Before starting grad school, people often told me this would be a difficult phase of my life in many ways. I didn’t know at that point what they were talking about. But when I moved to the U.S. six months back, the main thing that hit me was loneliness. As a grad student, I end up seeing the same five to seven people every day in the lab. Most of them believe in having a professional relationship. If you are lucky enough, you may find one or two good friends in them.
When I came over here, I was this nervous 21-year-old girl who had no idea how to handle life. Meeting new people and making friends has always been a challenge for an introvert like me. I used to just go to the lab, work on my stuff and go back to my apartment.
I always had these uneasy sensations: the fear that if I spoke, I would either sound stupid or self-aggrandizing; the sense that my success was unexpected and undeserved; the anxiety about leaving my comfort zone to try something exciting and hard and possibly risky.
But I had really good roommates in my apartment who had been in the U.S. for years and made me believe that someday I would also be super comfortable in this country. And then after two months, my roommates were graduating, leaving me alone, with a lot of fear and questions in my head.
I started going to random parties and spending nights out with classmates in order to make new friends, but I always felt out of place. As soon as I got back to my room, darkness and anxiety would surround me like hell. But I tried to hold my own and to find ways to get rid of this feeling.
I started working late nights in the lab, so I was tired enough that I could go to sleep without overthinking. In the mornings, I would run on my terrace to watch the sunrise, write some gratitude lines in my diary, listen to Rahat Fateh Ali Khan songs, take a shower and run to the lab to immediately start working. Most of the time I used to skip meals.
It looked like I was running away from loneliness. And, as they say, the more you run from something, the more it tries to catch you. As soon as I went back to my room, I broke down. I constantly felt that I wasn’t doing anything worthy in my life, that I wasn’t fulfilling even my own expectations. I would ask myself, “Do I have such a bad personality that I can’t even find one good friend?”
But I always knew that I would try again tomorrow. I couldn’t stop thinking that I had invested so much in getting a grad student position at Hopkins, and I definitely didn’t want to go in vain.
I started giving time to myself, taking it slow, working on my hobbies like writing and digital painting, getting closer to nature. I remember there was a month when I went hiking almost every weekend. I felt that the trails were constantly calling me. I went there, sat with my diary and vented about the entire week so that I could breathe a little and get myself prepared for the next one.
My mother has always told me, “Who else can be the best company than mountains and trees themselves?” Mountains are bound to none. To exist in the mountains is to know that not everything can be controlled. To know a different rhythm than the one we humans have created is magic in itself. Because deep in the heart of the mountains, nature is unforgiving, untamed, unapologetically itself. There is beauty that keeps itself in balance with life and death.
I started unlearning a few things. I stopped being so harsh on myself. I learned that it’s okay to take a break when needed. It’s okay to just sit down and introspect at times. And, most importantly, it’s okay to not always want to be in a group of friends.
The one thing I can always do is be kind and compassionate toward everyone. I am sure this country may be a tough place to live, but it’s not a bad place. I am slowly learning to talk to people, to hear their stories and to tell some of mine. I am also getting along with my colleagues in the lab. Gradually learning about their own first-year struggles gives me an immense amount of strength.
I am discovering that as long as I keep the compassion and humanity within me alive, it’s not going to die a slow death.
Sudha Yadav is a graduate student from North India in the Department of Chemistry. Her column, Crystal from the Valleys, talks about the roller coaster ride of grad life, seeing beauty in chemistry and getting inspiration from nature.