionals. The encouragement and affirmation I received really and truly kept me going. Not only that, I learned that so many other PhDs had similar experiences after graduation and just like me, had suffered largely in silence. Depression and anxiety need secrecy to thrive. So that post, and every conversation I forced myself to have about how I was feeling, saved my sanity. I wish I'd had the strength, then, to just tell the truth and be open about how desperately difficult it is to reach a HUGE milestone like earning your PhD and still be engulfed in the fear that you are still not good enough.
To be honest, it wasn't my PhD that did it, but more so the fact that I could see everyone around me being happy for me, and the frustration that I could not access that joy or pride in myself. I still haven't read my dissertation. When I see it, it brings up feelings of all the words I didn't write or edits I didn't make. I see it and it's like a portal right back to my most insecure and vulnerable space. Sometimes it is still difficult. I look at pictures of myself in my cap and gown and wish I could have felt anything but overwhelmed, alone and small on that day. Instead, all I see are the smiling photos of a Me who was faking it. Putting forth the effort to play the role of gracious, joyous and proud when what I really wanted to do was cry in bed.
I encouraged my friend and colleague to keep sharing his story. I tell myself the same. Every day, I am trying to get better at affirming myself. Setting my own parameters for happiness and sharing my story without shame or fear that somehow it should be anything other than what it is. I tell myself that who I am as I am is enough, and slowly but surely I am starting to believe it.