Sometimes, life gets hard

First off – yes, I’m alive.

Even though my blogging frequency has been pretty pathetic recently, I still get a steady trickle of emails from concerned readers who miss me. It’s an odd feeling knowing total strangers want to make sure I’m okay and miss my writing, but I do sincerely appreciate it (even if I don’t reply, sorry). It also makes me realize that not everyone follows my twitter feed, so many of you have no idea what has been going on in my life.

No, it’s not just grad school that’s been keeping me busy. These have been the hardest months of my life.

On March 15th, my mom called me. My family knows I hate talking on the phone, so when my phone is ringing and it’s not a holiday, I assume something is wrong. Usually that’s just my irrational anxiety talking, but unfortunately this time it was right. It was news I never wanted to hear – my mom had cancer again.

She had been cancer free for 8 years, after winning her battle against breast cancer during my senior year of high school. I hate to say this, but I had never been truly worried during that time. Part of it was knowing they caught it soon and that she had wonderful doctors, but part of it was definitely being a naive 17 year old. At the time I didn’t realize it, but my parents had painted a rosy picture of the situation to keep me from worrying. What I remember is my mom scheduling her chemo appointments around my high school golf matches, because she didn’t want to miss them for the world. The worst of it was kept behind the scenes.

But now I was a little bit older and wiser. In this case, being a geneticist was not very comforting. I was more aware of the realities of a cancer diagnosis, especially when cancer had come back. But I tried to stay cautiously optimistic, since there was still no official diagnosis.

A week later one morning, I was laying awake in bed worrying about my mom. My phone rang, and this time it was my dad. Getting a phone call in the morning is even more terrifying, and I knew instantly from his voice that something was horribly wrong.

He told me my mom was going to die within hours.

Hearing that out of nowhere, while stuck thousands of miles away across the country, was… I don’t even have an adjective that can describe that. Horrifying? Devastating? I was literally in hysterics, sobbing and shaking for hours. It felt like a nightmare come true. I’m so glad my boyfriend had been there, because I don’t know what I would have done without his immediate support. In the span of a week my mom had gone from perfectly healthy, living the stereotypical retired life golfing in Florida, to “going to die.”

A couple of days earlier, my mom had fluid (caused by the cancer) removed from her abdomen, and that change in pressure had caused massive blood clots to move from her legs to her lungs. “Why didn’t the doctors check for that ahead of time?” I asked myself. She couldn’t breathe. She had a 10% chance of making it, but thankfully our hometown hospital is one of the top 50 in the nation and had a cardiologist present that specialized in dealing with this problem. Also thankfully this happened at 7am on a Sunday morning, so the emergency room was empty. Who knows what would have happened to her if she hadn’t been the only patient there.

She survived. I flew out the next day to be with her.

Even though the clots had been removed, there was little emotional relief. When I got there, we were bluntly told that she may never wake up from sedation at all, or if she did she could be a vegetable. The first thing I saw when I arrived was that her tongue had swollen to grotesque proportions, filling her whole mouth and spilling out. The doctors still have no idea what was going on there and originally blamed the tape holding her breathing tube in, though my dad and I suspect they accidentally gave her antibiotics that she’s allergic to and wouldn’t admit it. When I noticed her face was starting to swell as well, they ignored me…until we had come back from lunch and her whole head had swollen up. It was devastating seeing her like that – seeing someone you love and thinking “that can’t be my mother.” Once her whole head was ballooning up, they finally admitted I had been right, and maybe they should start trying to reduce the swelling. Yeah, you’d think.

(I wish the tongue thing was the only time we dealt with incompetence from doctors and nurses… They constantly ignored call buttons for 30 minutes to an hour and I had to go run and find nurses in emergencies, they tried to give her medicine for other patients which thankfully my dad caught, they tried to give medicine in her left arm despite signs everywhere saying not to do so, some wouldn’t use gloves and were obviously not using sterile technique, doctors fought in front of her which destroyed her confidence in them… Yes, they saved her life, but at the same time my faith in doctors has definitely been shaken.)

Thankfully again, my mom beat the odds. After a couple of days she woke up. We talked by her first pointing to letters on a sheet, then by her writing, and after weeks she was able to barely speak. I can now say that months later, she can talk fairly normally and has all of her mental faculties. I feel like I can’t even thank science or medicine here – she got lucky.

The problem was, you know, my mom still had cancer. And the equivalent of a massive heart attack followed by aggressive weekly chemotherapy is not exactly a good situation. She was getting chemo even when she was still bedridden and unable to walk. She was in the hospital for 90 days, but thankfully has been home for about a month now (and is still getting chemo). Just imagine not being able to leave a hospital room for three months – no sunshine, no idea if it’s day or night, no food (thanks to the swollen tongue)… You don’t even realize the little things you take for granted, like being able to cuddle with your pet or wear your own pajamas.

