Graduate school experience was very difficult and stressful, due to my lack of confidence and assertive social skills in the highly competitive academic laboratory environments for which I was ill prepared. Yet I ended up doing well– I made good progress in scientific terms, gained confidence in my knowledge and abilities, and validated my (amazing) inner strength, learning more of who I was. It was a period of both extreme challenge and growth. And it did not come without a cost– I was on edge, totally burned out.
It helped prepare me for the postdoctoral experience, however, and the postdoctoral period was a smoother ride. The time was near the ending of my postdoc. I had met the nicest man I’d ever known and finally fallen in love. I was planning to apply for academic faculty positions, although not completely certain about this decision or the outcome. However, it didn’t matter– I was in love! I found out that I was pregnant with my fiancé’s child– yet, it didn’t matter because we were already committed to spending the rest of our lives together. I was more than ready to have the children whom I’ve always wanted, approaching my mid-30’s at this point. I was on top of the world, and every day was a joy to receive.
Then it all collapsed. 2002. My relationship with my fiancé suddenly fell apart. My postdoctoral advisor withdrew the critical support I needed for my academic career aspirations. My postdoctoral fellowship was over, leaving me without a job or an income. All future plans were uncertain with the baby to be born. I felt physically vulnerable, losing my customary agility each day with my ever-growing belly and the unfamiliar, changing body. I cut off communication with all those in my social and work circles and retreated deeply within, trying to decide how to best nurture the unborn baby and ensure a future for ourselves. Everything that had defined my ego and who I was in this world up to that point had been stripped away. It was as if the Universe had put up a big hand and said, “Stop.”
Looking back, I was experiencing a “dark night of the soul.” People have spoken of dark nights of the soul, although I don’t know how I feel about that term. It is supposed to be a time of great challenge or crisis preceding a period of personal/spiritual growth. It is a time when one is forced to re-examine one’s most fundamental beliefs. I don’t know if despair is always necessary for growth, but it has been said by many through the ages that the challenges in our lives are what give us the greatest opportunities, the greatest catalysts, for growth.
Of course, this is all in retrospect. All I knew at the time I was going through it was that I was feeling miserable and trapped like you wouldn’t believe. I was crying my little eyeballs out almost every night for soooo many nights, just my big belly and me. It was all I could do to put one foot in front of the other each day.