ANONYMOUS: The Lab is My Sanctuary
"Even though I didn’t feel like I belonged, I was always more than happy to be there because it meant I didn’t have to be at home."
Editor’s note: The contributor, a physics student currently in the state of Wisconsin, has requested to publish this story anonymously due to its sensitive nature, including the depiction of sexual abuse, substance use, suicide, and domestic violence. Viewer discretion is advised.
I was abused.
I find myself reading a lot of articles that focus on toxic environments in graduate school. There are endless counts of horrifying professors, bullying, sexual harassment, stealing, back-stabbing, and suicide. Even this year alone, I think I read at least ten cases of graduate students committing suicide from workplaces that were extremely toxic. I even met a couple of students myself that was very close to suicide if it hadn’t been for external interventions. The whole world of STEM graduate school seems to be a disaster and it has only begun to rear its ugly head in public.
Even so, graduate school was a sanctuary for me.
I don’t want to give the impression that I’m minimizing anyone’s experiences that have been negative in a graduate program. Everyone’s experiences and feelings are 100% valid no matter the context, particularly those who have suffered due to a toxic work environment. It also isn’t right to “compare experiences” and judge which situations are “worse than others.” Although my own experience in graduate school was generally positive while at school, it doesn’t mean that other problems don’t happen to others. I just wanted to make that perfectly clear before we move on.
Graduate school was simultaneously an escape from home and an excuse to be constantly distracted from the life I faced outside it. Learning differences between a Hamiltonian and Lagrangian? No problem. Vector fields? Sure. The skin depth of a conducting surface? I don’t understand it but I’ll take it. I didn’t mind being one of the five female-presenting students (out of 30) at the time. It didn’t bother me that much to feel so behind in my knowledge of physics or the fact that I lacked most of the previous classes many of my classmates had already taken. Even though I didn’t feel like I belonged, I was always more than happy to be there because it meant I didn’t have to be at home. And the textbooks smelled nice.
The thing about abuse is that it’s hard to know it’s happening. You’re made to feel like everything horrible happening to you is actually your fault and it’s what you deserve. You’re told that if you had just known this or that then you wouldn’t have to have a chair thrown at you. If only you’ve kept your mouth shut during that phone call then you didn’t have to be hit in the stomach. And you would have gotten sleep last night instead of being sexually abused if you had only shaved your legs. This is what I believed for years.
But no matter what stage of adulthood I suffered through, I always felt that I had a place in science. Even if I felt that I was merely an observer and not really a part of the community, the topics gave me so much comfort that I’d always brush off any unpleasant feelings that go along with graduate school. They felt so minor and minuscule compared to the gargantuan problems that waited at home so it was easy to just ignore them and focus on the science when I was able to. I didn’t have hardly any time to study while I was at home but reading my textbooks after class made me happy. I felt like I wanted to know all of science because the whole world was interesting. Even though I was a part of the Physics Ph.D. program, I imagined plans to study all the science disciplines in one way or another. Even if I made no contribution to a field, it didn’t matter. I just loved learning.
Maybe hiding in science is what has kept me content enough to delay ending my marriage. Maybe it was the only thing that kept me alive. It’s hard to tell.
I want to tell my story on the happen-chance that someone going through a similar experience will read it and say “I can relate to that.” The entire time I was abused, I didn’t know a single person that I could relate to. If I had, I know for sure that it would have made things a little bit easier just knowing that someone out there would nod their heads in understanding. If that happens to be you, right now, then know that I am always rooting for you. I am in your corner, even though we’ve never met. Because I understand.
The thing about abuse is that it’s hard to know it’s happening. You’re made to feel like everything horrible happening to you is actually your fault and it’s what you deserve.
I sometimes ask myself how I got into such a bad relationship in the first place but I immediately know the answer to that. I was trying my best at the time and based on my current knowledge of the situation I was in, this marriage seemed like my best option. After all, I was an out-of-state undergraduate who was coming up on their fourth and final year in college. I was homeless. My scholarship and the only way of paying for school came to an end. I was unable to claim residency because my parents wanted the $1200 dependency tax credits against my pleas for the chance at a residency, even though I received absolutely no assistance from them in any form. I was even kicked off from their health insurance at 19. I was unable to take on enough student loans to cover tuition because of my parent’s refusal to co-sign. The one measly Walmart credit card I was approved for had been maxed out just from buying groceries. I was already working the maximum amount of hours that my on-campus job would allow. And I was taking 23 credit hours and making straight A’s. Well, almost. There were some B’s too.
