Living on the Ledge

The streets below: Jun Ahn high above the chaotic architecture and bustle of Hong Kong

This is a heavy, heavy post shared anonymously by a graduate wife in the USA. We found her to be very brave to share her story with our readers. This graduate journey can be bumpy for some, but when anxiety and depression are added to this mix, in some cases, it can cause devastating results. Our readers are scattered all over the world, so after reading this post, if you have a suicide prevention number for your country, please send it to us, and we’ll add it to this post. You just might save someone’s life. If you are suffering with anxiety and depression, please seek help. You are not alone. You ARE worth it.  – Mandy & M.C.

“If I die, I won’t be worried any more.”

Scary thought? Yes, and it’s one that went through my head. It is also the thought that signaled to me that I needed help, and set me on a path through counseling that would prevent me from acting on that negative impulse. It is my hope that any one reading my story will come away with the knowledge that you are not alone, and that it is acceptable to seek mental health care when you need it.

My struggle with anxiety started when I was young. For as long as I can remember I’ve been a hypochondriac. One sore muscle from sports would build up in my mind until I was sure I would need a limb amputated. When I recovered without losing any limbs, my worry would ease, but only until the next over-blown health problem would convince me I was doomed.

In college, the stress increased until I finally went to the nurse with a list a mile long of all the things I thought were wrong with me. The nurse took one look at me and said, “You’re not dying, you have anxiety, and need to talk to someone”. When the results came back from all the tests I asked the nurse to take, “so I’d have one less thing to worry about,” I agreed to see a counselor.

The campus counselor gave me information about anxiety and some control methods to use. For years, this was helpful, and I was able to talk myself down from panic attacks simply by realizing it was just panic. But while my husband was in grad school, my anxiety reached whole new levels. I was anxious all the time. If the phone rang I was sure it would be devastating news. When I drove I thought the car sounded funny and would catch on fire. Everything was blown out of proportion. I knew this, and I didn’t want to be like this, but I couldn’t stop the thoughts, and I couldn’t stop panicking about them.

There are a couple reasons I didn’t seek help right away. For one, I felt like a failure. I felt like I should be able to control it myself. I had for years, why couldn’t I do it now? For another thing, I knew I’d have to pay for therapy and as the spouse of a graduate student, we didn’t have a lot of extra money. I got to the point where I was at levels 9 and 10 of 10 on a panic scale for days on end. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I vomited because I was physically ill from all the worry. I couldn’t even see straight I was so worried, malnourished, and exhausted. I would think, ”How could I live like this? I’m young! I can’t be like this for decades.” Then, during one of my worst attacks, a new thought crossed my mind: “If I die, I won’t be worried anymore”. WOW. I’d pushed all the other red flags from my mind with my stubbornness, but that one couldn’t be ignored. I decided that my life was worth investing in.

I saw a therapist who helped me with coping mechanisms, sort through things, learn how to not get so stressed. She had drills I could do, ways to think about things in a calm fashion. She gave me charts to write things out on to help me see that my situations were manageable. Anxiety isn’t really cured, but you can learn ways to manage it.

Another thing that helped was reading Dan Harris’ book 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works. Like me, Harris didn’t think meditation was for him. After searching for ways to calm anxiety he learned of its benefits. When I start to feel panicked and my mind starts running wild with unfounded worst-case-scenarios, I lay down, I take deep breaths, and I think about the problem instead of trying to distract myself. I say to myself, “What is actually going on now? That other stuff isn’t, it’s your mind going wild. What is the likelihood that one of those worst-case scenarios will actually happen? Basically zero. And if it does, deal with it then. Don’t stress about endless possibilities that aren’t actually going on.” And so on and so forth.

Anxiety can do amazing things. I didn’t say good. I said amazing. It can heighten your senses, and it can make you feel that the stress in your mind as actually physical ailments, which then causes more stress.

The stress still comes but I now have the tools to deal with it. If I get near those levels again I’ll seek help right away.

If you’re like me, please, please see someone. In the USA, Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Americans are required to have health insurance, and the majority of healthcare plans must cover mental health services. You may be eligible through your spouse’s student insurance plan, your own employer’s insurance, Medicaid, or a state insurance exchange plan. Whatever your plan is, familiarize yourself with the benefits, and what mental health services are covered. If you don’t have an insurance plan, or your plan doesn’t cover mental health services, don’t give up. Your spouse’s university counseling center may be able to refer you to free or low cost services that can help. Another option you have is to call the National Association of Mental Illness (NAMI) Helpline. NAMI volunteers can offer limited counseling, but more importantly refer you to appropriate mental health service providers in your area. NAMI can be reached on weekdays between 10:00am and 6:00pm EST at 1 (800) 950-NAMI (6264). If you live in another country, I encourage you to seek out to understand what your resources and options are.

Finally, if you or a loved one is considering suicide, you can seek help 24 hours a day through the numbers below. I know a lot of GW readers are worldwide, so if your country is not listed below, please let us know what it is so we can add it.

