Living on the Ledge

The streets below: Jun Ahn high above the chaotic architecture and bustle of Hong Kong

This is a heavy, heavy post shared anonymously by a graduate wife in the USA. We found her to be very brave to share her story with our readers. This graduate journey can be bumpy for some, but when anxiety and depression are added to this mix, in some cases, it can cause devastating results. Our readers are scattered all over the world, so after reading this post, if you have a suicide prevention number for your country, please send it to us, and we’ll add it to this post. You just might save someone’s life. If you are suffering with anxiety and depression, please seek help. You are not alone. You ARE worth it.  – Mandy & M.C.

“If I die, I won’t be worried any more.”

Scary thought? Yes, and it’s one that went through my head. It is also the thought that signaled to me that I needed help, and set me on a path through counseling that would prevent me from acting on that negative impulse. It is my hope that any one reading my story will come away with the knowledge that you are not alone, and that it is acceptable to seek mental health care when you need it.

My struggle with anxiety started when I was young. For as long as I can remember I’ve been a hypochondriac. One sore muscle from sports would build up in my mind until I was sure I would need a limb amputated. When I recovered without losing any limbs, my worry would ease, but only until the next over-blown health problem would convince me I was doomed.

In college, the stress increased until I finally went to the nurse with a list a mile long of all the things I thought were wrong with me. The nurse took one look at me and said, “You’re not dying, you have anxiety, and need to talk to someone”. When the results came back from all the tests I asked the nurse to take, “so I’d have one less thing to worry about,” I agreed to see a counselor.

The campus counselor gave me information about anxiety and some control methods to use. For years, this was helpful, and I was able to talk myself down from panic attacks simply by realizing it was just panic. But while my husband was in grad school, my anxiety reached whole new levels. I was anxious all the time. If the phone rang I was sure it would be devastating news. When I drove I thought the car sounded funny and would catch on fire. Everything was blown out of proportion. I knew this, and I didn’t want to be like this, but I couldn’t stop the thoughts, and I couldn’t stop panicking about them.

There are a couple reasons I didn’t seek help right away. For one, I felt like a failure. I felt like I should be able to control it myself. I had for years, why couldn’t I do it now? For another thing, I knew I’d have to pay for therapy and as the spouse of a graduate student, we didn’t have a lot of extra money. I got to the point where I was at levels 9 and 10 of 10 on a panic scale for days on end. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I vomited because I was physically ill from all the worry. I couldn’t even see straight I was so worried, malnourished, and exhausted. I would think, ”How could I live like this? I’m young! I can’t be like this for decades.” Then, during one of my worst attacks, a new thought crossed my mind: “If I die, I won’t be worried anymore”. WOW. I’d pushed all the other red flags from my mind with my stubbornness, but that one couldn’t be ignored. I decided that my life was worth investing in.

I saw a therapist who helped me with coping mechanisms, sort through things, learn how to not get so stressed. She had drills I could do, ways to think about things in a calm fashion. She gave me charts to write things out on to help me see that my situations were manageable. Anxiety isn’t really cured, but you can learn ways to manage it.

Another thing that helped was reading Dan Harris’ book 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works. Like me, Harris didn’t think meditation was for him. After searching for ways to calm anxiety he learned of its benefits. When I start to feel panicked and my mind starts running wild with unfounded worst-case-scenarios, I lay down, I take deep breaths, and I think about the problem instead of trying to distract myself. I say to myself, “What is actually going on now? That other stuff isn’t, it’s your mind going wild. What is the likelihood that one of those worst-case scenarios will actually happen? Basically zero. And if it does, deal with it then. Don’t stress about endless possibilities that aren’t actually going on.” And so on and so forth.

Anxiety can do amazing things. I didn’t say good. I said amazing. It can heighten your senses, and it can make you feel that the stress in your mind as actually physical ailments, which then causes more stress.

The stress still comes but I now have the tools to deal with it. If I get near those levels again I’ll seek help right away.

If you’re like me, please, please see someone. In the USA, Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Americans are required to have health insurance, and the majority of healthcare plans must cover mental health services. You may be eligible through your spouse’s student insurance plan, your own employer’s insurance, Medicaid, or a state insurance exchange plan. Whatever your plan is, familiarize yourself with the benefits, and what mental health services are covered. If you don’t have an insurance plan, or your plan doesn’t cover mental health services, don’t give up. Your spouse’s university counseling center may be able to refer you to free or low cost services that can help. Another option you have is to call the National Association of Mental Illness (NAMI) Helpline. NAMI volunteers can offer limited counseling, but more importantly refer you to appropriate mental health service providers in your area. NAMI can be reached on weekdays between 10:00am and 6:00pm EST at 1 (800) 950-NAMI (6264). If you live in another country, I encourage you to seek out to understand what your resources and options are.

