Pride, Accomplishments, and Degrees: On Being a First Generation Graduate Student

Women in my family don’t go to graduate school.

Women in my family barely get degrees at all.

Perhaps it wasn’t so unusual for the times that my grandmother never went to college. Even with a high school education, she was able to do a variety of things from teaching kindergarten to having a real estate career.

My mom received only slightly more education, obtaining an associate’s degree rather than the four year degree she had initially intended to get. Unlike many women in the cult, she didn’t go to her IFB school in pursuit of her M.R.S. degree (where you get a husband instead of a diploma), but like most women in IFB schools, she left with one.

I also didn’t go to Bob Jones University to find me a man. Even though the pressure to “date” was astronomically high for girls there (especially those who were deemed fit for being a preacher’s wife), I managed to avoid a serious relationship until my junior year.

When I dropped out just before beginning my senior year and got married, I seemed to be on my way to fulfilling the pattern set up for me by my foremothers. There was little expectation that I would get my bachelor’s. My mother clicked her tongue as she told me that I would regret my decision later.

Dire predictions weren’t far behind my vows:  “First comes love, then comes marriage. Then comes baby in a baby carriage.” If betting were allowed, I suspect that half the cult would have put their money on my being pregnant within a few months.

I was still determined to graduate, though. In spite of, or perhaps because of, their anger, disappointment, and expectations of my failure, I fought like a banshee to transfer to a new university…a secular one, where I realized that the three years I’d spent previously at BJU were as good as wasted.

When I finally received my diploma, it didn’t strike me as particularly unusual…except maybe the timing. I was aware that I had broken “out of order” by marrying first and graduating after, but it never occurred to me that I was doing something momentous for my family history.

This past week, though, I realized that not only am I one of the few women who received a four-year degree in my family. I’m also one of the few who has received a secular degree from a non-religious school (even considering my extended family, I can only think of one other cousin, two if I count the men too).

Now I’m working towards a Master’s.

There’s a part of me that feels incredibly out of place with this realization. I’ve never considered myself on the spectrum of “first generation to go to college” before, but I suppose on some levels that’s what I am.

What is it that makes one generation conform to the norms and expectations that they’ve been taught and makes another generation break out and do things that have never been done before?

There’s nothing in my upbringing that would suggest I would leave a cult and fight to create a life that didn’t follow the religious, gender, or cultural roles I’d been given as a child…but somehow, even as I seemed to repeat familiar patterns, I changed them—changed me.

It’s hard to believe that in a time when women earn more bachelor’s and master’s degrees than men that my realization is such a big deal, but it feels like it’s completely transformed my perspective.

I spent so much of my time as a child trying to be “the best”—to gain the pride, approval, and affection of my parents through my achievements and academic performance. But it was always in the shadow of my father’s accomplishments. If I got an A on a test, he would tell about getting an A+ on his seminary test. I simply couldn’t outshine him, but I continued to try. For some reason, I thought that would guarantee my parents’ love.

Of course, I realize now that basing my worthiness on my academic performance is ridiculous. My parents’ approval is tenuous and fleeting, and I’ve come to accept that they will never truly be proud of who I am since pretty much everything about me goes against their beliefs.

Nevertheless it’s a struggle that still crept in even just a few years ago, the childlike anticipation of praise when I finally got my undergraduate degree, followed by the bitter disappointment of realizing that it wasn’t good enough…just like everything else.

It’s ironic that my parents can’t recognize the accomplishment that I’ve already made. The nuances of breaking my own glass ceiling are lost on them.

But I see it. I know that despite how much of a failure they think I am, I’ve already done more than they have. And in seeing it, there’s a kind of comfort that even if I fail, I’ve already succeeded. For the first time, being proud of myself is all that I need.



New Posting Schedule for the Spring

As my second semester of grad school gets underway, I’m making a few adjustments to the schedule of the blog. Typically, I’ve been posting on a weekly basis; however I realized last semester that weekly posts felt a little bit hectic to me. Therefore, I will be switching to posting every other week, which will hopefully give me time to feel like I’m creating quality posts without neglecting other responsibilities. During breaks I hope to resume weekly posts.

The Alchemy of Iron Overload

Within the last couple of weeks, I found out I have some sort of blood disorder that makes my body collect iron. It’s something I’ve never heard of before now but is apparently an incredibly dangerous condition since the excess iron gets stored in organs and muscles, potentially causing damage if not treated.

I got that much information, plus a list of things that I’m not supposed to do for the time being, and now I wait…for a month…to see a specialist who can hopefully tell me more.

