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!

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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.

Recommendations

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.

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Networking

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!

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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…

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I didn’t run for a week and here’s what happened…

Being a runner and having an injury is the worst! An injured runner is someone you don’t want to cross. Injured runners are even scarier than runners who have a case of the “taper crazies”.  Anyway, my most recent taper week was challenging to say the least. There was even a point where I crumbled to the floor in my apartment and whined about how badly I wanted it to be race day (pathetic I know!).

In the end, my taper went as well as expected and I was pumped for my race. I did pretty well too (within 5 minutes of my goal time!) especially considering I got injured in mile 6.  After my race, I was in a lot of pain, and when I saw the doctor her diagnosis of my injury was a right LCL sprain. The prescription – no running for at least 2 weeks. I was supposed to “rest”. I actually cried after I left.

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Runners HATE not running! In fact, before this week, I hadn’t taken more than 3 days off of running in over a year. For me, running is just about as productive and useful as therapy. I need it. It’s a part of who I am. I am a runner.

So, naturally, I’ve been a little out of sorts for the past week. Because, instead of pushing my body beyond its limits, I actually didn’t run for a week. I am training for a marathon and want to be healthy for my race. So, I followed the doctor’s orders, and I’m craving running so badly I want to scream! Is it possible to be addicted to running?

Anyway, here’s what happened when I didn’t run for a week:

Monday: While icing my knee at work, I bought the Brooks thermal running jacket I’ve been eyeing. I knew I couldn’t use it for a few weeks, but all I could think about was running so I broke down and bought it! After work, I went for coffee and then I came home and played games, drank wine, and ordered sushi with my roommates. I had hours before I had to go to bed! My first night off I socialized.

Tuesday: I came home and called a friend. Then, I cooked dinner – roasted veggies and chicken to be specific. I ate dinner at the table while gossiping with my roommates. Then, I poured a glass of wine and watched Grey’s Anatomy. Spoiler: I’ve watched three seasons of Grey’s Anatomy in the past week.

Wednesday: I went to the nail salon after work. I spent a few hours listening to music and relaxing at the salon. Then I came home and ate dinner. Next, I went out to work on a song I’m writing with a friend. I stayed out late because the next day was a holiday and since I am injured there no Turkey Trot for me (cries!)!

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Thursday: Thanksgiving! I woke up late and got dressed to go back to my hometown. I enjoyed my favorite Thanksgiving tradition – High School Football! After an afternoon of relaxing, we had a nice family dinner. I didn’t overeat to prep for a long run over the weekend, I didn’t overeat because I “earned” it during my Turkey Trot, and, importantly, I didn’t undereat because I didn’t run. Then, we went shopping until 2 AM! I didn’t have to worry about getting home or to bed to run the next day.

Friday: More shopping, napping, wine drinking, and Grey’s Anatomy watching. I browsed Amazon for deals on running gear and ultimately bought myself a new running watch. I cannot wait to hit the road again and try it out!

Saturday: I woke up early and did laundry! Surprisingly I had less laundry than normal (duh!) so I even had the time and patience to wash my sheets and sneakers! I made coffee and breakfast at a leisurely pace and, of course, watched Grey’s Anatomy. Later I had a long lunch with a friend and went to the movies. Saturday was the hardest because it is normally my long run day. In Boston, it was 55 degrees in the afternoon and I spent it inside! I was so angry and agitated. It felt like the smallest comment could set me off into a spiral of never-ending anger. On the flip side, it was nice to spend time with my friend and get important “adult” things done.

Sunday: I woke up early (again) and made some coffee. I walked to Whole Foods to buy ingredients to make brunch. It was nice to go for a walk! Putting on my sneakers gave me a little jolt of energy. When I came home, I made two quiches – broccoli cheddar and spinach, tomato, and mozzarella. After brunch, I worked on finalizing my applications for graduate school. I took a short nap in the middle and then worked on this blog post. Soon, I’ll be off to rehearsal for my a capella group!

Tomorrow will be Monday again and officially one week of no running. I am both proud of the strength I exhibited to take care of myself and incredibly anxious to lace up my shoes and get back on the road. Tomorrow after work though I’ve planned to have dinner with a friend from college and do some PiYo or yoga. That will keep me busy!

