I had another panic attack in my hotel room that night. One of many to come.
I was in Tucson, presenting a talk at a scientific conference, and was looking over my notes after arriving at the hotel. I had another day to polish and practice the presentation. It had to be good. No, it had to be perfect. I was nearing the end of my graduate program and struggling to find confidence in my work. I felt like an imposter before “imposter syndrome” was a thing. I was a walking test case for the syndrome.
I happened to glance at the conference program later that night. It was then that I realized that I had mixed up my days. What I thought was Monday was actually Tuesday, and I was scheduled to present on Wednesday. Which was the next day. I checked the dates again. And again. My presentation was indeed scheduled for early the next day.
Shit. How did I not know what day it was? How could I be so off for something this important?
It was late, but I was up for the next hours, panicking to finalize the talk for the morning.
I’ve had this dream, more than once, that I’d be at a conference, listening to presentations, when my name was announced to give the next talk. Only I wasn’t prepared to speak, not knowing that I was on the program. I would awaken in an absolute panic after having this dream. It was the equivalent of showing up to class without your pants on, only not funny. I thought about what I would do if that ever actually happened. Now, here I was, nearly manifesting that nightmare in real life.
I got into my rental car the next afternoon and drove out into the desert. The talk went well enough, but I was feeling uneasy. Was it the talk or just general unrest? What the hell was going on with me? Why was I losing days and living in fear and dread?
I needed to get away from the conference and went out to find a place to hike.
I remember I was wearing a short skirt with my favorite t-shirt. The skirt was khaki and light cotton weave. I’d never worn a skirt hiking before and I’m not sure why I picked it for that particular outing. Maybe I needed to feel differently that afternoon. Maybe I just needed to feel something other than waves of trepidation.
I bought the t-shirt at an art fair in Oregon years ago. It had beautiful hand-painted Native American artwork across the front and down the sleeves. It came with a card explaining what the different symbols meant. The colors were soft and transparent, like watercolor. I loved that shirt, but hardly ever wore it because I didn’t want it to wear out. There was something about it that made me feel incredible and I wanted it to last forever. Or maybe I just didn’t feel worthy wearing something so pretty.
I headed out and soon found myself going off-trail. I felt free in the skirt, and I sensed strength in my unencumbered legs. I was at a tanned and toned stage of my life. A stage that was often fleeting as I dealt with constant body-weight issues.
I climbed straight upward to the top of a ridge, moving faster and faster over steepening terrain. I was practically running among the rocks and cacti as I reached the crest. I gasped for air at the top and turned to look back out across the desert. And then I burst into tears. Giant, heart-wrenching, overflowing sobs. They would not stop. All of the fear, doubt, and mistrust I’d bottled up for so long poured out of me on that ridge. It may have been an hour, but I cried until I was fully drained. Then I sat until the sun began to dip behind the hills.
I remember that hike, that skirt, those sobs, and all of that pain so vividly. I was spent. I was so tired of not being good enough, tired of feeling like a failure, and tired of acting how someone else expected me to be. What happened on that ridge should have been a turning point. I must have recognized that something wasn’t right and that this wasn’t where I needed to be. But I chose to ignore it. Instead, I continued, struggling with anxiety, perfectionism, and feeling like an impostor for years afterward.
Why didn’t I stop at that point? How could I not see that the path I was on wasn’t the right one? I remember feeling trapped, but I lacked the strength to change. I was too far in and turning back was no longer an option. I’d put in too many years, spent too much money and energy on this path. I already had commitments to my workplace once I graduated. Little did I know that leaving that path may well have saved me years of anguish and that what I had spent was a pittance compared to what it would cost later.
I tried to brush off those feelings and rationalize them as being normal. Every graduate student must feel like this at some point, right? Feeling like you are being dragged through the mud is just part of the process. But then, every once in awhile, you have a win — like a small grant or award. I suppose those fleeting victories are meant to make the harshness worthwhile. And you keep going, hoping that it will get better.
But for me, it didn’t.
I left the ridge and returned to the conference that day. I decided to stay on my path. I would just need to toughen up.
Cover photo by Mihai Lazăr on Unsplash