As for the cancer, the chemo does seem to be working very well, which makes me rejoice. We were glad to find out it wasn’t breast cancer again, because that would have been the worst prognosis. Unfortunately, it was ovarian cancer, which is scary in its own right. We have no family history of breast or ovarian cancer, but having both occur independently in the same individual is a huge red flag that the cancer may be heritable – that is, that her genome has some mutation that predisposes her to that type of cancer. If correct, that means I would have a 50% chance of having that same mutation.

My mom could honestly care less what her genome is, since it wouldn’t really change her treatment (“Yep, you still need chemo”). But she wanted to get genetic testing for my sake. Thankfully her results said she has normal copies of BRCA1 and BRCA2, the two main breast cancer genes. Having a mutant copy of one of those greatly increases your odds of getting cancer, so hearing that news was a relief. But to a geneticist, it was a minor relief. I knew there were dozens of genes that could contribute to cancer, and dozens more that we probably haven’t even figured out yet. This just ruled out the common problems.

After my parents told her genetic counselor that I was getting my PhD in genomics, the counselor decided she would just rather talk to me directly. We chatted on the phone and she discussed how she wanted to test a larger number of genes, especially since gastrointestinal cancer runs in my mom’s family and may be related to her case. She told me her current problem – getting my mom’s insurance company to okay the test. She explained how insurance companies don’t like tests that utilize modern technology like next generation sequencing, because they rather have you pay a deductible on each individual gene than have one test that covers the whole genome.

(Yeah, they rather squeeze more money out of their dying cancer patients than do an efficient test. I never had any faith in the insurance industry to be able to say I lost it, but let’s just say my rage against them has grown. At least my parents have insurance, because after a month of treatment alone the bill was at one MILLION dollars. It’s horrible enough worrying about my mom’s health; I’m glad I don’t have to worry about their sudden bankruptcy as well.)

But I knew something this genetic counselor did not. I told her that Mary-Claire King, the scientist who discovered BRCA1 & BRCA2, worked in my department and did a cancer gene panel that was twice as large as the one the counselor was considering. After the counselor got done fangirling and squeeing over Mary-Claire (no, really, nerd glee), she asked if I could try to get my mom enrolled in MCK’s study. All it took was one email, and minutes later MCK had said yes. My mom no longer had to worry about insurance, she would learn more about her genome than from some company’s test, and she’d contribute to a growing body of knowledge about cancer genetics.

While I’m relieved to know I’ll have this information, it has been an emotional process. Part of me is terrified for myself. I’ve seen how cancer has affected my mom. The physical weakness, the loss of hair (which can really hurt a woman’s self-esteem), the inability to eat (how I wish Indiana had medical marijuana, or that I could smuggle some from Seattle). Not to mention the giant cloud of doom reminding you that, yeah, you may die from this. It really scares me wondering if I’ll have to go through the same thing when I’m her age, or if I’ll get unlucky and it’ll strike me sooner.

And at the same time, I feel guilty for worrying about myself at all. I feel selfish worrying about what might happen to me in 30 years, compared to what’s happening to my mother right now. I feel guilty that I can only visit her a little bit before I have to come back to work, even though she’s told me that me finishing my PhD is the most important thing to her. I feel guilty that my dad has to be her full-time caretaker and home nurse now, while I get to go “back to normal.” I feel guilty every time I have a moment of happiness when I’m back in Seattle, because I feel like I should always be worrying about her.

I’ve never been good at prioritizing taking care of myself, but now it feels damn near impossible.

And that’s partly why I’ve been so depressed the last couple of months. Worrying about my mom, worrying about myself, feeling guilty about worrying about myself… I wish those were the only things stressing me out, because I could barely handle those. My boyfriend is graduating with his PhD this year (yay!) but that means we’re worried that he won’t be able to find a job in Seattle and will have to move far away (not yay). Grad school has been rough (which is a redundant statement, right?). I’ve been feeling very lost and without guidance for a while now, since my project is very unique and I’ve basically created it from the ground up (or as another grad student told me, I went straight from undergrad to a postdoc). My current experiments aren’t working, and even though troubleshooting lab work is totally normal, it can be crushing when you’re already down. It makes me feel like a failure and an imposter who shouldn’t even be in grad school. My lab is also having some funding woes, so I feel a lot of pressure not to screw anything up or waste supplies because we may not have the money for a round two. The cherry on top is that the two other grad students in my lab are graduating in the next month, so I will be the only graduate student left. I already felt lost and alone, but now it’s just going to be me, my adviser, and our research scientist.

