Yesterday I received an email from a university administrator. Actually, it was a form email, a circumstance that blunts some of the warmth and personality implied by the words “received an email from.” It’s more like the email just happened, sent to me because certain pieces of paper had been delivered to certain offices over the course of certain weeks. The email informed me that I am now officially a PhD candidate and no longer a PhD student.
For the past year, I’ve been reading books with an eye towards passing the written and oral preliminary exams set up by my department as a final hurdle before I can commence writing my dissertation. I certainly don’t mind the process in the abstract (one week to write a 25-page essay on a specific set of questions regarding a list of 75 books, then an oral exam testing the various weaknesses in the kinds of arguments it is possible to make regarding that set of books). I passed with—it seems—great success. It’s the living that makes it tricky, though.
In the non-abstract, get-up-in-the-morning sense, the week of my oral exam marked a low point in my life I have experienced with some regularity but never quite so intensely. There were no incidents, not exactly. I had simply reached a point where I could not stop obsessively processing the severely anxious thoughts that are cliched precisely to the extent that they actually haunt real people living their unfortunately hauntable lives: thoughts of self-harm, thoughts of crushing loneliness, thoughts of self-directed rage. Thoughts of accelerating doom and pointlessness so thick that when I called my mother to wish her a happy Valentine’s Day, I dissolved into tears and had to hang up the phone without explaining what was wrong.
Maybe I’ve just come to a time when I can no longer be a person who doesn’t take some sort of medication.
There are, of course, other issues: a lingering confusion about why I broke up with my girlfriend months ago (and a guilt that I do not regret the decision), a persistent fear about my mother’s health (and—selfishly—the fear that cloistered somewhere in my genes is the same malady that afflicts her), a more-or-less conflicted commitment to graduate school (though, really, is there a more pathologically well-established commitment than one you have to renew almost every day?).
At bottom, it’s really just the energy of anxiety, a predator that is all form and no content, until it finds something to imbue with its power: “Oh, you went out to eat twice this week but don’t get paid until next week? LET’S PANIC.”
Which is all to say that it’s fine, you know? I have known people who had it bad. I’m not sure I have it bad. But it is frustrating, this version. Since I am for the most part gregarious and quick-witted in real life (if I can be allowed to say so), many people I know tend not to realize that I am a person who is struggling. Sometimes I like to think that when I make eye contact with certain people, they can tell I am not okay, and I can tell that they are not okay. That tends to happen with people I don’t know so well, suggesting I am projecting my feelings all over the place. I never learned not to do that.
Anyway, I am reading Emmanuel Levinas right now and, on the side, a very entertaining crime novel. I am working on a paper called “The Alcoholic Creature in Jack London” that I will give at a conference at the end of next month. I am working on other writing. I am officially a PhD candidate. I hope you are doing well. I’m doing alright.