Not running for a week was difficult! I worried about a lot of things. I was afraid I’d lose my speed and endurance. I was fearful that I’d gain weight (thanks, social media holiday posts!). I ruminated about how I could possibly be so hungry even though I wasn’t working out. Subsequently, I fretted about if and what I should eat since I wasn’t running. I felt disappointed when I picked holiday sweets and also felt like I was losing momentum on all my nutrition goals. I was so mad, and I was angry about being so irritated. Truthfully, there were days where it felt like rage was radiating from inside me and that I was going to be stuck in anger forever because my only outlet for my anger was running. And, I didn’t understand why I was so tired! I suspect the persistent worrying and anxiety was part of the culprit! So, although I had a full, engaging week I was actually a mess.

Yet, I survived and nothing that terrible happened. Needless to say, this week has had a lot of ups and downs. Unsurprisingly when I wasn’t allocating time for running I had time to see friends, relax a bit, catch up on my shows, finalize my applications, get my nails done, do laundry, and cook nutritious meals! That’s a lot!

Even so, I missed running every day. I snapped at people who told me “you’re fine” or “don’t worry”. I felt jealous when people sent me ‘Snaps’ of their running adventures. I felt like an impostor because I didn’t do a Turkey Trot or take advantage of the unseasonably warm weekend weather. I spent hundreds of dollars on running gear because all I could think of was running. I convinced myself that my passion justified the expenses. The good news is, soon I’ll be back at it, and I’ll pick up where I left off with marathon training!

Speaking of which, I am currently a mentor with an organization called Dreamfar High School Marathon. Dreamfar High School Marathon challenges high school students to reach their full potential—physically, socially, emotionally, and academically—through a mentor-supported marathon-training program. Dreamfar offers students a judgment-free, non-competitive environment in which they can test their physical, social, and emotional limits. With incredible team unity, unyielding support from dedicated mentors, and unequaled amounts of fun, Dreamfar students learn to believe in themselves, forging a lifetime memory that lives on in their attitudes, actions, and self-image forever. Dreamfar reaches out to every student in a given school because we truly believe the mix of students from across different cultural, academic and socio-economic lines coming together to accomplish one goal creates a very special and rich experience for all involved.

I didn’t run this week, but I’ll be back logging miles and pounding pavement soon enough. If you’re able to support my running journey and the Dreamfar program, please click here to donate!

See you on the road!

What’s Cooking?

“What’s cooking?” Get it? It’s a pun!

As a general rule, I don’t cook. I don’t cook unless I’m preparing a meal for someone or someone else is cooking and I’m watching (usually drinking wine!). In fact, me cooking is such an anomaly that when I do cook, my roommates are genuinely surprised.

However, I recently had a breakthrough! I realized that my go-to, everyday foods (read: safe foods) are all cold (i.e., things I don’t have to “cook”). Well, coffee is hot, but that’s an exception. If I could have it my way, I’d eat the same, cold food every day. I don’t like to think about food and I don’t like to deviate from my routine! I’m working on changing that.

My breakthrough was timely because it’s getting cold out and warm food is (apparently) satisfying and seasonally relevant! In fact, in Melissa A. Fabello‘s recent Beauty School newsletter, she reminded us that in the winter our bodies crave heavier, warmer, and calorie dense foods. All this is great, but what did that mean for me?

This week, I set a nutrition goal that was way out of my comfort zone. I set a goal to have chili as a planned dinner meal to rotate in with my usual tuna wrap and veggies.

Easy right? Wrong!

Before I could make chili, there were several things that needed to happen. Primarily, I needed to find a recipe and gather the ingredients. I decided that Using a Crock-Pot seemed like a good idea because once the ingredients are in the slow cooker there’s not much maintenance. I did a Google search for “easy vegetarian Crock-Pot chili” and after a bit of scouring through recipes, I found a recipe that seemed possible for me.

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The Truth About A Spoonie Surge

I’m flying!

For the past four days I’ve felt practically excellent! I ran farther and faster than I’m used to, my pain is tolerable, I feel nourished and well rested, and my anxiety is relatively quiet!

