In the Fall of 2006, I began a graduate program at Penn State. It was a PhD program in Psychology, and I didn’t finish it. It felt, at the time, like one of the worst years of my life, feeling every single day that I was failing at something I wanted so badly to be. I had spent the past 2-years straight out of college working for a fantastic non-profit, working with kids in crisis in a mental health setting. What I couldn’t connect then, and can now, is I was drawn to that work in a selfish way, I needed to be knee deep in the trauma of others, so I didn’t have to look at mine.
I do believe I was impactful in that role, but I remember feeling the ‘burn-out’ of what it takes to be in the crisis of others each day…holding the button outside of the time-out room as a child would be inside, slamming their hands against the 5-inch pane of reinforced glass again and again. ‘let me out. Let me out. LET ME OUT’ I’d be called every name in the book, and once the crisis was over and the energy of a lifetime as it was for most of these kids, a lifetime a trauma was diffused, for a moment anyway, they’d fall in these heaps of shame and exhaustion, and they would look up at me and say ‘Ms. F, I didn’t mean what I said.’ I could forgive them always, but the haunt of crisis and trauma always felt like a new layer on my body and I was becoming angry again. I drew into me what I needed to remember…that trauma unhealed and unexamined show up as crazy…and again and again I went into the trenches to understand my own life, and my own upbringing, if I could get ahead of it, and understand the science then maybe I wouldn’t be so afraid.
I started studying for my GRE’s and like a good kid, nailed the test, and all my interviews. I received a full-ride to Penn State, and I remember thinking, ‘this is it’ I will get my doctorate and this will be exactly how I will never live the life I was born into. My family will never worry about money. I will know all the answers. My kids will never be ashamed to say what I do, because I will be a Doctor. I will know all the answers. Our car will never break down. I will help others in crisis because that’s what they need. Because after all, I will know all the answers.
I did well in the program. Little secret here, unless you really try at it, it’s actually hard to fail out of a PhD program; they don’t want you to do that. It’s just whether or not you can be in the grind of the coursework that never ends, this looming feeling that statistics will never ever make sense, and when one semester finishes back in you go, right into the next.
I joined a cohort of 5. We were 5 women in our early 20’s, 3 of whom would finish the program, and 2 of us who would not. They were wonderful to be on this adventure with and I still love love love seeing their updates on where life has taken them. They are amazing women. We developed as many inside jokes as possible, kept each other up late studying, and all got low income memberships at the Y and for 15 dollars a month we would all go workout as a bit of a refuge, becoming totally fascinated with pink-iPod guy, as we called him, this mega babe who wore a pink iPod and we spend far too many hours discussing whether it was his, or if it was his girlfriends (who we never saw). We held out hope for pink iPod guy sightings, the end of the semester, the joyous trips to target, and did impersonations of our professors over cheap margaritas and 2-dollar tacos. I made it my personal mission to run past the speed marker every-day (you know the things that track the speed of cars) and one day I realized as I was sprinting by it, that it tracks humans too (you can imagine the excitement) so everyday, after class I’d throw on my running sneakers to see if I could beat my personal best. It would blink 8.9, 8.7, 9.2, 7.8 the day I broke 9.5 I threw myself a party. These were the thrills of a graduate student…
The whole time, the program felt wrong. I cant recall ever being that sad. I didn’t believe in what I was studying, who I was becoming, but I kept envisioning my name Lyndsey Fryer PhD. Dr. Lyndsey Fryer. Paging Dr. Lyndsey Fryer (I was watching a lot of Grey’s anatomy at the time and fully realize that PhD’s often do not get paged but lord help me if I wasn’t going to try) If I left then I wouldn’t know the answers. If I left I would be a failure.
Going into that summer semester I moved in with my dear friend in the cohort, we got a two bedroom place, her parents got us a new couch, we even bought a grill (that plugged into the wall and we ran an extension cord) yes really. We were going to stay.
I came home one day after a terrible trip to Wal-Mart. New tires on my Honda set me back 600 dollars and I had about 800 bucks left in the bank, and rent was coming in hot in just about a week. My friends Mom, this absolutely fabulous woman named Mel who we all adored was visiting us for the weekend. And I walk in the door and all I hear is this:
‘waaaaaahhhhhhh, aaaaaaggggggg, ooooooooo, woooooo, ah, ah, ah, snort, waaaahhh’
I said this. ‘uh-oh.’
My normally totally composed friend/roommate, and as we lovingly referred to each other ‘wife’ was sobbing, she was more or less sitting on her mom’s lap on this giant 4-person couch and I walked in quietly, set down my Wal-Mart bags, and stand in the living room.
