A PhD in Trauma

PhDs are notoriously gruelling, but throw personal trauma into the mix and the experience can become acutely toxic.

This essay maps the boundaries of personal and professional trauma, and mentions physical and sexual abuse in a way some people may find confronting.

It took a doctoral degree in applied physics to teach me about trauma. Until I was 24, I hadn’t thought about it – I thought I’d survived my childhood unscathed. I was powering through under the radar, perfecting my academic career so I could hit the ground running when I turned 18.

By 24, I’d moved countries and continents for school four times; I fancied myself resilient, with a loud and laughing attitude to life and an eye-rolling disdain for fear. I approached being accepted to a PhD program at the world’s leading institution in my field like any other challenge: as an adventure I simply couldn’t pass up. Having emigrated from Eastern Europe to New Zealand as a child, a move to snowy New England seemed fun and daring – sure, at least, to impress people in conversations at parties.

Every year on the first day of orientation, my new university told incoming graduate students about imposter syndrome. Everyone arrives as the cream of their respective crops and is suddenly surrounded by their equals, and that can feel intimidating and humbling. This is something you’ll feel and get over, we heard; you’ll gain confidence in your abilities as you delve further into your chosen field. Those feelings didn’t pass for me.

I grew up in what I often glibly call an ‘abusive’ household. My father hurt my mother and my sister, and sometimes me, for next to no reason, for as long as I can recall. He wasn’t a drunk, he wasn’t tormented and he never apologised.

When the anger wasn’t physical, other threats loomed. He’d threaten to kill us, kill mum, kill himself, leave us destitute, rape us. More frequent than either physical abuse or threats was psychological abuse. We were stupid, worthless, friendless bitches, undeserving of love, sure to fail in a world where he wasn’t there to save us. We weren’t allowed true privacy or personal lives; most contact with the outside world was deemed unnecessary and dangerous, and we were constantly suspected of lying and deception. In what I now recognise as ugly complicity, mum encouraged us to love and even apologise to our dad, to contort ourselves into perverse perfection to avoid triggering his rages.

Recounting this experience seems harrowing now, but having grown up inside it, I hadn’t really thought of it sticking with me beyond my teens.

At 24, in my second year of grad school, a new relationship wasn’t going well. My new love was sweet and shy and quiet – nothing like my father – but as soon as we became closer I started finding fault in everything he did. Why didn’t he show enough affection or reach out to me, why didn’t he share his feelings like I did? My reactions weren’t of curiosity and acceptance but extreme panic and anger. I felt terrible. I felt simultaneously rejected and demanding. Why did I turn from a fun, caring and confident young woman to this needy, angry monster? I didn’t recognise myself.

For the first time in my life I sought out a therapist. I had to figure out what was wrong with me, why I was almost certainly causing my own unhappiness, and his. All the while, my academic career meant I was left pretty much alone to succeed or fail at my research, set my own schedule and correct my own mistakes. At this point, work quickly took a back seat to obsessive self-criticism, and re-emerged only as a further reminder of my failures.

My first session was tenuous and verbose. I explained how I was overreacting to things, how there was some flaw in me in need of eradication. I asked for a plan or a strategy to fix whatever it was about me that was making this person act cold and distant.

I had grown up abhorring self-pity. I hated my father, but had no doubt that my experiences only made me stronger. I was resilient and independent. I didn’t suffer from homesickness; I landed on my feet in new situations and stayed cool in crises. I remembered important dates and facts, gave thoughtful gifts and was truly, profoundly interested in the mundane details of the lives of others. And underneath it all was a steady stream of constant, ruthless, cruel self-criticism and a frantic need to be liked. I didn’t even pay attention to this. I assumed everyone had it. It was the fuel that made me stronger and better. People opened up to me. For more people than I remember, I was “the first person they ever told” about a deep-seated childhood violation or horrible secret.

A week after that first session, my boyfriend disclosed his childhood sexual abuse. He hadn’t told anyone before. He could barely talk about it. He was in pain and had been running away from the pain for 15 years. He had developed intense and cold and sometimes disturbing coping mechanisms that had the potential to hurt and confuse the people around him. So now things were bad, but I knew why, and he needed me. His story was awful, and I wanted so much to take its burden away from him.