Today, someone asked me how I was doing. I excitedly said, “I’m good!”

They looked shocked. My typical response is “Okay [sigh]” or “I’m good, but tired.” So, they asked me, “What’s going on?” I replied that I’m just good and followed with, “it must be a surge”.

A surge for me is when everything falls into place. I am catapulted up just a bit higher than usual. My disposition is literally sunny and optimistic. I basically feel unstoppable, and I do ALL the things. I’m super productive, high energy, attentive, and efficient. I’m like a bolt of electricity [yep – I went there!].

I don’t usually wonder why a surge happens, – it could be the weather, a good conversation, a restful night’s sleep – but especially after a few days I always worry about when it’s going to end, and how hard the crash will be.

You see, if I ride a surge for too long, there are consequences.tumblr_nskfoej3891qzbifxo2_r1_500

Usually these consequences are the result of me pushing my body too far. When things feel good, I feel like I could literally burst through a brick wall without even a scrape or a bruise. I almost always challenge myself too much on good days. I almost always forget to respect my body’s limitations and needs. It always feels good in the moment – I like to feel invincible.

At certain turning point, usually at the climax and right before I start my descent toward an inevitable crash, the idea of how badly my actions are going to hurt comes into my cognitive awareness. A mental space once occupied by the joy of feeling light and energized turns to a cyclical sludge-like head fog. My anticipation of the “crash” [which sounds something like, “It’s going to be so bad I’m going to have to call out of work. Ugh. Whatever. It’s not going to be that bad; I’ll just power through and be “fine”. I’m always fine.” on a loop] is almost always an accurate prediction of how badly I’m actually going to feel. It usually feels like a Mac truck ran over me – twice. That’s how I often describe how much it hurts when I finally find the ground again.

I can get caught in the trap of a good day, overdo it, and tumble dramatically into a “typical” day or even a flare pretty easily if I’m not careful.

After a while, my mind starts to play its own twisted version of self-sabotage. It plays a game of second guessing and trying to precisely identify when the tides will change and the calm will become the storm. During these moments, I think things like, “do I feel as good as I think I feel?”, “This is the peak; it’s all downhill from here.”, or even “I don’t deserve to feel this good.”

When you’re a spoonie, you have to simultaneously think, “how can something that feels so thrilling also be foreshadowing something so bad?”, “I can’t fully enjoy this because I’ll pay for it later”, and, “I can’t just sit around impatiently waiting for the pain to come back. I need to capitalize on this opportunity and do all the things because I feel so good!” Sometimes on a good day I don’t even remember those seemingly interminable stretches of pain – the ones I thought would never end. Other times, I’m sure the good day won’t last, but also I definitely don’t want to be miserable.

I’m not asking for my pain to come back! I’m just sure that it will.

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How do I reconcile the ping-pong-like thoughts in my mind?  It is literally mind boggling.

If left unaddressed, these thoughts can spark some anxiety. Anxiety sparks a need for control. A need for control sparks compulsions. Compulsions, right now, look like increased exercise and attention to food. Increased exercise and attention to food result in exhaustion and pain. Exhaustion and pain cause a need for more sleep. Sleeping while anxious and in pain is an incredible challenge. Which, ultimately means that I’ll be perpetually anxious and exhausted, and possibly risk a flare up until the next time I catch a surge. Which could be weeks or months, and that ambiguity, that yearning, causes me more anxiety.

But, in the meantime, I’m going to soar for as long as I can! Today I feel good! We’ll see what tomorrow brings!

 

 

#ThisIsWhatAnxietyFeelsLike and The Power of Knowing I’m Not Alone

At their core, people want to belong and feel purposeful. We crave connections with each other — to something larger than ourselves.  

In the age of social media, Twitter and blogging often welcome that type of intimacy. I frequently find that my online friends “get it”. I don’t have to explain myself when I tweet about chronic pain or feeling like a Mac Truck ran over me. I don’t have to justify my spinning thoughts even though I feel crazed and like it’s not normal. Often, I recognize my values and my identities reflected in the topics other people are writing about or the pithy remarks they’re Tweeting. These connections exemplify for me how to elevate and insert my voice into important conversations. It makes me feel less alone and gives me some justification for how necessary my (and others’) writing is!