Yes, I’m scared.

After exhausting my own ability to research iron overload and the underlying condition, causes, treatments, etc., I’ve turned to my spirituality to help me understand the purpose for my body’s sudden affinity for this heavy metal.

I’m not the type of person that believes all medical conditions are rooted in the spiritual and that if you just clear your chakras then all physical ailments will disappear. Not at all. I’d give anything right now to be working on an herbal supplement, taking a medication, donating blood, or something to make me feel better right now.

However, I have a fucking month to sit around on my hands, and finding symbolic meaning for my current predicament seems like the least that I can do in my waiting period.

So iron…

Alchemically, iron is associated with physical strength, energy, masculinity, and Mars, which makes sense considering that iron was one of the first metals used for weapons of war and has often been a display of power.

It also makes sense given that too little iron in our blood causes fatigue and weakness—anemia.

The ironic part comes when I consider how my current symptoms of iron overload (primarily pain, fatigue, and weakness) resemble iron deficiency, so much so that when I initially went in to see my doctor for those symptoms, she was pretty convinced I was anemic. Had she not drawn blood to test my iron levels before telling me to take iron supplements, there’s a good chance I’d be dead by now.

So in certain amounts, iron is good. It adds strength and energy to the body. It’s necessary for blood oxygenation.

Too little iron, and the body becomes vulnerable and weak.

Too much, and the body becomes vulnerable and weak.

The symbolism is a little mind-blowing to me. Do you see it yet?

Let’s think about it in terms of outward iron as well.

Italian suit of armour in the Walters Art Museum. Public domain.

Italian suit of armour in the Walters Art Museum. Public domain.

In certain amounts, iron as a material could be useful, weather as a tool, weapon, or suit of armor. It adds strength and power to an ordinary human motion.

Too little iron, and the tool, weapon, or body becomes vulnerable and weak.

Too much, and the tool, weapon, or body becomes useless or weak because it’s too heavy.

Is there a psychological version of iron?

I can’t help but think of the way that hypervigilance affected me in the early stages of my healing and can still affect me to some extent now.

It’s not unreasonable for abuse survivors to want to protect themselves, and it’s not abnormal for them to develop extremely sensitive warning systems in social interactions.

The reasoning makes sense. “I was hurt by someone I deeply trusted in the past. I don’t want to be hurt again; therefore, I need to be on my guard constantly against those I deeply trust now.”

Okay, the reasoning doesn’t entirely make sense, but the motivation itself makes sense.

And for a while I thought that my hypervigilance was helping me, even though it also overwhelmed me. It wasn’t until someone pointed out to me that a guard dog who barked all the time at shadows wasn’t really a very good guard dog that I realized my hypervigilance may not actually be serving me in the way that I thought.

Constantly being on guard was exhausting, sapping the energy I would have needed in a truly dangerous situation, and constant warnings going off in my head made it immensely difficult to discern between a legitimate warning and a false one.

It’s taken a while for my heart to understand that calming my hypervigilance didn’t mean getting rid of my vigilance altogether. It merely meant that I trusted myself enough to recognize a legitimate threat when it appeared, and I didn’t need to constantly be on the hunt for where the non-existent threats were hiding.

That was my outer psychological iron—the weapons and armor against the outside world. Now I’m looking inward. In what ways psychologically has my mind collected too much “iron” against itself? In what ways have I depleted my spiritual energy by holding onto something heavy?

Iron is also the metal used to make fences for graveyards because it is believed to keep the ghosts inside.

Batavia Cemetery surrounded by iron fence. Public domain.

Batavia Cemetery surrounded by iron fence. Public domain.

As an abuse survivor, I know I’ve also built up protections against myself. I’ve put fences around certain memories to keep their ghosts inside. I’ve shut pain up behind iron doors and hung a mobile of iron knives and sheers above the cradle of my childhood.

These were defenses I set up long ago, and though I’ve been on a healing journey that has led me to lowering defenses, facing truth, unlocking doors, and freeing memories, there are still many that remain bound behind the iron of my psyche.

At the solstice, I had the feeling I was emotionally menstruating, shedding the old layer of work that was complete and beginning a new cycle into a deeper layer of my healing. Now, as I wait more or less patiently for my body to be able to shed its literal iron (I seriously cannot wait to bleed it out!), I consider the ways that I can release the psychological iron of an over-protective and somewhat weary soul.


Reclaiming Negative Emotions: Lust and the Prohibition Effect


It’s one of the seven deadly sins.

