Lessons on Self-Discovery and Healing From a PhD Dropout

SEPTEMBER 28, 2014

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Labels are dangerous on journeys of self-discovery. I was always “the smart kid.” I took that label and ran with it, all the way to the third year of a PhD program in atmospheric science. This was no longer child’s play; the ivory tower of academia was the epitome of everything I thought I was supposed to be as “the smart kid.”

The summer after my second year in graduate school, I took and passed my qualifying exams. My roommate’s brother also died suddenly at 27. And my own mother broke her ankle rather gruesomely while I was visiting for Mother’s Day. I started binge eating. I was using food to suppress all these emotions that welled up about life, death, and purpose while I continued to code away on my computer in a laboratory.

It was a while before I realized that I needed help. When I finally saw a therapist, I received three diagnoses: obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), chronic depression, and binge eating disorder. The following semester, I failed both my classes. With F’s. I had no motivation to get out of bed, much less work on my research or study for upper-level engineering courses. I was seeing two therapists, a psychiatrist, a general physician, and I was attending group OCD therapy. My focus that year should have been entirely on my mental health. But I was so hung up on what I was supposed to be doing that I let everything in my life slip, from my relationships, to my work, to my self-care. 

After nearly a year in therapy, I had an awakening. The heavy blanket of depression was lightening just enough for me to peak out at the world from beneath it. I saw my future as an academic, toiling away in adjunct positions, hoping to hop on the tenure track and toil away some more until retirement, during which I would continue to toil.

I cried, which I was doing a lot at that time, and I called my long distance boyfriend. I said “I don’t know what I want to do anymore, but I know it’s not this.” He said, quite emphatically, “Then quit!” The next morning, I told my advisor that I needed a break. He nodded, knowing about my health issues, and said, “So like…a week or so?” I laughed, because this was the academia I knew. The academia I wanted to leave behind. The academia that thought anxiety disorders could be taken care of with a week’s vacation. “No…,” I replied, “indefinitely.”

He was taken aback, and so were my colleagues. After all, I was “the smart kid.” Why would I leave all that behind for my mental health? I left it behind to take care of myself. I left it behind to be with and marry that long-distance boyfriend. I left it behind to rediscover my identity, which had for so long been buried under years of others’ expectations of me, “the smart kid.” I’m still “the smart kid,” but that’s no longer all that I am. Yes, I am a scientist. But I am also a creative, a writer, a speaker, a teacher, a storyteller, a wife, a cat mother, and a coach. I also discovered that I’m an agnostic theist, a vegetarian, and an empath. Those things didn’t fit the narrative I was living previously. Now? I create the narrative.

2 COMMENTS

  • Marla 3 years ago

    I love how genuine you are in your writing Mallie. I agree that there is so much more to us than a label. It takes time and courage to change the stories we tell ourselves – to break free – but it’s worth the risk to explore all the ‘truth’ that lies beneath. It’s like finding treasure! Great inspiration, thank you!

  • Mallie Rydzik 3 years ago

    Thank you, Marla! I very much agree with the treasure analogy.