For the sake of connection, finding #ThisIsWhatAnxietyFeelsLike was so important to me. I follow the creator, Sarah Fader, on Twitter, and for the better part of a year our lived experiences of chronic pain and anxiety have converged via the Twitter sphere. For me, reading these Tweets all weekend was incredibly empowering and also very overwhelming.

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For the most part, talking about anxiety, real anxiety, is taboo. I often talk about my worries, and what causes me stress, but the real crippling everyday feelings that occupy my life and mind, such as the heavy feeling of ambiguity, the frenetic feeling associated with not having a plan, or my obsession with time that makes me fear being late, are almost always off limits. By not talking about these anxieties and my feelings, and consequently devoting painstaking effort to appear put together, I’m bolstering the facade and mindset that minimizes and stigmatizes mental illness. If we all devote more energy to talking about anxiety, we can find solace in the well-deserved feeling of relief we experience when we learn that we’re not alone in life’s expeditions.

The hashtag #ThisIsWhatAnxietyFeelslike took my Twitter by storm this weekend. It was second only, possibly, to the Grammys! While at first, the possibility of contributing to this hashtag felt crusting to me, after a while I found that even just reading the Tweets was really reassuring! I could relate to folks’ feelings of inferiority in relationships and accomplishments, the overwhelming uncertainty and dread about sending text messages and emails, the fear that I’m overreacting or imagining how bad something really is, and the constant sensation that my mind is playing tricks on me.

I didn’t tweet anything using the hashtag #ThisIsWhatAnxietyFeelsLike for several days. I wasn’t sure how to put my thoughts into 133 characters or less. Actually, the task itself gave me anxiety! At times, reading the posts made me feel like I couldn’t breathe. Except I also felt moments of relief and sincere connection. The subsequent intimacy and connection to others that I gained by reading people’s responses and realizing that I’m not alone is no more dangerous than avoiding my feelings and experiencing my story in isolation.

I’m ready to write now; the words are spilling out of me!

This Is What My Anxiety Feels Like

It feels like the sense of  invincibility that comes from attempting to do it all and simultaneously avoid whatever is actually pending and important. It feels like unstoppable energy, and confidence that accrues from the electric feeling in my fingers and toes when I’m fueled solely by caffeine and adrenaline — it’s like possibility and efficiency are bubbling out of me! It feels like yearning for the sense of pride that is practically palpable from  beating the odds, or defying the expectations. It feels like feeling normal is temporary and maintaining that buzz requires believing I’m in control when I’m absolutely out of control. It feels like every time things feel actually fine, that feeling quickly diminishes and is replaced by intense, immobilizing sadness and isolation. It’s like in moments where I feel like I’ve “found me” I too quickly remind myself that this won’t last long. Usually this feeling lasts just about as long as it takes to take a deep, satisfying breath and recognize that for a moment I can breathe again. That realization makes even a glimpse seem like I’m watching someone else’s life from the sidelines. Anxiety makes me feel like an observer in my own life.

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Control

At its core, my anxiety is all about control. Perhaps it’s because I can recall so many times when I didn’t get to be in control of my life [read: abuse & chronic pain – although I can’t get into that right now]. I always fight my environment and circumstances to feel in control; it’s comforting, reliable, and trustworthy – except not really. It’s actually so deceptive. It’s a made up, abstract concept. Control reveals it’s malicious self when I’m not looking. When I feel like everything is finally manageable, the perception of control laughs in my face, and shows me how wrong I actually am [read: every excuse I ever had about compulsive exercise and not being hungry – more on that soon]. Control is a falsity. It’s a mirage. And, since I’m compulsive I literally get trapped in a vicious cycle of catching and chasing control. Since as early as I can recall needing control, I can identify how almost all of my attempts to ascertain control were various forms of self-harm. Most recently, it looks like excessive exercise and compensatory, disordered eating behaviors. Craving control isn’t glamorous, and any threat to that poses a likelihood for a compulsion to kick in – a false sense of manufactured control.