The problem with depression is that even if you have understandable reasons to be depressed, it can make you unreasonable about everything else. I have particularly bad anhedonia – nothing really give me any pleasure. When asked to list my hobbies, I list things I used to enjoy. I have no motivation to do anything, even “fun” things.  Getting out of bed in the morning is a chore. I haven’t had an appetite in weeks, but I just keep feeding myself because I know I have to. I had convinced myself I had no friends who actually cared about me or wanted to hang out with me, which turned me into an even more lonely hermit. I’ve lost all of my goals and dreams, and when I think about the future I just despair. Every news article or opinion piece I read just makes me think how fucked and unfixable the world is, and I feel hopeless to do anything to make the world better.

And the fucked up thing about depression is that it convinces you that all of this is true, and you are the problem. Depression is like having sunglasses glued to your head and insisting the world is dark, even when you rationally know its bright. I was literally convinced for months that there was no hope in the future and that I would never feel happy again. Right now I can’t remember what it feels like to be happy. It wasn’t until yesterday that I had a small moment of clarity when I realized that my brain was lying to me. Not only that my brain was lying to me, but that I had gone through this exact thing before! There have been many times in my life where I’ve felt this way, but happiness and motivation and normalcy always came back eventually. I need to remind myself that this too shall pass.

I’m attempting therapy again (thank you, Secular Therapist Project). At least this time I’m pretty sure they won’t suggest Buddhism and spirituality as the solution (no thank you, University of Washington mental health services). Unfortunately the health insurance they give us grad students is kind of crap, so it looks like I’ll be paying mostly out of pocket for it. But thankfully I have a good amount of savings and just got a raise (thank you, National Science Foundation) so it won’t be a huge issue, and I’m trying to start viewing my mental health as something worth investing in. This isn’t a pity call for money – if you feel the urge to donate, pick your favorite cancer research charity and that will make me happy.

I don’t really have a take home message or wrap up for this post. I simply realized that writing has always been therapeutic for me, and when I quit blogging I threw away that therapy along with a social support network (you guys!). I’ve been meaning to get this off my chest, so here it is.

Dear life: Please stop sucking soon.




  1. Unbeliever says

    *HUGE* hugs and well wishes, Jen. There’s alot of strangers out here who think you’re awesome. Never let yourself forget that!

  2. says

    My truest deepest sympathy. I’m old enough to have had both my parents die so I know how hard it is when they are sick. I also deal with depression, sometimes suicidally bad depression. All this is to say that if you need a shoulder to cry on or someone who knows to listen to you just ask, All my contact information is yours if you need it.

  3. joviality says

    Jen, that was a really powerful, extremely well written post. What you’ve been through is rough, and no one can fault you for feeling the way you do. It’s funny though, I in fact used the sunglasses analogy to my class today when I was teaching them about depression. You’re completely right about it being like that. It’s like you’re over there on a completely different channel when depression strikes, watching sad Lifetime movies while everyone else is watching a comedy.

    Speaking of depression and therapy, have you tried rational-emotive or Beck’s cognitive therapies? (Feel free to not answer here if that’s uncomfortable.) I think they’d speak to your skeptical side significantly, as they really try to get you to confront irrational beliefs that you might have. It’d help less with excoriation (which you’ve mentioned before), but it’s supposed to be quite effective for depression in particular, and the journaling that Beck’s cognitive therapy asks you to do can almost feel like a bit of an experiment in and of itself (once again speaking to your skeptical side!)

    On another topic, when you mentioned the ovarian cancer, I could picture your reaction just the way you described it – being a genetics nerd is both a blessing and a curse. And what you said about getting into Mary-Claire King’s study is just phenomenal. I hope it yields some answers if nothing else. My thoughts are with you and know that people do care about you out there!

    P.S. – Don’t you have HUMP! To look forward to? I can’t think of a better thing to get excited about! :-D

  4. raethfall says

    Thanks for sharing Jen. I really appreciate it. I hope things get better soon. I’ve always enjoyed your writing and miss it very much.

  5. katybe says

    Virtual hugs from a total stranger if you want them, and I hope your mother’s treatment leaves her feeling as little like crap as possible. I also hope you’ve got a few people left locally in the meat-space support network to help you as much as you need.

  6. gussnarp says

    Glad to hear you’re still alive. And so sorry you’re having to go through all this. I suppose there’s not much I can say that can cut through depression, but keep up with the therapy, I want you to get through this because I believe you have great things ahead of you. It’s purely selfish, I want you to keep writing and to do science.

    Oh, and do try not to feel guilty about anything. Your life doesn’t stop because a loved one is ill. You’ve still got to take care of you.

    In addition, I recommend getting lots of exercise. Even when I’m feeling guilty about any number of things, including not giving enough of my time to family, or work, or whatever, exercise feels guilt free and good and at least some of that feeling lasts a while after I’m done exercising.

