Recovering from Graduate School: Rewriting the Trauma Narrative

Note: this blog post was originally published on Write Where It Hurts.

“What’s the deal with this PTDS book,” my parents asked when they last visited me. Common understandings of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – the mental scars that soldiers, survivors of sexual violence and childhood abuse carry – certainly don’t call to mind any aspect of my life. My parents even sat through my talk on intellectual activism at the 2015 Conference of Ford Fellows, in which I attempted to identify the structural and cultural factors of graduate school that inevitably led me to be traumatized by my graduate training. But, maybe they assumed I was using the term “trauma” to be provocative or dramatic. With some embarrassment, I had to explain that I was, indeed traumatized by grad school, experiencing the symptoms of complex trauma, which is not (yet) officially classified in the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual (the major psychiatric guide for mental disorders in the US).

When my therapist pointed out the trauma – really only repeating back to me comments I had made just moments before about being traumatized – I also resisted. Seriously, who gets traumatized by educational training? I wasn’t physically attacked, I was not raped or sexually assaulted, and I did not endure torture or extreme warfare. Coursework, a qualifying exam, a master’s thesis, a dissertation, and some teaching experience – these, on the surface, are about equipping me with the skills necessary to become an independent scholar, the skills necessary to obtain a PhD and, ideally, a tenure-track job. To help me to begin to see the trauma, my therapist encouraged me to write a trauma narrative.

So, I took some time to write down every challenging, offensive, and potentially traumatizing event or condition that I could draw from my memory. In the midst of writing about one memory, I would have to make a note to write about another that came to mind. “Oh, how could I forget about that!” I thought several times in this process. In the end, I had nearly filled a 70-page spiral notebook with such memories. When I flipped through the notebook, I asked myself, “who wouldn’t be traumatized by all of this?” Guilty of being an academic geek, I took the time to identify some common themes: 1) repeated exposure to and witnessing of microaggressions, stereotypes, and discrimination; 2) devaluing of my research interests, in particular, work on my own communities (i.e., people of color, LGBTQ people, and, especially, LGBTQ people of color); 3) the undermining of my career choices, namely eventually becoming a professor at a liberal arts college; and, 4) an explicit attempt to “beat the activist” out of me through the graduate training.

I have continued to work through my therapist to begin to recover from the trauma. The initial and, it seems, hardest step has been to name the trauma. It has taken some time to stop denying that grad school could be so bad, that I was somehow too weak to survive traumatizing circumstances, or that it is my fault for not leaving at the first sign of trauma. I, like most others, would never expect trauma to be one of the outcomes of graduate training. So, blaming myself or denying the trauma doesn’t help.

Once my therapist and I opened that door, I began to grow impatient. Now what? I wanted some sort of homework to do outside of therapy sessions, though I learned that was not my therapist’s approach. So, I looked into buying workbooks that I could do on my own. Unsurprisingly, most that are out there focus on what my therapist calls “big T Trauma”: sexual violence; war; child abuse; being robbed; having your house burn down; and, natural disasters. My own struggle with complex trauma – “little t trauma” – is the result of prolonged trauma that is interpersonal in nature, and likely occurred at a key developmental period (early adulthood, in my case). Since it is not included in the DSM, there are few workbooks that even mention it, let alone offer resources to help recover from it. But, I eventually found one that does: The PTSD Workbook (second edition), by Mary Beth Williams and Soili Poijula.

I’m not as far as I’d like to be into the workbook, but I find that digging into traumatizing experiences is not something I care to do daily. But, so far it has been helpful to address it head on. Recently, I completed one of the exercises in which they instruct readers to “[t]hink of another person who has gone through a similar event. Knowing now what most helped you survive, what would you say to that other person?” I don’t think that I followed the instructions, but I ended up reflecting on something much more powerful. I ended up rewriting my trauma narrative, albeit an abbreviated version.

Rewriting the Trauma Narrative

Let me give some context. In the process of naming the trauma, I have closed my memory around all that was taken away from me in the process of completing my PhD and obtaining my current tenure-track position. I entered my PhD program in sociology as an activist with a desire to study racism in queer communities using qualitative methods. I figured sociology would be more likely to open doors to gender studies, sexuality studies, and even student affairs than the other ways around. A desired joint PhD with gender studies was discouraged. A desired graduate minor in either sexuality research or gender studies was discouraged. An intended dissertation in trans health was discouraged. I also learned to self-police my interests; for example, I selected a qualifying exam in social psychology rather than gender, sexualities, or race/gender/class/sexualities. I left graduate school with a PhD, trauma, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, a cute boyfriend, expertise in medical sociology using quantitative methods, and an acute awareness that I must hide any activist work or community service. The 28-year-old me was hardly an older and wiser reflection of the 22-year-old me.

That is, in my efforts to identify just how traumatizing graduate school was, I have focused almost exclusively on the negatives – what I have lost, what I compromised, what dreams have been dashed for the sake of job security. This has been a necessary step for me to stop denying how bad grad school was and blaming myself for the trauma. But, the unintended consequences of this focus is that I have lost sight of the ways in which I did survive and thrive, pursued my dreams and values, among other positive highlights of those six years. A while ago, I tried to write a positive-focused complement to the trauma narrative, and only came up with missing the excellent restaurants in Bloomington, IN and the friends that I made there. I also met my now-fiancé there, who moved to Richmond, VA with me. And, my excellent training – despite the compromises I made – opened a number of doors in terms of jobs and professional networks. So, hey – at least I don’t regret my time there. But, that effort felt like settling for an otherwise traumatic experience.

So, back to the prompt from The PTSD Workbook. I began my answer to the question about what I would advise to others, presumably to prevent being traumatized, with: “In the thick of [grad school], I attempted to maintain activities, relationships, and projects that were not valued by my program, but that fed my spirit nonetheless.” From there, I listed example after example of the things in which I was involved during my time in graduate school. Contrary to the sentiment that I left graduate school anything but a sexuality scholar, I identified plenty of examples of the ways in which I clearly demonstrate active involvement in this subfield. I published two articles on sexualities that were co-authored with people outside of my university; in fact, my advisors only became aware of these papers upon noticing them on my CV. I also started one on trans health late in grad school, which was finally published in September 2015. As the founder of the short-lived Campus Coalition for Sexual Literacy – an initiative through the Center for Research and Education on Gender and Sexuality as UCSF – I organized a few events to promote sexual literacy on campus, including a conference on transdisciplinary approaches to sexuality research. I attended a few conferences and workshops in the field of sexualities. And, I also was involved in service on campus and in the community that promoted community-building for LGBTQ people, as well as healthy relationships in the queer community. I could go on…

In essence, I rewrote my trauma narrative. In this narrative, I didn’t sell out, I didn’t allow others to dictate my career, and I wasn’t powerless. Rather, this was a narrative about pushing back against mainstream expectations in sociology to build my career as a scholar-activist whose work focuses primarily on sexualities. This narrative allows me to recall ways in which I defined my career for myself, with necessary compromises along the way. Would the trauma have been worse if it weren’t for feeding my soul with sexualities work and activism? Or, was the trauma the result of defying mainstream expectations in sociology by pursuing such work? I’m not certain at this point, and cannot actually say what could have been. But, I’m in a better position to say what actually was. Yes, I was traumatized; but I was no passive victim.

I hope through speaking openly about the trauma, about the efforts to “beat the activist” out of me, and the training that attempted to steer me away from studying my own communities to make it easier for current and future marginalized grad students to weather the challenging circumstances of grad school.