And there he was. I remember thinking that I liked him because he reminded me of my mom. With him, I had a home, food, and was able to finish my bachelor’s degree. But the price was far greater than I had ever anticipated.
I remember suddenly breaking down while talking to the Dean of the Honors College shortly after we started dating. It was embarrassing! Right in the middle of a conversation about possible research projects, I just broke down and started sobbing uncontrollably out of nowhere. I couldn’t stop. She was very compassionate, but honestly, I felt so ashamed and confused that I hadn’t even thought about telling her what was going on in my life. In fact, I hadn’t told a single person.
Because of my upbringing, I was under the impression that I had put myself into such a difficult spot. I was taught to believe that I had to “pull myself up by my bootstraps” and suck it up. Since I hadn’t been working on getting college scholarships at the age of 13 and had a “slacker GPA” of 3.75 in high school, this was on me. I should have worked harder! I should have done much more between the ages of 13 and 18 to prepare for college. I should have been the president of the Honors Society, joined the debate team (that our school didn’t actually have), aced all my AP exams, while at the same time practicing the piano 4+ hours per day. That’s the reason I was in a state school instead of a nice place like Harvard. I was a lazy kid, and lazy kids go to state schools, the military, or (even worse) community college.
Of course, I don’t believe these things now. It’s completely ridiculous! There are so many things wrong with those beliefs that I don’t even know where to begin. But growing up as a kid, being as isolated and abused as I was, I had no choice but to navigate the landscape of “success” that my parents drilled into me. So I didn’t tell anyone because I felt ashamed.
One of the biggest lessons I learned was to never, ever assume what someone was going through. Even if they always have a smile on their faces and wear a bright yellow, you really should never make assumptions. This hit me especially hard when I was a TA. I was having a casual science conversation with a student when suddenly, she burst into tears as I had. She couldn’t stop sobbing and stammered that she was so sorry for crying and she didn’t know what was going on and that she couldn’t stop. My heart broke for her. All I could do was comfort her to the best of my ability and assure her that I was always there for her if she needed anything. After all, I had done the exact same thing, breaking down like that. Although we knew nothing about each other’s lives, I knew how important it was to always be kind to everyone. Especially in the sciences. Science is hard enough.
I didn’t tell anyone about my home life until about two years from my divorce, after being married for three years. Before we were married, I had already known him for a year or so just in passing. But even as we started to hang out alone, he didn’t show any immediate signs of abuse or instability. He actually seemed like a very fun guy and would often take the lead in forming spontaneous group activities with the other physics students, which I enjoyed a lot. He was also fairly honest about his own life history, which by the way was about as dark as it gets. But despite all the hardships he lived through, he worked hard to complete a college degree because he wanted a better life. I thought it was inspiring.
And that’s exactly where I should have left it. But when my forces of desperation and low self-esteem met his forces of violence and abuse, I was truly left with nothing and nobody. We married quickly, eloped, almost like we had found the solution to both of our lives’ problems and didn’t hesitate to apply the solution where needed.
One of the biggest lessons I learned was to never, ever assume what someone was going through. Even if they always have a smile on their faces and wear a bright yellow, you really should never make assumptions.
Of course, I regretted it almost immediately after. Not like the second-thoughts kind of feelings. I mean full-on painful, whole, deep regret. It happened when he forcefully threw a heavy gaming laptop against the wall, shattering it because he had maxed out his student loans. I stared at the broken pieces and thought to myself “What have I done to my life?” The full cost of my decision to marry him had settled in. I had legally bound myself to a man who was completely unpredictable and offered me no future beyond my last year of college. This feeling settled into my gut like a dense ball of acid. He would yell, scream, hit, break, and force himself any which was he pleased in any situation that didn’t immediately benefit him. Imagine the temper tantrum of a screaming two-year-old at a grocery store, but with a 260-pound man who had over a decade of martial arts experience and a lifetime of extreme abuse. He had been hiding the most insidious nature in a person I have ever seen in my life. And I watch a lot of Netflix crime documentaries.
