Saturday, July 24, 2010

The only time I ever thought of suicide was in a graduate program -- not at Cornell, fortunately, so no bridge available. Every other time I found myself in a bad situation, I could think of ways to get out of it. Find a better job. Break up with an obnoxious boyfriend. Change majors. Move. There's almost always a regular, non-suicidal way out of things. But that graduate program -- I had so much of myself invested in it that I couldn't just drop out when it turned toxic. Or rather, death and dropping out seemed like equally devastating options, so there wasn't much to choose between them.

I did get help that let me muddle through and finish, but it took me a couple of years to recover afterwards. No need to either drop out or die, it seems, but finishing was the hardest thing I ever did. The jury's still out on whether it was worth the trouble.

What made it so ghastly? I think that it was a "closed environment" where anything that went wrong would fester and intensify. Switching to another program was very difficult. People who had borrowed money to attend would have a hard time paying back if they didn't get degrees that let them work in the field. And so if anyone wanted to bully you and make your life hell, you had to take it for the duration. People were caught in a trap.
Commenter on The suicide conundrum, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Atlantic Monthly


languagehat said...

Boy, that brings back memories. Grad school didn't drive me to suicide, but it did drive me to a therapist for the first and only time in my life. I told the guy how rotten I felt, how helpless I was before the looming impossible mass of my dissertation, how badly the faculty treated the grad students, how hard it was for me to do anything at all beyond getting out of bed in the morning... He said "You don't really want to be here, do you?" I sat up straight and said "You know what? I don't!" And I quit grad school, spent years paying off the debt, and was finally able to enjoy life again. Great guy, that therapist; I've often been grateful to him.

languagehat said...

On rereading that, I realize it sounds like I couldn't enjoy life until I'd paid off my debt. Au contraire, I started enjoying life as soon as I walked out of his office, and especially after I told the grad school I was out of there. Paying off the debt was a nuisance; grad school was killing my soul.

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