Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Deep wounds.

Spoiler alert: this post will make reference to several Angel episodes.


A while back, I started seeing a therapist. This was mostly to deal with my feeling of impending career doom.

As far as therapy, I'm not really sure how much progress I'm making, and if in some ways having that weekly appointment isn't creating unhealthy habits (like holding off dealing with emotional things until I'm in her office).

One of the things she wants me to do is work through this feeling of loss. It's weird, though, because I haven't actually lost my job. I still have to show up to work and at least pretend like everything is okay. So I'm sort of leading this dual life: trying to figure out if I want to separate myself from science, while still going through the motions. It's not like I can talk to my advisor about my feelings of doubt and fear and frustration!

Ironically, I think the people in my lab have kind of caught on that things are not so okay, and much to my surprise they're starting to behave more like human beings toward me. So I'm kind of impressed and heartened by that.

They've also been there long enough to have figured out that our PI is not all-powerful and all-knowing. Well, some have figured this out anyway.

And some have suffered setbacks, and some of these were the ones who thought they were invincible. So altogether, I think we're on more even ground now.

With all of that in mind, I'm still feeling like I can't be myself at work. At all. I've developed this persona who keeps her head down and her mouth shut most of the time, because I was always getting backlash when I spoke up too much.

So here's where the Angel character comes in: Fred.

It's not until later in the series that you learn that this scientist chick ended up in a hell dimension not just by accident, but because her thesis advisor sent her there for being too smart.

We find this out because she publishes a paper on her own, after she's no longer a scientist (unlikely, but okay), when her advisor sends a giant monster to try to eat her while she's giving her talk.

It's such a great analogy. So totally apt. It makes me want to cry, but it also makes me laugh.


Back in the hell dimension, when we first meet her, Fred has taken refuge in a cave and gone somewhat crazy (think: grad school). It takes a while for her to recover after she gets back.

Near the very end of the series, like many Joss Whedon characters, Fred gets killed off. And it happens because she's a scientist again, this time in industry, and she's literally killed by her own curiosity, falling into a trap set by a man who finds her overly attractive.

And the way she dies is so poetic: she's literally eaten from the inside out by a powerful demon who takes over her body.


My point in telling you all this is that after she dies, there is this montage sequence that always makes me cry. They flash back to Fred packing up and driving off to grad school, all full of hopes and dreams of doing nothing but science.

I'm finding this story is really helpful for me to acknowledge, as my therapist puts it, my own real and valid pain.

I like it because in a way, just by putting this out there, the people who made this show seem to be saying they know these things are happening. And that kind of public acknowledgment, however buried in this fantasy show about a vampire, is really comforting.

I also like how they use fantasy as analogy for these emotional, otherwise subtle things like having a sexist advisor who literally does everything in his power to try to drive you crazy and get rid of you once and for all.

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At 1:47 PM, Blogger butterflywings said...

Don't know what to say, except- that was well written. And sympathies.

At 3:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good luck with recovering the ability to be yourself at work, wherever you decide to go. Regardless of why, I know how you feel.

At 6:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think what you're going through is similar to what I went through. It was a burnout driven not by overwork but a loss of faith and a slow realization that doing science was not about the craft of science but about political maneuvers, selling and marketing research, and trading publications for money like a commodity. That research was something secondary to the scientific hierarchy and the way positions were gained. Research itself eventually began to feel pointless and showing up daily was a grind. I tried switching labs, but obviously the professionalized competitive grant based system and the tenure system is the same everywhere. After three years as a postdoc, I finally decided to stop giving it another chance. It is really very similar to an abusive relationship - or alternatively, we were in love with an ideal that never existed in the first place. Regardless, I became much happier when I finally quit and I find that I do not miss it at all.

At 9:11 PM, Blogger EngiNerd said...

I am somewhat new to reading your blog but I just wanted to say I can relate to the feelings you are expressing. Good luck in finding your path! You are doing the best that you can for yourself which is being proactive and looking for the change that you need to improve your feelings. It is really hard when I feel like I can not be my full true self... I don't need oppressed by myself I get enough from the outside.

At 7:47 PM, Blogger Unbalanced Reaction said...

Well, I'm glad they're being more civil? I guess?

Wow, that is f*cked up. It simultaneously makes me want to move Angel to the top of my netflix queue AND delete it entirely.

