Stress: Stories about being under pressure

This week, we’re presenting two stories about stressful situations in science.

Part 1: Due to stress in her personal life, TV writer Joey Slamon develops a cyst in an unfortunate place.

Joey Slamon has worked as a writer and producer on shows such as Arrested Development, Those Who Can’t and Bobcat Goldthwait’s upcoming Misfits and Monsters. She is currently working on season two of I’m Sorry for TruTV. Despite no formal training, she will happily give you medical advice if you ask for it.

Part 2: As a biochemistry PhD student, Kellie Vinal has worked hard to prepare for her qualifying exam, but when the day finally arrives, nothing goes according to plan.

Kellie Vinal is a PhD biochemist, science writer, educator, producer, and adventure enthusiast based in Atlanta, Georgia. She’s wildly interested in the intersection of science, art, and humanity and generally can’t sit still. She’s currently a freelance science communicator, serving as Festival Coordinator for the Atlanta Science Festival, Producer for The Story Collider, and Scientist In Residence for STE(A)M Truck. Kellie has also organized conferences, hosted a children’s TV show, written for various outlets, produced a science-themed bicycle scavenger hunt, hosted podcasts, collaborated on science-infused art projects, and trained to lead museum tours – all in the name of inspiring curiosity and wonder about science.


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Joey Slamon

I am the daughter of a Syrian doctor.  That’s not a brag, the doctor part.  Syrian is not a brag anywhere these days, but the doctor part is also not a brag.  It’s just a fact that my dad is a doctor. 

I inherited a lot of things from my father, most of them come from the Syrian side instead of the doctor side, unfortunately.  I have a very strong opinion about things that I will change on a dime based on nothing at all, much like my father, which really worked out for my dad. 

My dad is an oncologist, as I said, and he believed that chemotherapy is the way to treat his cancer.  That’s what you do.  Then one day he was like, “I fucking hate chemo.  Chemo is the worst.  Chemo is for losers.  I’m going to figure out something else.”  And he did and it’s great and it works and whatever. 

I do it a little differently.  While my dad was making his breakthroughs in medical science or whatever, I was really into Saved by the Bell.  I love Saved by the Bell.  Saved by the Bell was the best show ever.  Then one day I saw NYPD Blue and I was like, “Saved by the Bell is for losers.  Saved by the Bell is for assholes.  NYPD Blue is everything.” 

So we’re very similar in that way.  Do you know what I mean?  Really we’re adaptable and it’s our opinion in fact.  There's no opinion, it’s just fact. 

Joey Slamon shares her story at the Lyric Hyperion. Photo by Mari Provencher.

Joey Slamon shares her story at the Lyric Hyperion. Photo by Mari Provencher.

Another thing that I inherited from my father, I mean, lots of things like my sense of humor, which is dark because of the Syrian thing.  I also inherited his weird genetic thing that Aryan people are more predisposed to which is a pilonidal cyst.  It’s basically an ass cyst.  There's no nice way to say it.  It’s a cyst that lives on my ass.  It’s genetic.  Like I said, it’s not something gross.  It’s not that I don’t shower.  And it’s not in my ass, to be clear.  It’s on top, like where your tailbone is is where this cyst lives. 

The thing that brings on this cyst usually is poor hygiene, which I don't have, but also stress, which I have a lot of.  I have a very stressful job.  I get stressed very easily.  Things stress me out.  But it didn’t really manifest itself until I started making life choice decisions where I would have an opinion, it’s my opinion, then all of a sudden it wasn’t and it was the opposite then I would stress out. 

So I was with my boyfriend for 11 ½ years and it was a long time and that’s okay because I was a cool girl.  I didn’t want to get married because marriage is for losers and assholes and I wasn’t a loser and an asshole.  Like my career mattered a lot more than marriage so fuck all those people getting married.  Until one day I woke up and I was like, “Why won’t you marry me?  What the fuck is wrong with you?  What the fuck is wrong with me?  Life is a nightmare.  Everything I know is a lie.” 

I kind of pour this out to my boyfriend and he was like, “Yeah, I didn’t think you were super into the marriage thing based on the fact that you talked about how much you hated it all the time.”

And I was like, “Don’t tell me what to think.  Don’t tell me what to do.  It’s my body, my choice.  I’m going to get married so figure your shit out.” 