  7. A Hermit says

    Just another sympathetic stranger here, for what it’s worth. I know those feelings and I wish I could give you some way to make them go away. I can tell you that you aren’t alone, that it will pass and that if nothing else, by sharing this you are helping strangers like me deal with our own darkness. Don’t know if that helps or not, but I want you to know I’m grateful. .

  8. latsot says

    Jen, nice to hear from you again.

    I’ve been fortunate enough to have so far avoided most of the situations you talked about, but there’s this:

    It makes me feel like a failure and an imposter who shouldn’t even be in grad school.

    EVERY GRAD STUDENT feels like this, more or less all the time. Don’t let anyone make you feel as though they don’t or didn’t. They do and did. If you don’t feel like that, you’re doing it wrong. But it sounds like you’re doing something really right: you’ve picked an imaginative, interesting subject. This isn’t the easiest way to get a PhD. But you know it’s the best way and I bet you wouldn’t have wanted to take an easier route. The only advice I have is to badger your supervisor constantly. If things aren’t working, you need advice: either to give advice on making stuff work or to decide what to do about it if it doesn’t. Your supervisor is there to make that happen, don’t be shy about making her or his life hell for a few months.

    You’re probably already doing this, but in case you aren’t, don’t be shy. Your supervisor will probably appreciate it too. Sorry if this is a blinding flash of the obvious.

  9. kaboobie says

    It’s good to see a post from you, even though the circumstances are difficult. You have my deepest sympathies for what your family is going through. Your description of depression rings true for me, and I hope the realization that your brain is lying to you is something you can hold on to. Recognizing the patterns of thought that signify depression has been helpful to me in my longtime struggle. My need for therapy comes and goes, and I am glad you are able to get help when you need it. Best wishes.

  10. says

    I am a postdoc, but everything that you said about being a grad student rang so true, Jen. Please accept my commiserations for your current situation. I wish you and your family all the best with your mom’s illness. I am glad that you were able to fly down to be on her side within a relatively short time. When my mother was almost about to suffer from a multi-organ failure secondary to massive septicemia, I got that dreaded phone call – and I was a continent away. It wasn’t before 5 excruciating days that I was able to find a flight to reach home. By then, thankfully, the valiant doctors in the hospital were able to bring the situation under control. So I can empathize with your feelings about this situation.

    I hope that this pall of gloom over your life gets shredded soon.

  11. Nick Gotts says

    It’s totally inadequate, but I’m one of very many people you don’t know, but who are wishing all the very best for you and your mom. And thanks so much for making the effort to write this post.

  12. carlie says

    All I can say is that’s more than anybody ought to have to deal with. I battled depression in grad school too (and anxiety), but didn’t have nearly the load of other problems you do. I’m amazed that you’ve done so well so far. More stranger virtual hugs from my direction if you’d like them.

  13. PDX_Greg says

    Another stranger here to try to encourage you through your plight. Your post was very moving and very well-written; you certainly have the gift of sharing. It brought tears to my eyes for moments you will understand in a second.

    As a father of two who has had my own multiple brushes with mortality that my kids have had to deal with, you said something that really gripped me. PLEASE READ THIS:

    Both of your parents’ DEEPEST DESIRE is to think about you being happy. Indulge them this! Do NOT deprive yourself of an unexpected happy or funny moment. You do NOT need to feel guilty about this. Your parents know your happiness is not a dismissal of their struggles. They benefit from your moments of happiness as much as you do, because those moments are therapeutic to you. So STOP suppressing your happy tree. It may be growing in a forest of gloom and doom, but PLEASE let yourself experience it when it drops a leaf on you, and enjoy every last sensation it gives you. If you can, tell them about some happy moments. There is no more powerful mental experience a parent can feel then any signs of happiness from a child — even if they seem small and inconsequential and completely unrelated to their own lives. And yes, you very accomplished grad student, you are their child. Lastly, when you have the strength, indulge in activities you know are more likely to bring you happiness. Think about how happy your parents would be to see you being happy. THAT is not an empty rationalization. That is a very powerful, one-hundred-percent true fact!

    Good luck on overcoming your depression. I know it won’t be quick or easy, but I know it will be worth it. It is certainly easy to understand why all of this weighs heavily on you. It sounds like you have taken some very constructive steps.recently, including realizing that your brain is lying to you (I love how you put that) and I hope you stay the course.

    And finally, don’t forget that your blog has been inspiring and very educational for me and countless others. You have touched more people in your young life than I ever will. This does not make me feel inadequate or unhappy about myself, but it does make me very happy you exist. I feel a bit guilty myself now about selfishly prodding you to post before, without knowing what you were going through. Sorry! I will continue to watch your blog for when you feel like posting again, but please take all the time you need to take care of yourself.

  14. PDX_Greg says

    Ugh, I read my last post and it comes across all preachy. It was meant to be encouraging, not demanding. I don’t share your gift for expressing my feelings very well.

