As I mentioned last week, I’ve been having some feelings about my recent return to MIT for my 25th reunion, and how that relates to how I’m feeling about starting graduate school in the fall. Thanks to alexithymia, I’m still not entirely clear on what all of those feelings are, but I can at least articulate a few things at this point.
One thing I noticed while walking around campus is how little I remembered about how to get around, outside of the most obvious landmarks. I can chalk some of that up to physical changes that have occurred on campus over the past 25 years, but to be honest, there was a lot I just didn’t remember. My therapist has pointed out that having fuzzy or ill-formed memories of a period in your life (childhood, for example) is a common symptom of having had depression during that period. I think this is absolutely spot-on regarding my time at MIT, which was four years of increasing pressure, anxiety, and alienation. I’m sure I was deeply depressed for a good portion of it, too.
Another thing that came to mind, especially as I talked with people from my class, was how completely my interests have changed from when I first decided to attend MIT. Well, I shouldn’t say “completely,” I suppose; I had been very interested in psychology and other social sciences starting in high school. But I was certain, back then, that I wanted to be a scientist in some sub-field of physics, so that’s what I went to MIT to do. It was not a good fit.
I excelled in math and science in high school, and I received a lot of praise and attention for this in particular because I was (perceived to be) a girl, and that made me think it was what I wanted to do. At MIT, I kept up, but I quickly learned that I didn’t like physics as much as I had thought I would. Perhaps more importantly, I met a lot of people who really did live and breathe their chosen fields, which made it clear that this was not something I could keep pursuing for the many more years it would take to get the advanced degrees needed to do interesting work in the field—a field whose work no longer appealed to me anyway. For reasons to do with my ROTC scholarship, I was limited in my options for changing majors, so I stuck it out in physics, gritting my teeth and taking humanities electives to keep myself sane.
This is one reason I hadn’t seriously contemplated graduate school until now. Right after graduation, of course, I was far too burned out to even consider more education anytime soon. Because I was an Air Force officer, and a master’s degree was eventually required to be promoted to major, people would ask me early on (even as a brand-new 2nd lieutenant) when I was planning to start working on it. I would shudder inwardly and tell them not right away, I still had a lot of time. (And I doubted from the beginning whether I would be staying in long enough to make major anyway, so…)
But even later, when I started thinking about going back to school, I always felt at a loss when it came to what I might study. More physics was right out, but then what? Not only did I not really know what I wanted to do, I also dreaded the possibility of finding myself in the same position of studying something that felt like a chore I was forcing myself to do, rather than something I was truly interested in. Even when I started taking classes two years ago, thinking I might eventually apply for a Master’s of Social Work to become a counselor, I knew that a lot of that curriculum would be very difficult for me to navigate. Learning psychology is great, but the practical aspects of learning counseling skills, and all of the interpersonal elements of that kind of work, seemed more daunting.
Then I took sociology. It’s funny, because it was a little bit of a fluke; I was planning to take Intro to Human Services my first semester, as it was a prerequisite for most of the other classes that I wanted to take. But it was canceled at the last minute, so I substituted Sociology 101 instead. That was on my list of classes to take, but I had initially planned on taking it a little later. It worked in my schedule, though, so I took it right away…and realized this was the thing I wanted to study.
In a way, I had been studying it for a long time. Sociology is a vast field, or maybe a series of related fields, and a lot of my reading over the years could be filed somewhere under its umbrella. As I mentioned earlier, I enjoyed learning about psychology starting in high school, but even more than individual psychology, I was fascinated by social psychology and the study of social interaction and the structure of society. And is it any wonder? The social world was frequently baffling to me, and yet here was a way of studying it, picking it apart, and looking for patterns. That first sociology teacher described sociology (citing C. Wright Mills) as “making the familiar strange,” in that it questions the taken-for-granted nature of society and holds things up for study that most people didn’t think twice about. But for me, a lot of that “familiar” was already strange. Of course I wanted to study it.
This all left me feeling very out of place at a reunion for a school that is so intensely focused on science and technology that it has a single department for “Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences.” But this actually brought me full circle to the disconnect I felt while at MIT, and ended up making me feel better about the whole thing. I was out of place there, both that weekend and 25 years ago. But I didn’t know myself back then: I didn’t know I was autistic, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and I didn’t know a whole lot of other facets of myself. I’m ok with being out of place there now; it’s not where I belong.
It is still part of me, though. I’ve been thinking of the move from physics to sociology like it’s a hard, right-angle turn, but physics isn’t a bad starting place for any field of study. I value the training I received in critical thinking, the scientific method, and not being afraid of complex math. And, of course, the trial-by-fire nature of MIT (it’s also called “drinking from the firehose,” so maybe I’m getting my metaphors mixed?) taught me a lot about taking on hard challenges and just plain getting things done. Ultimately, it feels good to have gone back for my reunion, and I’m ready to move forward in this new direction without hesitation.