So I was really stressing out because this is kind of the first time since the Saved by the Bell/NYPD Blue incident where I had really changed.  All of a sudden I started really stressing out emotionally, which is something I don’t do.  I’m very good at compartmentalizing my stress.  But this stress manifested itself in a very real way on my ass. 

The good thing about my dad being a doctor is he's the head of hematology oncology UCLA, which is a pretty prestigious job.  No big deal.  So I called him and was like, “I have this thing.  I can’t sit for a long time.  It really hurts to drive or live or breathe or be on my bed or whatever, so I need to do something.”

He was like, “It’s not a big deal.  Nobody cares.  People have real problems.” 

Then like a month later he was like, “Why didn’t you tell me about this before?  You're probably going to die.  It’s probably infected.” 

Again, that classic Syrian fucking move of like all of a sudden it’s the biggest deal and I’m probably going to lose my legs. 

So I was like, “Okay, I'll make an appointment.”

And he's like, “No, I’m going to find you somebody.  You have to get this taken care of, like yesterday you needed to get this taken care of.” 

So he calls in a favor which was the head of… he was the surgical resident in UCLA, which is a pretty big deal.  This guy has worked on everybody.  He's done every type of surgery.  He's like the guy for surgery in California and my dad made him look at my ass, which didn’t feel great. 

The guy was so busy.  Actually, he was this really sweet older man.  He didn’t have any time because he was busy dealing with lung cancer and brain cancer that his practice was all full so he was like, “I can meet you on my lunch break for 20 minutes.  That’s how long it should take.  But I don't have a surgical suite available so we’ll do it in an office.” 

Photo by Mari Provencher.

Photo by Mari Provencher.

It turns out his office wasn’t available because he had consultations that were important so we met at this 16th floor conference room at UCLA which is this big beautiful bay windows and this gorgeous 16-foot mahogany desk, like leather chairs, medical journals and then me and this guy. 

So he was like, “Okay, let me take a look at it.” 

I was like, “Great.  Just focus.  Get it over with.”  So I drop my pants and my underwear.

And he was like, “Oh, no, I don't need to see… I’m sorry.  I should have been…” and freaked out. 

I was like, “Oh, God.  I just inadvertently flashed this guy everything.”  So I scramble to pull up my pants. 

He's like, “You can just pull them down a little bit.  It shouldn’t be that big of a deal.” 

I was like, “Oh, this is really embarrassing.  I’m sorry.” 

So he's trying to make small talk and he's like, “Oh, are you married?”  

Then I just burst into tears because I was like, “No, I actually am un-marryable for some reason because life is a nightmare.” 

He had me lean over this desk sprawled out with my jeans down a little bit and he lances my cyst which takes him 30 seconds, which he will never think about again, and I think about it every day of my life forever. 

So I’m like, “Okay, I got through it.  It’s fine.”  The bad news was it had to be packed with cotton.  It’s not great, guys.  I’m not proud of this.  But it’s in a place where I can’t pack it.  It’s like right here so my boyfriend had to pack my hole on my ass everyday for a long time.  I was like, “Well, now he's never going to marry me.” 

But he defied the odds and we got married.  Spoiler alert.  And it’s great and nice and it was fine because I was like, “Great news.  That was the only life decision I ever have to make because everything else is falling into place.  I definitely don’t want kids.  Kids are for assholes.  Kids are for losers.  I know everything.”

Then my younger brother announced that he was pregnant.  Well, not him but his wife was pregnant and I was like, “Why don’t we have a kid?  What’s wrong with you?  What’s wrong with me?  Everything is a nightmare.” 

He was like, “I thought you didn’t really want kids right away.”

I was like, “Don’t tell me what to do.  Don’t tell me what to do with my body.  Put a baby in me right now or fucking get the fuck out.” 

So I’m having this crisis again and while this is happening, sure enough, the cyst comes back.  This time I’m like, no, I’m not taking that on.  I don't have the mental capacity for it.  I cannot face that poor doctor guy in that mahogany desk again so I’m just going live with it and it’s going to be fine and it’s going to go away and meanwhile I'll get pregnant. 

Then everybody in my life was telling me how to get pregnant and the one scientific point to this story is if you are someone who has kids and somebody is trying to have kids, please don’t tell them what you did to have kids because it makes my uterus lock up.  I know you're trying to be helpful but it’s the least helpful thing you can do. 