Overthinking

My axiety makes me feel like I can’t stop. I keep myself busy to avoid attending to the spinning thoughts in my head. I’m always thinking so quickly, so often, so intensely. It’s hectic, more appropriately chaotic, It’s also exhausting. Mostly though, it’s really really really overwhelming.

Sometimes it feels like I’m in a room and the walls are all my thoughts. If I could find some way out, a way to break down the walls, a way to push past the barriers that are my thoughts, I’d escape into fresh, crisp air. I’d be able to breathe again.

I’m just thinking too much about everything! I spend too much time reconsidering a conversation with a friend, trying to decide when to send a text so it won’t interrupt people, rereading sent emails for typos and potential misinterpretations that cannot be rectified anyway, worrying that what I submit is barley good enough (that I can only fool people for so long – so therefore rereading and questioning myself until I make myself literally sick), observing and responding to my perceptions of social dynamics, I could go on and on (clearly)!

I want to slow down. I want to pull up on the breaks and tell my head “STOP”. I grapple constantly with this paradox, when I’m not working (and I’m doing something for me) my mind is spinning thinking about all the things I need to be doing.  And then I start thinking faster, allocating every minute and attempting to convince myself it will be okay. It feels like a frenzy, like if I don’t harness my thoughts I won’t be able to turn off the anxiety. Conversely, when I start working I can’t even focus on what I’m working on because I’m thinking about a million, minimally important, other things.  

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I Need Air

My anxiety is like when you’re swimming. It’s like that precise moment right before you come up for air. The anticipation of a deep breath is quickly quenched by a satisfying inhale. However, if this action is repeated, for example if I were to quickly dart back under the water, then the repetition of anticipation and ascertainment may be associated with a feeling of never getting enough of what you need or incessant wanting. So, the gasp of air may be nearly enough to sustain your stroke and stamina but not to fully satisfy your desire. 

My anxiety is fueled by an insatiable want for full, deep, satisfying breath of air! And, as I relentlessly seek out this feeling of serenity I’m coming up against tall, sturdy walls of abruptness and urgency instead

Truth Time

Life is full of messy, uncomfortable, painful moments. And most of the time, we’re totally unprepared for how “real” life is about to get. It sneaks up on us, and then avoidance becomes our best alibi. Most of us are more comfortable staying a safe distance away from ourselves and our feelings – it’s easier than doing the work of reuniting our actions, intentions, and feelings. However, in those difficult moments we must practice balancing the opposing feelings of being fully present and running away. That’s scary! Yet, those are the moments in which we grow. We grow when we lean in to moments of discomfort and vulnerability. The anticipation is bound to be terrifying and reason enough to avoid disclosure at all costs, but in the end it may be relieving.

Feeling so deeply, being present in a place of hurt or pain, and embracing your own truth can leave you breathless. It’s brave. You may even find solace in sharing your story and discovering the power of knowing you’re not alone!

Want to participate? Tweet using the hashtag #ThisIsWhatAnxietyFeelsLike or follow Sarah Fader on Twitter to see what others are saying!

45 Thoughts I had in a 45 Minute Spin Class

Oh wow! The words are flying out from under my fingers faster than I can process them. Which, is kinda like how fast my brain was whirring during my spin class tonight. Honestly endorphins and anxiety can do some kickin’ things in my head!

So, here are 45 thoughts I had in a 45 minute spin class.