    Just know I am pulling for you.

  15. ravenred says

    Really hit home for me (though objectively my life has been nowhere near as hard) . A crap emotional state in one area of your life spreads like ink until the only light you ever see is murky and distorted. In any case, think on this: you got your mother a suite of tests that that probably very few daughters in the history of the world would ever have been able to provide. You may not see that as much of a win, but if there’s a difference to be made, you’ll be the one who made it happen.

    Get hugs. Do some fun stuff with yourself. Hugs from me.

  16. says

    “our hometown hospital is one of the top 50 in the nation”
    I would hate to see the state of the ones below 50, then, based on all that incompetence you’ve mentioned.
    Anyway, I can’t imagine going through all that. Partly because I am a robot. Regardless, condolences, colas, coelacanths, and coelenterates. These are things humans use to feel better right? beep boop what am i saying
    I actually have a friend who is probably depressed and he’s started trying to keep a “blogary” because it’s not really a blog or a diary but regardless it’s just writing to help his thoughts and feelings.
    Go team writing!

  17. tansy says

    *Internet hugs*
    I can relate to what you’re going through. My mother was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer when I was thirteen and died shortly after i turned eighteen. I’m 22 now and in grad school, and I’ve also suffered from bouts of depression (though thankfully I’m doing OK at present).
    Best wishes to you and your mother. I hope things get better soon. And if you haven’t discovered it already, I find Calming Manatee really helpful.

  18. Kevin Schelley says

    Jedi hugs for you, I know how rough depression can be. Best wishes for you and your family.

  19. says

    Hey, you know you can always call/text me. You know I understand what you’re going through with depression. Ben and I would love to visit you in Seattle (if you’re still there), hopefully after I get a real person job. Next spring or summer maybe? I totally miss your face!

  20. says

    I know how it feels. My mother died of colon cancer. Now my elder brother has been suffering from pancreatic cancer. I hope you will soon feel better. I wrote a book on my mother. That helped reduce my pain.

  21. biogeo says

    For what it’s worth, we met briefly at Women in Secularism 1; I was sitting behind you and made a cliched joke about grad students and free food, which you were kind enough to laugh at. I’m so sorry you and your family have been going through all this recently. I wanted to add to the others seconding your feelings about grad school. We go to grad school because we love science, and I think that makes us idealistic about what we do, and what we should be as scientists. We set impossibly high standards for ourselves, and we feel like failures and impostors when we inevitably fall short of perfection. But of course this is silly: science and scientists aren’t perfect, and we can’t be either. Of course, I understand exactly what you mean about depression’s sunglasses, since I can say this to you and believe it, but not really accept it for myself. I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know that you’re not alone in this.

    A postdoc in my lab told me that getting a Ph.D. is a lot like Frodo’s quest in The Lord of the Rings. At first, it’s an exciting adventure, and you feel pride at the great responsibility you’ve taken. But slowly, the “ring” gets heavier and heavier, and when you finally arrive at the end, you cast the ring into the fires of Mount Doom (I think in this metaphor, your committee is Mount Doom, which sounds about right), not with a sense of joy or achievement, but only relief, almost accident. I’m starting to get near the end, so I really think I know what she meant now. It sounds like maybe you do, too. (Also, I really wish Gollum would show up and do the last bit for me.)

    The only piece of advice that I can offer, which I’ve found sometimes works for me, is to present your research to new colleagues FREQUENTLY. When I have to explain to other people why they should think my work is interesting, I often find that I rediscover what it was that got me excited by the project in the first place, and my data aren’t as crappy as I think they are most of the time. I think poster sessions are especially good for this, since the stakes are also fairly low. I don’t know if this will work for you, but I hope so.

    Take care and good luck. Grad school sucks in the best of times; to have to do it while dealing with your mom’s illness (and the totally legitimate fear of what that could mean for your future health) must be tremendously hard.

  22. Jackie, Ms. Paper if ya nasty says

    Best wishes, Jen. Thank you for taking time to share this with us. I wish the best for you and yours. Take care.

  23. sathyalacey says

    Holy crapmonkeys.

    So glad you’re alive. So sorry about your mother.

    I was struggling to find words to put here, but I think PDX_Greg hit the nail on the head. Don’t feel guilty. Your mom putting aside her fears for herself and focus on making sure your career and health are not being neglected? That’s awesome, and I hope you shamelessly take her up on that. (Also, some nice anecdotal evidence of awesomeness being heritable there.)

    Thanks for the update. I indeed do not follow anyone on twitter, but my favorites here at FTB still points to your page, which I then use to check the other FTB pages, so yeah, been wondering what happened.

    As virtual hugs are welcome, consider mine offered as well.

