How I Confronted A Family Crisis During Grad School
I don’t remember much about grad school orientation day. I do remember being completely dismissive about the whole affair, wanting nothing more than to just hit the ground running. I remember a speaker saying, “Life happens while you’re here.” I laughed off that comment and thought, Life won’t “happen” until four years from now when I’m finally in the real world doing what I love. Like the rest of that speech, the rest of orientation day remains a blur.
Fast-Forward Two Years
Everything was chuggin’ along. I was halfway there and I had straight As, I was working full time, I was managing my class load with maximum efficiency. All modesty aside, I was on a roll. I felt unstoppable. Then, “life” — immediately and without any forewarning — decided to “happen.”
My father, pillar of the family, my go-to person, was diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer. The prognosis: 90 days, if that. I was in complete shock, but nothing could prepare me for the cold precision of that doctor’s prognosis. Ninety days to the day, and my father was no longer with us.
My life came to a crashing halt. Everything just stopped. Then, just as suddenly, a torrent of doubt, fear, and questions came upon me. What’ll happen to my mom? What about my brother? How about the wake and the bills at home and the funeral, and who do we let know? Do I move back in with my mom? Believe it or not, the last thought to enter my mind was — you guessed it — school. At least it made the cut, though. My job never crossed my mind during the first barrage of doubt.
I wasn’t neck-deep, paddling aimlessly in this ocean of uncertainty for long before I stopped and took a moment to breathe. I said to myself, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” Yet, as I was assaulted with all these decisions that needed to be made and their respective considerations, memories of my dad interrupted and filled me longing and sadness. I was a mess, and I was paralyzed by indecision and grief. Then, one of my dad’s famous sayings took center stage, “Every problem has its solution, save for death.”
So I resolved to get to work. I knew that if I could just answer one question to my satisfaction, another would soon follow. I didn’t need to solve it all in one fell swoop. I just needed to solve one problem, answer one question, no matter how small. From there, I just needed to trust that things would fall into place in their own time.
Looking back, my path was paved with four “essentials,” working in concert:
- Have faith
- Repeat positive affirmations
- Surround yourself with positive people (or positivity in general)
A supervisor once said to me that every person, at a time of crisis, relies on three things: faith, friends and family. For me, she couldn’t have been more right. Faith, however, does not have to be limited to a religious context. It can be faith in God or in a higher power, or simply trusting that the future will eventually turn out to be as you presently envision it. So, no matter how you define “faith,” relying on it to carry you through life’s trials and tribulations can be most helpful.
There are many reasons and arguments in support of this approach. Perhaps the most common reason is that having faith gives you the drive necessary to persevere in times of uncertainty. Finding faith can be simple. Perhaps talking to your religious leader or visiting a local church may lift your spirits. Simply walking into a house of worship and getting to know your fellow congregants connects you to others who may have had similar experiences to yours and can offer support, advice, and may be even direction.
In three words I can sum up everything I've learned about life: it goes on.
Repeat Positive Affirmations
Like faith, positive affirmations were crucially important for me. Here’s where our training as mental health professionals begins to take prominence. If you find yourself saying “I can’t do this alone,” or “I’m going to fail,” think of what you, as the clinician you are destined to become, would tell clients to do in a similar circumstance. Two simple and effective “off the shelf” solutions: Read some motivational books and look up motivational quotes.
Pick your favorite quips, quotes, and sayings and say them to yourself in the mirror every morning. It may help to write down your favorites on a sticky note and stick them in conspicuous places throughout your home. Bathroom mirrors, microwave doors, and along the frame of computer monitors are particular favorites of mine.
You can’t meet a person nowadays that hasn’t heard of the fact that exercise results in countless mental health benefits. For one, it releases endorphins, i.e., the “feel good” hormones. While that is definitely one for the plus column when dealing with a family crisis and managing grad school, there is another reason that is all too often not given its due credit: Exercise can help distract you from those intrusive thoughts. It gives you that well-deserved emotional break from it all. It gives you time to focus on other things too.
That’s great, but I just don’t have time, you might say (or scream). After all, you have a family crisis and lest we forget, YOU’RE IN GRAD SCHOOL. The workload alone is massive. Well, the answer is deceivingly simple. When you think “exercise,” you probably conjure up images of getting ready, driving to a gym, working out, showering at the gym, and then maybe even paying way too much for a smoothie with countless unproven benefits to your health. That’s definitely one image of exercise, but that time-consuming ritual is just one of several options. Something as simple as a 20-minute walk around your neighborhood will do the trick. Trust me, I know. Still feel anxious or not distracted enough? Walk a little farther or, better yet, walk a little faster.
Surround Yourself with Positive People (or Positivity in General)
Keep it positive. Sounds easy enough, right? You might be surprised to find that it’s not all that easy. We live in a time, I believe, where the old adage “If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say it” has gone the way of the dinosaur. Negativity is as common as breathable air. You might have some great peers (hopefully, they’re an exception to the following). Then again, you might find that you have peers that are too consumed by their GPA or other academic pursuits to take a minute to actually “be there” for you. It’s not a criticism. It’s just the nature of the beast.
My recommendation: Change the landscape. Find those comedies you grew up with and watch them again. Surround yourself with those self-motivated go-getters that we all know. Visit your quirky relative, who I’m sure would love you to see you.
Here’s a not-so-obvious one: Volunteer. Sounds counterintuitive, right? You don’t have time for anything; you’re going through hell-and-breakfast right now; and I’m asking you to tack on more “work.” Truth is volunteering at soup kitchen (a hospital, your local V.A., or even an animal shelter) might just be the change in scenery you need. An altruistic task or two that reinvigorates your sense of gratitude is great medicine. During my family crisis, that change was just the healthy distraction I needed to refocus, take a breather, and… smile.
Bonus Tip: Take it Easy and Be Flexible
Yes, sometime life appears unbearable. But it doesn’t have to be. Remind yourself that graduate school is not a race (but it’s not a marathon either, right?) You want to be as well prepared for the future as possible, even if that means taking a little longer than you had originally envisioned.
Contrary to the whispers of your peers, it’s not at all about who finishes first. So if you are faced with considering dropping a class (or two) or even a leave of absence, remember that it’s okay. Life is happening, and these “setbacks” are nothing more than an opportunity to regroup and adjust your game plan for the better.
If you need to lighten your class load, consider letting your professors know what is going on. It can help them understand and give them a better perspective on your particular situation. Most professors care deeply about their students and their overall success in and out of school. You might find they give you some very good advice, because, guess what… you’re probably not the first student to have needed to adjust their game plan. Life has happened to them, too!
Should you take a leave of absence, do not pressure yourself to dive headfirst into a full class load when you return. The school wants you to succeed too, you know? Despite the cynics, colleges and universities do not look forward to increases in their dropout rates. Talk to your director of clinical (or graduate) training to see what your options are. You might be pleasantly surprised by what you learn!