How To Survive Graduate School When You're Depressed

Do you have the Graduate School Blues? Six years ago, I did, too. I had just started a graduate program in Creative Nonfiction Writing (true stories told creatively; think memoirs, not autobiographies). Before I started, I was so excited about my program. We were going to be this awesome community of writers who supported one another and gave meaningful feedback. And, we’d all be friends, obviously.

Well, that’s not exactly how it went down…

 
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In my first semester, I was going to class and not much else. My social life had reached an all time low. None of my friends from undergrad lived in the same city as me and neither did my boyfriend. I’d come home, close my blinds, and crawl into bed in the middle of the day. Every Wednesday night after my writer’s workshop, I’d call my boyfriend and cry. I felt alone and alienated.

Would it ever get better?

 

Graduate school is a special place where depression goes to grow and thrive. No, really. Starting graduate school was like going back in time to high school. Frenemies, competition, and constant self-doubt. It was a breeding ground for my depression.

Fear of Failure

The first piece I turned in was basically a first draft of an experience I’d had less than 6 months before. I thought it would be a good way to get back into the groove of writing and help me sort out my feelings about what had happened. It was trashed so completely during workshop and in my response letters that I wanted to give up. I was devastated.

Had I already failed?

Nevermind that you can’t fail at writing. I was over. The only thing (or person, I should say) that kept me sane that first semester was my friend Mary. It was scary to open up to someone, but once I was honest about how I felt, I realized I wasn’t the only one scared of failing.

If you’re experiencing depression in graduate school--find one good friend. She’s probably someone quiet who hangs a little by the sidelines and doesn’t wear the traditional hipster getup. Make her a true friend.

This is not one of your friends from before. It’s really important to have someone to talk to who understands the environment you’re in--because it’s like nothing else. Be honest with her. She’s going to help you get through this. (It didn’t hurt that Mary had depression, too--but it’s not a prereq.)

Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome means you can’t accept your accomplishments (ie: being accepted into a cool AF graduate program) and you have a fear of being exposed as a fraud (aka a Phoney Baloney).

I couldn’t stop feeling like I didn’t live up to the standards of everyone else.

My essays were picked apart with a fine-toothed comb. Other essays got praised in workshop. I applied to be a Graduate Teaching Assistant, but I got turned down. Almost my entire cohort was teaching on the side. I hadn’t even thought about where I’d want to publish my work. Most of my cohort had submitted work and many had already been published.

So, how did I get into the program? My portfolio was accepted just like everyone else’s, wasn’t it? You know that Teddy Roosevelt quote?

“Comparison is the thief of joy.”

It’s so true. Only in my imagination was everyone else happy and thriving. I didn’t know what was going on behind closed doors. What I perceived as their success didn’t have to be my downfall.

Stop being so hard on yourself. Seriously. You deserve to be in graduate school because you got in, just like everyone else. When those imposter thoughts pop up--stop them dead in their tracks. Change the feedback loop in your mind.

“I deserve to be here. Someone here sees value in my work. What I have to say is important.”

Competition vs. Community

Remember how I said I was looking for a community of like-minded writer friends? I didn’t find that--at first. I didn’t know if I could hack it. Everyone in my program was older than me (ie: more experienced, with more to say). Like I said, most of them were GTAs. They loved to congregate in a corner with a big sign that read, “Neely Not Allowed” and talk about how annoying their students were. Okay, they didn’t do that. But, it felt like it.

It was easy to want to isolate from my friends (aka my support network) when I was feeling isolated within my program. The truth is, I choose to isolate myself from my friends. I also choose to isolate from my cohort because I felt alienated. The truth is, I was invited to some of those first get togethers. But, my depression was so bad, it said,

“You’re going to bring everyone down. Don’t go. You won’t have anything to say. You won’t have fun.”

Guess what? I stopped getting invited.

Don’t isolate yourself.

You have the choice to create your community, whether that’s your program cohort or friends you already had. You know what else? When I stopped competing with my cohort and started focusing on myself, I became friends with the folks who entered the program the next year. Because I wasn’t giving off “Don’t talk to me or I will bite your head off” vibes anymore.

Do you feel like your depression has flared up since starting graduate school?

 

If this blog resonated with you, share it with a friend who could also relate (or maybe one you’d like to understand your experience better).