My need for survival was elevated to a whole other level. I quickly learned that the only way to survive such a violent abuser was to combat it with extreme calmness, passiveness, and emptiness. Below are some examples of tactics I used to endure my entire marriage:
Calmness: When he tells you how he imagines ripping your guts out through your mouth, just nod your head and suggest that it might make you feel sad but that you understand his anger. Remember, an abuser’s conversation is about them and not you. Anything you share should be explicitly said for his benefit.
Passiveness: When he punches the dog in the pelvis, remove yourself from the area. Go into another room. Later, casually suggest that you noticed how the dog is making the abuser angry and point out how much easier life would be without the dog. While you’re pretending to “do things because you’re so concerned about him,” find the dog a new home after secretly nursing it back to health.
Emptiness: You’re not allowed to be in a relationship with an abuser. You may be there physically, but an abusive relationship does not allow any room for you. You have no place to express your own feelings, explore your own self, or to do what you like.
And then there was also science. It was the only place I knew that I could exist as a whole person because it was a private universe. It didn’t matter that the “famous” scientists were all white men because I only saw some text on a page. It was only me and the books and wonderful things about the world. I loved how knowing more about math changed how I saw everything. And even though I never actually got comfortable with electricity and magnetism (I still feel like I am horrible at vector-stuff-maths) I still loved the part where it turned into quantum mechanics. I had an entire world that was completely untouchable by anyone else. Even going through all the screaming and starvation, I could always think about the 16th-century philosophy of infinity stretching over a three-dimensional space.
The most insidious kind of abuse is where you don’t know that it’s happening. Because then you don’t know that you should seek help.
But all the human relationships I had prior to him were destroyed. Any attempt to reach out was met with violence. Sure, I saw the fliers in the bathroom that encouraged the abused to seek help. I heard a talk from a psychologist who studied how victims leave their abusers. I knew the websites. Saw the documentaries. But they didn’t work because I didn’t even know I was being abused.
The most insidious kind of abuse is where you don’t know that it’s happening. Because then you don’t know that you should seek help. I remember thinking, “Those poor other people, that sounds awful” and then looking at my own life and thinking “Yes, this is what I deserve.” Today, I still can’t believe I existed with such a low state of mind, but that’s really how it was.
Completely isolated, without any friends or family, and unwilling to seek any mentors (after all, who cares about me), I strongly considered suicide. I remember sitting alone in the bedroom and thought to myself, “What is left for me? Is this all there is?” I cried a lot most days, alone in that dark and cold house. Honestly, if it wasn’t for my cat, I might have actually gone through with it. After all, who would feed him and be his friend?
My cat is a survivor. Unlike the other animals that drifted in and out of the house, or died, he stuck. He lived outside most of his life, which is why. He’d hide in the bush until I returned him and I’d give him the biggest snuggles. He’d come inside to eat while I pet him, and dash back out for the night. I sometimes feel regret for having him during that time because he deserved to have a much better life. But at the same time, he was my only friend. His existence really did save my life, and for that, I’ll always be grateful to him.
But I actually did call the college’s suicide hotline. Having faced suicide some years prior, I knew that there was another solution even if I didn’t feel it. I was quite surprised to see campus police’s immediate response to come and whisk me away to campus, and after some hot tea and crying, I had my first therapist.
I can’t stress the importance of having a therapist enough. Even though I didn’t know how to attribute my feelings to their causes (not knowing I was being badly abused), I knew that I did need some kind of help. And that’s really all it took for me to get to the right people.
I want to tell my story on the happen-chance that someone going through a similar experience will read it and say “I can relate to that.” ...If that happens to be you, right now, then know that I am always rooting for you. I am in your corner, even though we’ve never met. Because I understand.
