Starting a PhD program from your childhood bedroom is incredibly lonely. Never mind that you painted the walls over and bought new curtains and new furniture and never quite finished, it will always be that bedroom. Never mind that you like to be alone, that you don’t want to talk on the phone and haul yourself up out of bed to log onto a weird and stiff zoom call to “make friends”, or that you are in a home full of people. It is still, cavernously, lonely.
The thing about moving back in with family after four years of living alone is it never feels right again. Never mind that it has been nearly a year since the start of this pandemic. The adjustment never came, just complacency. I stay up at night because it is the only time I can really be alone. Things are upside down and it is all my fault.
My birthday is on Monday. I dread birthdays. But I am glad to be moving forward with life. Once upon a time I never thought I would get this old. But here I am. Aging is not an accomplishment, just simply what happens when you let life happen to you. Life happened to me, and it’s all my fault.
This has been one of the hardest years I have ever endured. Although, the older I get, the more I realize that every collection of solar months brings with it it’s own tragedy, the Pain is dressed differently so I don’t recognize it at first. But when I feel it’s hands, I know it again. Pain. I have been in pain before, it is knowable, it has a name. Pain. Yes, excruciating feeling. Feeling. That’s what Pain is. I miss feeling. I am so unfeeling these days (and by these days I mean for ten months now), and I don’t know how (or if I want) to shake it.
I guess that’s not entirely true. I do have feelings, but they are not real feelings, textured feelings, feelings worth having, feelings that make life what it is. I instead I am left with words like suffocation, panic, despair, regret, and shame to try and describe these cheap, un-anchoring emotions. I am disappointed in myself— nothing has gone according to plan. Of course, few things in life do but this has been disastrous. And I’m not even talking about the deadly virus or the lockdown. I’m talking about me and graduate school, me and the person I am supposed to be, me and my relationship with all of this Time.
Imposter syndrome is an interesting term. I don’t know how useful I find it in my own life, mostly because I don’t think it applies to me? A key principle of imposterism is that the feelings you feel and the doubts you harbor are just imaginary, they are not real. But I know what is real, and I have loved the imaginary. I know the difference between the two. And I don’t know how to face it: I am just not good enough.
I don’t like the way I speak, or think, or write. I can no longer tolerate even my own sense of humor. It is all stale, plastic, un-luxed and uninteresting. I wish I could replace the tongue in my mouth with something more refined, overhaul my own childish and unstretchable vocabulary for a new exhibit of words. It is exhausting, to sit on zoom and see your own face for hours…. You start to resent that too. I wish I was older and wiser and then at the same time I wish I was younger and more moldable, could be fashioned properly, I could be made right the first time. There is a special skill I have always thought of as living on-pointe. That ballerina way of being where you know what to say at the right time and the right place without offending anyone, without coming off as dumb or ignorant, without exposing the wide and never ending ocean of fraudulence that crashes upon your inner shores. I thought I was good at that up until a-point. My whole life I walked around with Badu-type bags of insecurities, but the few things that did not make it into the chasm where I place things I cannot stand about myself and would sacrifice a limb to change, have now been thrust in there too (leaving me with what feels like nothing, just gratitude for existence and faith, as undeserving as I am).
I feel so lost. I do not know who or what I am most days. I chameleon in the virtual classroom, trying to read 1/3 of someone’s body language over the screen to see if they approve, if I have impressed them, if I am making this worse. I miss the social cues I used to be good at detecting and I feel the hinges loosening on my own conversational joints. I sound rickety and unsure. I over apologize. I preface with humor to mask my own deep confusion and unintelligence. Perhaps I always was like this and I just could never tell? Maybe the way I see myself now is the way others have seen me all along? I feel naked, and humiliatingly unbearable.
I am angry about it sometimes. Not often but sometimes. The anger comes in short bursts and then fully curved waves. I wish I had been a better child, to be a better teenager, to be a better young adult, to then arrive at this moment with some semblance of dignity, of personhood, of vision. All the things I thought I was have been shattered. All the things I knew I was not have been magnified, turned more important than food and water and sun. I miss the sun. And the water. I miss Philadelphia, and the Schuylkill. I miss the ways I could walk for hours and no one would know me, I could melt into the world around me, free of fears of unwell men who mistake me for their harbor, who do not let me taste safety. I miss feeling that the future was full of possibilities, that I could carve myself into anything I wanted after graduation, that there was still a horizon and that sunrise was real and coming. Always coming.
When I debated with myself on whether to start this academic journey or not, many months ago, I weighed different things. I thought about failure, about prestige, about the things I felt I was giving up coming from the bleach-breath tower of undergrad. I thought about humility, the tradeoff between what I thought was valuable and what I knew would teach me to value other things. I thought about Allah, and death, the passing of elders, the urgency I felt when I thought about my research. I thought about Time, and its teasing, the way it flirts as it unrolls, never committing, only ever promising to leave, and the ways I fall in love with it, with the future, with imagining something different and neglecting to till the soil I stand in. I thought about God, about how much I need Him, about how I need Him to be all I need, how I cannot rely on anyone else. I thought it was a good idea, that it would bear fruits even if they were not the fruits I had been taught to harvest.
Well, here we are, moons and moons and Hajj and Eid and nearly a birthday later, and I have lost many things, given up many things, forgotten many things, been haunted by the memories of things I thought I had laid to rest. It is all simmering over, leaving me swimming in a vat of syllabi and books I want to read but don’t know how. I don’t know if I was ever strong enough for this, or able to recover after every injury. I have shattered through and through, and there is really no time for repair. I am exhausted by the performance of it all: pretending I am coherent, pretending I read the whole chapter, pretending I have a clue what is going on, pretending my work is important, pretending I am important, pretending that I belong. But I do it anyway. It is what I have been trained to do. It is all I know.
These months (and by these months I mean many months now), I close my eyes and can no longer see the future. And I am terrified. It for many years, has been my only comfort, the place I run to when there is no where else to hide. I don’t know what is coming, but I am afraid. I have disappointed myself deeply with my own mortality, with my humanity, with my unquenchable thirst for excellence, and the intellectual growth that never arrived.
None of it ever arrived. I do not know what to make of it all, how to rise up (or if I even deserve that chance) when I cannot imagine it. How to do that which you cannot conceive of? How to be someone you have never met? Where can I find the future, kiss its hands, and believe in it? Where to find it all? (And fast enough! Oh fast enough….