Grad student living in terror

I love the academic life but I'm afraid to go outside

Topics: Since You Asked, Anxiety, psychotherapy, Graduate School, Intentional Community, Philadelphia,

Grad student living in terror (Credit: Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I’m a grad student living in Philadelphia. I graduated from undergrad a year ago and went straight into grad school because it felt right. Nothing is wrong whatsoever with my pick of grad schools. I love the program, the professors are excellent, and the facilities charming and well kept.

Thing is, I’m not used to being alone like this all the time.

In undergrad I had tons of classmates. I had a few friends. There was always someone around to talk to. I was even in a long-distance, long-term relationship all the way through up until my senior year of college. We lived together for a while until we mutually agreed that things weren’t working out. After undergrad I moved in with my family short-term before I moved and attended grad school. There were always my siblings, parents and local friends to lean on when I felt crummy.

I don’t even remember being the slightest bit afraid of anything.

Now it’s completely different. I can’t stop thinking about everyone in my life and wishing they were near. When I have others around me I’m fine, but who am I when they leave? Even if I feel like I know who I am, what is this new reality of being by myself? What does it really mean to be “alone”?

Sometimes I feel like if I were to leave my apartment disaster will strike either in the form of a horrific car accident or me being raped, assaulted or mugged. And if that isn’t what I’m worrying over I literally feel if I were to poke my head out the sky will fall.

I think it really is me. I don’t understand why I feel so fragile. I’ve read a ton of feminist studies and personal philosophy that encourages one to stand on their own ground and be their own agent. I know I’m strong but I feel weak. I’ve been alone before and have never felt the level of anxiousness or fear that I do now. As though every day something horrible is lurking around the corner to end my life metaphorically and actually.

The most insane part is that I don’t live anywhere as far from my friends and family as I did in undergrad. And somehow in this city I feel like they’re even farther away than ever.

Everything else is fantastic, my grades, scholarship, work ethic and focus. I even had two friends visit since I’ve moved. But when they go or my part-time roomie leaves, I feel lost. Sad. Unmotivated. Delicate. And my cat isn’t much for conversation. But somehow I can’t shake the feeling that if something “bad” were to happen to me nobody would notice, much less know until weeks — months later.

I know of the old Blink 182 song lyric “I guess this is growing up” – I’m not even a fan but it continually haunts me.
I can’t stop thinking about all the hurdles I’m going to have to manage. If I think life is hard now, what’s going to happen when I lose my parents, my friends, and my siblings?

I have other dreams too — I really want to teach and be a part of a meaningful struggle, to care for others and hope that it improves man’s lot. But I don’t know what’s going to happen. I really don’t know. And I’m terribly afraid.

Love,

Scared in Grad School

Dear Scared in Grad School,

You sound like you are having some pretty intense anxiety. I can feel your anxiety. I can sense it.

So before anything else, I must say this: Seek professional help with the immediate symptoms of your anxiety. In the long term, you will want to make changes in your daily routine. And you will probably learn much about the effects of certain living situations and so forth. But for now, it is important to see a psychotherapist or psychiatrist about your immediate state  — your fears, your physical symptoms, the ideas you have about things that might be done to you and things that might happen.

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Some years ago, a therapist told me that anxiety is a way of not feeling other things, a strategy for holding troubling emotions at bay. That may or may not be the clinical truth as demonstrated experimentally but it has made a world of difference to me to see it that way. That is, to see anxiety as something I am doing, that serves a purpose, gives me a way of working with it; before he said that, I had seen it as something that seemed to come out of the blue for no reason. Once I understood anxiety as a defense, I began looking for emotions I might be holding at bay. I saw that my anxiety was directly associated with my attempts to not think about certain things and not feel certain things. Metaphorically, as I look at it now, it was as though I was holding back a flood, pushing against the gate to prevent entry; that takes a lot of strength, and when we relax we fear it will engulf us; whatever it is. Everybody has fears. We might have fear of failure; we might have fear of abandonment or fear of death. The fears are countless. What matters is what we do with them, whether we become conscious of them and work with them, or try to shove them aside; if we shove them aside, they tend to return in troubling ways, as anxiety and repression.

In fact, the first thoughts that came to mind when I read your letter were thoughts about community. You do sound isolated and this isolation is probably not a function of physical distance from family and friends but emotional distance and day-to-day patterns of interaction. Has there been some recent disturbing event that might be causing you to distance yourself from certain friends and family? Maybe you need to call some people and reconnect. There may also be the element of mental exhaustion involved. I wonder, also, if you are smoking pot. Some of your anxiety reminds me of the anxiety I would have when living alone after grad school and smoking pot. I had a tendency toward isolation and anxiety and the pot certainly didn’t help; it made me paranoid, which increased my isolation.

The important question is this: What kind of life do you need to live? Note I say “need,” not “want.” There are many models of scholarship and creative endeavor that are actually destructive. Those of us who tend to get anxious may think we can live solitary, independent lives, but what we need, actually, is community.

So please, find a clinic or solo practitioner and see if you can get some short-term treatment for your anxiety. Long-term, consider this episode as a turning point in your life, a vivid example of how social isolation can wreak havoc on individuals; let it stand as a critique of standard habitation models; let it illustrate how academic study must be balanced with community involvement to keep the scholar healthy.

You’ll be fine. Just get some help and take care of yourself.

p.s. Here is an interesting piece on introverts and extroverts in academia. And here is a piece on intentional communities in your area. They sound like a good and healthy response to the isolation of urban life. Could you advertise for some such living arrangement?

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