Confessions of an Overachiever (I)

“You can rest when you die” ~ advice from a former professor

I used to feel stress and ignore it.

There. I’ve said it. What’s so bad about that you might ask? Hopefully, you’ll keep reading to find out.

In 2004, I began doctoral work at a research university. Some programs require that you work in a cohort or group, but not this one. Not this program. At this institution, you attain a PhD the old-fashioned way, independently. Whether independent or collaborative, doctoral programs at research universities begin similarly. Your first few years include coursework. The next few years are what separate the high achievers from the overachievers. This phase includes qualification exams intended to move you from doctoral student to doctoral candidate. If you make it through this proverbial hoop, then you propose a study, conduct a study, and become Dr. so-and-so. For me, this last part took three years. Here is where I endured, and subsequently, ignored the hardest stress in my life.

The first sign is familiar. It’s how we know that being president of the so-called free world is stressful.  One day I noticed a slight tint of silver. Is this lighting? I thought to myself? Oh my God! No, there’s a gray hair! It was true. I was 34 and ill-prepared for what is called “new-growth gray.” That means every time my hair grows, it’s growing in gray, right in the front of my head, where everyone can see it. Oh, no, no, no, no way. Luckily, I had a great hairstylist who could mask this horrid sight. But once I went natural, boxes of Dark and Lovely became my friend. Because my hair grows quickly, dark brown dye is necessary every other week.

“Why is your hair so black?” My aunt once asked.

“It’s not. It’s dark ash brown. Or at least that’s what the box says.”

So my first sign was a vanity stressor. But not my second. It was 2006. I was still teaching high school English and attending graduate school full time. And being a wife and mother. Although doctoral candidacy is the expectation, it’s not always the result, especially not at UF. I’d heard horrible tales of students failing their exams and leaving with a Specialist degree instead. This would never be the fate of an overachiever. There was one re-write. But I passed. I also developed a chalazion under my right eyelid. Chalazions can appear for several reasons. However, each points to a type of illness. I’m rarely ill. If I am, then it’s because I’m stressed. My body was screaming out to me. This time an ophthalmologist rid me of this sore. Once again, I was able to cover up and ignore a sign.

The final marker of stress happened repeatedly. It only occurred at night or early in the morning. After a deep sleep, I wanted to wake up. So my eyes would pop open but I couldn’t move the rest of my body. The room was dark. I could see everything in it. My dresser. The TV. The door. But I couldn’t open my mouth. I would try screaming for help. Nothing came out. My mind raced. Sweat trickled. After a couple of bouts, I learned to calm my mind down and tell myself that everything is okay. It’s called sleep paralysis. Some believe it’s your spirit leaving. Others say demons are entering. Medically speaking, it’s something that happens when you’re under a lot of stress, which I was. Five years in and my study wasn’t being approved. My chair was offering little help. I was working full-time. Life was difficult. But I ignored it.

Part II and Part III