The different parts of a person’s life, such as family, friends, and careers, don’t exist in a vacuum. Disruptions in one area can have massive effects on another. For me, my personal life had almost catastrophic repercussions on my mathematics career.
When examining my romantic relationships from my early twenties, I find that I had often become the caretaker, filling the roles of girlfriend and mother to my boyfriends. And this was certainly the case with the partner I was with during the first couple years of my PhD. This person was brilliant, kind, and exciting, but also had a lot of deeply rooted issues that had me taking up a third role: therapist. At school, I would take classes, study, and teach. Then I would come home, work on homework, do all the cooking and cleaning, and help my partner work through whatever was affecting him that day. Looking back on this experience, it is clear that this was an incredibly unhealthy and unbalanced relationship, but in the moment, I saw that the person I loved needed help, and so I helped. This “help” drained me, bit by bit.
Even though I was exhausted, I did well in my classes. At the end of my second year in grad school, it was time to take the qualifying exams for the PhD program. These exams were traditionally held at the end of the summer, which was great because I had three months to study for the exams. I worked hard and studied as much as I could, but when you’re emotionally drained, there is only so much you can learn. By the end of the summer, I knew a lot, but it wasn’t enough.
The emotional rollercoaster I experienced during the qualifying exams is something that can hardly be expressed. I went into the exams nervous but hopeful; I thought I might be able to scrape by. The second I saw the exams, my hope diminished, but all I could do was go for it. Walking out of the exams, I knew I had not passed, and the devastation was overwhelming.
Then came the waiting: the formal results were sent out a week after the exams. During this time, the hope returned. Maybe I did better than I thought, maybe I had scraped by after all. I hadn’t.
With the fall semester beginning, I had to push off the fear and doubt, and gear up for taking the exams again in the winter. During this time, the emotional load of taking care of myself, my studies, and my partner started to have more significant effects. I lost a considerable amount of weight; I found it difficult to complete my school work; I slipped into a depression. I remained in denial for months. I blamed school for my struggles, when in reality the most exhausting part of my day was when I got home.
A few weeks before my second (and final) attempt at the qualifying exams, I was staying with my parents for the holidays and I came out of my denial. I began the heartbreaking and arduous process of ending the toxic relationship with my partner. A friend helped me move into her spare room. Studying for the qualifying exams was practically impossible, but I still tried. My second attempt at the exams wasn’t any better than the first.
Despite the misery of my situation, the math department was incredibly supportive. I talked to the professors about my situation, and they allowed me one final attempt at qualifying exams the following summer. During the spring and summer, I was able to get back on track, focusing on my work and my own well-being. By the end of the summer, I was feeling confident and knowledgeable. The third time was definitely a charm for me, as I passed the exams with high scores.
I still carry the lessons from this experience with me. I have learned what to look for in healthy relationships and not to act as my partner’s mother or therapist. I have come to a place of balance between my personal life and my career, making sure I put my needs before the desires of others.