    PS: Thanks for the secular therapy link. I’ve been looking for that exact thing for a while now.

  24. hjhornbeck says

    Virtual hugs, from someone who’s also tangled with depression, and someone you’ve directly inspired.

  25. says

    Unfortunately, through myself and friends, I know how little reason works to cure depression, so telling you how amazing and inspiring you are is unlikely to provide any solace.

    Instead I will simply offer my deepest sympathies for and to your mother, and my warmest wishes to you and your family.



  26. says

    Jen, (((hugs)))! It’s good to hear you’re still around, but I’m also sorry to hear life is hurting. Cancer and the black dog are horrible, and I hope they leave you and your family alone. Best wishes.

  27. Sunil says

    Rooting for you and your mom, Jen. “That can’t be my mother” – yup from experience I know exactly what you mean. Cancer is just a horrible disease for everyone it affects.

  28. notyet says

    I know that you are aware of this but just in case you are like me when a depressive swing overtakes you, the first thing that happens with depression is you stop doing the things that help stave off depression. Writing always helps me and it seems to be cathartic for you as well. For your sake (and for the sake of all of us that like you and your writing) don’t forget to do the things that help. Short blog entries are better than none and they keep you in contact with a large group of people that care. Don’t let it beat you. You are an inspiration to many of us that share your affliction. Do it for us or better yet do it for you, but don’t stop doing the things that make it better.

  29. roricus says

    This post hit very close to home for me. I lost my father to cancer 2 years before I graduated. I got that phone call as well, but it was too late. Instead of bouts of depression, I had generalized anxiety and panic attacks (not nearly as debilitating as what you describe, but still a nuisance). I know there really isn’t any advice that I can give you that will help, but I can at least share with you a few silly thoughts that helped me manage my low-level impostor syndrome:

    1. No matter how incompetent I actually am, my advisor can’t fire me and hope to have the lab running again on any reasonable timescale. The experiment is way too complicated and much of the requisite knowledge is passed down through a sort of grad student oral tradition. (For those of you thinking that you can’t be an impostor and at the same time know how to run a complicated experiment… wrong! Just because dogs can be trained to perform complicated tasks doesn’t mean they know what they are doing.)

    2. I could switch to theory. I may be a bad theoretician too, but it’s easier to be an impostor and have nobody notice. It also requires substantially less funding than experiment.

    3. Statistically speaking, it’s unlikely that I’m the worst grad student out there. So there is that.

    4. What is the worst case scenario? Probably that I am forced out and have to find a job elsewhere. A real job. One that is probably less stressful, less likely to maim, blind, poison, or electrocute me, and which pays more while requiring far fewer hours. Exactly.

    5. The eventual heat death of the universe. I don’t know why, but it always seems to help.

    Joking aside, what really helped was simply finishing my thesis and moving on to a postdoc. If I wasn’t at least somewhat competent, I probably wouldn’t have made it that far, right? Hmm…

    Anyway, best of luck to you, Jen! I hope you are able to write more often, both for you and for us. :)

  30. CaitieCat says

    Hi Jen – you don’t know me, but I just wanted to stick a hand into the “I know just what you mean” pile, in re: depression. Just yeah. Anhedonia. The empty-but-gessoed canvas on the easel in the corner keeps giving me dirty looks.

    Anyway, that`s all. Just YANA. Good luck. :)

  31. quill says

    I am sorry to hear of your stress. I can tell you that you have many people you don’t know (myself included) who have been impressed or touched by your writing.

    I can also tell you, as you know intellectually, that things will get better. Until they do, try to do things that make you happier and take care of yourself.

  32. says

    Hi, talked with you, Andrew, and an other dude at an Atheist Meetup at Blue Star probably two years ago. Andrew played a video, on his mobile phone, of Kermit the Frog watching a video, and I think Kermit’s reaction to the video all cracked us up. I was exceedingly dumb that night, my thinking was retarded at times. I guess I get nervous in social situations and say stupid things at times.

    Anyway, I just wanted to say that I wish I was as smart as you. I admire how smart you are, and how good at writing you are. Writing has always been tough for me. I am sure this is little consolation considering what you have been through and are going through. I am so glad I read your blog because you just described what I have been going through the last month or so: anhedonia. The only time I was getting relief was through sleep. I have taken the medication route, along with therapy, which has made living tolerable for me. We are still adjusting my med so I can enjoy life again. I know medication is not a route for some, and that is completely understandable.

    I feel guilty making this about me, so I understand excessive guilt and worry. You are much smarter and wiser than me, so I really can’t say anything that you already don’t know, but it sounds like you are doing all the things you need to, to do deal with the traumatic situations you have gone through, and are. Eating right, exercise, and getting enough sleep help, but I think therapy is very helpful too, so I am glad to hear you are pursing that too.

