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  • Writer's pictureOindrila Ghosh

One problem a day keeps the anxiety away

As a real example of what becoming more worldly wise and responsible is going to be like, the month of my thirtieth birthday was loaded with a bunch of difficult news from home. My grandmother had to be hospitalized with a sudden event of high blood pressure. (My father’s parents came to stay with us since 2020. Their deteriorating health with age and the travel bans during the pandemic made my father take the decision of bringing them close so that he could take care of them easily.) My uncle, the eldest brother of my mother, was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer late last year. I met him early this year when I visited India and he was still trying to be very strong about his condition. However, it seems things have gone downhill in the last couple of weeks and quite sadly, he does not recognize his family members anymore. As if this was not enough, my mother had to be suddenly hospitalized with a ruptured appendix on 10th August, two days after my birthday. Staying away from family in these trying times has been difficult. I have no siblings and my parents have been brave to never stop me from pursuing what I wanted to do in life. But at this moment, I feel helpless not being able to stand by them. I constantly think about ways I can make myself useful. Can I say or do something? Are there places I can go or people I can talk to who can then directly or indirectly help my parents deal with all of this? I felt maybe I should just put my PhD on hold for some time, go to India and deal with this for a moment. But then again, will my being there be an extra thing on their plates? Will I be able to actually help much? The dilemma with the guilt of not being able to help in a substantial way was too real to handle on some days.

The first time I came to the US, getting used to the difference in culture was difficult for me. But the longer I stay here, I realize, I am slowly adapting to this culture and going back to India does not feel the same anymore. My therapist identified this symptom as a reverse-cultural-shock. It means I now dwell somewhere in the middle; not very much like the Americans by heart, but also not quite Indian in my ways. But in the real world, this dwelling in the middle is challenging. I can drive a car, but only on the right side of the road. And since I learned driving after coming to the US, I can only drive the cars with automatic gear arrangement. I cannot think when two people talk at the same time. My brain shuts down at the first sign of disagreement and aggressive attitude from anyone I communicate with. I find it hard to respect ‘elders’ with non-evolving mindsets about society and women. These are real things that I would have to deal with if I choose to go and actually help. I would have to rise above these concerns and meet my discomfort with non-agreeable situations in the eye. But how long will I be able to do that? Disregard my mental health for accomplishing something that probably could be achieved even without me being there, in the first place? What should be a priority for me now? Is it necessary to do something all the time? Or is it okay to step inside a shade and wait for the storm to be over? But then again, my instincts of being a people-pleaser and growing up with very Indian values, I question my approach. Am I escaping the hard bit? Am I not performing my duties as a child of my very giving parents? What would people think? Are they already talking about me? Do they think I am not being responsible here? Do they think I am having the time of my life abroad, leaving my old parents in deep trouble? I believe, in the end, it is all about what problem we choose to prioritize and resolve.

Sometimes, I think about the fact that my mother and her brother being sick at the same time says something about the bond they share. I never had a sibling and maybe I would never understand that. My mother will be released tomorrow from the hospital. And from all the feedback, her operation went well and she will be recovering over the next couple of months. As for my uncle, the doctors seem to have tried everything that can be done. My grandmother was released from the hospital last week. She, in her late 80s now, needs some extra care but is doing better than before. In the end I think we are exactly where we are supposed to be. I guess, it is times like these that make me believe in destiny, that there is a script where it is all written down and that we are mere actors in a giant play. We can try to alter our course of actions, but will we really change anything? I could have paused my work here and gone to India to try and help everyone like I wanted. But it would not increase the rate of recovery for my mother, my grandmother or my uncle. We would all invest a lot of time, energy and money to accomplish something in a game that is already working at its own pace and own agenda. Maybe sometimes, the hardest thing to do is to not do anything and wait.



If you ask a PhD student if feeling guilty for not working enough is a thing, I bet 90% of the time the answer is bound to be, “Hell yeah!” And most of the time, the reason is not because they are not actually working. It is a matter of the relative amount of work done in their perspective and the standards being very high. These standards are often results of expectations imposed upon them by their immediate environment.

My first acquaintance with the feeling of guilt for not working enough, was at the end of the first semester after joining my PhD program at UMBC when my advisor called me in his office for an intervention. He was concerned about what looked like a lack of interest. He was not happy with how distracted I was checking my phone in the middle of meetings, barely showing interest in what was going on in the lab and leaving early every day. He mentioned, “There is a new gas chromatographic instrument in the lab that needs to be set up. If I were you, it would be my new toy and I would be very excited to get to know how it works from all the materials available.”

