“I believe you” and “I get it” – We need both!

If you’ve been reading along, you know I am an athlete and I have chronic pain. You know that running is both my motivation and occasionally my demise. You probably also know I recently experienced my first running related injury and because of that, I’ve been forced to take my first running hiatus in over a year. This is so hard and painful for me!

Anyway, with the goal of returning to running and combating an RSD flare, I saw a physical therapist about my knee injury. The entire day I was apprehensive; my experiences with physical therapists until now have not been the most positive. When I arrived, I explained my injury and then, hesitating a bit, I explained about my RSD. I shared that, truthfully, for more than a decade I haven’t known and can’t imagine a situation where something hurts and then stops hurting – especially in my legs. I shared that I have a really hard time telling if something hurts or if I am hurt. I mentioned that I have an even harder time determining if something is “bad enough” for me to stop being active (a trusted antidote to functioning while living with pain). I discussed that it’s hard for me to distinguish between “good pain” and “bad pain”. In fact, I noted, I have been conditioned to push through the pain. I said that I’m known to second guess myself and to question if my pain is even real. I said that I usually think I’m making it up or that it isn’t that bad.

My body language must have shown that I was scared too. I am scared! Actually, my fear is somewhat debilitating. I’m scared it won’t stop hurting ever. I’m scared I won’t be able to run or move the same way again. I’m scared it will escalate into something chronic.  I’m scared this injury will negate all the work I’ve done and how far I’ve come. I fear relapse in the face of what seems right now to only be a minor setback.

I have so many questions! When will this associated pain flare end? Will this become my next permanent pain spot? Will I regain full functionality? How will I be able to tell when it is done hurting from the injury and back to normal pain? Is it a bad thing that I can’t distinguish the two pains anymore? I have good reason to be scared and worried about these things – they’ve happened before!

To my surprise, the physical therapist I saw was well informed about my condition and listened carefully as I explained what I was experiencing. After our conversation, he said two important things. First, he said, “I believe you. This is real” and then he said, “It will stop hurting”.  I didn’t expect to hear either of those statements from him.  Especially because “a huge burden for patients with chronic pain and fatigue is not being believed.” That was the first time I felt validated by a medical professional regarding my RSD as an adult. I didn’t have to explain myself or justify my pain. Hearing that simple phrase “I believe you” was so important. For me, that phrase allowed me to reciprocate (in my head of course) with, “I trust you”.

It was a hopeful, positive moment in a span of two incredibly lonely weeks. Since my injury, I’ve been completely unable to do many of my normal activities. I am stuck in my head and in the pain. I’m recognizing and rationalizing my pain constantly. I want to scream all day long. I feel like this is all my fault. I always feel like I’m making it up or making it worse than it really is. In that way, I feel like I can’t trust myself or my perception of my injury.  It’s exhausting to second guess myself and negate my own feelings while coping with a legitimate, real injury.

I’m also sulking about not being able to run. My Pinterest searches for running quotes have skyrocketed! I miss it! I cannot explain the desire, need, to move and be active. I’m scared that I will lose my ability to run if I don’t maintain it! I truly am worried if I won’t be able to start again now that I’ve stopped.  I’m also scared to be active because I am anticipating the pain. In the past, I’ve known it will hurt and learned how to be successful in my daily life and activities, but this new pain feels different. I am angry and I miss feeling like me and feel like nobody wants to hear about it, everyone wants to tell me it’ll be okay, and they wouldn’t understand even if I tried to explain.

Coincidentally, I recently had another differently reaffirming experience recently related to RSD. Two years ago, I was a mentor for a program for teens with chronic physical illnesses called TALC. The program teaches teens leadership and self-advocacy skills in relation to both their experiences living with chronic illness and the typical developmental trajectories of adolescents. My year as a mentor in this program was profoundly important for me. During that year, I was a graduate student and most of the time I felt like I was an impostor. I felt like I had little to offer in any contexts in which I was participating – except TALC. My involvement in TALC was important because I instantly had the feeling that I was in the right place. TALC has an inexplicable way of cultivating a feeling of belonging and like everyone is essential because of what they bring to the space.

I recently visited TALC and almost immediately upon my arrival the feeling of warmth and connection I loved about being a TALC mentor was reinvigorated. I even had the opportunity to meet a new mentor who shares my diagnosis. It’s really remarkable when I meet people with RSD! Overwhelmingly my experience in TALC could be described as a feeling of understanding and belonging. Sometimes, my connection felt like a tepid “we’re in this together” rather than a fervent “I get it”. However, when I met this mentor and shared about my diagnosis, she was beaming! I am the first person she’s met who shares her diagnosis. I can guarantee, there’s a different kind of reassurance and intimacy that emanates from empathy. It’s been a long time since I haven’t felt lonely and have felt seen with my diagnosis. Feeling totally vulnerable but not scared or exposed was an unexpected, welcomed feeling for me!