Photo by Mari Provencher.

Photo by Mari Provencher.

So all this advice I was getting I was starting to spit out because none of it was working and we couldn’t get pregnant and it was terrible and my cyst got worse.  It was like a baby growing on my ass but not cute and cuddly but filled with nightmare fluids. 

So I called my dad again and I was like, “That thing is back.”

And he said, “Okay, I'll make some calls.” 

I was like, “Oh, no.  Not again, my friend.  You're not calling that guy who’s the head surgical resident of UCLA.” 

He was like, “Why not?  I thought that guy was good.” 

I was like, “No, that was my worst nightmare.  We’re not doing that again.” 

He's like, “All right.  I'll get you somebody else.  Don’t worry about it.  But you have to come in today or else you're going to lose both your legs and probably never be able to walk again.” 

So he called this guy.  I couldn’t Google him.  He didn’t pop up.  He's like, ‘Lead Guy Who Saves Lives’.  So I was like, “Okay, this should be safe.” 

He's the head of robotic surgery at UCLA which is actually a very big deal.  Robotic surgery is the nanosurgeries that they can do with wires and it’s very fascinating and technologically advanced and very important and very much not my ass. 

So this poor guy I guess owed a favor to my dad or something or like lost a bet so I had to go in.  This guy did have a surgical suite, thank God, and he was like, “Okay, well let me take a look at the cyst.  I only have 15 minutes.” 

I was like, “Okay, I got it.” 

So I start pulling my pants down a little bit and he's like, “I can’t really see anything.  I don't know what that is.  Can you pull it down a little bit more?” 

I was like, “Yup.”  So I pull it down a little centimeter and then it keeps going on for a while because I’m not making the same mistake I did last time.  Then I realized with horror that I’m doing this weird striptease with the head of robotic surgery for about five minutes.  I’m slowly pulling down my pants while talking to this guy about his life. 

And he was like, “I’m sorry.  Can you just take your pants off?” 

I was like, “Yes, I’m really sorry.  Last time… it doesn’t matter.” 

So I take my pants off and I wear thongs.  Again, not a brag.  It’s just a fact.  I don't like underwear.  It feels like pants. 

But I wear thongs and I take my jeans off and he was about to say, “Oh, can you please remove…” and I could see in his face where he was going to say ‘underwear’ then he looked and saw a thong but then didn’t want to call it a thong so he just went, “Can you please remove your panties?”  Which was the worst thing I've ever heard come out of any doctor including terrible diagnoses. 

But I double down.  I was like, “My panties?  Of course I can remove my panties.  I love removing my panties,” because I didn’t want him to feel bad because I already felt awful. 

So I take my thong off and I’m standing there and he lances my cyst, which again takes about 30 seconds which I will never live down.

While we’re doing it he's like, “Oh, are you married?” 

I was like, “As a matter of fact, I am.” 

And he's like, “Do you have any kids?”  Then I start crying. 

He was like, “I’m sorry.  Is it painful?” 

I was like, “No, I just can’t have children,” which isn’t necessarily true but just felt very real in the moment.  And I just said I can’t have children. 

He was like, “Oh, well you're all set so if you want to put your pants back on, I'll leave you to it.” 

So I left the guy’s office.  Once again I was mortified.  Once again this cyst has caused the second worst day of my life, first being the first time.  But I realize that it’s okay that I’m changing my opinions and it’s okay that I’m changing my mind as long as the cyst doesn’t come back.  Thank you.


Part 2: Kellie VInal

I was staring at myself in the mirror, coffee in hand, of course, trying desperately to laser beam some confidence into my reflection, kind of like now. 

So I'd been doing all the right things. I'd been dancing around my room all morning to Big Freedia in my fancy blouse and my fancy skirt, thank you. I'd been taking all kinds of deep breaths and telling myself admittedly lame ass stuff in the mirror, like, “Dude, you got this.  You know stuff and things. You're totally going to kill this.” 

In case anyone out there is concerned that perhaps I’m a hunter or assassin, don’t worry.  What I was going to kill, at least hopefully, was my qualifying exam.  For the uninitiated, a qualifying exam is this big scary thing that second year PhD students do in order to get the green light to conduct their dissertation research.  So in my program this meant writing a research proposal, outlining everything I intended to do to complete my PhD, and then orally defending this exam in front of my thesis committee. 