  1. Okay play it cool. Just walk in and pick a bike – I got this. 
  2. How the heck does this thing work? [tugging, pulling, and pushing buttons and knobs to adjust the bike settings] Everyone is probably looking at me.
  3. Instructor: “Is anyone new?”[timid hand raise] Me: Keep playing it cool. Just nod and say things like awesome and cool. 
  4. Instructor: “Be kind to yourself tonight” Me: Right on. Okay. This could be okay. I can handle a bit of self-care.
  5. I love this music. Maybe I’ll add it to my running playlist.
  6. This is gonna be such great cross training!
  7. I definitely don’t belong here. What was I thinking?!  I’m a huge impostor.
  8. Am I even doing this right?
  9. I look like a fool.
  10. Why is this bike moving so fast? My legs feel out of control. Oh, my legs feel like Jello. I’m definitely doing this wrong. 
  11. [Looks around the room] WOAH all these girls are so skinny.
  12. [Looks in the mirror] I’m probably the fattest girl in this class.
  13. They probably all think I’m too fat to be here.
  14. Everyone in Boston is so FIT. What’s with all these fit people? It must be a city thing.
  15. Hey wait. I run half marathons. I can handle a 45 minute spin class.
  16. This shirt is too big. It puffs in all the wrong places. It makes me look bigger than really I am. 
  17. Okay just don’t look in the mirror.
  18. Wow why am I so conceded that I can’t stop looking at myself in the mirror?
  19. Why aren’t other people sweating? 
  20. [Looks around the room – again] Oh there are people who are struggling WAY more than me. 
  21. I got this. 
  22. Just keep breathing. 
  23. This music is great. Okay, just focus on the music. 
  24. Is it weird that I’m singing along to Katy Perry Eye of the Tiger?
  25.  Why isn’t there a clock in this room? Where is the clock?!?! How many minutes has it been?
  26. What the heck is a moderate hill anyway? My thighs hurt more or less – that’s my measure of resistance.
  27. I cant believe all these people are so skinny. 
  28. I wonder if they think I shouldn’t be here. 
  29. I bet you they aren’t thinking about me at all. 
  30. Okay just count the beats. Be present. 
  31. How many calories am I burning?
  32. Oh, these bikes don’t have any tracking devices! How many miles did I go? How am I supposed to track this in my app later?
  33. Why are my thighs so huge? 
  34. I said, I wouldn’t look in the mirror!
  35. Wow only three more songs left. That wasn’t so bad! 
  36. I totally got this. 
  37. Make this count. I’m skipping my run for this. 
  38. How is this song not over yet?
  39. I wonder if Grey’s Anatomy is going to be good. 
  40. NO! FOCUS!
  41. How did I not realize that whenever I lean forward the instructor can see down my entire shirt?! 
  42. At least I’m wearing a matching sports bra.
  43. If I have a snack when I get home will I ruin my workout? 
  44. Almost there. Don’t give up. Power through. 
  45. Made it. Phew! That wasn’t so bad. I’d do that again!

How Do You Measure a Year?

Content Warning: disordered eating, excessive exercise, and self-harm


I’ve been working on this post since December 30, 2016. It’s time to share this aspect of my story even if it’s making me shake as I write. There will be more time to unpack and reorganize my thoughts later. The beauty is in the imperfections. The beauty is in naming my lived experience even if I’m scared. Thank you for reading.


2016 was a remarkable year – literally.

As I was reflecting, I realized that for someone who isn’t very good at math, I did a whole lot of mental gymnastics and complex calculations in 2016. I measured nearly everything – even when I didn’t realize I was doing it.

So, in that spirit, to reflect on 2016, I’m asking, “how do you measure a year?

Really though, what’s going to make a difference when you look back? What matters for days, weeks, months later? What’s memorable enough? What’s quantifiable? What’s not quantifiable that’s still important?

I could measure 2016 by the number of Tweets I posted, the number of good things that happened, the number of bad things that happened, the number of times I didn’t feel guilty about the food I was eating, the number of amazing conversations I had, the number of trips to the ER, the number of friends I lost, the number of friends I gained, the number of pounds I lost, the number of miles I ran, the number of times I dropped everything because someone needed me, the number of dollars I spent on therapy, the number of hours I spent in therapy, the number of articles I wrote, the number of “accomplishments” I earned, the number of days I over-scheduled to occupy my mind for every single waking minute, the number of fights I had, the number of moments I actually felt present, the list could go on, and on, and on, and on.

The truth is, it’s a miracle I made it through this year, and I’m not sure how I did it. I was crazed and compulsive, and my brain NEVER shut off! I mean it. I woke up exhausted from how many ideas and conversations my brain entertained while I was “sleeping”.

Control

In 2016 I was out of control; even though the one thing I felt like I could count on was control.

