Anxiety, Depression, and Two Heavy Whiteboards
by Violet Piper
Listen to Executive Director Gabriel Nathan read this post aloud:
I cannot bring myself to erase the whiteboards.
They are in my room in Brooklyn. One leans against the other, which leans against the wall. The boards recline in the corner beside the dresser, each two-by-four-feet-wide and blanketed in black writing. Most of the equations are Gaussian integrals with linear terms that represent perturbations. It’s a formulation of quantum field theory I never finished learning, let alone mastered. I don’t know what terrible thing will happen when I wipe them clean. I might forget what the variables are, or how to use them, or who I was when I jotted them down.
In Edinburgh, I was either at my desk or prone on my broken bed—the slats would frequently slip out—and I’d plummet to the floor in my sleep. I used my MacBook to read stolen textbook pdfs, my iPad and Apple Pen to take notes, and my Airpods to drown out the sounds of my flatmate taking his daily two-hour bath. Even with my volume at full blast, I could hear the cast of Glee serenading him on the other side of the wall. Sitting in that fucked-up, gray-lit, Apple-sponsored tableau, a piece of me chipped off and died each day.
I did not get a transition out of undergrad with a bow on it, like a new car, a graduation ceremony, or a celebratory dinner. The tour de force of studying astrophysics in California fizzled out behind me as I fizzled into a non-program in a non-year. I didn’t get the bow in grad school either.
I chose to do a master’s abroad because I’d never traveled, and one-year programs are uncommon in the States. Case numbers were low in Scotland—lower than they were at home and in my college town. Of course, I didn’t get to travel and would not call who I was in that bedroom a “student.”
I never got to meet my cohort, or any of the faculty, in person. I never got to go to class or use the library in a way that wasn’t completely dehumanizing. You had to sign up online the day before for a thirty-minute slot and sit alone at a table with your mask on. Whenever you pulled it down because the bottom of your face was stinging from sweat, a security guard would ask you guiltily to put it back over your nose. You would guiltily do it and hope no one saw him come over.
If I wished to study in a cafe instead of the exhilarating library environment, I had to re-register an account every time I dined in. This was so management could notify me if another patron possibly exposed me to the virus. My inbox was incessantly flooded with promotional emails from every cafe in the city. I had to click at least one Unsubscribe link every morning, but only after they forced me to specify why I was abandoning them. I eventually kept a brief-paragraph apology in my notes app, so I could copy and paste it.
There was one cafe I really liked because it was quiet and the walls were painted light blue, which reminded me of how the sky was supposed to look. When I see that written down, it makes me sound like the penguins trapped in captivity in Happy Feet. I usually ordered a coffee with soy milk and a sausage roll until one day, the barista called out, “One cruelty-free coffee and Peppa Pig in a roll.” She was joking, but I was already sensitive about not belonging in the country, and I didn’t go back to the cafe for a while.
Like the rest of the world, there was not much to do in Scotland. I couldn’t exactly shop. I could be in the Tesco for as long as I wanted, so I often paced the aisles in slow motion to study the packaging of brands I’d never heard of. I looked forward to that fluorescently-lit meandering all the time.
I could have, in theory, gone for more walks, but I couldn’t fall asleep until the morning, and I couldn’t watch my lectures live because it made me feel so helpless. My professors would spend class illegibly scribbling theoretical physics onto tablets they didn’t know how to use and lecture to a sea of silent black squares. Sometimes the lectures were pre-recorded, and I never got to ask them questions in real time anyway.
I once got to present the beginnings of a research project to some professors and my advisor on Zoom. The men all looked and sounded exactly the same. During my critique session, they told me that “no one cares about the Naturalness problem anymore” and that it’s more or less a “useless, over-argued topic.” After that, I cried for a while but felt relief that all my insecurities about not being smart enough for the program were finally proven true.
I did climb the hill to the castle once; it was so old and beautiful that I cried then too.
The program was two semesters long, with the summer months left for research and a dissertation. I had four classes each semester, but the department held all eight finals at the end of the year in a two-week testing period. There were no graded assignments—no way to know if you were on top of the material. I felt my brain run out of room for all of it.
Each time I learned something new, something else got booted out; I was worried I’d eventually forget my phone number or address. And I had never attempted so many physics problems on my own. Sometimes I would inquire in my cohort’s WhatsApp group, but their responses always made me feel stupid and exposed.