Depending on which religion or denomination you ask, lust is anything from mere sexual desire (i.e. all sexuality) to “wrongfully directed sexual desire” (Christianity Today’s “Understanding Lust” by Jim Vander Spek)

There’s no denying it gets a bad rap.

At first in my own journey, I separated “lust” (the wrong version of passion and attraction) from sexuality (a healthy version of attraction and love). It worked at a time when I was trying to reclaim my right to experience sexual pleasure. Being able to say that lust was what someone experienced when they objectified and dehumanized another person or longed to have sex with someone who wasn’t “theirs” to have sex with helped me to separate it from my own feelings of desire and find ways to embrace them, love myself, and love my partner.

I stopped actively thinking about it years ago, and my journey towards sex-positivity hasn’t really missed the equivocation of definitions. I didn’t consciously reclaim lust as a “negative emotion.” But I did consciously reclaim sexuality, and now I think it’s time to wed the two.

Here’s my definition of lust: sexual desire. That’s it.

Wherever you find a demonization of lust, you are guaranteed to find a group of people trying to dictate and control the sexual desires of another. It’s okay in “this” context, but not in “that” context. It’s okay with “this” person, but not with “that” person. It’s sacred and holy in “this” way, but it’s an abomination in “that” way.

But what happens when you stop placing value judgments on internal feelings and desires? What happens when you just let them be?

For one thing, they lose the stigma of shame.

As with most “negative emotions,” lust gets ingrained in our minds as a destructive thing to experience because the only time it is brought to the forefront of our minds is when we see its destructive expression. Just as anger is associated with violence, lust is associated with sexual impropriety, sexual violation, and sexual obsession.

Mostly because we’ve been conditioned to label it “lust” only if it’s problematic.

But sexual desire does not come with the mandate to cheat on your partner, sexually assault a person, or lose all sense of balance. Many of us experience sexual desire frequently as humans without those elements being present.

But society, especially religion, would have us believe that if we just accepted lust as a benign feeling, that all hell would break loose. We need the “this” but not “that” controls in place to prevent all manner of harm and evil.

But do we?

My partner and I were chatting the other night about what we’ve termed the “prohibition effect”—the phenomenon where something relatively benign becomes destructive as a result of prohibition, thus creating a false sense of the need for that prohibition.

For example, how many times have we heard a similar story to the following? A gay man is taught that he is sinful in his attractions to other men and is promised that if he gets married to a woman he will be cured of his sin. He doesn’t come out. He gets married to an unsuspecting wife. He struggles with trying to suppress his natural attraction, but eventually gives in to a one-night, anonymous encounter in a dark room.

He returns to his wife, distraught by the destructive power of his desire. He “repents” and tries to once again suppress his desire. A few months later it happens again.

At some point, his wife and church find out about him being gay, maybe because he contracts a sexually transmitted disease, maybe because he’s caught in the act of cheating, maybe because he just can’t handle lying about who he is anymore.

His marriage is destroyed. His and her health are both at risk. He is despised in his community. And everyone points to the “sin” of homosexuality being at the root of all of this destruction.

But his attraction isn’t the root!

Had he been given accurate information about his orientation when he was younger, had his attraction not been portrayed as deviant or abominable, had he not been talked into marrying someone he couldn’t love, had he been taught how to have safe sex, and had he not been driven into desperation and secrecy, he might never have lived out that vicious cycle.

He could have easily gone on to have a normal, happy, healthy life with relationships that were honest and with partners with whom he could be open.

It wasn’t the fact that he was gay that created the problem. It was the prohibition of his natural, normal, innocent desires.

That is the power of the prohibition effect, and its fingerprints are all over our sexual ethics. Those who wish to control the sexual behavior of others conveniently attach the label of “lust” to anything sexually prohibited. Then when people step outside the lines of prohibition, everything from eternal damnation to name-calling (slut) is rained down on them in an attempt to shame or scare them back into the confines of approved sexual expression.

But there are those of us out there who are tired of being shamed and punished for something that is arbitrarily decided to be bad. There is a movement of sluts, feminists, and queer activists who are redefining sexual ethics to be not about what others think of what you do in the bedroom or with whom you do it but about what is right and good for you and your partner/s on an individual basis, even if it’s taboo for another.

We free ourselves from the negative connotation surrounding lust. And we return to a far more basic version of good vs. bad sexual ethics. It’s easy to remember. It leaves room for everyone to be themselves.

It’s called consent.

In the world of The Ethical Slut, the only right or wrong about sexual desire is whether each person is consenting to the actions that follow.