Control for me is the ultimate goal. Perhaps it’s because I can recall so many times when I didn’t get to be in control of my life [read: abuse & chronic pain – although I can’t get into that right now]. I always fight my environment and circumstances to feel in control; it’s comforting, reliable, and trustworthy – except not really. It’s actually so deceptive. It’s a made up, abstract concept. Control reveals it’s malicious self when I’m not looking. When I feel like everything is finally manageable, the perception of control laughs in my face, and shows me how wrong I actually am [read: every excuse I ever had about compulsive exercise and not being hungry – more on that soon]. Control is a falsity. It’s a mirage. And, since I’m compulsive I literally get trapped in a vicious cycle of catching and chasing control. Striving for control manifested in a lot of ways for me in 2016. Since as early as I can recall needing control, I can identify how almost all of my attempts to ascertain control were various forms of self-harm.  Most recently, it looks like excessive exercise and compensatory, disordered eating behaviors. Craving control isn’t glamorous, and any threat to that poses a likelihood for a compulsion to kick in – a false sense of manufactured control.

Running

I started measuring 2016 by counting calories and miles – obsessively [Thank you Under Armour You Vs Year Challenge] . I ended the year the same way. I ended 2016 weighing myself twice a day, working out 6 days a week, eating one full meal a day, and purging when I felt too full or overwhelmed. I spent 2016 calculating how many miles I’d need to track to erase every indulgence, and every slip of self-control. I ended 2016 feeling “okay” if I ate the same thing every day, and being both proud and fearful every time I lost more weight. It was never about weight, size, or body image; it was always about control. I ended 2016 convinced that these behaviors were typical and not disordered.

In 2016 my identity was contingent on my accomplishments; my identity was consumed by how far I could push myself [read: attempting to run a half marathon while being malnourished and completing an intensive one year Master’s degree while working four jobs]. I tracked my the miles I ran (see below), and if you ask me I can tell you how my mileage totals correlates directly with the chaos in my life.  When I felt most out of control, I ran more. It was so simple.

capture

Side note: Melissa A. Fabello suggest it’s bests to “Never, Ever  Use Numbers” when talking about fitness on social media. While I tend to agree and realize it can be triggering, I’m using numbers right now. I’m using numbers to illustrate and own my experience. I’m using numbers as literal data to tell my story.

I once described my feelings about running like this,

 “pounding the pavement, counting each step, each throbbing step. Endure, push through, don’t stop. Determination.  Thud, pound, pound, breath, keep going, don’t stop, sigh, sigh…”

I’ve also described running like this,

“I started running because it was the most brutal, ruthless, clearest way, aside from being a competitive gymnast, I could think of to tell my chronic pain that it isn’t in charge. Running is how I’m reclaiming my body. When I’m running I’m in charge. I’m strong, powerful, and triumphant.

I channeled my mileage into training for two half marathons. The first race, I ended up in the hospital. I said I didn’t care, but I cared a lot! I was convinced I could push through anything but, my body had a different reality. If I was healthier, stronger, and had better intentions, I would have finished.There was a disconnect between my mind and my body. [Side note: There still is.]

So, the second time I trained for a half marathon, I trained smarter. I decided to think about food as fuel. The second time, I did finish! That was an accomplishment in 2016! In 2016 I  ran more than 1000K! I ran nearly the distance of 24 marathons, and with each crazed, obsessive step I gained clarity, pain, agony, energy, and strength – depending on the day.

20161113_103431_11165
At the finish line of the Cambridge Half Marathon  – 11/13/2016

I ended 2016 both in denial and with a plan to tackle these perfectionist driven behaviors, and dangerous habits. I ended 2016 with a plan to be stronger – both physically and mentally.

I should mention here that living with OCD and overcoming compulsions or obsessions is not a linear process. I’ve had several bouts of compulsions in my life, and even if I’ve resolved one, it’s likely another will reveal itself or I’ll relapse – this is super context dependent (I learned this in 2016). Acknowledging this is a really important step.

Education

In 2016 I graduated with my Master’s degree. Now I have two degrees – count that! I am among the nearly 9-12% (depending on the source) of people in the U.S. who hold an advanced degree. That’s pretty cool.

