It’s our last day in Lisbon; we’ve run out of sites to take interest in and we’ve run out of energy. So we spend a few hours in the late afternoon winding down and relaxing in our hotel room. Relaxing is something I’ve never been good at, even in the best of times.
I wish I had posted more frequently to my blog – especially since I have traveled a bit more in the last year or so and would have had plenty to write about – but these past few months have been stressful. A heavy workload (coursework, conferences, PhD exams) met by workplace conflict, which has weighed me down more than anything else. I don’t know how to sum it up exactly. It’s like being in a happy place one moment, and the next moment the ground shifts beneath you and suddenly you find yourself in…well, a not-so-happy place. You’re not exactly alone because you have family, friends and colleagues who care about you, but you kind of are alone because everyone is watching from the sidelines.
So I went to Lisbon with my sister to get away from it all. Actually, we had booked the trip shortly before any of this conflict had begun. We wanted to treat ourselves for all of our hard work; she had consistently been putting in long hours at her job; I was hoping to be A.B.D. (“all but dissertation” – a milestone on the PhD path that’s reached by passing a series of brutal exams) and have something worth celebrating (yes, I did reach that milestone). But it soon became the trip where I was to get away from all the stress. Let me put 3000 miles between myself and my now toxic environment, I said, maybe it’ll help.
And then I received the news a few days before my trip. I was heartbroken to find out that a former professor of mine at my alma mater had passed away. She had been my undergraduate advisor well over a decade ago, and I later took classes with her as a graduate student doing my M.A. She wrote my recommendation letters for jobs and for PhD programs, including the program I’m in right now. I would often stop by her office when I came to town to visit; she was always there. And always surprised by my unannounced visits, she’d greet me with a big hug, tell me to sit down and we’d have a good catch up. We usually kept our conversations to academics, but I was happy with that. She’d talk about her stuff and I’d talk about mine, and more often than not I sought her advice on whatever academic/professional matters were concerning me at the time.
I had planned to visit my alma mater over winter break and had thought to stop by and see her again and consult with her on my current issue. I can’t think of anything to add here apart from the obvious, that won’t happen anymore.
The night before I left for Lisbon, I decided to update my CV. I reached the references section at the end. At the top was the contact information of the person with whom I’ve been having a conflict. I felt betrayed, and no longer trusted them, so I highlighted the contact information, lingering for a few moments before deleting it all, wondering if we’d ever resolve things and if I’d ever feel comfortable adding them back, or if they’d ever want me to. I felt a stab of pain from the act of disconnecting myself from them, but I continued to scroll further down. My late mentor’s contact information was listed as well. With a heavy and wavering sigh, I highlighted her information and deleted it too. I stared at my laptop screen for a few minutes, taking in the shortened reference section. I wasn’t worried about references; I had enough. But I was feeling a great sense of loss. One through death, the other through conflict. I saved the changes, closed my laptop and curled into a ball on my couch and cried for a while.
What is it about emotions that make them so easy to compartmentalize one moment, but impossible to shove away the next? Maybe it’s the intensity of the emotions. Maybe it’s the connection to the person involved. For me, it’s when that connection has broken that I feel emotion most intensely. In cases where you’ve lost someone, I think the last connection you have to that person – that very last, thin strand – comes in the form of grief. And it’s so hard to let go of sometimes; it’s so hard to stop your brain from thinking about your sadness. Stopping means breaking that last connection. I don’t want to break either connection. Not with the recently departed. Not with the person who is hurting me. So I let my thoughts run, unrestrained.
Sometimes I’m forced back into the present. When we’re climbing up cobblestone streets trying to make our way to Castelo de São Jorge and I’m trying to follow Google Maps. Or when we reach the castle and I’m completely taken in by the vistas of the city. Or when my sister and I get caught up in trying to take the perfect selfie. But more often than not, my mind wanders back to its saddened state once we’ve checked a site off our list and are heading off to the next place, or we’re sitting silently on the metro, or when I’m back in the hotel and I have little to distract me.
So I’m sitting there on my bed, that last day in Lisbon. My sister is in the bathroom taking a private phone call, and I feel a sense of relief – getting my solitude back so I can think about my problems. It’s weird, putting it into writing, acknowledging that I sometimes consciously take the time to think about my troubles, and allow pain and anxiety to hit me like a tide. Sometimes it seems necessary – to be in touch with your feelings and know what you’re about. But other times it’s excessive to the point that the world is moving along without you, and you become adamant in staying put in your grief.
And I wonder if I’m guilty of the latter while I’m on vacation. I tell myself it’s not my fault that I can’t control circumstances, and I can’t always have control over my emotions. And I try to tell myself that I have enjoyed this trip. Lisbon is a beautiful city. Neighboring Sintra is even more beautiful. The weather is better that the 20 degree chill I had left behind in Albany. Finding vegetarian food has been a bit of a struggle, but we had a few good meals. We had a few laughs, and we had some good moments. And I have a stack of great photos to show for it. But all too often it’s just been a lot of sadness and anxiety interrupted by fleeting moments of happiness. Or is it even happiness? Just moments where the beauty around me distracts me from my sadness. It’s not what I had in mind, I suppose. I wanted to leave my worries behind me. Just for a week. Yet they’ve followed me around. They followed me to the Newark airport, where I abruptly burst into tears while waiting at the gate. They follow me into the hotel, where I keep crying myself to sleep because I feel hurt from the past and anxious about the future. They follow me onto the metro when I’m absently staring out the window and I’m stuck in my head. They come front and center every time I catch some random man staring at me or every time I receive an unwanted touch; it happens in contexts where I can’t stop them or control them, and it reminds me of my lack of agency in my current work situation, and my struggle to claim it. I feel powerless. I feel pushed into a corner. I feel silenced. And I can’t forget any of it, not even while I’m on vacation.
I’ve thought of my late mentor a lot throughout this trip. Sometimes I’d see the back of a woman’s head and it looks like hers; or someone with a similar side profile or the same glasses. And I’d remember that I’m in Portugal – not Missouri – before I’d remember that she’s gone. And I feel shocked all over again. And I feel slightly less capable at handling my current conflict. She – along with another mentor – was one of my twin pillars. Together, they supported me and pushed me, and if things ever went bad, they were waiting in my corner, ready to help me get back up. And thinking about her death makes me feel even more alone as I stand in the ring, bloodied up and ragged from this past semester, determined to go another round while wishing she was still there in my corner.
I don’t like to write about tales of depression and sadness. I don’t like focusing on the negative when there’s beauty all around me (I’ll share some photos from my trip below as proof of that beauty). Yet there are times when the bad things overshadow the good things and there aren’t enough filters in the world to hide it.
This is one of those times. But I’ll say this: despite the pained tone of my post, I remain optimistic underneath it all. Nothing lasts forever – neither the good nor the bad. I haven’t forgotten the brief moments of joy I’ve felt in the last few months, and I haven’t forgotten the people who’ve managed to coax the occasional smile or laugh out of me. I’m optimistic that things will eventually get better. I’m optimistic that I’ll eventually feel happy again.