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[re:tell] The Dark Side of a Shiny Life

To those who don’t know me well, my life looks exciting. I’ve been halfway around the world to attend conferences, I’ve lived in five countries in the past 6 years, and I’ve met phenomenal people along the way. But there’s a dark side to it. Dealing with life on your own in an unfamiliar country where you have no support system is hard. It gets harder when you add the complications of immigration. 

Throughout my bachelor’s, law school, and master’s programs, and while working at different courts around the world, I always saw myself as a high achiever who couldn’t fail if I put my mind to something. In 2017, I achieved an extremely important goal in my life, something I had been steadily working toward for nearly a decade⁠. I was accepted into a renowned doctoral program at the University of Toronto and offered great funding. This reinforced the image I had of myself. 

Leading up to the program, I was excited to move to Canada even though it meant I had to leave people behind. 

My move happened to coincide with the beginning of the #metoo movement. I was heartened to see people talking about their stories but there was a dark side for me, as well. Everywhere I went I was inundated with stories involving violations ranging from sexual harassment to rape. It was difficult for me. I could no longer ignore my own story of sexual violence, which I had hidden and denied for over 5 years at that point. 

I tried as best I could to ignore it. After all, I was in a challenging program with tight deadlines and couldn’t afford more stress. But I couldn’t sleep, I had nightmares, I avoided going out and meeting people, and every little worry I had turned into a catastrophic spiral of thoughts that wouldn’t let up. 

Then I didn’t meet one of my program benchmarks. I still had no idea what was wrong. I thought I was crumbling under academic anxiety but it just didn’t make sense. I was prepared for this program. I’d been in high-pressure situations before and I always welcomed the challenge. 

In October 2018, after a whole year of trying to deal with these symptoms on my own, I realized that my anxiety wouldn’t just magically go away. I needed help.

I decided to go to therapy, where I was diagnosed with PTSD. When my therapist told me, I only felt relief. I wasn’t upset. I was relieved that I had finally discovered the cause of my misery and that I could put a name to the monster in my closet.

Like many people, I was under the mistaken impression that war veterans are the only demographic that deals with PTSD. I now know that the incidence of PTSD in survivors of sexual violence is also high. Once I knew what I was going through had a name, I read everything I could about it⁠— research papers, anecdotes, spoon theory, etc. I even researched other anxiety disorders because it helped me understand and accept what was happening. It was like another education for me.

But I was still an international student in a full-time study program. I now had to navigate the challenging and complex bureaucracy at the university. I had to go through the accessibility and accommodations systems, the school of graduate studies, and my own faculty. I was going through so much, yet I had to connect with people in multiple departments to find out how I could do right by myself. I had to navigate financial issues, too. Graduate students receive a measly $500 a year for therapy under the university health insurance plan. It was stressful, to say the least.

This year, I finally caught a break. I changed my project and supervisor. I was able to open up to my new supervisor about some of the issues I faced. 

It has taken intense therapy with a fantastic therapist. It’s taken a ton of willpower to keep at it and to keep at my homework on the days it felt like everything was lost. It’s taken a lot of support from people who went out of their way for me. It’s taken all that and a full year to finally reach a point where I am not dealing with symptoms on a daily basis. 

I still have days where the intrusive thoughts are too much and I’m sent into a panic, some days to a point where it’s difficult to breathe. I now know how to deal with symptoms in a healthy way without getting anxious about the anxiety. I have new tools in my toolbox crafted specifically for these situations. 

Over the course of this year I’ve learned so much about myself, the human mind, and the world. I’ve learned that if I can survive all of this then I have the fortitude and resilience to get through just about anything. So here I am, living my most authentic life, and always learning new things. I think that’s all life really isan ongoing process of evolution and learning.

 Aishani Gupta is a doctoral student at the University of Toronto.  

This blog is part of our re:tell series that showcases stories from Canadian postsecondary students.