Mental Illness

Dissertations, Employment, and Other Terrifying Things

I am thinking about the future, which is not something I’m good at.

“I live in the present and am confident in the future.”

I wrote that mantra in a notebook three times this morning, trying to make myself believe it. The only reason I stopped at three is because I didn’t want to venture into “all work and no play make Jack a dull boy” territory; really, I need to write and think it a million times in a desperate attempt to internalize the message.

Recently, my therapist suggested I try affirmations to boost my confidence and self-esteem. She said that I could look in books or online for ideas if nothing original came to mind, and indeed, I pulled the one above off of some random website on the first page of results when you Google “affirmations.”

I have trouble thinking about the future. Supposedly this is a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder, which I never would have associated with myself because I never considered the years of struggling with depression and anxiety as PTSD until my shrink referred to them as such. I think it’s common to associate PTSD with people who have survived events like war or assault, but traumas can be anything. Mine comes from having been bullied as a child, which still has an effect on my daily life even though it occurred 20 years ago. It’s liberating to have this frame of reference for my issues, like they exist for a reason, and not because I’m broken or defective, which is how I’ve often felt in the past.

Planning has always been tough for me. The last time I had a concrete answer to “What do you want to be when you grow up?” was when I was about 5, and I think I wanted to be a ballerina-slash-veterinarian, or maybe a mermaid (actually I’d still kind of like to be a mermaid). Most of my college friends had some sort of dream and a plan to go with it. I cycled through four majors, and only landed on the one I finally graduated with — psychology — because I couldn’t change again without delaying graduation. When I was working on my master’s degree, I never had an answer to the question of what I wanted to do when I was out of school. Most of my classmates had something, but even half-formed, cobbled-together plans eluded me, and it always made me feel like I was missing out. I thought maybe it was a lack of passion for the field (journalism), but there are aspects that I love, and I still couldn’t envision my future.

Now I’m working on a doctorate, and I do feel passionate about the field (information studies), but there are still questions I can’t answer. I don’t really have a reply when people ask why I chose my program — I did so on a whim, as I tend to do when making major life decisions because I simply cannot see beyond what sounds good in the moment. I also am unable to tell you what I plan to do with the degree. Sure, I’d be comfortable in academia, but I could probably be happy some other area.

When I try to envision myself in 5 or 10 years, I see nothing. It’s a big black wall. I just recently, within the past couple of weeks, made a tentative plan for the rest of my coursework. If I can get everything worked out and take classes this summer, I should finish with classes a year from now, and take my comprehensive exam in fall 2015. Being able to say that is enormous progress, because last semester a professor asked when we were each planning to take the comps and I was the only one who hemmed and hawed and didn’t have even a vague idea. I also decided on a broad topic for my dissertation so I can take the correct electives. Again, progress.

My whole existence is walls, or at least it feels that way. There’s the black wall of my future. There’s another, all around me, that prevents me from letting people in, making friendships and relationships really hard. It’s time to knock them down. I think there are a few cracks in the black wall in front of me, but the other needs to go as well. I just need to make sure the whole building doesn’t crumble as I do it.

This post originally appeared on my blog, Reluctantly Adultish.

By [E] Liza

PhD student. Knitter. Brooklynite. Long-distance dog mom. Reluctant cat lady. Majestic unicorn whose hair changes color with the wind.

3 replies on “Dissertations, Employment, and Other Terrifying Things”

Ooo… congratulations on formulating a plan for your degree. I hope it feels good, and not like it’s penning you in.

I feel much the same as you, only in a different discipline (chemical biology). When I first started a PhD program, I very much thought I wanted to be a professor. Then, after seeing what that really entails, I left that program with an MSc. I have since completed a PhD, but I still have no idea what I want to do professionally. And I think you described it perfectly, looking at my professional future is a wall.

In my personal life, I just want to avoid raising an axe-murderer. ;-)

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