I dove headfirst into the world of childhood sexual abuse, its lasting effects, its illegality, its prevalence and causes. I saw and read things I wouldn’t recommend anyone see or read. I felt and expressed anger and sadness and betrayal at the perpetrator when my partner couldn’t. I took on his trauma as my own, and all the while I felt worse and worse. I was more and more anxious, more and more angry, more and more scared of feeling rejected and alone. Even my research, which was already making me question myself with no hope of respite, was no longer a distraction. I stopped going to work; I stopped eating for days at a time. There was nothing more to look forward to.

The parts of me I liked – my open, expansive, warm, resilient parts – turned ugly and betrayed me. I valued my resilience, so why was I a broken mess? I took validation from friendships, so why was my bedroom door locked from the inside for days on end? Being confronted with the horrible trauma in my boyfriend’s life broke the levee that was holding back my own.

All throughout, I was still technically doing my PhD.

Doing a PhD does not mix well with mental health, and especially with trauma. Novel scientific research on a novel topic is almost intentionally designed to break a person with post-traumatic symptoms. Its fundamental nature is triggering. There’s no schedule, no goals and no yardstick you can use to reassure yourself if your internal self-validation isn’t up to the challenge. The only people to judge you are yourself and, often, an ambitious and disinterested professor who holds your future career in hand. There’s constant, unabating failure. A PhD is everything going wrong and a handful of things going right. Years of work that result in several published pages of success. To someone who lives with internalized trauma, this is as comfortable as strolling through a minefield. Every setback sends you down a waterslide of despair and self-admonition, and there’s nothing but setbacks. It’s coupled with isolation, simply because the nature of the beast is that the work must be mostly your own in order to fulfil the degree requirements.

A PhD is everything going wrong and a handful of things going right.

Towards the end of my PhD I barely recognised myself. I was depressed. It was hard to get out of bed, let alone write meaningful scientific publications. I delayed work to the last minute and often couldn’t stomach reading what I’d previously written in my thesis because I was so anxious it wouldn’t be good enough. I was neglectful of friendships and family relationships, unproductive at work, and I mistreated my body horribly with food, alcohol, sleep deprivation and caffeine. I was astonishingly harsh on myself and I believed I deserved it.

I now see that first face-to-face with trauma as a necessary breakdown. Though I’d gone to therapy to fix myself, my therapist was the first person to ever suggest that I wasn’t in need of fixing. I was carefully met with my own trauma. I was shown, gently but firmly, that 24 years of being told that I’m worthless – first by my father and then by myself – did actual, unfair, unpreventable damage. I was told I was allowed to stop spiralling into a pit of horror for a minute or two and think about myself as worthwhile. Just me: not me in the eyes of others, not me as defined by my actions, but me alone.

Now, though, I have a doctorate. I have a post-doctoral research position starting soon, and though I’m anxious about how I perform, I’m excited to spend a year in a new place, in self-proclaimed PhD recovery. My most recent romantic relationship ended because I wasn’t being given the emotional support that I needed – and finally felt like I deserved. In June I returned to New England for my graduation ceremony. My father came, too. It’s hard to believe this is the same man who did and said all those awful things. It always was hard to believe. The suddenness and unpredictability of violence kept me in a constant state of vigilance.

I stopped in at my old therapist’s office to catch her up on my life. She and I talked about the lessons I’ve learned from my last year of study. I talked about my tendency to be drawn to people who need me, who need protection, and how I’ve learned to give that comfort and protection and love to myself instead. We talked about how I feel more assertive with regards to my parents, and more accepting of people, even of my parents, whatever their baggage, because I’m learning that their bad deeds are not a reflection of some flaw in me.

It took a PhD in applied physics to show me what trauma was, and, despite what my shiny new science degree may imply, it was probably the most important thing I learned.

If you feel like there’s not much point in going on, it’s hard to get out of bed and there’s numbness where feelings should be, please remember it can and will get better and help is available.

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The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

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