— Kat (@Ask_anAspergirl) December 15, 2015
“How are you?” It’s a question that begins most of my conversations these days; I’m never quite sure how to answer. Most of the time, it seems like an acknowledgement of the other person’s existence, not an inquiry about our deeper feelings.
This is not the time for me to unpack my emotional states or the worries I’ve tried to quell all day: How I can’t seem to shake the idea that something is wrong with me and my subsequent actions are making me feel worse. How I often wonder if I’m missing something. When I fear I’m not enough.
This is merely a time for social niceties. When I respond with “okay” or if pressed further, with “managing.” Managing what exactly? The world around me? My own anxieties? Because both tasks seem daunting.
What if I’m tessering? But that response would require greater context. I would like to look outside of this exhaustion and fears that I’ll always feel this way — to see a kind of hope, a will be that hasn’t arrived yet. In A Wrinkle in Time, tessering is a more efficient form of travel between time and space, but the in-between still hurts. That’s where I am now.
“What if you stopped contingency planning?” she asked. What would it be like to just be here? “I don’t know,” I responded. Because this is the space I’ve inhabited for as long as I can remember. I don’t know how to be in the present without looking further ahead and subsequently worrying about how things could fall apart (because of me). Self-doubt is vicious.
Some of this is ableism. I’ve internalized the norms of a society that doesn’t recognize disabled experience as a way of being in the world. So when I’m utterly exhausted, it must be my fault, and I should have coped better (forgetting how much harder it is for me to steady myself). There are fewer models for graduate students like me. I’ve mostly learned to self-accommodate; I create structure when I can (wishing more was in my control) and seek help in coping with my anxiety. I take meds; I attend therapy. But I’m still tired.
I recognize that this weariness is normative among graduate students, but it seems to hit me harder than others. I’ve reached the end of yet another exhausting semester where I’ve pushed myself to keep writing and breathed my way through shutdowns. When I’ve just stopped because my processing was too slow to continue working. When I feel lacking as a grad student. When I fear for what’s next for someone like me. For me.
I keep an ongoing mental list of the things I’ve managed to do while anxious and/or exhausted. Sometimes reviewing this list helps. In the middle of things, there isn’t an endpoint, a definitive will be if I follow these steps. I’m tessering because I’m not completely certain of my destination. I hope for what will be in the midst of not knowing.
I feel pressured during these holidays to gather myself back together. To rest intentionally and then return to school ready to write (and ignore my feelings). There must be an in-between, but the “how things got better” narrative dominates. I’m afraid to admit when I’m still struggling. What if my academic supporters lose patience with me?
Perhaps more graduate students like me are struggling to balance self-care and productivity? Maybe even wondering why they’re still pursuing a goal that feels so abstract? Are we hiding out of shame and self-preservation?
For me, sometimes hope means worrying about the future. Because that action assumes I’ll find my way through now. Sometimes the best I can do is to acknowledge both realities: that I don’t know how my exhaustion will resolve, but a future where I’ve cared for myself and completed my PhD exists. Maybe I’m even earning a sustainable income in a context I enjoy. Maybe.
I imagine myself looking at a door to a world parallel to my own. Where what will be exists and hope lives. I stand in its entryway as I remind myself, “You are doing the best you can with the resources that you have. That’s enough. And so are you.”