Editor’s Note: Portraits of Resilience is a photography and interview series by Prof. Daniel Jackson. Each installment consists of a portrait and a story, told in the subject’s own words, of how they found resilience and meaning in their life.
In my youth, I was happy and outgoing. As an undergrad, I found my place in the world — as a pilot. I moved to Houston to work in mission control and worked part-time at a flight school. I loved being a flight instructor, but I did have to put up with a lot of demeaning comments. One day, they wouldn’t give me a dipstick to check my fuel level with, and they were like, “Just go.”
My time in Houston came with an emotionally abusive relationship too. We broke up, but that’s when the stalking started — continually e-mailing and texting and calling my voicemail. (It's been seven years, and it's still going on.) Anyway, the environment in Houston became very toxic for me, and eventually the negativity broke me down.
When I came to MIT six years ago, the change in my personality came with me. At the time, I just thought that it was part of growing up to mellow out and not really get excited about anything. I didn't make much of an effort to make friends and I hated small talk. I got stuck in this catch-22. Also, everyone around me was getting married, and I felt like my time was running out. I got back together with one of my ex-boyfriends, and we got serious enough that we were considering marriage. At some point, I realized that I shouldn’t have to convince him to marry me, and that I was worth more than that.
Three years into graduate school, things came crashing down. I had lost all this confidence and drive and everything that makes me who I am. I had become a zombie that only saw the worst in people. Looking back, I can’t blame my friends for not wanting to hang out with me. I wouldn’t have wanted to hang out with me either! Anyway, I realized I needed a change.
I applied to be a Graduate Resident Tutor at Maseeh Hall. The first interview was this social, and I was really nervous about it. But I went, and everyone there was amazing, and I just felt at home. That community was exactly what I needed. It was full of positivity, and there was so much loyalty and respect and camaraderie. In my position there, I learned not only how to support others, but also how to support myself.
That summer, I went to California for an internship. The change in environment forced me out of my comfort zone and brought back my undergrad self, having to make friends and go out. It was so liberating. One girl, after knowing me for just three days, invited me to go Las Vegas the next weekend. I thought it was crazy, but I said yes, and that trip totally changed my life. She’s now one of my best friends.
Coming back from California, I felt so great and confident in myself. There was a faculty position that was open at Stanford, and I said to myself, “You know what? I can do this.”
And that’s when things started to go back downhill. I went to talk to my supervisor about it, and the first thing he said was, “Well, you don’t want to blacklist yourself.” Things had been fine with my supervisor for the first few years, but it turned out the new me was totally incompatible with him. I tried to understand where he was coming from, but he used the term “blacklist” multiple times when it came to my future goals. I’d like to think I wasn’t a bad student. Why would he continue to have me lead so many projects if I was? But I was getting this type of discouraging feedback while others in the lab were being encouraged to publish, attend conferences, and so on.
I had no idea how to process this difference in treatment. I kept thinking: how could he be so supportive to some students and so demoralizing to others? Was it me? Incompatible personalities? Gender? To this day, I still don’t know. I don’t think he realizes how much influence his words have. I know I shouldn’t take what he says personally, but it wears you down.
The downward trend in my state of mind was exacerbated by another blow later in the semester. I had reconnected with a close friend from college. I remember feeling so warm, and thinking: I’ve finally got my friend back. Two weeks later, he committed suicide. He had texted me the week before and said he was feeling bad, but I had no idea how bad it was.
When I returned from my friend’s funeral the following week, my advisor said, “I know you’ve been distracted lately but you really need to buckle down and make some progress.” I think it was his way of motivating me, but it had the opposite effect. My grief got tied up in this relationship with my advisor, so any time I thought about work, I would think about my friend’s death, and vice versa. That’s when I started to notice the anxiety: waking up without being able to breathe, constant shaking. Meeting with my advisor, or even an email from him, would set my whole body off in hives.
Eventually things got bad enough that I realized I needed help. I talked to the ombuds. I talked to the dean. I talked to our department head, and somewhere in there was mental health. After months of people telling me to take care of myself, I prepared to potentially lose five years of work and switch advisors. The deans had coached me on how to go about it.
My advisor’s response was, “Oh, you don’t need to go. I promise it’ll be better.”
It was a bizarre feeling for me because I felt better, but it also made me realize why people stay in abusive relationships. What had I gotten myself into?
That summer was full of pain, but also so much support. I started going to suicide survivor support groups and seeing a therapist. The housemasters let me borrow their dog who quickly became my best friend. Mickey got me out of bed every day because I knew he was counting on me to go running.
My friends stuck by me, and slowly things started to improve. By the end of the summer, I felt strong enough to be able to separate my work from my grief. I got offered a great job so I resolved to finish up my degree as fast as I could and get on with my life.
I was able to defend my thesis and am now on my way out. My advisor and I slowly repaired our relationship as I healed and as he became more of my advocate. My friends were there every single step of the way, and the Maseeh community was my rock. A lot of them came to my defense — the students, the GRTs, the housemasters. When I came back and opened my door, my whole apartment was covered in balloons and inflatable airplanes.
I’d say I’m in a very positive place now and I appreciate being surrounded by wonderful people. I was inspired to do something good with my grief, so I ran the Boston Marathon this year on behalf of the Samaritans, a non-profit that specializes in suicide prevention. It was ridiculously hard, but I pushed through. I feel like I’ve come so far, and I’ve finally found myself again.
Sathya Silva is a graduate student in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
This project is supported by the Undergraduate Association’s Committee on Student Support and Wellness, chaired by Tamar Weseley ’17 and Alice Zielinski ’16. To participate in the project, or to learn more, contact ResilienceProject@mit.edu.
There are many ways to find help. Members of the MIT community can access support resources at mindhandheart.mit.edu. To access support through MIT Medical’s Mental Health & Counseling Service, please call (617) 253-2916 or visit medical.mit.edu.
Image and text copyright Daniel Jackson, 2016.