a winter break at war
For despite all this progress, all these medications, I come into Blue State twice a day. I order my latte, I order my hot water. I sit down ready to work, laptop open, notebook in hand, and out comes—
I stare at the screen.
I type a few sentences. Erase them. Type a few more.
Highlight my notes. Move them between documents. Make mind maps.
Stare some more.
Think of the two other chapters I have to write after this, plus intro and conclusion. Think of the amazing writing I’ve done in the past, and how horrible I’ll feel if this work doesn’t live up to that quality. Think of the advisor who has been so amazing to me and how disappointed she’ll be if I fail.
With a sigh, I flip over to the fanfiction I’ve been working on in my free time. The words come easily—beautifully, even. I leave Blue State without any significant thesis work done, but at least I’ve produced something I’m proud of.
Rinse. Repeat. Avoid. Await. Nap. Nap more. Watch another episode of “The West Wing.” Ignore. Cope. Fail.
And it goes on.I’ve become something of a constant fixture at Blue State. The baristas know my name, even if I don’t know theirs. Almost every day since winter break has started, I’ve come in in the morning and ordered a tea latte. I’ve kept the cup and teabag, then come back in the afternoon and asked for free hot water. Voila: two drinks for the price of one. You’re looking at Brown University’s next great kingpin, coming soon to a bookstore near you.
My evil scheme to rip off the establishment isn’t the point, though. The point is what the baristas think when I come in every day. That I’m a lonely loser, probably, being the only regular who sticks around for weekends. That I’m some prolific author, maybe; an auteur writing her next literary masterpiece, or a genius grad student working out the theory that will change the world.
As you’ve probably guessed, I’m neither. When I’m at Blue State this winter break, I am doing one of three things:
Working on my thesis
Staring at the screen trying to work on my thesis
Writing fanfiction after giving up on working on my thesis
‘Cause see, I’m in trouble. I wasted my first semester. Well, didn’t so much waste it as let it pass me by. To be fair, I was taking a heavier course load than I should have: Two 1900 level seminars would be a lot to handle during a normal semester, let alone one during which I’m supposed to be writing a veritable book.
But I studied this topic for an entire semester before it officially became part of a thesis. I knew my shit, I thought. I knew my shit, and I know I can write quickly when I need to. I expected to be pumping out chapters by semester’s end.
Of course, as you’ve probably guessed by now, that’s not even remotely what happened. I fucked up. I fell into the black hole of secondary sources, never to return. My advisor assigned me 15 pages to write over Thanksgiving break. I wrote two of them with ten pages of accompanying notes and no idea where to go from there.
I ended the semester with a few final papers attending to my thesis topic and not much other work to speak of. But that’s okay, I thought. I’ll stay on campus over winter break. I’ll apply myself. I’ll crank out those chapters.
I’m sitting in my usual seat at Blue State, sipping my free hot water and covering my face with my scarf so no one sees how hard I’m crying. Winter break is half over, and I’ve written two shitty pages. And I don’t know where to go from here.
I’ve been in therapy for depression and anxiety since fifth grade; I am currently on a cocktail of six separate medications that allow me to masquerade as a functioning human being. For the most part, they work. I don’t want to kill myself anymore (at least not more than once every few weeks). I can go several hours at a time without feeling like my body is trying to force my ribcage out of my chest. I have good friends. I get good grades. Generally, I would qualify myself as happy; and if not happy, at least older, and stronger, and better able to deal with the fact that maybe happiness just wasn’t meant for someone who spends every day at war with her own brain.
I know this is probably how everyone writing a thesis feels at some point or another: Overwhelmed, helpless, useless, worthless, pathetic, incompetent, stupid. I know I shouldn’t blame all of this on mental illness; I shouldn’t allow myself to use that crutch. I’ve accomplished everything else school has thrown at me; clearly, my brain and I have found some way to live together.
Here is the inescapable truth: I am crying in public for the third time this break. In a few minutes, I’ll walk home and convince myself that it will be better tomorrow. I’ll take my medication. I’ll go to sleep early, prepare myself for a brand new day.
After so many years of unsuccessful new days transforming my brain’s chemistry,I’ve learned helplessness is a thing, and panic attacks are a thing, no matter how much Xanax I have on hand, and I’m on my way to wondering whether this struggle is worth anything at all.
Maybe tomorrow will be my day. Maybe I’ll break through this wall, and by the time this piece is published I’ll be well into my third chapter. Maybe I’ll impress my advisor, impress my peers, impress myself. Maybe my brain will lay down its arms and decide to hate me just a little bit less.
Or maybe there will be more of this. And more. And more.
And my only accomplishment this winter break will be scamming Blue State out of a second latte every day.