I'd already gone through the process of writing and then rewriting and then rewriting my proposal and I'd been studying for months.  I mean years, really, if you think about it.  The day was finally here.  I was a verifiable wreck but totally pretending not to be. 

But I'll level with you. Leading up to this, I'd been battling some pretty serious self-doubt.  Honestly, I've been having panic attacks on the regular and crying in various corners and locations on campus and downing definitely inappropriate amounts of caffeine in order to pull all nighters to just get as much study time as I possibly could.  So I'd already been through all of that.

And honestly, I just didn’t really feel like someone like me was smart enough to pass this exam.  I didn’t really feel worthy enough to take up space in my graduate program to begin with.  If I was being super honest, I had never quite identified as a scientist.  I didn’t think that someone like me was good enough to be a scientist.  That’s for sure.  And between you and me, and us I guess, I was a little iffy on what being a scientist actually really even meant. 

All I really knew was that I love science and I wanted to learn everything there is to know about diseases.  That might sound kind of insane to join a PhD program based on those two criteria and that’s because it kind of is.  But in any case, I saw my qualifying exam as this big, significant moment of truth where someone might finally call my bluff and just point to me and be like, “Yeah, you're not smart enough.  You're an impostor.” 

So I made my way go campus aggressively ignoring the situation of my stomach and my sweaty palms.  At this point, my palms had been sweaty for months anyway.  I entered the room that I had booked months before and cleared my throat and scoped out the scene.  What I saw was a row of my thesis committee sitting in the front, my adviser sitting in the back and then a faculty member who was there to oversee the exam sitting to the right. 

So I took a big deep breath and took my place in front of the white board… and so it began.  The idea with an exam like this is to probe for the bounds of my knowledge, so any questions fair game, nothing off limits.  The idea is to know everything about everything related to my project, or at least be able to work through using my scientific knowledge. 

It started off well enough.  I drew diagrams all over the white board, filling up all the space, and answering all these questions, things that I had studied on all those late nights in the library.  I was like, “Yes, I’m doing it.”  And I felt like it was going pretty well.  The truth is if I can turn off that mega anxious part of my brain, I'd love this stuff. 

You can call me crazy if you want but I've always been obsessed with diseases, like viruses, bacteria, parasites, all that stuff fascinates me.  I love learning the intricate details of how exactly they work, like what the molecules are doing, where they come from, how they spread and like all the loopholes in your body systems that they take advantage of.  I joined this lab because the project was so cool.  I was studying HIV using actual patient samples and I couldn’t wait to get this stupid thing over with so I could just get started in the lab. 

Soon, though, I was answering a question about how B cells mature and my memory got a little bit slippery.  I went from answering questions with exclamation points at the end to answering them with question marks at the end.  The thing about these exams is that they don’t tell you if you get an answer wrong.  These professors have impressive poker faces and will continue to ask you questions to build on your answers so it’s possible for you to dig yourself into a big ass hole and not realize it. 

That was kind of percolating in the back of my brain.  I knew that was a possibility but I didn’t want it to happen to me.  Not me, no.  But I knew I got something wrong and I didn’t know exactly what it was.  Then I was trying to figure it out and then I just freaked out.  I just started to panic.  My throat closed up and my fingers got tingly then numb and I felt like I couldn’t breathe.  I kind of felt like you know when you're on a roller coaster about to plunge down, that’s what my body felt like.  If you know me at all, I hate roller coasters.  This is not a good situation. 

And my brain just kind of like is out of service, like that blue screen of death that computers get.  That was what was happening.  I couldn’t remember anything anymore.  Not even the easy stuff. 

The other thing about these exams is that your adviser isn’t allowed to say anything at all.  They just sit there silently staring at you.  It was around then that my adviser got up and left.  So I was just like, “Oh, she must have had a ton of coffee.  I’m sure she's just going to the bathroom.” 

Then I started to notice how frowny everyone in the room had gotten and I was like, “Oh, shit.  Okay.  This is not good.  Got it.  Okay.”  I took just everything inside of me to just keep the tears inside, pretend it’s fine, it’s cool.  So for the remaining time of my exam, it could have been minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years.  I have no idea.  I was just like, “Hold it together.  You got this.” 

