A couple of months into my graduate work, unable to understand what was happening to me, I pulled up Google and searched: Does grad school make you depressed? Shortly after, I melted down and confessed to my now-husband, “I don’t know if I can do this.” Until that moment, I’d been his happy-go-lucky girlfriend. I’d been a confident interpreter and boss of a large language services department. Having overcome some big obstacles, being on top of my game for many years, there hadn’t been anything I couldn’t do. That out-loud confession of feeling not-able-to was a turning point, the beginning of an unraveling.
“It’s OK. Everyone cries in grad school,” he told me, and leaned in for a hug.
Before I left for Toronto to finish my last year of graduate work, a friend warned me that I would have some difficult moments. She was right, and throughout that year I spent a lot of time in some very dark places psychologically. But it was hard to know what was nudging me into the shadows. Fully failing at the one thing I thought I was good at, that I was really invested in? Transitioning into middle age? Crippling and constant self doubt? In my head, You’re Not Good Enough: The Greatest Hits, played on repeat.
If only I were good at interpreting, good at adapting to change, good at being strong, good at being good.
Throughout most of grad school, I was motivated to be a good interpreter, and then later by the terror that I’d fail my exit exams. The exit exams are not a formality; if you don’t pass, you don’t receive your degree, and failure is not uncommon. Preparing for the exit exams is The Big Project for interpreters in graduate school. Near the end, the exam obsession shifted into the terror of actually passing. I had no real plan for what came next and I was floundering, desperately looking for a buoy. I had drifted too far from my former life to reach out and hold on to it again. If I failed the exams, I wouldn’t have to move forward and I wouldn’t have to admit that there was no plan after all.
Moreover, I deeply dreaded many parts of my graduate training. If I somehow managed to pass the exams, what exactly did I have to look forward to? A lifetime of work that I dreaded? I could keep from stumbling further into the dark place if only I could stop thinking about the answer to that question.
I presented for my exams and moved back home with little sense of relief. On my calendar, I marked the date we were told we’d get the results. I began to settle comfortably into the shadows and waited. Then on The Big Day, I fell asleep on the couch while obsessively refreshing my email. Refresh, refresh, refresh. I woke up to the ding of a classmate’s text: Did you get your results?
I opened my email and found the message from my director. “Congratulations,” it began.
And the dark place swallowed me whole.
The depression pinned me down and I didn’t fight to get back up. I rarely left home, which meant I rarely worked. When I did work, I’d drag myself to interpret in the hospital or in court, which left me feeling intensely angry and sad for lots of different reasons, but to be fair it was probably less of the depression and mostly because there’s so much about working in patient care and the legal system that makes you feel angry and sad. It was all part of a weight around my neck that dragged me deeper into a downward spiral I couldn’t seem to recover from.
Student loans loomed. Unable to wiggle out from under the shame of not knowing what I was doing when I was sure everyone else knew what they were doing, of knowing I should have a plan but didn’t, and shouldshouldshould, I poured it all into a glass and tried to drown it, or at least quiet it. I felt weak and confused and guilty for no longer being the confident, happy-go-lucky person that I used to pretend to be. On top of it all, I had dragged my loyal boyfriend into it.
Months passed. “Time to put on pants,” he told me wryly one morning as he was getting ready to leave for work and I asked him sleepily what time it was. He sighed. Was it exasperation? Resignation? We were both exhausted. Time to put on pants. Until then, neither one of us had acknowledged that I wasn’t okay, and that tacit nod to my not okay-ness began to lift the fog. It’s been an arduous path back, and I still wake up in the dark place sometimes, still look over my shoulder to see if it’s following me.
Graduate students generally come from the top of their game, where they’ve been praised for their good-ness, where they’ve never failed. And their reward is to have the bar raised up high, and higher, and higher again, so high that they are forever not good enough. Maybe the hardest part was understanding that I wasn’t “good”, and I didn’t have any special talent like I had once imagined. Only the will to endure the daily slog of the training. This realization is a relief when I can remember it.
I often think of the very first line from Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese”: You do not have to be good. But if I’m not good, then what am I? I think my graduate training and my life that followed gave me a chance to explore that, to understand all the ways that I may or may not be good, and all the ways that it may or may not matter. Dear Mary reminds us: Meanwhile, the world goes on.
These days, “not good enough” rings in my ears on mornings when I’m going to a job that makes me feel unsure, scared, not enough. It sneaks up on me when I’m tired. I can mostly brush it off and remember the rigor of the training that has left me with the good parts I need, and the gentle voice of someone who saw me through it, “Time to put on pants.”