At 2:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As usual, I can sooooo relate to this post. I spent the past year in therapy incrementally giving up my career as a PI scientist, and grieving that loss. One thing that really helped me was to realize that the idealized career we have worked towards really does not exist. Women in science really do not have equal opportunity, the tenure-track and RO1 system really does not protect us (rather exposes us brutally to failure at the end of our childbearing years), etc. When I realized that it didn't exist, it was easier to give it up, even though I wasn't less angry about the injustices and the loss of my time and innocence.

BTW, when I finally _really_ gave up the PI dream, I slept solidly for two weeks, every night. Not a single bad dream, not waking up lost in the middle of the night, and not waking in the morning with a sense of impending doom. I hope you get that sense of relief too.

At 6:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous 6:11pm, you made me almost cry. I am new to this blog, but wow, can I identify! Thank you, YoungFemaleScientist, for saying what you did so well. I'm YFS as well, and going through exactly the same thing. Worse, dh is mad *for* me, which puts pressure on me on top of the sense of loss of my idealism I'm already grappling with.....

At 7:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

nice analysis.

and i love angel. go fred!!

At 4:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

After I quit, the occasional dreams/nightmares where I'm getting pursued by monsters that I can never fight off went away for me as well. I don't think it takes a genius to analyze what those dreams represented :-D. My spouse also says that I am less grumpy and much more pleasant to be around.

At 6:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes. I too have been through a real grieving for the loss of a dream. I even became physically very sick (which I never am), I think because my grief had increased my stress and lowered my immunity to illness. I had wanted to be a scientist for years and years, did a PhD, and then postdoc. When I came to accept that I may never progress past this, it was an awful period. It was difficult to explain to people the sense of grief that I felt (eg they would say "its only a job"). It was useful for me to consider the stages of grief associated with death (Elizabeth Kubler-Ross) with its stages of anger, denial, and finally acceptance. In my case, this acceptance consists of openness to going on and enjoying my life in other careers or places. The dream may still happen, but I have less of my self worth tied up in it now, and less of a sense of failure. I also agree with the commenter who says that the idealised career we hoped for does not exist. I have found this to be the case.

At 2:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is natural to experience grief and loss over a job/career ending or not panning out. No one goes into science just to do it as a job and nothing more. If we were only interested in getting any job to pay the bills, it makes no sense to slog through grad school and then postdoc, thus delaying our income-earning by 10 or more years. We all go into science because it is our passion. So when the science career doesn't pan out, not only do we mourn because literally a part of ourselves is now killed off or forever suppressed, but it is also a huge let down that all the years of sacrifice in the end was for nothing.

At 2:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

RE: Anon 2:01

Ouch. So true. A career that crashes and burns in science is agonizing. Failing a business career might not hurt as much because well, people do business for itself: the money. In business you see more immediate career and scientific results. In science, bleeding 10+ years of low pay and late hours only to know it all for naught hurts like few crushed dreams do.

sorry for any redundancy, but that comment needed a X2

At 6:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Montage Fred, full of hopes and dreams, reminds me of how I felt a few weeks ago when the University where I now postdoc hosted a science event for junior high girls. I got to be a "buddy", and we went around through all kinds of exhibits and workshops ("predators on the wing," "alchemy," etc), all hosted by women currently graduate students and postdocs. For me, this was an unexpected emotional minefield--hearing the keynote address (phenomenal, successful woman in academia who analyzes volcanoes for a living and still seems to have FUN), and seeing the wonder and excitement and curiosity on those young, fresh faces--it felt oh so painfully bittersweet. On the one hand, it was exciting and nostalgic to remember those halcyon days when my eyes, too, shone at the thought of spending my life discovering the laws of nature and dreaming of one day "turning lead into gold." But on the other...I, too, fear that the ivory tower of academia that I once believed in so passionately does not exist, except perhaps for a precious, intrepid few who are able to design a position for themselves to succeed. It's an incredible achievement for a woman to reach a level where she can express her passion in her career and fully realize her scientific self. And the loss you speak of is more than that of a dream job, it's the loss of your true passions and life's work (it's not like you can build a particle accelerator in your back yard as a weekend hobby, after all). And given the passion and emotion and identity and sacrifices that we made for this dream every day, and the good contributions we know we could have made if only given a fighting chance...well, it's not surprising that it's so hard. Hang in there! The one thing that I'm trying to do for myself is to stop trying to mold myself into something that will work for an R01 (which I am interpreting as a loss of soul and certainly a loss of authentic self), but I am trying instead to find a position that allows me to do everything that I dream of doing without the domineering politics. I know this is not a new idea, but I'm hoping that creativity and serendipity will prevail in the end - wish me luck!


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