IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Dropped Out Of Graduate School After Moving Across The World To Be There

What looks like failure was the best choice I’ve ever made.
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Publish date:
January 2, 2015
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perfectionism, grad school, failure, school, Ireland, Studying Abroad

Like any good millennial, I have known for most of my life that I plan to Travel. This is different from travel because it involves growing as a person, stretching your boundaries, and learning life lessons. So last spring I sent an application to an Irish graduate school, not expecting anything to come of it.

I was elated when my acceptance letter came and immediately (like the Type A that I am) began planning every detail. I read over course descriptions, planned my schedule, looked up plane tickets, found housing, and pored over “To Do In Ireland” lists. I was coming off of a five year stint of serious depression and an eating disorder and this would be my triumphant return to functional adult life (more like my somewhat belated first entrance into functional adult life).

As September drew closer, my excitement began to fade. It took me weeks to get the university to confirm my start date, even more time and frustration to determine how registration worked, and I’m still not entirely certain of the details of the program I was registered for. An uncertain feeling grew in the pit of my stomach at the seeming ineptitude of the university, while I began to notice more and more the ways I was loving my current life.

But I’ve never been good at backing out of commitments, and so as my terror grew and my excitement dwindled, I kept smiling and pretending it was just pre-move jitters. The façade cracked the night before I left, and I spent hours bawling messily in my room. I was utterly certain that I was making the worst mistake of my life.

This did not stop me from getting on the plane the next morning. I had a plan and I was sticking to it. It didn’t matter that I liked my life at home, or that I felt as if I was running away from tension with my mother, or that my grandfather had just died and everyone was feeling tender. This was what I was supposed to do.

I’m usually a master at sleeping (I can fall asleep at the drop of a hat and stay that way fairly indefinitely), but in the 13 hours of travel I only managed a meager hour of sleep on the bus from the airport to Cork. My ever patient father was traveling with me to help me through my first week, and he kindly ignored the periodic fits of anxiety that came over me.

After what felt like no sleep at all, my dad poked me awake and pointed out the window. I was treated to my first glimpse of the city that I would be living in: it was small, cramped, and very gray. Concrete buildings, graffiti, and the smallest sidewalks I had ever laid eyes on made up most of the city. My heart sank further.

We checked in at our hotel, and spent the next few hours wandering in order to fight jetlag. My father, usually stellar at directions, got us astoundingly lost and we arrived back at the hotel many hours later than intended. At this point I had blisters, I was exhausted, and I was not feeling happy feelings towards Cork.

Thankfully my sleeping superpowers kicked in and I spent the next 18 hours blissfully unconscious. I woke up shaking with hunger, but slightly more hopeful about the next year of my life.

Fortified with a sandwich, we decided to take a look at the school. The campus was gorgeous. The front gates opened onto a stream with low hanging willow trees, and everything was painfully, intensely green. ‘This could work," I thought to myself as we walked to the quad and got a glimpse of what appeared to be Hogwarts.

So I spent the next week trying to settle in my new city. After a few crossed wires, I finally connected with my landlady and moved into my apartment. It was less than impressive. From the outside it looked like it had survived a bombing: gray and depressing with black blemishes across the surface. Inside was not a great improvement. The window was broken, and not in a “stuck in the down position” kind of way, in a “there is an actual hole in this glass” kind of way. In quaint Irish fashion, there was no WiFi, despite the fact that this apartment complex catered exclusively to university students. And in an odd twist of fate, the toilet seat would fall off every time I tried to sit on it.

But I had committed, and so I unpacked my two suitcases (while crying) and spent the night alone in my new apartment. I don’t remember much of the next week except that my dad and I tried to make things seem OK, and tears kept seeping out of my eyes at the most inopportune moments. Crying whenever I’m overwhelmed is definitely not my favorite depression side effect.

In a spot of brightness we visited Killarney National Park which was actually so green that it looked photoshopped. I would have been happy to hide away there for a few months.

My dad flew home. I have never felt more alone in my life. The six hour time difference between home and Cork meant that I started staying up late into the night to talk to my friends and sleeping away most of my days. Classes weren’t set to start for another couple of weeks, and so when I did manage to wake up on time, I tried to find ways to make the city my own.

I have fully internalized the American college habit of living in coffee shops. I love them. They are my safe spaces. Imagine my surprise to discover that I was given odd looks for camping out in a café with my laptop. In vain I searched for “my coffee shop,” a place with reliable WiFi and a decent mocha. Apparently the Irish like horrible coffee and not getting work done, because it was nowhere to be found, and everything that wasn’t a pub was closed by 6:00 anyway.

Days passed and I didn’t speak to another human being. I have never been good at being lonely. Thanks to a whole big heaping of mental illness, being alone with my brain sends me spiraling. To say that I was not coping would be the understatement of the century. But still, I went to orientation and trolled OkCupid looking for friends (no, this is not a good choice), I left my apartment every day to keep my mood up, and I pulled out every coping skill I knew.

Until the bomb dropped: that Master’s degree that I thought I was getting? Turns out I was registered for something else. And the Master’s degree would require an additional six months in Ireland. I looked at my bank account. I looked at the drab city around me. I looked at my Facebook, at the encouraging words of my friends and the hugs they were sending me. I wanted to be with them so badly that I thought I would puke (or was that the bottle of wine I had just polished off in a fit of belligerence?).

There are some things you know in ways you can’t express with logic. Did I come home because the program wasn’t what I thought it was? Was it because my eating disorder was kicking up again in nasty and unexpected ways? Had I finally realized that I had an utterly kickass life back in Minnesota and I wanted it back? There were elements of all of these things, but what it came down to was certainty.

Somehow I knew that this place was not good and it was not good for me. I also knew that if I had needed to, I could have stayed and survived. But there is no glory in living through a situation that feels horrible simply to prove that you can. I’ve done that before (see: having an eating disorder), and this time I wanted to choose to be healthy.

The next day I booked my ticket home.