Beauty School Drop Out
**Possibly triggering for mild discussion of depression, eating disorders, suicide, post-traumatic stress, and flouting social norms.**
“I had to decide that whatever happened, I would be all right. That was the hardest decision I’ve ever made, the decision to protect myself no matter what happened. My entire life, I’ve turned on myself the minute something went wrong, even a tiny little thing.”
– from Marya Hornbacher, Wasted
Awhile ago on my own blog, I wrote about closed doors and open windows. I quit grad school this summer; although I did this for one specific reason, I am happy about it for a lot of other, very important reasons. It is much easier to say that I did it because I didn’t really have a choice financially (which is a hundred percent true) than to own up to the many other very true (but less socially-sanctioned) reasons why I am a dropout (or at least, even if they weren’t the original reason I chose to drop out, the reasons why I am very happy to be a dropout). This is because I’m terrified of failure, conflict, and of taking responsibility.
I turn on myself all the time; I’ve done it my entire life. I am horrible to myself. I’ve beaten myself up, starved myself, put myself under enormous pressure and stress, tried to kill myself (using quicker methods and much slower, more torturous ones), and blamed myself for a few things that were my fault and a whole lot of things that weren’t. I’ve done things to myself that I would not even wish on someone I hated (if I hated someone; I suck at hating people).
One of the hardest things about dropping out of graduate school is that it’s put me back on the road towards repairing my very, very fractured relationship with myself. For the last several years, we’ve been getting along much better, but it’s only recently that I’ve realized that I keep putting myself in situations where I patch up the worst things that are wrong with me and then happily throw myself into Achieving my Goals, Furthering my Life Plan, etc. I put myself under neverending stress and pressure because I believe (or believed) that I should be doing certain things. Some of them were things I enjoyed doing and some weren’t; all of them were things, experiences, that would have been much more meaningful to me if I had slowed myself down and engaged in them mindfully rather than shoving them all into a short timespan and being constantly in pain and distracted.
I’m coming to terms with the fact that slowing down and engaging mindfully might mean different things for me than it does for other people. I was talking to a friend the other day about one of my “should do” things, and I said I would try, and he said “don’t try, just do it.” I think in many situations this advice is quite valuable – a lot of what I have learned has come from pushing myself past what I think I am capable of doing. But on the other hand, a lot of unnecessary pain and stress has come from pushing myself past what I’m capable of doing for the sake of accomplishing things that I thought I was supposed to be accomplishing, but that in reality, may not have been the best goals for me at the time.
I’m still struggling with the fear of failure and that becomes ever more painfully clear each time (as happens quite often when you live around a university and engage regularly with the university community) someone asks me what I’m doing with my life…and I choke a little on the words “former graduate student” and make excuses around the sometimes disapproving responses and advice I receive. Although I do want to move (from Virginia to Kansas) and I would eventually like to return to school for social work (maybe in a few years, maybe longer, who knows?), I’ve tried to be very adamant about not rearranging my life around those goals. But losing the organizing principle – getting a PhD – around which my life has been focused since I was probably 15 years old has been an enormously drastic change (especially for someone who has never not been in school).
I’ve discovered that in the absence of those overarching goals, and with the conscious desire of not wanting to be caught up in the goal game anymore, there is a lot of space and solitude and the fear of loneliness. Solitude is terrifying. In a lot of ways, I think the goals we surround ourselves with and the constant hum of events, meetings, classes, etc. are a way of avoiding being alone with ourselves. For me and myself, usually when we are alone together, bad things happen – or at least that’s always been the pattern.
But I’m learning that there is comfort in the solitude as well. I’m rediscovering my voice – something that’s been incredibly difficult for me, as I’ve always written or spoken in skips and stops and I constantly feel as though I have nothing of value to say. (Hence why I spend too much time agonizing about writer’s block in between blog posts.) I’m finally getting the amount of rest my body needs, and I am beginning to notice the positive changes that come from not having a constantly high level of stress hormones and from having time to cook and eat at home. For years, I could never really deal with the most pressing and difficult emotional issues in therapy because there was always the fear that I wouldn’t be able to patch myself back up in time to make it to class or work afterward – and now I am finally creating the space to be a healthier person emotionally and physically, to talk about the lingering symptoms of depression and anxiety and eating disorders and post-traumatic stress and grief. I can pray five times a day without feeling rushed or like I constantly have to schedule around everything else. Taking care of myself has become the focus, rather than this inconvenience that I have to schedule in around the rest of my life.
It’s not all happiness and roses. I’m still worried about how the rent will get paid and the utilities will stay on, and then there are the more existential worries, like what people think of me and why that even matters to me so much. And there is even sometimes still the niggling fear that I’ll wake up in five years or ten or twenty and realize that I screwed myself over by dropping out and I really AM a failure at life and all of this is just touchy-feely mumbo jumbo to make myself feel better about that. There are a lot of things about myself that dropping out didn’t change – just like we think we’ll be totally different, more perfect people after we lose thirty pounds or find a new job, I didn’t become a perfectly happy, totally put-together, completely joyful all the time sort of person after I left school. But…I do finally have the time to really, truly commit to helping myself and loving myself, whatever that means. I have the time to find out what that means. And even though on the outside looking in it might seem like a mistake…on the inside looking out, it seems like the biggest blessing.