Higher Education

Wearing a pair of faded green cargo pants and red Ecco boots with their thick sole to protect from the rain, I notice the man in the seat next to me looking me up and down. “Where do you go to school?” I asked how he knew I was a student. “It’s obvious.” What I couldn’t tell him is that I had to leave my master’s program in Cork due to a breakdown, that I had to get an extension on my thesis, pack my suitcase, and fly home without a degree. It would be the first time, but not the last, that I would put my mental health before school or work. I say this knowing it’s a privilege—not everyone can drop what they’re doing to recover from a break. I also write this knowing that there are readers out there who will try to define me as someone who has broken down. To those people I say, go ahead and judge if you must. I’ve nothing to prove to you.

Before I tell you what happened, you’ll want to know the reason behind the break, the tightly wrapped reason that you can hold and see and feel. I can tell you the main triggering event: a long-term on/off boyfriend in San Francisco announced his engagement to another woman six months into my stay in Cork. That happened in March of 2002. I took the phone call on a land line in the Munster Literature Centre, located at the time in a classroom of an all-boy’s school. The full breakdown happened five months later in August. In between I read When Things Fall Apart twice and wrote critical papers on Irish poets and writers and shopped for fresh produce and fish in the English Market and continued on as a volunteer at the Munster Lit. That June I threw a birthday party that people still talk about today. I published my first-ever essay on racism in Cork in the Centre’s magazine. When my university said I couldn’t write my thesis on an Irish-language poet because I didn’t speak Irish, I travelled down to Dun Laoghaire to meet the poet in person, and she suggested I write about the differences between the literal translations of her work and the creative translations of her work by other poets. My new topic got approved. All I had to was write it.

If only the reason were that simple. A boyfriend got engaged. Today, I don’t even care about this person. There’s nothing I want or need to know. Those seven years of struggle had more to do with me than him. He’s just the person through which I worked out some issues. I know that now. A few weeks ago, I noticed that he’d been on my LinkedIn page, and I didn’t even care enough to block him. If he ever reaches out to me again, I already know I won’t respond. Thank god he married someone else. I always felt not pretty enough or rich enough or accomplished enough around him and his friends. I’m grateful for the lessons taken from that experience because they’ve brought me to where I am today. In all honesty, I would probably find him boring if we were to meet up after all these years. He absolutely hates technology and has built his life and career around it. What a yawn fest that would be.

The real reasons behind the break go so much deeper than him. But that’s not what I’m here to write about right now.

The symptoms started with insomnia and a headache that worsened over several weeks. I went into the herbal shop on Patrick Street for help and wanted to choke the woman behind the counter when she told me the rose hip drops on my tongue would take a week to take effect. I scheduled an Indian head massage on Oliver Plunkett Street but the tightness and pressure around my head didn’t subside. I tried to buy three items at Tesco’s but froze in the produce section holding an empty basket, unable to figure out how to find the items I needed, place them in my basket, and make it to the register to pay. Instead, I rushed out of the store and ran back to my apartment overlooking the weir. I cried on the blue couch. After a good long cry, I’d cry again. When I tried to read an article in the newspaper, the words jumped around on the page. I didn’t know what was happening to me. Nothing like this had ever happened before.

My boyfriend at the time sent me to see his doctor. I’ll always be grateful for that. The doctor diagnosed me immediately as having depression and anxiety. He wrote out a prescription and a letter to my university saying I needed an extension on my thesis. The medication started to work within hours. The feeling of the tight rubber band around my head slowly lifted and I slept and slept for days. After a few weeks on the medication, I tried to resume work on my thesis but still couldn’t concentrate enough. Academic writing confused me. I couldn’t synthesize my thoughts. My topic felt too complex. (Was it too late to just write another thesis on Oscar Wilde?) All in all, I’d lost a lot of weight that I couldn’t afford to lose.

Finally, I called my sister to let her know what I’d been going through. My plan, I said, was to stay in Cork as long as it took to finish my thesis. “I’m not leaving without finishing.” She agreed with the plan, probably because she knew I was too stubborn to come home without a degree. On that call, I broke down and let out a wail that scared even me. I asked her for my brother-in-law’s opinion, and in the background I heard him say, “Come home.”

I booked my flight home that day. I told myself, you can do this, but you can’t do it right now. Take care of yourself first. Your body and heart and mind want your full attention. They’re demanding it, in fact. It’s not so much that I gave up, it’s that I didn’t have a choice. To attempt to stay in Ireland and work on the thesis would’ve been self-destructive.

Back home, with the help of my sister and brother-in-law, I put on some weight over the next several months and recovered enough to start thinking about my thesis again. My mind felt clear, and my thesis topic excited me once again. I submitted it in the fall of 2004 and got my degree with upper second class honors (2:1). When I look at the hard-bound cover on my bookshelf, I feel the weight of that education.

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