Grief, Academia, and the Doctor I’ll Never Be

My first taste of grief came when my grandfather Danny died. I was eleven years old and while I was no stranger to the concept of death it was when that moment came that I realised that it applied to the people around me. Before that, death was an intangible concept. It was something that meant the hamster or the dog wouldn’t be there when I came home from school. It was sad, but only sad.

That night, after we had all cried until the tears flowed no more, my parents asked me to make them a cup of coffee. I went downstairs, put the kettle on, picked two mugs and then… stopped. I vividly remember my face scrunching up in that ugly way that grief-stricken faces do — almost trying to squeeze more tears out, to push the pain outside of my body. I whispered “Please God” to an empty, dimly lit kitchen and then immediately felt like the protagonist of a dramatic Dickens novel. I didn’t believe in God. I still don’t.

But gay kids love drama.

It was shock, more than grief, that life could go on so suddenly. Coffees still had to made, the cat had to be let back in, school was still looming in the morning. My parents sent me off with a note to my teacher. I don’t know exactly what it said but when Mrs. Smart read it she said “Oh, dear,” and hugged me.

And then we went inside and she taught us Maths. Life moves on.

Working out how to “move on” after something as world-shaking as a death is a struggle for a pre-adolescent. It’s called “loss” for a reason. Grief is having the rug swept from underneath your feet and clutching for a ledge as you fall into a pit. A pit that a loved one used to fill. I remember feeling like life wasn’t worth living if it would be fraught with these horrible feelings — what is the point of algebra when your parents will one day die?

The pit gets filled in over time, but with imperfect shapes. The pain recedes but memories remain. You honour your loved ones in special ways and they always remain a part of you. My sister looks up at the stars because she’s weird like that. I salute Magpies because that’s what Danny always did. The pit gets filled, and becomes a foundation. You learn to deal with grief, and it fades, replaced with resilience.

New pits opened over the course of my 27 years. Large pits for the grandparents. Smaller pits for the pets that I’d known much more. Even smaller pits for the relationships that ended — people can leave your life in so many ways.

Imagine my surprise then, when I dug my own pit.

I’d always wanted to be a doctor, really. First a medical doctor, but then I discovered my fear of blood. I dabbled with the idea of being a barrister because it sounded like the sort of thing a novel’s protagonist would be — remember, gay kids love drama. By the time I chose my A-Levels — the time of life when you feel like your choices have permanency about them — I had fallen in love with psychology. And so it was that Ryan Bamsey would become Dr. Bamsey, Psychologist.

University was awful, but that’s another essay. I got my master’s, fell in love, moved to England to be with him and started looking for work. Interview after interview. Nothing bit, and then eventually I came back to “the plan.” Dr. Bamsey. I passed an interview and received a bursary. Life moves on.

For a year I studied at the University of Portsmouth. Not only was I doing the thing I needed to do to be the person I knew I wanted to be, but I was getting paid to do it. But it was hard. Every trip up bashed my confidence, every phone call made my heart beat fast and I had awkward conversations about disabilities and anxieties that I hated.

I would drink a double vodka ten minutes before meetings just to steady my hands because I was afraid. I went to a conference and during the lunch break I felt so queasy at the idea of talking to strangers about my research that I just left. Got on the train and cried quietly for much of the journey home. I felt pathetic, and I felt like I was going to die. I felt like I wanted to.

It wasn’t that I wasn’t getting the support I needed, I was just not cut out for the life. So I quit. I had a meeting where I asked for a break and one of my supervisors bluntly asked me if I was really able to do a PhD and it took 5 minutes after closing that Zoom call for me to say “No.” It was something I had been clawing at for 10 years of my life. Thousands upon thousands of pounds of education. Scuppered in an instant.

Quitting the PhD lifted an enormous weight off my shoulders while simultaneously pulling a rug out from under my feet. I fell into a pit, but this time it wasn’t the hole left by a grandparent — it was Dr. Bamsey’s.

I’m not the only one. I have friends who have also quit PhDs who related the same feeling of grief. It is a lifestyle and a future that is lost in one fell swoop. A conceptualisation of yourself that is now distorted; a passion marred by failure.

I can say with certainty that I would not have survived had I stayed on — the experience made me feel stupid, worthless and small — but nothing will stop me regretting the choices I have made that led me to that dark place. I’m glad I left academia, but I grieve still for the person I could have been if things were different.

Right now, psychology is a ghost to me. I’m haunted by myriad textbooks from the undergraduate years where I thought I’d read them. I see tweets from the psychologists who I followed in my eagerness to be a part of the conversation. I have two certificates that signify my passion for science and a CV that signifies that I’m terrible at it.

But life moves on. A year ago I went to sleep every single night thinking about how much I wanted my life to end. Now, I’m happy. My partner turned to me yesterday during a conversation and said “Sometimes I don’t think I’ve really achieved anything in life.” And while he’s wrong, I know how he feels. Everyone wants to leave a mark on the world. It was then, though, that I came to a realisation — achievements don’t make you happy. It’s friends and family and music and books and passions and love and the sun and the stars and writing your feelings and taking it all in.

At the end of the day, life moves on. The dramatic Dickens protagonist in me wants to say “I am sorry, Dr. Bamsey,” as a fitting end to this essay, but Dr. Bamsey is gone. He left a hole, but it is now filled with imperfect shapes. And “Just Ryan” is happier for it.

Ah, fuck, that was also pretty dramatic, wasn’t it? Shit.

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