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My cousin, thank God, was also in Edinburgh, completing her last year of undergrad. Once in a while, I’d get tested and then go to her house for dinner. You were only supposed to book a test if you had symptoms, and I’m a generally guilty person, so I only did it every month or so. Her flatmates would ask if I’d been to this pub or that place and then realize no one goes Anywhere Anymore. Or wait, that place is closed forever. And everyone would go quiet.
It’s a dark, wet city. It still rains in the winter, but it is much colder, so the streets get coated in this thick, hazardous ice sheet. I kept having an intrusive thought I would slip and impale myself on a wrought iron spike. I think I had convinced myself that the country or the program or some unknown force was trying to kill me. The spiked fences are everywhere in Edinburgh; I told my therapist this on Zoom.
I got a therapist because, as I said, I could tell something inside me was on the verge of shattering. In one of our sessions, I suddenly remembered a suicide attempt I’d witnessed in seventh grade. My friend had climbed into the subway tracks without anyone seeing. I remember her eyes were closed, and she had her arms held out to the sides like Jesus. I don’t know what reminded me of it, exactly. Maybe all the churches.
On top of everything, my housemates were the most despicable people I’d ever lived with. One was from London and habitually asked me if I was embarrassed to be American and aren’t I ashamed of the prison industrial complex?
“Do you realize your country is still fighting the Cold War?” He asked before ripping his bong in the kitchen, with all the windows closed.
“I think it was officially between the forties and nineties,” I said.
“Actually, it was between the forties and nineties. Ugh, sorry, I’m a history nerd.” He blocked out whatever I said and then unknowingly mocked me like a parrot. I was cutting a tomato with a serrated knife and flicked through a couple of violent thoughts, which my therapist assured me were normal by that point.
His American girlfriend stayed with us rent-free for three months. She said she was from Seattle, but I Google Mapped her town, which was a two-hour drive from the city. They often went drinking with his friends against Edinburgh’s protocol. On several occasions, she came into my room to cry after a big fight.
“I know he loves me,” she would sob, cross-legged on my gross carpet at four in the morning. I was awake anyway—the slats had given out about an hour before.
The couple would leave food on the counter for days or in the fridge for months—in my Tupperware. Once, they left a gas burner on all night. They also went to London for winter break despite the government begging people not to—the whole city was sick. Another time, he asked me for two hundred dollars in cash and said it was urgent, so I went across the street to an ATM and later watched him buy weed with it.
I told my parents I needed to finish the program at home in Brooklyn. After seven months in Scotland, I found a subletter, packed up everything in 72 hours, and sprinted to the airport.
I bought those whiteboards my first week home—I knew I could study better if I could see all the equations simultaneously. I felt vaguely hopeful; the light from my Brooklyn window was much less gray. My sleeping improved, and I went on daily walks with my parents. However, by that point in the semester, taking any break from schoolwork filled me with anxiety and guilt.
The city began relaying concrete on our corner in the spring. My exams were all 7 am New York time and noon in Scotland. Throughout my first test, the construction outside my apartment was so loud it shook my desk. I cried so hard I could barely see the screen as I submitted the uncompleted test.
I obsessively calculated the exact grades I needed on the rest of them to get my diploma. In the middle of my second exam, I started to plot how I could hurt myself badly enough to escape the rest of the program. I drank around seven mugs of tea daily and decided to burn myself with hot water from the electric kettle.
I caught myself mid-scheme and called out to my father in the other room, asking if he could work in my room. He was also working from home and knew of my diagnosed test anxiety. I heard him unplug his laptop and headphones from his usual desk and make his way through the apartment, the cord dragging on the floor. But when he sat beside me, he looked like he didn’t recognize me at all. Finally, I told him I had to stop, that I hated physics now, that I didn’t want the degree, and that I was pretty sure it was killing me. He nodded, and I closed my computer. I’ve never felt such intense solace.
I still get nauseous whenever friends talk about getting into or finishing their master’s programs. Sometimes when grocery shopping, I flashback to my masked Scottish neighbors and me scurrying around each other like rats. I recall repeatedly FaceTiming certain friends, keeping certain chocolates in my desk drawer, and clinging to certain TV shows, all for my life. Most powerfully, I remember what it felt like to figure things out on the big whiteboards—to solve problems and wipe them away.
I cannot bring myself to erase them.
If you or someone you know may be in crisis or considering suicide, please call, text, or chat the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988.