Finally, if you or a loved one is considering suicide, you can seek help 24 hours a day through the numbers below. I know a lot of GW readers are worldwide, so if your country is not listed below, please let us know what it is so we can add it.

USA: National Suicide Prevention Hotline (800)273-TALK(8255).

UK:  SupportLine Telephone Helpline: 01708 765200.

Canada: CASP/ACPS – This link can help Canadians navigate hotlines based on geography.

Know that you are not alone. Seeking help is worth it. YOU are worth it. Talk to someone.

As a graduate wife, how have you dealt with anxiety and depression? 


Sharing 'Worlds'

The Lives We Share


written by Alison, a current graduate

“What did you do today?” is not a common question I hear from Michael, my husband, at the end of the day.  He typically asks, “How was your day?”  And, while seemingly it is the same question, they imply different things–the first what I did and the latter how it affected me.  Michael is not a “feelings” guy, so I do not believe his choice in question reflects a sensitive concern for my emotional well-being.  However, I do think the question embodies his thoughts and feelings toward what I do.

I am the graduate student in our relationship and am in a field you couldn’t pay my husband to study: counseling. I can’t blame him for not wanting to hear a typical response to what I really did that day, because most of them would involve stories of substance abuse, domestic violence, sexual assault, or people in crisis situations.  Not quite the things Michael would prefer to think about while eating dinner or getting ready for bed.  In fact, it’s often not quite the things anyone wants to think of.

When I began working on my masters in counseling, I was not good at explaining to Michael what I was learning. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to tell him about it or that I didn’t think he could intellectually understand it, it was more that I knew counseling was not interesting to him at all. Michael would be a terrible counselor (he would tell you the same thing).  He has trouble grasping how I could want to listen to people emotionally vomit all day without simply telling them to “get over it.”

It can be difficult to explain to anyone, especially a spouse, a topic that can seem so foreign or uninteresting.  A couple will marry because they are in love, and fit together perfectly. I forget sometimes the reason we work well together is because we complement each other, which, of course, is a nice way of saying that we are different. I certainly do not want to be married to my clone, but sometimes, I think it may be kind of nice to have someone understand me without me having to explain everything! When it comes to my studies, I would love to be able to chat about whatever I am reading and for that person to just get it.  I admit I have been envious of my friends who are in the same profession as their husbands. It must be nice to not have to explain all the intricacies of the subject-matter or the professional career path.

Because of all of this, for the first semester or so, I did not share a lot of details about what I was learning, what was going on at school, what I was thinking about my future in this profession, etc.  He knew general things about my studies, but I did not try to really introduce him to this new world I was entering.  The problem that I did not foresee is that by not sharing that part of me, I was, in essence, hiding that part of me. A marriage can struggle when one spouse hides something from the other.  Obviously, he knew I was going to school and working in the counseling field, but I hid how the things I was learning was affecting and changing me.

It hit me one day (later in my program than I would like to admit) that the reason Michael and I did not talk about counseling is simply because I did not do much to help him understand the overall profession. So, using some of my counseling skills on myself, I made a plan to make an effort to open up more about everything. When I came home from class, I would tell him about the discussion topic and things that happened instead of just giving an “it was fine” type answer. When I came home from work, I would tell him more about my clients and more details about what I did that day. And, to no one’s surprise, he became more interested in the field.  I had not realized how much I needed to fully share that part of me with him, and it was great to feel the difference it made in our relationship.

I do have to be aware of when the counseling discussion has gone long enough or when I’m sharing too many details of my line of work.  I would imagine that most graduate spouses appreciate when their wife or husband remembers that he or she is not in their program and saves the real in-depth exploration of their field for their classmates.  We may share a life together, but that certainly does not mean he wants to discuss counseling theories all day!

To be part of my life, he is happy to talk with me about counseling-related topics. The same is true for me talking with him about his profession. It’s about actually taking the time to make an effort to open up about our interests and professions to help each other be part of those worlds. It is worth noting, though, that no matter how long or how often we discuss counseling, I am certain I will never convince him that “get over it!” is not an acceptable to response to my clients. :)  So, while I can’t expect him to become a counselor, I can know that he now understands me a bit better.

How do you and your graduate spouse share worlds? Do you have any tips that you’d be willing to share in the comments below?