How I Survived Academia Part 3
Trigger Warning: Suicide
Please be advised that there is a trigger warning on this piece as it contains material about suicide which may be triggering to survivors or those who have been affected by suicide.
The truth is that I went to grad school because of my brother Philip. Sometime around freshman year of high school, I told him that I loved books and writing, and maybe I could be a writer and a teacher. For Philip, education was the answer to everything: “Go to grad school. Be a professor,” he told me, like it was that simple. But hey, the man made it to med school, so I figured it was probably best to listen to him. And thanks to some privilege, hard work, and luck, I found myself, years later, on the waitlist for the University of Texas' English Literature PhD program. (“Waitlist?” you might be asking yourself. Yeah dude, the waitlist. Turns out the waitlist is a pretty nice place to be when every other school you’ve applied to outright rejects you.)
"I know very few people who managed to make it through grad school without experiencing mental health issues, shame, and feelings of inadequacy..."
I’d be lying if I said I walked into grad school with even the slightest bit of confidence. Graduate school is hard for everyone. In fact, if I were in charge, all incoming grad students would get a welcome packet that includes pamphlets like “You Belong Here… Or Do You?: An Intro to Imposter Syndrome” and “Depression and Anxiety: Even Your Advisors Have It.” I know very few people who managed to make it through grad school without experiencing mental health issues, shame, and feelings of inadequacy—and those who didn’t experience these things were all probably white dudes with huge egos (but even then, I suspect that many of them were probably just suppressing all of it).
Of course, while grad school is a mindfuck for everyone, for some it’s a lot harder.
I was told from the beginning that I wouldn’t have made it off the waitlist had it not been for the fact that I’d received a Diversity Recruitment Fellowship, which is, as the name suggests, a fancy form of affirmative action. In many ways, I was a token—someone to fill the minority quota so that my PhD program could call itself "diverse". As a bonus, I’d also be there to help professors correctly pronounce Latinx names and serve as resident expert in all things Mexican American, from literature and history, to food and music. Olé, assholes. And it all came in the form of a light-skinned body who was just Latinx enough—not too much, not too little—for academia: "Mexi-light", if you will. I stood out enough so that white classmates could say things to me like “You’ve got good hair. Is it because of your Native ancestors?” or “You’re pretty in an unconventional way” or “Hey Yvette, do you know where to find the best puffy taco in town?” (real quotes here, y’all), but not so much that they’d actually have to fully deal with their racism.
In hindsight, I can see this as a “you need me just as much as I need you” sort of thing. As long as I stayed the course, played the game, everyone would benefit. I mean, Affirmative Action 101 tells us that, no shit, diversity improves the quality of education. My presence in this mostly white program would make things better for everyone, because I brought to the table a different kind of knowledge, one that came from growing up Latinx and from this place of often feeling like an outsider, of seeing shit that these other people never would, of having to work twice as hard. But back then, I didn’t understand this. At the time, I just felt like someone who wasn’t smart enough to make it there on merit alone. I was afraid that everyone would discover how dumb I really was, so I made it my goal to blend the fuck in. Dress like them. Talk like them. Make them believe you are just like them. Easy peasy, right?
In reality my colleagues were also pulling some fake-it-til-you-make-it shit, but theirs was on another level. I was among the supposedly smartest of the smart, where everyone was using jargon and name-dropping famous theorists like it was gonna get them into the VIP room of Club Ivory Tower. Meanwhile, I’d mispronounce words because I’d only ever read them in books and never actually heard them used out loud, in real life. I’d zone out in class, completely disassociating from my body as I looked down at myself and wondered what I was doing in a classroom full of white people talking about old white men while some of my family had never even finished high school, let alone stepped into the halls of a university. When I attempted to read the literary theory on the syllabus, I could barely make sense of it, so when class rolled around I sat there silent, praying that I wouldn’t be asked to contribute to the conversation when I had no idea what the fuck was going on. Look, man, I didn’t grow up in a household where my parents were dropping five dollar words. This shit was like learning a new language while pretending you already knew it. Once, a professor asked to speak to me after class:
“Yvette, I see that you’re clearly thinking about what’s going on, but you never say anything. Do you not like my class?”
My cheeks burned as I tried to come up with an answer.
“Um, no, I just… I’m not much of a talker.”
My fears about being less intelligent than everyone else were (seemingly) confirmed when I failed my first graduate seminar paper. My professor explained, “If I give you a grade for this essay, you will fail this class.” Let me tell you, failing a class in grad school isn’t a thing that happens. Hell, getting a B in a class isn’t really a thing that happens (Surprise! I got more than one B.). So when he told me this, I felt like everything I’d worried about was true: I didn’t belong here. I was dumb. When I told Philip about it, his words stayed with me and got me through the agonizing task of either learning to write to academia’s standards or facing the reality of not making it in the program: “If you’re gonna go down, go down swinging.” It would be the first of many fights I’d have to make to stay in the game.
When you suppress a bunch of shit like I'd been, you start to become unhinged.