‘is everything okay?’
Aura looked up at me, a hot hot mess, like she had been crying for a while kind of mess…
‘noooooo’ (sob sob)
‘Nooooooo, we gotta go. This is not right. We gotta go.’ (sob sob snort)
I repeated her words in my head and it became real. We gotta go. We gotta go. We gotta go.
She was right. And we both knew it. It was this pivotal moment of someone saying out loud what everyone already knew. It was time to call it.
Her Mom took us out to the local Mexican joint that night, and I remember we drank a lot, or enough anyway for the hilariousness of everything to reveal itself to us. We both began to feel the exhiliartion of leaving something we knew did not suit us, and the fear of what we would do next. We spent the next month or so wrapping up what we needed to, our summer coursework, subletting our apartment, meeting with our advisors, making plans to finish with our masters and finalizing final proposals for our projects. We met with the 3-other girls in our cohort, and shared the news.
The joy and hilarity that came from tequila and nonchalance had worn off, and I was very very deep in shame. Maybe I could stay. I knew I could get through it. If only…
As I write about it now, I have a smile on my face…what a crazy adventure that was. And how perfect it was, I can see that now. It was a moment of truly listening to what I need, and it led me down this amazing, crazy, beautiful, path that I’m on now.
I intended to write about that summer when everything had come to a close…it was this summer I began to truly heal, and it took me leaving something that did not serve me to get there. I will write about it, soon…but as I began to recall this time in my life, and the time I chose to leave something certain for the unknown…I learned of my strength, and my courage (but it took years for me to understand this) I wanted a giant band-aid to cover my trauma and pain, in this case, a job-title and recognition. I didn’t want to see that I was those kids in trauma that I worked with for 2-years, holding the time-out button and tried not to hear their pain ‘let me out, let me out’ I didn’t want to admit that this fancy degree wasn’t going to heal any of that…it would have, in my case, only allowed for me to hide even further.
You know, I still like having all the answers. You can take the girl out of the phd program but… But if I’m totally honest with you, my greatest moments are the moments when I fully stand in ‘I don’t know’ and I trust. I trust the work that I am doing. I trust the magnificent people I have drawn into my life. I trust that I have and will continue to heal a past that still feels shameful at times, but feels more joyful than ever, when I look back I am in a place to remember the joy too, and damn does that feel good. As someone who fully believed that having the answers means having the power…being in ‘I don’t know’ has brought me to my knees again and again.
For a long time I felt like I had to explain why I left this presitgious program, and made sure people knew I chose to leave and wasnt asked to leave. Turns out, you just kinda look like an a-hole trying to stand behind something you didnt even finish. And my friends who I was so ashamed to see, they could have cared less, they were just glad I was back home. People dont care nearly the way you think they’re going to care…they just want to see you be happy. My mom on the other hand would have loved for me to finish, but friends, thats a whooooole other day.
These days, I love that there’s so much I don’t know. I love finding my way. I love that science doesn’t need to prove what I already know….what we already know…that we are alright. You got that? You are a-okay. Promise. Cause here’s the deal you are breathing, and moving, you have a heart beat AND guess what, you have a choice.
I remember thinking then oh shit, I’m going to be 27 by the time I finish this program, I am going to be SO OLD…And now, now I’m 32, I have a second chance at a career I am loving, I am teaching yoga, I am a partner, I have either gotten fired or failed epically EPICALLY many times since leaving that grad program. I have broken hearts, and I have had mine broken. Sometimes, okay, truth, many times I feel old like I should have baby, a house, and no ikea furniture by now. I have a resume that would immediately disqualify me from most reviewers. Most people simply don’t have the time to listen to how I got here, and that’s okay, I don’t need them to anymore.
When nothing is clear…then everything is possible.
So no matter where you are in your life right now. Here’s what I would ask of you. You know those areas of your life where you just ‘don’t know’ GET IN THERE! There’s magic in that inquiry. But don’t just get in there, tell the truth, listen, listen hard…where are you not telling the truth? Where are your relationships not honest? Even if your job doesn’t feel like it can change, and you need the money for your mortgage, family, etc….what could you do for all the other hours in the week that feel honest. Could you paint? Could you play? Could you book a trip? Could you ask them out on a date? Could you dance? Could you trust? Could you take a nap?
Take a shower. That always works for me.
I hope you know how powerful you are. I hope today you don’t waste a single second down-playing that or chalking it up to ‘luck.’ I hope you know how beautiful you are. Knock it off already with the self-depraciating talk ‘oh I’m no one very special’ Try this…next time you meet someone, shake their hand. Say this, Hi, I’m so-in-so, and I am someone very special’