I also got a job! I love my job, and I love getting to say that I’m a researcher! My team is an amazing group of nerdy, collaborative, intelligent people. Each day my strengths are recognized. I’m trusted and respected. Our work is important. I feel productive and valuable. I feel empowered and supported. I’m appropriately challenged, and I’m always learning new skills. I feel happy at my job every day (even when it’s stressful)- that’s a relief. I am so lucky!

Many people have asked me if I think that graduate school was worth it especially because I love my job and learned so much, and most often my response is overpowered by  my own ambivalence. Usually I don’t even want to be entertaining such a question. However, if I’m being honest, I hated graduate school. I have been working through a lot of issues such as complex traumaimpostor syndrome, and anxiety because of it. I do not think that it was worth it. Merely surviving should never be the objective. Although, it’s always an accomplishment. As much as I try to convince myself it wasn’t “that bad” the more I listen to my friends and recall several of the worst nights of my life it’s tough to deny how severe it was. I wouldn’t say that struggling for a year, being suicidal at times, and acquiring an eating disorder as a result of my unrelenting OCD was worth it no matter how amazing my job is now. In 2016, I learned how academia doesn’t take mental health and self-care seriously, and that it’s too easy to pretend you’re “fine” even when you’re struggling immensely.

Writing

In 2016, I also found and joined feminist writing spaces. In first publication on Ravishly.com I came out as asexual. I recognized my values and my identities were reflected in the topics other people were writing about.  These writers and activists exemplified for me how to elevate and insert my voice into important conversations. My queerness is not the most prominent aspect of my identity, but being queer and owning it afforded me both a sense of connection and exclusion. The connectedness was electrifying. The exclusion made me feel enraged and small. And so, I wrote!

I was enamored with the connection and the energy! I became addicted to saying things, and having them matter to someone. I wanted to be seen, and to belong. I wanted people to recognize my identities, relate to me, and engage with me! My feminism burst out of me once I gained knowledge and started writing, and allowed myself the privilege of being recognized for and confident about who I am, and how my life works. In 2016, I became a writer, and found my voice – which I still think is really cool!

Awareness, Acceptance, and Action – Next Steps

I measured 2016 in events, logistics, and numbers. I allowed my emotions to be in charge when they made sense and they were manageable. Otherwise I silenced them. I convinced myself most feelings were too big, and too intrusive. I learned to retreat instead of express myself. In 2016 I mostly felt complacent – which felt good. Conversely, I often felt out-of-control happy, out-of-control sad, out-of-control angry… and those feelings didn’t feel good. I learned that numbness can be an everyday, acceptable feeling, and that being numb can carry you for a really long time.

I’m still doing the work to recognize, respond to, and feel – literally – what emotions feel like. Sometimes that means getting on a soap box ranting about how frustrated I feel when women at my office complain about the actual, never-ending supply of candy, and the perpetual body shaming and food shaming. Sometimes that means saying when someone hurts me, and calling them out even if it’s uncomfortable. And sometimes that means, recognizing when I’m happy, and sharing that joy with others!

The point is, once I started allowing myself to feel, I allowed my opinions to be valid, and spent time cultivating self-awareness – including learning about myself and my opinions about feminism. I realized there were so many injustices that made me absolutely livid inside, and I charged toward advocating for justice and equity. I also gained some personal insight into what emotions mean for me – which is definitely a work in progress.

I rounded out 2016 by signing a lease for an apartment in Cambridge, MA. I found a wonderful, accepting community of social justice minded, Jewish, young professionals to share Shabbat with. I am in love with the intellectual capital and the culture of Cambridge. I’ve enjoyed sharing the camaraderie of running in this compact city! When I’m feeling really good, I’ll even admit there are a lot of incredible restaurants to try too! I’m excited for the opportunity to thrive in a new, invigorating space.

I could measure 2016 SO many ways. I did measure 2016 SO many ways. Now, in hindsight, I’m finding it most helpful and fulfilling to measure 2016 by recognizing all the opportunities for growth and all the potential for the coming years. I’m happy. Really. I’ve got a good thing going for me right now, and I have an incredible amount of hard, hard work ahead of me.

2017 will be about embracing being simultaneously a masterpiece and a work in progress! I’m ready!


If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

If you struggle with self-harm, the you can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page. If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.