Last year I wrote about that being in a relationship with a PhD student meant also dating their thesis. The shoe is now well and truly on the other foot. I added my Masters thesis to the mix of our relationship last year. It was awful. I had a breakdown that I didn’t see coming. My boyfriend, Dave, did and he dealt with it better than me.
There are some dreadful times in research where nothing goes right. I’ve had them and gotten out of them with project intact. Studying was different. It was my project and therefore mine to get done but obstacles were everywhere. Despite my best efforts my academic woes spilled out into other aspects of my life, mostly into my relationship with Dave.
I became moody and snappy, even on date night. Dave would pull me up on it every single time and I would stop. No defense mechanism. I knew I was being unfair. And mean. It’s not easy doing this but the skill of biting one’s own tongue when a thoughtless remark is thrown your way during a research group meeting has to be good for something right?
It was at this point Dave would ask me what was wrong. You know what my reply was to someone who has finished a PhD and now has students of his own? The ever classic, “You wouldn’t understand.” Stupid or what? If anyone was going to understand my private hell, Dave was. And even when he didn’t understand, he listened. Sometimes what I needed wasn’t someone who understood, I just wanted someone who would listen without saying anything. Just voicing things to someone who wasn’t going to judge was what I needed.
The best thing about talking to Dave was that he didn’t tell me what to do or what I should do. It was a relief. And sometimes it was all too much and I was reduced to tears. I was an utter mess and when this spilled over to a date night, something inside me snapped. I realized I needed to do something.
I decided to take a break from my Masters. It wasn’t easy. When I told friends, most of them said, “You’ve been through worse, it’s just another six months.” with the best of intentions. They hadn’t seen me when I detoured from going to uni. Nor had they seen me wolfing down a cheeseburger with extra pickles as the only solid meal of the day. They didn’t know how late I stayed at uni some nights trawling through journal articles. I barely recognized myself.
During an office reshuffle with advice to stick out another six months ricocheting around my hollow brain, I decided to take my belongings home. There was no fanfare, I just left. I didn’t even see my supervisor on my way out. I needed a break. The sooner, the better.
It was just after lunch when I made a phone call to Dave while loading my car boot. Telling him what I was doing tore me up inside. A feeling of incredible stupidity hit me. I didn’t feel like I was good enough to be his girlfriend. I felt like I had screwed up and had no options left in life. Any sense of self-worth was gone. He said, “Take a break. Take as long as you need before deciding what to do next.” This was the only time Dave ever told me to do anything during my Masters. I listened.
That was six months ago. I am now typing this from a mine site after work. I am still on my break from my Masters and in full-time employment. I have started to feel good about myself again and I’m regaining my confidence. The best part is that I am being paid to do research as well as day- to-day tasks. I could have written about a happier time during my Masters but what is the use in that? We’re all too cynical for posts spewing forth rainbows and unicorns especially on days like Valentine’s Day. Postgrad life isn’t conducive to having a relationship or much else. It demands long hours and unyielding commitment.
The thing is I am lucky to have had enough sense to know that Dave is someone who will always listen to my rants and be there for me. It isn’t easy to step back and apologise for being a moody cow but the more I’ve done it, the easier it’s become. I have also had to remind myself that my relationship with Dave is separate from my Masters and that I won’t be crucified for being less than perfect. I was safe from that. I did my best not to take out my woes on him. There were times when I failed miserably and was admonished. I learned there was a fine line between venting and just being aggressive, usually when Dave asked questions to fill in gaps of something I was telling him. It wasn’t an attack on my integrity, it was a request for more information. It wasn’t as if he was there when I was aggravated.
I owe a lot to Dave for sticking out 2011 with me. It was a horrible year. There was very little fun in it but the bits that were fun, I relished. Dave would come by with cheeseburgers when I needed them with episodes of Doctor Who to dangle in front of me for much needed breaks. There was the time when he bought me a plush Totoro after I sat him through My Neighbour Totoro. By some quirk, Dave always knows when I can do with a hug. These are the little things that made me happy and got me through 2011. The huge thing that got us both through was being able to listen to one another.