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After eight years as a scientist, I've finally left my post

· depression,emotional abuse,PhD program

CN: IPV/emotional abuse, restrictive eating disorder, depression, suicide

I called my dad on the last Friday of October. "What are you crying about?" he asked--a man whom I've never seen cry.

"I think I have to leave my PhD program," I said.

My earliest memory of neuroscience is from age eleven. I had transferred to a new school, where I suddenly found myself at the top of the class, with straight As. It was the first time I'd ever been a "smart" student, and I found that I liked the feeling.

"I'm going to do a PhD in neuroscience," I told everyone. Seriously, everyone. At the end of seventh grade, my homeroom teacher said I might finally solve the mysteries of the teenaged brain. My eighth grade memory book said that my future profession would be neurology, and I remember being annoyed--there was a distinct difference.

Sometime around then, I had a talk with my cousin about my ambitions. "There's no money in getting a PhD," he said. He was probably finishing college, or had just finished. "Do an MD/PhD."

"Okay," I said, and that's when I decided that I'd do a dual-degree.

When I was in fifth grade, my teacher told me to become a lawyer. I was always talking back to him, and thought he was an idiot. As a sophomore in high school, after giving a rousing speech about Hester Prynne being a victim of her society, my literature teacher agreed. And for a while--between my senior year of high school and first year of college--I decided that maybe law was a better path than medicine. Maybe it was the best way to advocate for individuals with autism. I thought that majoring in psychology in college and then going to law school would be the best way I could serve the autism community.

Maybe it would have been.

The University of Chicago was a literal dream come true for someone like me. I was a straight A student in one of the toughest high school curriculums. Ahead of me were hazy visions of changing the world, of making a difference--of living a life larger than my own, for a brother who wouldn't have the opportunities I did.

I had been accepted to UChicago in December of 2008, confident that I would receive a merit and financial scholarship. When my financial aid packet finally came together in April, it was $10,000 less than what they had predicted. That night, I decided to go to DePaul University instead, where my mom taught.

Then, a mere week and a half before I graduated high school, I was offered a full ride at UChicago.

A few weeks into my first quarter of college, I decided to switch back from pre-law to pre-med. I was in calculus and had met a boy that made me feel bizarre. I thought he might be into me, but then the part of me that hated myself (i.e. all of me) told me it couldn't be so. We were on our dorm council together, and he was a pre-MD/PhD, too. He was a biology major, he said, and laughed at my choice of psychology. "That's not a real science," he said, smiling.

We studied for our second exam together, where we both got over 100%. I was lucky--I had experienced that level of calculus in high school. He was smart. We started to walk to the dining hall after our class, sit at a side table and eat chicken sandwiches and hot sauce. I realized I was in love with him in March. In May, he told me he liked a friend of mine, and also his best friend from back home, sorry.

Both of them were skinny, and I just wasn't his type.

As I began to drop weight, a product of my depression, and then a subsequent development into a problem, I noticed how much more attention he paid to me. But something told me that he didn't love me--not romantically, even as a friend. I made him a cork board full of pictures, and none of them contained me. He didn't tell his parents that I existed until I introduced myself to them. Something inside me knew that things were fragile.

That summer, we sent over 17,000 text messages to each other. Every day was consumed with the other. He hated being back home. I took gen chem at my mother's university. I even managed to coddle him into Skyping with me on a few occasions.

When classes began again, I was so obsessed with my weight that nothing else mattered. I followed him to classes, stayed up with him at night to finish our homework. I would rock in my bed, literally be unable to move to work, unless he came in or talked to me. When his uncle died before Thanksgiving, I begged him to Skype with me. I suffocated myself waiting for him. I couldn't function unless he was there.

And so I remember the words he said:

Am I supposed to be feeling jealous?

How do you think I feel, with you wearing that next to me?

I don't know if I can feel.

You were pretty before, but now that you've lost some weight, you're really gorgeous.

And more than the words he said that I remember, are the ones that I do not. The ones that are in a letter I once wrote, an email I forwarded, a note scribbled in class.

It's the same as always. I'm watching the group fall apart, and I'll be left with no one.

You need someone to care about you the way that you care about everyone else. If I don't do it, no one else will.

Either way it would ruin your entire day, so I see no difference.

I know you've been hiding stuff from me. Always remember that I'm letting you.

