Sunday, March 29, 2009

overcoming or giving in

This month the Candid Engineer has asked for Scientiae submissions related to overcoming adversity. There have probably been more important struggles in my past, but what comes to mind most immediately are my last months in City and the end of my PhD - a time that I still count as the worst prolonged experience I've had so far. I should count myself lucky that I can say that, I suppose. I often think it's something I did to myself and therefore, somehow, I got what was coming to me.

I went to City for a graduate program - I hate cities. I dragged Partner to City because I couldn't handle long-distance relationships - he hated City, just like me. He got a crappy job to support his presence in City, because he's a good partner. He kept me sane, which was worth much more than his half of the rent. And the funny thing is that I really enjoyed my PhD program, and my lab group, and my advisor, but I hated the place we were living (and this was true no matter where we lived). This was in part because of my apparently high standard of living. For example, I demand to live in an apartment that has an attached outer door, as opposed to one with doors that regularly fall out of their rotting door frames. I demand that the utilities I pay for as part of my rent actually function. I shouldn't have to play the role of caller-of-police in order to prevent the injury of my neighbors living with domestic abusers. I shouldn't have to answer the building door and find my neighbor's dealer on the front step. I should be able to expect that my neighbors won't physically or verbally threaten me, and that if they do something will be done about it.

I should have just sucked it up and moved to a different part of town, and in particular to a non-student-housing part of town. But we were poor, and rent isn't cheap, and we were sooooo close to being done. So when the last of my above preconditions was not satisfied during the fall of my final year, I demanded that we move, and Partner was kind enough to drag all of my stuff into yet another apartment. Which, as it turned out, was a block from an extremely loud bar, which kept me awake until 2 am every night until May of the following year.

The series of bad housing situations that we had been through culminated in this final apartment-by-the-bar, and my hatred of City grew. As I sat awake waiting for the pulsing music to end every night, I also focused my hatred at the loud car stereos, the city traffic, the drunken college students and the sirens. I became extremely sensitive (or, at least, much more so than previously) to the ambient noise and I wasn't getting any sleep.

At the same time I was preparing for two months in the field, my final pre-dissertation season. I was going to be leaving Partner for the holidays, which is stressful anyway, but he was also hating his job more than he had before and I felt bad about leaving. I was applying for jobs and going on interviews. I was writing my dissertation. My car was stolen. My plates were stolen too, and I started getting red-light-camera tickets that weren't mine. The cops were useless in any of the above situations, and I started to feel like the whole world was out to get me and there was nothing I could do about it. City was my mortal enemy. I was losing my mind.

When I got back from the field, I was supposed to be buckling down. I did, actually, get a lot done, and finished about 2/3 of my dissertation writing in the three months following my field season. But, I was also still living by the bar, I was carless, I needed a job, I had a defense to schedule. I had analytical data that I needed, but the techs who had to run my samples were taking their sweet time (or, even more frustratingly, asking me if they were for my Masters project, since I could always put that off a few weeks if necessary...).

By this point I was, in retrospect, depressed, anxious, angry. I felt powerless, stuck in a situation I couldn't change (primarily for financial reasons) - looking back it seems like a silly thing to get so worked up over, but one of the many lessons that came out of that time is that I am extremely, overly, excessively sensitive to my environment, and that includes noise to (what I assume is) a higher extent than most people. I was stress eating, I wasn't sleeping, I was miserable.

I got a job offer. I got a marriage offer (I have my suspicions that this was an effort at distraction - it was partially successful). I wrote my ass off, and I defended. It went well. I got the HELL out of there. We ended up living in Partner's parents' basement for a month, but I didn't care, we were out of that City and we were never going back. I came to Small Town, and I bought a house. I still have noise issues, but I'm slowly getting over them, and trying to disassociate noise in general (particularly loud music) from the City-ness that I still carry with me. I have a hard time trusting people, sometimes, and I have a general dislike of humanity as a whole, as a result of several years' worth of negative interactions. I'm hoping that this too will fade away, given enough time.

However, I don't have any misconceptions that I "overcame" anything. I left, and I left before I completely lost it, but that was it, and I was otherwise completely incapable of dealing (emotionally) with my situation. Partner, I'm fairly certain, was looking into mental health options. I considered taking some kind of anxiety medication, and after talking it over with a friend in the field (of psychology) decided that the short-term nature of the triggers (I was definitely going to be out of there in May) meant that it wouldn't be worth dealing with the addiction that comes with such medications, unless things somehow got worse. I don't know if that was a good decision or a bad one, or if I was really in a place (mentally) where I should have been allowed to make a decision regarding how badly I needed some kind of help, but I made it through.

I still have some shame related to this emotional weakness - prior to this episode I would have considered myself much hardier in an emotional sense, and certainly able to withstand such petty environmental factors as pounding music and loud traffic. I think part of my issue came from the immediate stress of finishing, but more so from all the years of bad interactions with neighbors, with people. I was tired of dealing with people asking me for money on my way to work...tired of having to watch my back, secure my belongings. I still have those habits; sometimes I lock a colleague's car here in Small Town and they laugh. I'm glad that I'm finally living somewhere people don't feel the need to lock their cars, but I doubt I'll ever be leaving my doors open. I also doubt that I'll ever feel that I didn't set myself up for a horrible last year in City.

There have been some good things that came out of that shitty eight months. Partner took the brunt of my anger for most of that time, and yet he stuck around. I wouldn't have blamed him (in retrospect, of course) if he had decided that this raving bitch wasn't someone he wanted to spend his life with after all, but he gave me the chance to make it up to him. I hope I have. I think I have a lot more faith in "us" after what we've been though. I also have a much more realistic sense of my personal capabilities and boundaries - I have a better idea of what I can deal with. And I feel good about the career choice I've made, because I don't think I could deal with another City. Not soon, in any case. Maybe, hopefully, never again.

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