The night before my dissertation defense, I laid in my bed crying enduring panic attack after panic attack. I had received a text message from Zachary who had been something like an Angelo Dundee during the process for me, “Breathe. Get it done”. In between reading comments and making changes I would massage my aching hands and whisper to myself, “Breathe. Get it done.” I felt as though every angel I had in heaven, my Uncle Bill and Aunt Lisa, cousin Shannon and Granny, they were all soothing my muscles that throbbed so badly at the stress that made them tight and knotty. I don’t remember getting done, but I do remember the feeling of being pulled. It was as if my body had completely given up and could not function any more and yet something or someone was carrying me to the finish line.
The day of my defense I could feel Zachary inquiring about that place; not the defeat but the surrender. It was too tender and I was very much aware of the nearly forty people stuffed in the room watching me talk about the power of authentic connection from behind a barrier. Please don’t make me come over there I was begging energetically to be left alone. For my committee to decide that good enough was good enough and to sink back into their chairs and decide it was over. This moment never came, despite my desperate cries for its arrival. What did come was the dissipation of the barrier and my tears. Admitting the painful truth that even as I sat a capable, competent, doctor of philosophy in the making, I was terrified, I was feeling mentally unstable and raw and weak. And Zachary eased his interrogation, welcoming me and congratulating me on a race well run. Down on my knees in disbelief I looked around to see who carried me. It was each of the people in that room, it was everyone mentioned in my acknowledgements, it was every angel in heaven and it was the Holy Spirit itself.
By graduation day I thought the excitement would set in. My family had safely arrived and I had successfully surprised my mother the day before by giving a speech at the Black Graduates Recognition Ceremony. I was so full of love on that day. Having my mother and sisters meant the world to me. Mentally I was preparing to try to simply stay present and soak up every moment. As Annie and I took the tram over to the arena and prepared for commencement, I began to cry. I remembered arriving on campus that first day 2200 miles away from everyone I loved. Feeling lost and like I had somehow made a huge mistake in jumping so quickly into this new adventure. Yet, here I was at the end of it. Checking a huge accomplishment off my list of things to do where it had sat for nearly 8 years when I first scribbled it down: Get PhD. I cried for nearly the entire three hour ceremony including the whole time I walked across the stage and hugged my dissertation chair. My hat fell off twice and I didn’t even care, it was a perfect representation of how I felt. A little bit disheveled but all the way blessed.
In the weeks after came more transitions. Work, moving, saying goodbye to friends, trying to find my footing as a full time professional who now had the freedom to set a new goal. It was as if I could not handle everything that came with this type of unbounded freedom and I began to implode. It did not make any sense, perhaps, to people on the outside looking in. When my psychiatrist told me I had illogical responses to reality (the joyous reality of completing my PhD that instead made me weepy and insular) I winced. What does it mean when even your psychiatrist thinks, man this chick is fucked up!
Over and over again I would study photos from the day and try to only feel the joy, instead of the stress over money, over moving, over what it all meant to be done, over the book that “should” follow, over the next career move. But I couldn’t block it out and inevitably all of the bad stuff would drown out the good. Which, in turn, made me incredibly sad. It was like all the light and happiness from this momentous occasion was hidden just behind a curtain and I couldn’t seem to just reach it…it was just out of fingertips grasp.
I chopped all my hair off. I was growing desperate to escape this prison of melancholy. I was more honest with friends and family than I had ever been. I allowed myself to fall and romantically commit to one of my dearest friends. I am constantly pushing myself to do the things that feel unsafe, uncertain, uncomfortable. Because I want so badly to one day wake up and be bathed in that light with the curtain wide open and my entire body filled with satisfaction. I am Dr. Williams and I have been her since April 20, 2016 but what I await is the day that I feel I have become her. When I can sit with my accomplishment staring squarely in my face and feel proud of myself for persevering and overcoming ALL the obstacles that arose in my five years of becoming, well of obvious becoming. Anxiety, you will not win. You will not now, and you did not then. I will never not be in pursuit of my peace and my happiness. And I will always be striving. I will always be working and as long as I have breath in my body, I am always becoming.