Posted by: Viola | July 20, 2010

A Personal Essay

In late May of this year, an essay I wrote in 2007-2008 was finally published. I started the essay soon after I left my PhD program in anthropology. I had just earned my master’s degree and decided that continuing with my initial PhD track was not the right path for me. A difficult decision to make, and it took me a long time to be at peace with my departure from anthropology/grad school, but I am glad I left. I’ve been much happier ever since. I’ve been able to discover new passions. Create new goals and accomplish them, one by one. I’ve learned to be a better writer and person. I want to be a better person. I want to do work that makes me a better person. Trying to be an anthropologist was turning me into someone I could not recognize as Viola. Someone sad and tired. Perpetually so. Writing about my time in grad school helped me organize my thoughts and experiences, helped me move forward. Helped me turn something negative into something creative and empowering, especially for other students who might be going through what I went through and who need to know they are not alone. Writing doesn’t necessarily have to be therapy, but for me, it was. Writing this essay helped me start the process of healing all the damage that I had sustained for many years as a student. I am not completely healed, and I may never be. But I am stronger now. Mostly, I can sleep through the night. For me, being able to sleep means everything, being able to close my eyes and sleep and breathe deeply. It means everything. It means I feel alive. It means…I can feel.

Here is an excerpt, with a link below that takes you to the full essay:

I would sit up in bed, listening to my heart pound and waiting for it to slow down, afraid that it might stop beating altogether. I would rub at my arms impatiently, waiting for the sound to die down, the sound of waves crashing somewhere in my ears and filling my head with water. I would curl up into a tight ball and will my heart not to jump out of my chest. My heart was a red, hot, uncooperative mass of flesh, obstinate and, unfortunately, out of reach. I would run my hand over my chest in the space beneath my breasts, imagining that the touch of a hand would somehow break through my heart’s belligerence. But like a difficult baby who will not go to sleep at night and who wakes its parents every few hours shrieking its complaints, my heart became my own little terror. It refused to see how inconvenient its nightly tantrums were. I felt betrayed. You betray me, so who will stand by me?

Most of my attempts at slowing my heart down were futile. I tried talking to it. “There is nothing to be worried about,” I would say in a soft but firm voice. Anyone who knows me will say I have a very soft voice, barely audible sometimes. If any voice can soothe a wild heart, it ought to be my own. I could not talk to my own heart.

Sometimes, I felt the urge to walk around, so I would get up and walk around my “efficiency” apartment, a small 230-square-foot space on the quiet ground-level floor of a vast redbrick apartment complex. My apartment was efficient, just as my journey through grad school was meant to be. It had a kitchenette, a small bathroom, and a room that served as my bedroom and my office. Bookshelves were the main decoration, but a large, blue batik cloth painting from Le Marché de Fleurs, the tourist market in Douala, hung above my twin bed and lit up the room. A bustling port city in Cameroon, Douala is considered the country’s economic capital. The tourist market is where foreigners and tourists can purchase fresh flowers and souvenirs like jewelry and woodcarvings. Big and small batik paintings, rich in color and made on cloth with the help of dyes and wax, adorn makeshift stalls on one side of the market.

The deep blue of the painting above my bed filled my room with life. Men and women in colorful clothes, with baskets of fruit on their heads, live in this painting, but as I paced back and forth on sleepless nights, I did not see their peaceful faces. What I saw—and despised—was the inefficiency of insomnia and anxiety, the failure of my own body and mind at coping with the rigor of graduate school. Sad and frustrated, I would pick up a book from a pile of unfinished reading next to my bed and read until I felt brave enough to close my eyes, no longer afraid of death.

Taken from: Leaving: A Personal Narrative of Graduate School, MDIA Volume 18, 2010, pages 120-121.


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