I used to think that being believed was enough. I used to hope for more moments where I didn’t have to explain myself or field questioning looks when I shared about my condition. I used to not share my actual diagnosis because I was sure it wasn’t serious enough or believable enough. I know there are people whose struggle is more difficult than mine and whose diagnosis is easier to understand (read: believe) or more serious than mine. Because of this, I didn’t always see the value of disclosing my condition. When I did, I did so because I had to share this information with a medical provider or because I felt very safe and like I could trust the person. Even in TALC, although I could relate well to the teens’ experience I didn’t often share my diagnosis because it felt trivial and insignificant.

Yet, from these two experiences, I learned that folks with RSD need both “I believe you” and “I get it”.  I know now that being believed is absolutely important, but being understood is even more vital! That type of genuine understanding is something I typically only get from my RSD Sisters. I have been so focused on being believed and explaining myself to the world that until I saw what understanding looked like reflected back at me, I forgot it’s critical value. We need to be supported by our friends, families, and medical providers, and we also need to be connected to each other in ways that elevate our successes and potential to thrive despite our pain. We need people who both understand and believe us without lengthy explanations, and know that our individual experiences are personal and unique.

Is your experience limited to “I believe you” and lacking “I get it”? If so, let’s connect because we need both!

How to Apply To PhD Programs When You Have OCD

I realized I want to be a researcher years ago. Unsurprisingly, on the day of my college graduation, my good friends joked that I’d probably end up marrying my PhD. I protested adamantly! As time would tell, my lack of “real world” experience and my good friend “impostor syndrome” would keep me from pursuing my ambitions to apply to PhD programs. Until now.

That’s to say, I spent the better part of $5000 and the last 6-months entrenched in the process of applying to doctoral programs. Contrary to common perception, good grades and recommendation letters aren’t the top secrets to getting accepted to PhD programs. I can assure you, the process is much more complicated than that! It involves networking, self-awareness, prerequisite courses, tests, patience, and applications! If you can do all that and live to tell about it, you’re ready!

I’ve heard that the hardest part of a PhD program is getting in. While I cannot attest to this fact because I’ve yet to be accepted or start a program, I can concur that this process was grueling, exhausting, and anxiety provoking. For me, this entire process was exacerbated because I have OCD. I didn’t wake up one day and just simply know how to apply to PhD programs and even though I had a basic roadmap and some scraps of details from friends and colleagues, my anxiety made it difficult for me to be in this process.

Here’s how to apply to PhD programs when you have OCD:

Related, Relevant, Program-specific Research

First, read EVERYTHING you can about ALL the possible programs. Record the data meticulously in a spreadsheet with several columns for all the possible variables and information that may be relevant such as funding and research opportunities, potential advisors, and application requirements. I mean it, scour the program websites for the requirements, faculty interests, and the specific language they use to describe their program. Generally, this type of scrupulous research is encouraged; however, if you have OCD I recommend rereading the sites an unnecessary amount of times to make sure you didn’t miss anything crucial to the admissions process – be absolutely sure they don’t require a writing sample!


As you’re reading consult your ever-present, always rational friend “impostor syndrome” at regular intervals. It’s their job to talk you in and out of this decision to apply. Their influence will have a pendulum effect. If you wait long enough or engage in a stimulating conversation where someone asks incredibly thoughtful questions about your research interests and aspirations your motivation will swing back the other way. Make sure to repeat this process dozens of times and continually refine your “final list” up until the week before you apply to programs.


When you’re pretty sure that you’re applying to at least one school, start to stress about asking for letters of recommendations. Be sure to wonder if you’re inconveniencing your mentors/professors by asking them to advocate on your behalf and on behalf of your qualifications. If they say yes, be sure to wonder, a lot, about if they actually think you’re qualified and should pursue doctoral studies or if they’re just saying yes to humor you. Recommendation letters are crucial to your applications! By this I mean, scrutinize about whom you ask to write recommendations for which programs. If you know folks who are alumni of the program, snag them! Make sure to vary the people who are writing you recommendations so you have the best representation of institutions and experience. Play the game wisely! And, it absolutely is a game!

As the deadline approaches carefully finesse reminder emails as specific intervals (2 weeks, 1 week, 1 day, etc.) that you’re too afraid to send because you don’t want to badger them or be a burden. Reread, duh, the reminder emails several times for typos and ways to seem less annoying and needy. Then, hastily press send when you’re “ready” so it’s just over and done with. After you’ve sent the emails, reread them in the “sent” folder even though you know there’s nothing you can do about any typos or alternative ways to phrase certain sentences since it has already been sent.

Later in the process, panic, but try to play it cool, when you don’t hear anything from them after these several reminder emails and points of contact. Wonder only irrational things about why they still haven’t submitted your letters at 10 PM THE DAY THEY’RE DUE. It’s probably best if you wonder if they’re purposely holding out on submitting them to seriously screw with you and try to cause you major anxiety. Also consider that they’re doing you a favor by submitting them late and this is their way of gently bringing you down from your delusion that you deserve to be in a PhD program. You should convince yourself that their subtle sabotage is actually doing you a huge favor and sparing you the humiliation of rejection from these programs when the admissions committees realize you’re not qualified. Don’t forget to worry if something seriously bad happened to them that made them unable to submit your letters on time. Since you’re definitely not high up on their priority list, if something serious happened you would probably never find out. Subsequently, you should worry about how you’ll explain your request for an extension to the programs if you need to find someone else to write you a letter because of such an emergency or dire situation.  Panic in this circular and entirely irrational way until they submit them ON TIME. Then, thank them profusely and never, ever mention that their near lateness caused you an absurd amount of unnecessary anxiety.