USA: National Suicide Prevention Hotline (800)273-TALK(8255).

UK:  SupportLine Telephone Helpline: 01708 765200.

Canada: CASP/ACPS – This link can help Canadians navigate hotlines based on geography.

Know that you are not alone. Seeking help is worth it. YOU are worth it. Talk to someone.

As a graduate wife, how have you dealt with anxiety and depression? 

 

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My parents always said, “Life’s Not Fair”

Did you know that October is National Anti-Bullying Awareness month? In light of this, and the recent stories in the news of students who have been or are currently being bullied, we’ve asked a graduate wife to bravely share her family’s journey of bullying, and what they did to combat it. If you are being bullied or your spouse/partner is, we hope this will encourage you to seek help. You are not alone.

–Mandy and M.C.

-Written by Stephanie, a current graduate wife

Tweed jackets with elbow patches, respectful intellectual debates, advancing the field of science, grooming the next generation, and above all a just/transparent system. These are all things I had in mind when I excitedly accepted my first job at a public university. A product of public schooling myself, I arrived at my new home feeling quite content with these expectations and looking for a tweed jacket-wearing fellow to complete the new chapter of my life.

He didn’t come with elbow patches, but instead my soon to be husband turned out to be a graduate student. That was fine by me, and we enjoyed several blissful months together immediately after meeting. Unfortunately, the bliss soon began to dissipate (and not just from the end of your normal “honeymoon phase”).

It all started when a professor basically hijacked his lab project. With my husband being a foreigner, I explained to him that in my country, this is unfortunately not all that uncommon in academia. Although it shook my idea of a fair university system a bit, I brushed it aside as something necessary for my husband to advance in his field. After all, he did get a chance to contribute to the research, didn’t he?

Over a period of years we slowly started to discover that the same professor had been telling lies about my husband in public. As if this wasn’t bad enough, we later learned she had committed several other indiscretions against my husband (some of them illegal). The worst part was that we learned about most of this through third parties, or when my husband had to clear up major problems and misunderstandings as a result. It felt like we were surrounded by a fog and were being slowly smothered by it. Bullying is for third graders to deal with, right? Not for grown-up professionals?

We had to decide what to do. Would we run or fight for my husband? We decided to fight in our own way, but in hindsight my husband wishes we would have run. He compares the situation to being in a bar where you find yourself threatened by a six foot five muscle man (who can never be fired from his bouncer position) with tattoos and a gang of friends behind him. Is it smarter to pick a fight or to run? Definitely run. And after looking back, this is what he says he should have chosen today.

However, back then I was convinced we were operating within a fair system. After all, it was my taxpayer dollars at work funding the university, open records existed, and ombudsmans were in place to assist students with any problems. Surely this couldn’t be happening.

But it was.

Even after we talked to supervisors, department heads, and assistant deans, nothing was done about the situation.

Finally after years of trauma in our home, the professor was slapped on the wrist. After my husband’s graduation. I could hear my parent’s age-old cry, “life’s not fair.”

Life is definitely not fair, but thankfully we have moved on and are now at a different public institution. Even though there was hardly anything done to reprimand the bully in our situation, we hope the notation in her personnel file will equip others in the future to fight back. That fog I mentioned is slowly lifting for us and things are getting better every day, but the psychological affects of the bullying still remain. I’m not glad it happened to us, but I am glad it helped me realize some important lessons:

1. A graduate degree is not more important than the happiness and health of my husband.

2. The systems we take for granted as being just may not be just.

3. Standing up for justice may not be as easy as it is in the movies.

I wish all graduate students who are being bullied can quickly escape from their situations, and my advice to the spouses/partners who are supporting them is this:

1. Encourage your spouse to seek professional help. Most universities have a counseling center, so this may be an affordable place to start. If it’s possible, try to find a psychologist who has experience with bullying. (Additionally, if your spouse is a foreigner, try to request a counselor who is foreign as well.) And don’t be shy about making the appointment yourself or going with your spouse, if necessary.

2. Listen as much as you can, but not at the expense of your own sanity. Your partner may relive the traumatic experiences over and over. During these periods, it probably won’t help to try to reason with him/her about the illogical or paranoid thoughts he/she may be having. Sometimes it can be helpful if you listen without trying to “fix” the situation. However, this can take its toll on you; make sure to spend time away from your spouse once and a while doing things you enjoy.

3. Fill your cup first and nourish others from the overflow. Realize it’s okay if you are not in a good place to help your spouse on a particular day. If you are feeling exhausted, remember it is okay to tell your partner you cannot help them at that particular moment.

4. Encourage your spouse to widen his/her support network. No matter how strong you are, you shouldn’t allow yourself to become his/her sole emotional support. Suggest that your partner talk to close friends (outside the university) or family members. These people should be chosen carefully and trusted 100 percent. Your spouse shouldn’t have to worry about committing slander when sharing with them.