This is exactly what happened by my third year in the PhD program. Between all the work it took to pretend like I was just a normal grad student who knew all the same cultural references as my academic counterparts, the work it took to pretend like I actually understood all the conversations that were going on, the work that it took to grapple with the fact that some of these people came from the kind of money that was passed down from generation to generation, the work it took to feel comfortable in my body knowing I was different, the work it took to remember that my parents loved me and cared about me but also couldn’t possibly understand my situation, and the actual fucking work it took to read and write and teach and be an academic, I was exhausted.
And because I told myself I didn’t have the time or energy to deal with my shit, because doing so meant I’d have to finally feel all the things I’d been shoving down in order to survive, I ran into the warm and comforting hands of self-destructive behaviors to soothe the pain, to stop my brain from going further and further down the spiral that ended with one thing: death. Which bad coping mechanism should I tell you about? Drinking too much? Pft, that’s an easy one. Yes, I drank too much. Way too much. When I moved into my own apartment, my thoughts seemed to echo in the silence of the tiny space I called home: “You’re not smart enough. You’ll never finish. You have nothing important to say. You can’t do this.” Luckily, I lived across the street from a gas station, which meant that a six pack and some Camels were only steps away. The crack of the can, the hiss of a lighter, and voilà, no more bad thoughts. Shit, I was delusional enough to call my behavior self-care. (There were other things, like toxic relationships, an inability to spend even a single night at home, starving myself, etc. etc., but I’ll tell you about that some other time. Gotta save some shit for the book, feel me?)
You know how life is a series of choices that we make, and each one comes with consequences? And how there are certain things that we can’t change, like the bodies into which we are born, but the thing we can do is try to make the best possible choices each day? Yeah, I don’t think I really understood this back then. But sometimes life goes and does this thing where it kicks you in the ass again and again and again until you get the fucking message. It almost feels like the universe is grabbing you by the shoulders, shaking the shit out of you, and screaming “Pay attention! Get it together! Make better choices!” Sometimes it’s a small sign, a feeling in your gut warning you that something’s off. But when you’ve become numb to the gut feelings, when you’ve done everything possible to silence them, the signs get bigger. In the span of about four months, the universe conspired to kick my ass so that I might pick a side: life or death. Here’s a quick rundown of that time:
- I had my heart broken for the first time when my then-boyfriend dumped me sometime around midnight the night before the Spring semester began. I had a class to teach early the next morning.
- The weekend after I got dumped, another person with whom I was briefly romantically involved brandished a knife at me because he thought I’d kissed his friend. (I hadn’t. And even if I had, so what? That’s no fucking reason to go waving a knife at a person.)
- My friend and I got into a wreck when she swerved to avoid a stalled car on the highway and lost control of her vehicle. We spun out and the only thing that stopped us was the semi-truck that hit my side of the car. (The tow truck driver took one look at the car and asked “Who was in the passenger seat?” When I raised my hand, he looked at me, shook his head, and said “Go buy lottery tickets. Today is your lucky day.”)
Ya girl was a mess, y’all—fucking mess, all while trying to do this graduate school thing (and partially because I was trying to do this graduate school thing.) But that third message—a brush with death—finally opened my eyes up to the truth: something had to change. I’d made one bad decision after another and here I was, almost dead. Haters will call it simple hindsight. I like to think of it as intuition. Thrust back into my body, forced to feel once again, I knew I had to make some changes. I just didn’t know where to start yet.
Then, on June 4, 2012, I heard a knock on the door and opened it to see my mom, stepdad, and two of my brothers standing outside.
They were there to tell me that Philip had died. Through my tears, I asked the inevitable, “How?” When my family told me that Philip had killed himself, my brain connected all of the pieces at once. No, there’d never been any big warning signs. No, he’d never expressed to us that he was suffering. No, we did not see this coming. And yet it all made sense to me: this person who had come from the same place as me, who had gone to a more prestigious and whiter institution than my own, who had surely endured the same shit as me but on an entirely different level; who had been running away from things for as long as I could tell. In that moment, it was like his life, or what I knew of it, flashed before my eyes, and I saw each step from beginning to end—how each choice led to another and another and another, like a crack in a window slowly spreading until the whole thing shatters. Yes, of course.
The only way that I would survive this was by starting at the beginning.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK.
It is a 24-hour, toll-free suicide prevention service available to anyone in suicidal crisis. You will be routed to the closest possible crisis center in your area. Your call is free and confidential.
THIS IS PART Three OF THE AUTHOR'S MULTI-PART SERIES, "HOW I SURVIVED ACADEMIA."
WORDS BY YVETTE DECHAVEZ
IMAGES BY YVETTE DECHAVEZ
Yvette DeChavez was born and raised in San Antonio, Texas. She sees her work as an opportunity to explore mental health issues and heal from intergenerational traumas. She writes a lot. She never reads enough. And she always thinks too much. Also, she has a PhD in literature, which is pretty cool.
Reach her by email: firstname.lastname@example.org