After coming from India to the US in 2017, relocating from Texas to Maryland in 2018, was a lot of change for me to handle. I spent a year learning about mapping tools and how meandering rivers change environmental landscapes. And now, I was joining a lab that studied harmful chemicals, how they move about in the environment and the risk they pose to living organisms. In spite of some relevant and common core courses, it meant I had start from scratch. New skillsets, new courses, new people, new rules, new campus and a very new personal relationship status. I moved in with my long-term partner after almost four years of long-distance relationship, which came with its own set of adjustments. I would come to the lab with low energy levels. I would get tired very easily reading research papers to familiarize myself with this new research area. My lack of dexterity in the lab would make me angry at myself and I would prefer to stay away from lab chores.

The intervention made me feel terrible. I wanted to be more aware and inquisitive. This was an opportunity for me to learn and I felt I was not utilizing it and taking things for granted. I felt guilty of not working enough. Feeling anxious about having to prove my worth was not something new for me. But this time I knew I was not functioning most efficiently and that there was truth in what my advisor had pointed out. So, after a lot of hesitation, I sent him an email explaining my side of the story. He appreciated the fact that I shared the story with him and was willing to help me in any way possible to get back on full steam. I kept struggling to make things work in the lab. My experiments kept producing weird results that did not make any sense and my research was not going anywhere. Over the next year and a half, in the midst of the COVID shutdown, for the first time, my modeling experiments showed some promising results. The excitement of working experiments after a hard struggle over several weeks or months, is something that can make you forget about anything wrong that is happening in your life. I felt the first thread of trust, to resolve a problem, grow within me.

But guilt and lack of confidence in your instincts is like a parasite. Once it gets in your system, it is bound to come back and attack your subconscious when you are weaker than usual. The moments of success come very rarely in one’s lifetime. Days of failure happen more regularly and most days, you are weak, searching for what went wrong. It is during those times that these parasitic instincts of guilt and low confidence creep up on you and make you lose trust in your judgement. I realized that I had made rules for myself that I was trying to live up to and failing which I was beating myself up. I would have to convince myself to take a break from work. And every break would be followed by a lot of justification in my head and extra work to make up for the lost hours resulting in burn outs. This would lead to fatigue, followed by an average low energy for work and we were back in the loop. Every burnout almost felt worth it when the success came afterwords. It is an intoxicating cycle that is always hard to break out from. My father once told me as a kid never to say NO to opportunities. I have followed that mantra for too long to realize that every opportunity to prove my worth to the world need not be adhered to. Saying NO to responsibilities that I am doubtful of undertaking, often takes greater courage than agreeing with a half hearted YES. For the first time in a long while, I was making peace with my limitations as a human being. The moment I gave myself the permission to be only human, the people around me understood my worth and both parties realized that the foundation to build trust has already been laid. Unfortunately this realization usually comes to me after many iterations of the toxic guilt-overworking-burnout cycle in every sphere of my professional life.

In my last year of PhD, I am working simultaneously on multiple projects. I am trying to balance writing manuscripts while finishing experiments on the side. There are always little side projects that need quick processing and delivery that we try to help with. With time, juggling with these responsibilities and deliverables is getting less overwhelming. But managing my time and distributing equal attention to multiple projects simultaneously still throw me off-guard. In those days, I have been transparent with my advisor. I have either asked for more time and he managed to get an extension on the project for us or simply stayed away from taking more responsibilities. Once he told me, “ Regardless of who pushes you to get things done, you set your priorities at the end of the day. Do not get sick.” I think that advice suits me better because it is not as extreme as not having the freedom to say no to opportunities and lets you choose your limits. Accepting my limits, I feel liberates me in a way to focus on problems I can and want to solve. Quite contrary to what I seemed like before, I am interested in almost everything and most days it is hard for me to choose what to prioritize. But choosing the right problem to solve is an ever-evolving process. There are always days when I am not working and I feel guilty. On those days I try to kind to myself and give me some time to recover from a burnout. Other times when I am in full-form, you might find me working in the lab with a smile on my face, a BBC Nature podcast blasting my headphones. On those days, it is hard to distract or demotivate me.

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