5. If your spouse decides to fight, remind him/her to:

  • Inform his/her supervisor but remember academic supervisors are usually not trained to deal with bullies;
  • Document everything (make sure to email summaries of conversations afterward);
  • Remember if he/she decides to take the case to court it can be very difficult to prove slander or libel, it will be very expensive, and even if he/she wins, it can damage his/her reputation more than it already is (even if the case is successful).

6. Get training in suicide prevention. I was certified through the QPR program for work and it came in handy a few times at home.

7. Encourage your partner to exercise in order to relieve stress.

8. Remember you are not alone. Bullying in academia is more prevalent than you think.

In your graduate wife journey, have you had to deal with bullying in academia? What have you done to combat it?

Depression is a Jealous Mistress

                                                                                                        written by Becky, a former graduate wife

When I was asked to write about my struggle with depression during my time as a graduate wife, two thoughts came to me. One, I’m not going to do it. And two, I have to do it. Depression rears its ugly head at far to many to be allowed to remain a silent killer of marriage, family, hopes, and dreams. It is my goal in this snippet to expose it and hopefully encourage some of you to pursue healing.

For as long as I can remember I hid my struggle. I was so ashamed that I didn’t have it all together and that I wasn’t really the outgoing bubbly Becky everyone knew and loved. I was so dark, angry, hurting, and no one saw it.

No one except my husband.

In his second year of seminary, my husband had to pick up the phone and call the seminary’s counseling department because I was suicidal and wouldn’t leave my bed for three days. He helped me when my depression brought me to where I had no voice. He was my voice.

A year of intense counseling later, I thought that I was free.

My son Nolan was born one year after Graham graduated from seminary, and the joyous time that should have been wasn’t. Tainted with extreme weight gain, exhaustion, crying everyday at 4 o’clock on the dot, anger at everyone, and isolation, my son’s first months were shrouded by a cloud as dark as those Floridian summer afternoon thunderstorms. I thought it was the baby blues and normal issues brought on by moving across the country, trying to put down new roots, buying a home; all those things associated with a major relocation. Yet, six months passed and I was still a mess. Finally, a friend suggested I see the doctor to ask about medication.

Meds, I thought, were for the truly insane. Not for me.

I was so desperate, however, to get better, I went and was diagnosed with postpartum depression and anxiety. In a weird way I was relived.

I wasn’t crazy.
Just sick.

Oh sweet, sweet meds. I had found myself again. The medications took three months to really start working but once they did, I didn’t know how I made it this long without them.

Am I healed? Is life perfect? No way. Depression is a jealous mistress that fights for your attention daily. You carry it with you like the diabetic carries their diabetes or the cancer patient carries their cancer. But how I choose to carry and deal with my disease makes all the difference in how I do life in the uncertainty of being married to a man whose direction in life turns on a dime. I could choose to go back to my hole of hiding and shame, and sometimes in my weakness I do go back, but most days I put on my boxing gloves to get out of bed, take my meds, and live life to the fullest, squeezing every drop of beauty and love out of every moment. I don’t try to be that fake outgoing bubbly Becky anymore; I try to be the truest and most raw and real me.

Beautifully broken.

If there is one thing a graduate wife is, without a doubt, it is strong. Sometimes, however, if any if my ramblings are hitting you and you’re thinking, “Yeah, that’s me,” being strong means getting the help that you need to be able to be your truest and most raw and beautifully broken self.

Don’t let depression kill you.
There is hope.
There is help.
There is healing.

All you have to do is ask, or in my case, have your already stressed, stretched, academically overflowing husband ask. That’s what marriage is all about. Holding each other up. There is no shame in your struggle. Be free to pursue healing and get the tools you need to control that mistress. Be free to be you and all of you. After all, isn’t that why most of our husbands are in this? To bring hope and healing whether through academics, ministry, medicine, or law to a world that is in need? Allow that hope and healing into your heart and soul.

After all, doesn’t the graduate wife deserve it?
With a smile on my face and warmth in my heart to you, the graduate wife reader, I say a big resounding…

YES! :)

As a graduate wife, have you struggled with depression?

Conclusion from Mandy –

I asked my friend, Becky, to write about her struggle with depression during (and after) her time as a graduate wife. Even though we were friends while our husbands were in school together, I had no idea she was going through this, until our last 2 weeks of living in Florida. Let’s be honest: depression isn’t something really talked about among graduate wives, and in my opinion, it’s often because we think other people might view us as weak.

I have been there.

I, too, told people I was fine, while I suffered silently. It was only after I reached out for help did I truly understand how much I needed it.

My challenge to each of you: talk to each other. Be willing to be vulnerable to someone, even though it may be the hardest thing you’ve ever done. If you think you need help, pick up the phone and find someone to talk to. DON’T do this journey alone. And, by reaching out, you are being ridiculously strong and brave. As Becky said above, “…being strong means getting the help that you need to be able to be your truest and most raw and beautifully broken self.”

MC and I are also here – feel free to contact us at thegraduatewife@gmail.com if you feel like you need someone to talk to. This is why the blog was created.