Robert Neubecker

To develop healthy coping skills during grad school, first I had to hit rock bottom

I opened my swollen, bleary eyes to see a young police officer crouched close to my face, pen hovering over a clipboard. It was the same officer who had taken my mugshot. I had woken from an uncomfortable sleep, my body draped across three chairs in the police station holding room, my arms pulled inside my shirt in a futile attempt to keep warm. I peeked at the clock: 3:13 a.m. My body ached so much that I couldn’t focus on his words. Methodically, he ran through the intake form. “Are you feeling hopeless or have nothing to look forward to?” I blinked back a new round of tears, slowly understanding that he was asking me whether I intended to commit suicide while I was held in jail. This was rock bottom. It was also the wake-up call I needed.

Five years into a Ph.D. program and separated from my husband—a decision I had made—I was unable to right myself from a deep depression and had just been arrested for driving while intoxicated. My husband and I had started our Ph.D. programs at the same time. We were older than our classmates, which increased the pressure to succeed, and managing the workload put a major strain on our relationship. If we allowed anything other than work to be our top priority, even temporarily, we were overcome by guilt. We stopped making time to go camping or take regular vacations. I felt neglected and seemed to want more from him than he could provide. Although we both wanted to start a family at some point, it was not the “right time.” We would always have time for our relationship later, we thought.

We were wrong. The tiny crack of disconnect widened. After 4 years as Ph.D. students, we went our own ways.

I struggled to continue on my Ph.D. journey alone. My isolation increased as friends graduated and left the area. Social media reminded me of the things I hadn’t yet accomplished and sometimes felt I was too old to ever realize: a permanent job, a home, a family of my own—the American dream. Healthy coping mechanisms—such as going to the gym, joining a sports team, or simply sitting with my intense disappointment and fear about the future—felt like luxuries that I could not afford. Instead, my new normal became drinking after a hard day—which was just about every day. I knew my family had a history of alcoholism that had blighted my mother’s childhood, but I did not think my mode of dealing with stress was self-destructive.

No, that’s not true. I knew I was unhappy. I knew that waking up hungover with little recollection of the night before meant a day of work lost. Nevertheless, I did not care, as long as drinking brought momentary relief. I told myself that I was drinking as a way to cope with feeling left behind in life, but really, I was self-medicating to stop feeling anything at all.

Healthy coping mechanisms ... felt like luxuries that I could not afford.

It ended with a wrecked car and an arrest. Fortunately, no one was physically harmed, but they could have been. After a year of court proceedings, I am now 4 months into a year of probation, which includes thrice-daily breathalyzer tests, bimonthly urinalyses, courses at Mothers Against Drunk Driving, fines, fees, and more shame than I ever thought possible. At first, it all seemed unfair. I did not think I had a problem, and I fought tooth and nail against the punishments.

But after hearing from a mother who lost her daughter because of a drunk driver, I finally faced up to my part in everything that happened. I had made the decision to pursue a Ph.D. I had made the decision to leave my husband. And I had made the decision to drink and drive. Now, I needed to make the decision to get my life back on track. I got my drinking under control. Somewhat miraculously, I just successfully defended my Ph.D. thesis, which brings a mixture of pride, relief, and regret that it cost me so much.

For others who are precariously close to the edge of their own self-destructive whirlpool, perhaps my story can serve as a cautionary tale. Life does not stop while you are in graduate school. Graduate school is a part of life. You have to take care of yourself and find healthy ways to cope. You have to pay attention.

Do you have an interesting career story? Send it to SciCareerEditor@aaas.org.

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