Eventually, the exam ended.  Thank God.  My committee asked me to step outside into the lobby.  It was definitely pretty surreal.  I had sat at this same table next to this sunny wall of windows nearly every day for the past two years and I'd come to associate it with friends and snacks.  But this time I was biting my fingernails in a pool of my own sweat.  No snacks. 

Kellie Vinal shares her story at the HIghland Inn and Ballroom. Photo by Rob Felt.

Kellie Vinal shares her story at the HIghland Inn and Ballroom. Photo by Rob Felt.

Actually, a classmate of mine was sitting nearby.  She kind of told me with a sad look in her eyes like, “Do you want me to give it to you straight?  Like if it’s taking this long, that’s not a good sign.” 

Of course my brain is just going bananas, like, “Why did I think I was ever good enough?  Why did I put myself in this position?” 

Eventually, my committee called me back inside the room and the first thing I noticed was a sea of stern faces and sad looks.  Things got a little blurry. One of my committee members, I couldn’t even tell you which one at this point, told me that unfortunately I had failed my exam.  My brain short circuited and it was kind of like I was underwater but then I also had this out-of-body experience.  I floated up to the top of the room and looked at that sad person.  It was just really surreal.  This is my worst nightmare coming true in real time.  Finally, real-life proof that I’m not good enough happening right now.  My brain was like exploding. 

One by one my committee members took turns telling me, “You know, we really think that you should leave with a master’s.  We don’t think you have what it takes to be here.”  Then they left. 

In the days following, I had a lot of time to think about how I had ended up here and what in the world I was going to do next.  I was met with overwhelming support and love from friends and family, and I was super grateful for that, but I just couldn’t get past how this overwhelming feeling of failure, like I failed, and I just really wallowed in that feeling of failure.  I hardly left my room for days.  I was just moping around in my sad pajamas eating popcorn for dinner again. 

You know, as far as I knew, only a handful of people in the history of the world had ever failed this thing before.  Surely they were just idiots.  It wasn’t something that people talked about seriously, though.  It was kind of kept in the down low, like whisper status.  So I was just like I guess I’m one of those idiots. 

I had zero backup plan.  I had put all my stupid eggs in the stupid basket and I hadn’t really thought through long term what my plan was going to be and so I was just miserable.  No idea what I was going to do. 

Eventually, I had a chance to meet with the faculty member who oversaw my exam and then later I met with other mentors and friends at my program and I came to understand some information that helped put things in perspective for me.  I found out that although my adviser had been overwhelmingly kind and supportive in our meetings, for the most part, she had been saying some kind of brutal things about me behind my back, which I didn’t expect.  Someone even told me that she had told them she wanted to kick me out of the lab.  It seemed to me like maybe this qualifying exam was just an easy peasy, clear cut way to do that.  And there were a couple of professors that were furious on my behalf, like honestly that was pretty validating. 

So this new information paired with declarations of support from mentors of mine, professors that I worked closely with, kind of gave me the boost that I needed.  I was advised to just, you know what, find a new lab.  We think you belong to be here.  Start over and don’t look back. 

So I came to realize that as strong as I'd been trying to be on my own, I hadn’t been receiving the support that I needed.  I also, around this time, I got a therapist who taught me that there is a name for what I had been experiencing, maybe not just grad school but for quite some time, and that’s generalized anxiety disorder and depression.

I learned the hard way, as these things always go, it’s kind of the only way to do it, that if something feels really, really wrong that it probably is.  You should never have to feel that way.  There's always help for you. 

So that summer I did a lot of soul searching.  I kept going to therapy, I learned how to co-exist with that neurotic brain of mine, and I did a lot of studying and I met with a lot more professors.  Really, I was on the hunt to figure out where exactly do I fit. 

By the end of the summer, I found a professor who was willing to take me on as a student.  I also accidentally fell in love with biochemistry which I did not see coming.  I wrote another research proposal and scheduled another qualifying exam. 

This time, as I waited in the lobby to hear my fate, it felt different.  It didn’t take long this time.  The door opened and I saw a smiling face, an outreached hand, and a cheerful voice saying, “Congratulations young lady.”  I had found my place.  I had found balance and I was grateful.  Thank you.