As your list of schools to which you are planning to apply grows (or narrows), start playing the networking game. It goes something like this, “Hey [professor you know] who do you/we know at [name of school] that you could put me in touch with?” If they know anyone ask for a virtual introduction and support to set up a meeting.  You can also muster up the confidence to send some cold-emails and try not to fret about their severely delayed responses. It probably means they’re convinced, accurately so, that they shouldn’t waste their time talking to you. If they reply, schedule a meeting anyway.

Applying to PhD programs is way more about who you know not what you know. Make sure that at least one (okay maybe four) faculty members in the program/department know your name and that you’re interested in applying. Before each informational interview, obsess over your resume formatting (even if the PDF file hasn’t been modified) and qualifications for at least three hours. Be sure to also obsess over the questions you’re going to ask about the program (even if you already have a list of questions with the ones you want to prioritize marked by *). Again, consult “impostor syndrome” to remind yourself that you need to convince them, and eventually an entire admissions committee, that you’re worth their time and investment. Psych yourself out entirely until just before your call/meeting. Then, turn the positive self-talk on hyper drive to attempt to forcefully convince yourself of your credibility and eligibility before you start the call. Attempt to be cool, calm, and collected and ignore the secondary conversation that’s going on in the back of your mind. You’ll have time to ruminate on what/how/why you said whatever you said for hours later. So, set aside several hours of time that you’re supposed to be very productive to ruminate and convince yourself the informational, networking meeting went well (or probably didn’t). You’ll need at least four hours.

Personal Statement

In the meantime, expect to write at least 25 drafts (if you include every draft you changed a single punctuation mark) of your personal statement. Forget about calling it a “statement of purpose”. You know you have no “purpose” pursuing a PhD Send it to everyone you know, trust, or even just sort of like to request their feedback. Because you don’t trust yourself or your writing qualifications (even though you’re a paid freelance writer at several reputable sites), attempt to incorporate everyone’s feedback in some way. Do this because you know their intuition is better than yours. Make sure to doubt yourself during the entire process. If you forget to doubt yourself, check back in with “impostor syndrome” to see if they think you’ve convinced anyone of your credibility or qualifications yet. Resolve to believe that you probably never will.

As you get closer toward the deadline, expect to be useless for all tasks except rereading your personal statement. Expect to read it on a word doc, then save it as a PDF, find a single error, go back to the word doc to correct the mistake, resave as a PDF, and start rereading from the beginning. Do this anywhere from once an hour to seven hours straight. You can try setting limits on the amount of time you can spend or the number of times you can read it aloud or resave as a PDF, but just know you won’t be done until you can recite your statement verbatim. Depending on the number of programs you’re applying to, this process can be very rigorous, exhausting, and time-consuming. Your compulsions will absolutely get the best of you and even if you’re aware it’s happening, you won’t be able to stop.

“The Portal”

Check “the portal” (i.e., the online platform where you submit your application) constantly. Make sure that your submissions on “the portal” align with your progress checking on the aforementioned spreadsheet and myriad of lists you’ve generated to keep you on track. When you’re in the application process, check that your “required uploads” are still uploaded and legible every time you log in. Read and reread your address and name each time upon logging in until the letters are blurry and you have to articulate each letter individually to be sure you spelled “Gmail” correctly. Do this from the beginning, every single time you log in. Once you’ve “submitted” (CONGRATS!) constantly check that everything is “complete”. Review that all your uploads are there in “the portal” and everything that’s required was submitted. For a few days after, be sure to keep checking that the status still says “submitted”. You know there won’t be any decision overnight, but this is to be sure you actually applied and didn’t skip that critical final step by accident.

Oh! Here’s the most important thing of all!

Talk about your applications, hopes, and dreams incessantly. I mean it – nonstop! If it’s the only thing you can think about, make sure everyone in your life knows that. Of course, be sure to follow up your statements about your aspirations with an ample dose of self-deprecating talk. It’s definitely useful to discredit yourself and all the things you shared about the process with something like, “but I probably won’t get in.” That way you don’t seem too pretentious or confident. Confidence isn’t a good look. Make sure to worry, often, about if you seem too confident. If you do, consult “impostor syndrome”.

Got it? Good!


So, you’ve applied and you’ve made it look easy to everyone around you! Congrats! You fooled them again. Everyone thought you totally had this under control even though your mind felt like a frenzied, chaotic place and you felt like you were going to implode.  Then you realize, this grueling process is only the beginning! You realize you’re willingly signing up for 4+ years to this internal struggle. You’re exhausted, but also feeling energized by all the possibilities (and probably anxiety)!

In all seriousness, this was an incredibly challenging process for me because of my OCD. I can poke fun, and in hindsight, some of this is really quite quirky and laughable, but it was also very difficult and overwhelming.  The good news is, my applications have been submitted! Now, I wait…