Not long now until freedom — or temporary freedom, anyway.

I’m just one month away from the end of my first year in graduate school. It’s my first year out of a projected six, if I complete my PhD.

In theory, it was a great idea to move from California to Wisconsin to attend one of the best sociology programs in the country.

Five to seven years of sacrifice could mean a lifetime of doing what I want — researching, writing, and teaching — and getting paid well for it, assuming I get a good job. That’s a likely outcome if I finish my degree at the University of Wisconsin, given its outstanding reputation.

In practice, it’s miserable.

I don’t wish to malign my school, my program, or even Wisconsin. I don’t think they’re the problem.

The problem is living 2,000 miles away from my closest friends, a social support network that took years to build up. I’ll find friends in Wisconsin, but relationships like the ones I left take time.

That’s half the problem. The other half is graduate school itself.

Overwhelmed by Stress


As a 34-year old, going back to the classroom just plain stinks. There’s much more to say about that, but no doubt many people reading this already know what it’s like to wake up daily to go to a job you hate.

One part of my brain deals with graduate school rationally. “I can do this,” I tell myself. “Just three more semesters of classes. Two down. Three to go.” And I’ll spend all of my breaks — over four months each year — at home in San Diego.

Why forego a long-term goal because of a little bit of short-term pain?

This is the attitude that American culture endorses. It’s a value I learned from my parents, both by listening to their words and observing their actions. Odds are, you did too.

And when people push themselves, we celebrate them. Nobody ever asks the CEO who worked her way up from the mailroom if she took enough time for herself along the way.

But so much work comes at a cost.

The stress of attending graduate school far from home is physically and mentally breaking my body down.

For me, this reaction to stress is nothing new. It’s just the first time I’ve connected my chronic aches and pains to their emotional sources. I deal with stress by clenching my jaw and tightening every muscle in my head, neck, shoulders, back, legs, and feet.

For decades, I did it without even noticing it. Now that I’m aware I do it, I don’t know how to change. I can unclench my jaw, although I have to continually pay attention to keep it that way. I don’t even know how to relax my legs and feet.

The predictable results are daily migraines, a chronic inflammation of my Achilles tendons, and gastrointestinal problems.

Additionally, it seems my immune system is depressed, as cuts and scrapes on my body aren’t healing and I can’t seem to kick a cough I contracted several weeks ago.

Can I complete three more semesters of classes without doing irreparable harm to my body? I don’t know.

What I do know is that we live in a society that makes any choice besides pushing yourself through the pain very difficult. And that’s not good for any of us.

We ought to congratulate those who take a step back to care for themselves, rather than shaming them. Because if we can’t support people who care for their own needs, we’re not really thinking long-term at all.

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Jill Richardson

OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix

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