  33. Nicole De Stefano says

    Jen, I’m so sorry this is happening to you. All the internet hugs from someone you only met once, and all the best hopes for the future. I wish there was something I could do to help make it better.

  34. Merlin says

    You have my deepest sympathies. I am glad to see you back (even for a short time), and I hope your life (as well as your mother’s life) gets better. Is there a cancer charity that you would recommend?

  35. Andy Groves says

    I know a little of what you must be feeling right now – I lost my mum to cancer when I was in my final year at college (she was only 47…the same age I am now), and I have just seen my dad come to the end of his final year battling end stage Parkinson’s. You are in my thoughts, and I am sending my best wishes your way. I hope that in time you will be able to find pleasure in life again, and to give us pleasure in return with your strong, smart and emotionally true writing.

  36. thesandiseattle says

    Sorry to hear of the trials and tribulations. Having been on both sides of the fence (chemo patient and later caretaker) I sympathize greatly. Hated the chemo, but survived it. (especially hated the itching, they added an antihisimine to my meds, I had cottonmouth all the time.) I was mostly alone when I went thru it, happy to know you’re there for your mom. (I was “gov’t property” at the time.) Best wishes all around to you and yours both.

  37. No One says

    Though my eyes you are an extraordinary person. You have my respect and my best wishes.

  38. Pieter B, FCD says

    Yet another virtual hug. Sorry things have been so rough, but it’s good to see your “voice” again.

    I’ve had impostor syndrome for 50 years, and they haven’t sniffed me out yet, so either I’m not totally incompetent or they’re worse. Sometimes I think that anyone who doesn’t have at least a touch of it has socio/psychopathic tendencies.

    I hope sharing with us has helped ease your burden. If it has, unload some more; we can take it.

  39. says

    or wear your own pajamas.

    this is one of those small, pointless indignities i’ll never understand about american hospitals

    anyway, i didn’t know any of this was happening. this must be ridiculously difficult, and because i suck at expressing myself in these situations without sounding like a hallmark card, i’m not sure what to say :-/

  40. Nancy New, Queen of your Regulatory Nightmare says

    Sending all warm, good thoughts and best wishes for you and your whole family, especially, of course, for your mother.

  41. otrame says


    Somebody upthread mentioned exercise. Take that advice. I don’t think they have pinned down exactly why, but it seems to help with lying-brains. Besides, even if that is all annectdotal nonsense, it’s good for you anyway. Remember, no situation is made better by you not taking care of yourself.

    As for the rest, you have my sympathy and my hopes that your mom makes a complete recovery.

  42. says

    I know that this thought has been expressed above, but as a mom who has had breast cancer, I want you to know that you should never feel guilty about worrying about yourself or about enjoying yourself. The thing we want most is to be able to protect our children, and particularly our girl children from this one. We want to make it possible for them/you to have as good and as joyful a life as possible. If one of the contributions we make to that is as a genetic warning, then so be it. And, yes, if something, anything, makes you smile, think of sharing that with your mom and dad, that’s what will give them smiles too. Hugs.

  43. MadHatter says

    Aw Jen, that’s a lot to be dealing with. I can empathize with some of it, and you’re not alone in feeling this way. Hugs to you and your family.

  44. meanderwithme says

    Hi Jen — add me to the list of those who’ve missed you and your writing. As much as I’m glad to see you back, I so wish the circumstances were different.

    A few things:

    1) Cut yourself some slack for worrying about your future health. Yes, your mother’s current situation is big and scary. But you know those guys who tell women to shut up about sexism because (insert big, important issue here)? Yeah, you’re trolling yourself. Quit that shit.

    2) Depression sucks. My first episode (that I recognize, anyway) hit in 1997, but it took until last year for me to get the correct dx of bipolar II. Apparently most folks with recurring depression have unrecognized BPII it makes sense, I guess because, who goes to the doctor to complain about feeling awesome? Anyway, I had the manic-depressive stereotype in my head, so I read reluctantly when my counselor recognized the signs and suggested I research. And whaddya know — my life suddenly made just a little more sense. I still battle depression even now, but at least it’s less severe (different mess), and I know it’ll pass. It may fit you. It may not. Either way, it doesn’t hurt to check it out.

    3) Yup, depression lies. One of my favorite bloggers writes about her issues often,and I love you for sharing your truth without shame. That takes a crap-ton of vulnerability and bravery. For when (ha) you have time to read, here’s a good post of hers — one that I hope will help you feel like you’re at least not alone.
    The Bloggess — The Fight Goes On

    Virtual hugs,

  45. Morgan says

    I’m so sorry to hear about your mother, and so relieved to hear she’s doing well (or at least better) and to hear from you at all. I hope this is the start of things getting better for you – you deserve it.