If you’re getting that eerie feeling that this article may relate to you, and you don’t have a therapist, I would love to take this moment to encourage you to find one. Sometimes you have to go through a few to get the right “fit.” You’ll almost immediately know if it’s a good fit or not in the first session. And if you sense that it isn’t, then that’s okay! Just say that you’d like to try someone else. It won’t hurt their feelings, switching therapists actually happens all the time, especially at first. And you can tell your abuser that you’re going in for a different reason. It’s okay to lie about why you’re going because it’s actually nobody’s business. In fact, both I and my current (very wonderful) partner regularly go to therapy and we never ask about each other’s sessions. We only say that we “hope it was a fruitful and helpful session.” And yes, even if you have a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, I still strongly encourage you to go.
Looking back while writing this, I have a very difficult time accessing my feelings. I remember a lot about school, but I think between all the drugs and alcohol I consumed at home just to make it to the next day, I have a very difficult time remembering anything. I remember being an “alcoholic on purpose,” as I called it. I drank for no other reason than just to see the sunrise faster. Everything I do remember is just… it’s just sad. I can count the number of positive moments I had with him on one hand. Same with the number of times I had consensual sex. Those six years of my life have been reduced to some list of bullet points of awful things I’d actually rather not try to remember.
After all, I want to have a normal life. I don’t want to be defined as “that person” you read about in a sad book. I don’t want to be “that rape victim” or “that person who escaped,” even. When someone looks at me, I want them to see a normal human person who visits their in-laws on Thanksgiving, their parents for Christmas and bakes holiday cookies for the folks in the lab. I want to help host the postdoc lunches and have friends who come over to play Dungeons and Dragons. I want to be that Leslie-Knope-level-of-enthusiasm postdoc who now studies microbes even though their background is in physics. I want to be a mentor that other people can rely on. I want to make people’s lives better, especially in my most special sanctuary: science.
My life is now the life I have always wanted. It’s the life I have risked everything for and I don’t want to go mudding it all up with some depressing recollections of the past. But I can’t let the past go. Not yet. I will not let these crimes against me go unanswered.
One part of me wants to share my entire story with the whole world so people who are going through similar experiences don’t have to feel alone. Another part is terrified that my abuser will read this and know it was me who wrote it. I’m afraid he will finally snap and get the urge to kick down the front door and bash my head in with his massive fist. He’d always talked about killing other people, so the threat to my own safety does feel very real. Right after the fear comes cowardice, then anger that I have to feel real danger for doing what is right. It’s the sole reason I am a secret gun owner. But, I am remembering to be kind to myself and I know that the more I speak, the more powerful I become. I cannot tell my whole story, not all at once, but the small fragments that I shared today are a good start (and actually quite healing). Finally, the last part of me really just wants to scream as loudly as possible to everyone on the street like an angry and not-funny version of Billy Eichner. But doesn’t everybody?
But, I am remembering to be kind to myself and I know that the more I speak, the more powerful I become.
After getting connected to the right people (therapists), it was a very long road to divorce. It first took an entire year to realize that the situation I was in was not okay and that I needed to leave. It took another year to see through a meticulous plan that severed our finances, left me with a steady and independent income, finished my Ph.D., and most importantly, left me alive and in one piece. I also thought that, along with encouragement from none other than my therapist, I should transform all my toxic relationships with my family. I was no longer going to allow people to abuse me in any way shape or form, no matter how they related to me. I might as well since I was already taking out the trash.
There is much, much more. In my head, it feels like an endless stream of really-really sad stories after really-really sad story. Some day when I’m less exhausted and after I’ve worked through many other things in therapy, I will tell my entire story. But for now, I’m taking a step this-story big and leaving it at that.
If you know who you are at this point (you’ve got that feeling), then never forget that I am in your corner. You can make it out, life does get better, and I understand what you’re going through. And for everyone else, always remember to be kind, especially in the sciences. Because for some, science is all they have.
If you are in suicidal crisis or emotional distress, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (Lifeline) at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or text the Crisis Text Line (text HELLO to 741741). Both services are free and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
If you or someone you know is experiencing IPV, visit the National Domestic Violence hotline at this link or call (1−800)−799−7233 or TTY (1−800)−787−3224.
If you or someone you know are a victim of sexual abuse, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area. If in doubt, this Personal Bill of Rights helps to assess your current situation.