“So, how’s the dissertation going?”
I looked the guy dead in the eyes. “I want to set it on fire.”
“So, it’s going well.”
Try small talk, and I’ll give crazy answers like this. I’ve even come up with sassy answers to what I plan on doing after graduation: join the circus as a unicyclist/trapeze artist, get married on the moon, and conquer the world. On second thought, I may just throw my graduation cap instead. (Do graduate students get the same caps?)
Last September, my dad and I loaded up his car with my stuff and drove all the way from Italy to England. Yes, that’s right. My life is pretty crazy. Last March I got accepted to the University of Nottingham to study for an MA in English Literature. I like books so much, I decided to go beyond the four-year degree and tackle an accelerated one-year program in a foreign country.
After all the stress of filling out all the paperwork to get my visa (which every international student hates, by the way), my dad helped me move into my flat in England. My room was perfectly located right across the street from Lidl and not even a block from Jubilee Campus where I’d go for plenty of walks. I lived all the way on the top floor (yay, exercise!) with a great view of the street where I could people and bird watch.
Wearing my borrowed fencing kit.
The pen may be mightier than the
sword, but beware the sword!
I was super excited to attend a university in England, even though I knew it would be difficult. But I was also scared. I had so many questions. What would the classes be like? How hard is the grading system? What if I failed?
In all, the classes weren’t that different from my undergraduate back in the States, except they were two hours long and only once a week. In the end, my schedule was pretty empty. I spent most of my time cramming in as much reading as I could, planning my reading schedule, and panicking because I thought I wasn’t reading enough. It took me a while to realize that all the external reading not assigned every week was recommended not required, but I still tried to read as much as possible.
So far, I haven’t failed. I haven’t gotten spectacular grades, but English professors grade a LOT harder than the Americans. They still use a one-hundred-point system, but a 50 is a pass, 60 a merit, and 70 a distinction. Woah, what? So far, I’ve done alright. I’m still waiting on results for my dissertation, my final project which is the equivalent of a master’s thesis in the States.
I also attended a Vineyard church where I joined a small group. Aside from my classes where I spoke to practically nobody, I saw people twice a week: once at church on Sundays and once during small group on Thursdays. Even for an introvert, it was rough not talking to people on a daily basis. I was lonely, and I missed the community I had back at Evangel University where I could just wander down the hall and chat with the girls on my floor.
I didn’t know any of my classmates. How do you start a conversation with somebody during class? After class? Before? And what on earth do you talk about?
I had a couple of friends in my small group, but most of them were busy with their own schedules—work and school and such. I felt like I could be myself around them, but I didn’t get to know anybody very well.
In England, I felt like I had nobody.
And it wasn’t all from a complete lack of trying. It may have been cultural. It may have been that particular year in my life because I was so focused on coursework. It may have been any number of things.
Halfway through my second semester, I overstrained my Achilles tendon while fencing, and suddenly found I couldn’t walk without pain. Thankfully, I could still bike, but I stopped taking walks, which I did for study breaks. Instead I spent most of my time in my room reading. And reading. And reading. Around the same, a couple of my friends stopped coming to small group.
I never felt so alone.
On a weekly basis, I broke down in my room crying. The smallest things would set me off—a conversation with a professor, crossing the street at the wrong time, a small, insignificant thought, a books I read. I started calling my parents nearly on a daily basis, feeling broken. Weak.
I hated myself for it.
I prayed a lot, but I didn’t feel like God was speaking to me. Last year, he told me I’d go to grad school, and I did. This year, I had no work. No direction. People kept asking me what I planned to do after graduation when I didn’t know.
The only passage of Scripture that really spoke to me was II Corinthians 8-12, “Three times I [Paul] pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Like Paul, I was weak, am still weak. I begged God to take away the pain, the loneliness, the insecurity. He gave me this verse instead. I’m still learning its implications.
After my ankle healed and I came home for Easter Break, I was finally able to relax around my family a bit. I also had my first appointment with a psychologist, where we talked about my struggles, anxiety and depression. I wanted to do everything and nothing for fear that it would all go wrong. What a combination.
After speaking with a psychologist and my family, I went back to England to finish up my essays and start my dissertation. Gradually, my mood began to improve. I cried less. I started singing in my flat again, probably driving my flat mates crazy. I found listening to K-Love helpful, particularly Matthew West’s “Grace Wins”:
I wanted to travel places and do things with my life. I even got to hang out with some of my friends from small group more often, which only made it harder to say goodbye when I came home for the summer.
Now that I’ve turned in my dissertation (no, I didn’t actually set it on fire), I still don’t have much direction in my life. In July, my friend Faith visited for a month, but now that she’s gone, I’m lonely once again. But at least I have my family.
I’m not the same person who went to Nottingham a year ago. I’m a little older, a little more experienced, a little more broken. But that’s okay.
When I say I just want to be normal, I don’t mean I want to be like everybody else. I just want to be myself. Whoever that is now, I’m not sure. But I’m still finding out.
Life is a discovery process.
I could have had it worse, and I still have bad days when I
just lay on the floor and stare at the ceiling wanting to do nothing. But those
days are few and far between. Every day, I’m discovering how to appreciate the
sunshine and the rain, the melancholy songs and the joyful ones, the tragic
stories and the happy endings, the good days and the bad days.
Life is a discovery process.
One of the many view of the weather from my flat,
featuring one of the local crows, who I named Fidget and Speck.
And that’s okay too, because that’s life.
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Let’s chat. How do you deal with bad days and insecurities? Were there ever days when you felt like giving up? What inspired you to keep going?