Did it ever occur to you that I did those things to keep in check over the entire summer last year because I wasn't certain that you would have been able to handle leaving me?

Naseem, you need me.

And for a long time, I did.

He told me that psychology wasn't a real major. We were taking our first biology classes, and we learned about action potential firing. It was called all-or-none, and it started at the axon hillock. That was real science. Psychology was a joke.

I took a class in comparative human development, then a psychology class. I told him they were a joke. The reality was that I loved them, and they disappointed me.

I worked in a human psychology lab, studying the neural bases of empathy. At the beginning of the school year, I was diligent in going into lab. As it progressed, I spent less and less time. I convinced myself that I didn't enjoy working there. I convinced myself that I was unhappy.

Psychology was not a real major.

I declared Biology in the spring.

I tried to commit suicide after I didn't receive a summer grant.

I was done with science. I was going to go back to an "easy" field, going to study psychology for graduate school, because I couldn't be a hard scientist. I spent all of my time in lab, and it was getting me no where. Nothing was worth it, anymore. I worked at the gym and pretended to study for the GRE.

"You won't feel fulfilled unless you do the dual degree," he told me. I agreed. I switched to studying the MCAT.


Applying and beginning to graduate school was holding onto the final vestiges of my past. I had decided that I would apply to PhD programs and soon after cut off all contact with him. He was going interviews for MD/PhD programs, the stuff of my dreams. He hadn't encouraged me to continue applying dual-degree, even though he knew that's what I wanted to do. But it was fine. I would go after a PhD, with my tremendously teaching-oriented brain. I would apply to the schools that would never have considered me as a dual-degree student.

I was accepted into his dream school, and he was attending mine.

A week before the UPenn interview weekend, I stared at my computer in lab and had a horrible realization.

I hated what I was doing.

I was no longer happy doing animal research. I dreaded every day, every four-hour commute, every dodge around the hall to avoid my PI. I dreaded running my behavioral experiments, Western blots, data analysis. I wasn't excited anymore. I was tired.

"There is no reason to do a PhD if you don't want to do research," my psychiatrist said.

"Try human work," my mother said. "It was why you wanted to do this field in the first place. Then you started talking about mice; it was so unlike you."

And I realized that she was right. I had begun a foray into neuroscience because I was interested in human behavior. I had become a hard scientist because someone told me that psychology was useless.

But I accepted UPenn's admissions offer anyway, and hoped that someone would rub it in his face: I had been accepted into an Ivy League, and he hadn't.

Weeks ago, before all of this, it began with a deep sadness, one that I had felt before. One that had literally nearly killed me before. I curled up in bed and missed my partner; I wished my family was nearby. I ignored my responsibilities to choke on sobs for which I no longer had the energy.

After the election, it became more obvious to me that I had to leave. Not just because I wasn't sure why I was here anymore, but because there were things that I needed to which I needed to attend.

I heard of my Muslim sisters and queer siblings being attacked, of my family of color being threatened, and I knew I couldn't stay any longer.

How could I protect them, these people who are of me and mine, and who also are not? I watch the new stories spin out, and wait for the day my father's picture appears. Or my brother's. Or my best friend's, or my husband's. With every phone call, I pray it is just a normal day's work. I stop paying attention in class to look up the latest articles, to check and make sure that the people I know are safe. For now.

At the beginning of December, I took a deep breath and announced to my cohort on Facebook that I was leaving. I told them the truth, in that post: that I needed to sort my shit out. I told them the truth, in that post: they were the reasons that I had delayed making this decision. Until I had a conversation with my public health advisor, I thought I would stay. I thought I would tough out the sadness.

Then, everything shifted. Our worst fears were realized: our humanity was being taken away from us. There were people who now felt emboldened in their bigotry, their hatred. I looked in the mirror and knew that my invisibilities, which I had always cursed, might keep me alive.

If only everyone would be so lucky.

I didn't tell them the rest of the truth: that I feel useless in my current state, that I can't just sit and watch what is going on in the world, in our backyards. That my mind drifts from thought to thought, until I see injustice. I need to do something about it. I need to fight.

I just can't do that from here.


This post was originally featured in a Tuesday Telegram. Every Tuesday, I send out a Telegram that may or may not later be turned into an edited blog post. Previous topics have included Colin Kaepernick, rape culture, suicide, friendship, and more.

This is part one in a two-part blog post. See the other part here.

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