  46. Lee DeLay says

    I just am managing to come out of a 3 month (ish) depression and while I am starting to feel better and more myself your description of depression brought me to tears. I know what that’s like, I gave up a slot in a phenomenal masters programme because I felt like I was too worthless to doit and that the was no point in even trying. I sincerely hope you start feeling better and that your mom does as well. Cancer is terrifying enough without dealing with everything else on top of it.

    You can get through this, while I’ve never comments on your blog before I read it often and you’ve come up many times with the Portland skeptics and freethinkers as someone that is a great researcher and skeptic. We can live without posts when you need to take a break and your readers are here when you need support.

    <3 ill buy you a cup of tea next time you're in Portland if you like – or coffee if you prefer.

  47. says

    Hi Jen,
    All the best to your mother, your family, and to you.
    I can really relate to what you wrote about being oblivious as a teen when your mother had breast cancer. I was a couple of years younger, but went through the same thing. I can’t even remember going to the hospital after her mastectomy. Luckily, she survived and has been cancer-free for the past fifteen years. As I’ve become older I’ve been shocked at how emotionally detached I acted (not even trying to find out her situation and prospects, and I think my parents were generally quite quiet about it too. Since both my grandparents died of cancer (but after age 80) I realise there is a significant chance of the cancer coming back or a new showing up as she gets older, and if it happens I hope that I’ll be able to be there for her and for my family emotionally, which is most important, even though my career might take me away physically from attending to them at all times. Your post definitely brought home a bit more directly that that time might one day come, so that helps.
    I’m happy that I don’t have to navigate the US insurance system, but the piece-meal privatization of Swedish healthcare has certainly had an effect on the complexity of our system as well :(


  48. MadDissector says

    Lots of virtual hugs from Scotland! I am so sorry to hear about your mother, and happy that she is getting better… Don’t worry, or feel bad, because you’re worrying about yourself so much. I can understand how it is: my maternal grandfather, like my great-grandmother, suffered of one kind of dementia that begins early in life. Grandad died with more than 80, would not recognize people he didn’t meet daily and could turn rather aggressive when faced with facts he didn’t remember anymore. Great Grandmother died in an asylum for the unstable. Ever since Grandad was diagnosed years ago, I have seen how my mother worried herself sick, dreading that she may have inherited it.
    It’s good to get news from you…

  49. kestra says

    I’m so sorry to hear about your mother and your stress & depression. I have followed your blog since before FTB, and I’m always eager to read your posts no matter how long you are on hiatus. I also want to tell you how much I admire you, being in Grad School and Doing Science, like I sometimes wish I had done. When I’m feeling like I haven’t accomplished anything and am wasting my time as work or in life, I try to focus on what I have done (got a degree! am financially independent!, & etc.), even tho they don’t seem like much now, I remember what a big deal it was at the time and that helps me. I hope things get better for you!

  50. John Horstman says

    Wow, I’m so sorry you’re experiencing a heap of awfulness. I know what the depression’s like, the rest not so much. I wish you a speedy return to wellness.

  51. Ian says

    So sorry to hear about your mom, but glad to hear the chemo is going well.

    As for the rest, it’s good that you are seeking counseling and doing things that you feel are therapeutic. I hope that works out for you. Just remember that worrying about yourself is a PERFECTLY NATURAL response and that feeling guilty for things like that won’t help anything. As you said, just knowing something is bad doesn’t really help with depression, but there it is.

    Ack, I can’t really tell you anything you don’t already know. But still, as someone who has read your blog since the Purdue days, I want to say that it’s definitely good to hear from you again, and as you can see from all the responses so far, you have all our sympathies and best wishes on speedy, healthy recoveries (for you both!).

  52. imnotspecial says

    I am so saddened to read about your story. I am an old guy but I always find your posts inspiring and helpful.

    On the hallway wall of the farm house I grew up in hung a picture of a lit up candle and it said:” Whenever you think you cannot go on anymore, from somewhere a small light will appear”. This has helped me many times. For someone as smart a you are this certainly will come through.

    On a practical level, it appears to me that you need at least a 3 week holiday, preferably in Europe with all its art treasures and history, and have a good rest. Sleep deprivation leads to depression.

    Best wishes and wellbeing to you and your family.

  53. says

    I have depression too. It is horrible and a lot what you are saying rings true with me.

    You are not alone.

    — Shawna, also a depressed person in the Greater Seattle Area

  54. wscott says

    Sorry you’ve had such a rough few months! Let me add my voice to the chorus of people who have missed your postings, are glad you’re back, and hope the rest of the year goes better for you!

  55. dianemccarthy says

    I’m so sorry you and your family have had to deal with all this. My very best wishes to your mom. And count me among the many who had to cope with chronic depression during grad school. It got better for me (with the help of some meds), it will get better for you, too.

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