“It was devastating”: A graduate students’ thoughts on the emotional toll of the strike

A week? Two weeks? A month? I was in a constant state of not knowing what was happening, or what was going to happen in the future.

In order to demonstrate how the strike affected me, I first have to make a confession: I have an anxiety disorder. My anxiety became a factor around the same time I was accepted into the Interdisciplinary Disability Studies Master’s program at U of M back in 2013, and has continued to impact my life in both anticipated and unpredictable ways ever since. One “unpredictable” way was the U of M strike that lasted for three weeks in November 2016.

But let me go back a bit first.

If you’ve never heard of the Disability Studies Master’s program before, you’re not alone. The program just had its ten-year anniversary in 2014 and remains small at around 25 graduates.

The easiest way I’ve found to describe Disability Studies is its similar nature to the important work being done in feminist and queer studies by pulling apart “assumed” identities in order to re-examine prescribed roles. As such, the disability studies field is a challenging one with research involving identity politics—for example, how to possess a positive identify when disability is often seen as a horrible tragedy—and harmful historical movements such as institutionalization and sterilization, among others. Understandably, studying such topics has taken a professional and emotional toll on many disability studies scholars. I include myself in that group.

But in the spring of 2016 I was ready to get to work on my thesis proposal. I wrote nothing for a good four weeks and I felt like a complete failure at life.

I can only blame my writer’s block on how my thesis had snowballed into this grandiose idea that became utterly unattainable. Besides, I had been waiting to write my thesis for a number of years before I was actually ready to work on it. Definitely ever since I first started graduate school. No, before that—since I had first decided to apply to the program while I was still working. No, before that—I had my BA in English, and I knew that I was a storyteller. No, before that—I started writing stories when I was a little girl. I had written a story about my best friend in elementary school when I was 10.

I finally got down to business on July 22—I still remember the date—and wrote myself a contract that I would spend 4 hours on my proposal for four days a week. Somehow, I stuck to that goal and by the end of September I had a rough draft. After a whirlwind three weeks I had a final draft ready to send my supervisor.

When I received her email that I was “ready to defend,” I felt lighter than air.

The main benefit of a thesis proposal is narrowing down what your thesis will actually be about. I decided, finally, to write my thesis on my journey as a disabled child and how I came to identify myself as a minority through the minority characters I read about and identified with in fiction. What do Meg Murray, Jo March, and Fern Zuckerman have in common? They were all my childhood friends.

With them in mind and after a few weeks to proof the proposal and get my committee together, my supervisor and I booked a proposal date. In a frenzied afterthought, I emailed my supervisor to ask what would happen if there was a strike. Her reply was that the defence would have to be moved to whenever the strike ended, but of course she couldn’t guarantee if or whether there would indeed be a strike (and she sincerely hoped there wouldn’t be).

This all happened on October 31. The strike began at midnight on November 1.

The first few days I was in denial. At my worst, I texted my parents that I would be “devastated” if I couldn’t defend when I was supposed to on November 16. When my mom later followed up on whether I would “really be” devastated, I hesitated and said no. Anything could happen by the 16th after all.

But, later, as November trudged on and on, I became devastated with each passing day. To top it off, I was glued to CBC’s coverage on the strike. The strike and how it effected my life all but consumed me. I prepared for my defence, though, just in case.

Unlike other grad students conducting and collecting research statistics for their thesis, my “data,” by and large, was myself. Writing about myself has never been easy for me as it brings up all kinds of emotions, many of which have either gone unnoticed or been deliberately avoided. My proposal, being so personal in nature, brought up many of these emotions.

Somehow, though, my final draft was concise, cohesive, and provocative. I wanted to shout it from the rooftops.

November 16 came and went, and to be unable to defend my proposal after I had spent months writing it took a total mind shift. Not only was my proposal defence pushed back, but I had no idea when it was pushed back to. A week? Two weeks? A month? I was in a constant state of not knowing what was happening, or what was going to happen in the future.

I’m well aware that I shared this state with many University of Manitoba staff and students. However, that didn’t make the feelings go away in the moment or, really, provide a sense of consolation. Undertaking graduate studies is already an isolating process, but those three weeks during the strike were three of the loneliest weeks of my life.

Since I was my data, I took the literal push back in time as a personal affront. Didn’t everyone know how hard I had worked, how many things I had worked through? I had been thinking about writing my thesis for years. And now all that stuff—all that stuff about me—no one was willing to read.

I’m well aware of how ridiculous this all sounds. No, the strike was not a personal vendetta against me in order to prevent the defence of my thesis proposal. But in my mind, such ridiculous logic sounded sane.

I ended up defending on November 30. It went well, of course—better than well, it went very well. Probably, if I’m honest with myself and put aside my self-deprecating nature, it went great.

In the end, everything worked out fine—as things usually do. Those “feelings” I was negotiating within that month, however, don’t disappear because everything worked out fine. The fact that I felt them, that’s still there.

I was changed emotionally by the strike. That fact, unfortunately, can’t be proven. After all, you can’t be compensated for a feeling. But it would be nice if that internal struggle could be acknowledged and seen as just as important as any other “setback” caused by the strike.

This article was originally published in the Gradzette.