One Fish, Two Fish: When I Realized This Wasn't Normal

Photo:  Adobe Stock

Photo: Adobe Stock


I remember a conversation with a graduate student over prospective students' weekend. “And when you can, get a dog. Or a cat. Or whatever. Pets make this whole endeavor a lot more bearable and a lot less lonely,” they said. At the time I was worried about picking the right grad program. I couldn’t see how a dog or any kind of animal had anything to do with my success in grad school. So I nodded. I smiled. I brushed the comment off. I didn’t consider myself an animal person anyway.


So you can imagine my surprise when six months into my first year of grad school, I found myself wandering the aisles of PetCo. I couldn’t make the jump to a dog right away. After all, I’d never owned a pet. I needed something cute but low maintenance. I opted for a small blue Betta fish. I named him Bernie. Partly to commemorate the lost primary, and partly because—what can I say—I think alliteration is fun.


Bernie brought me back to life—something I didn’t even know I needed at the time.


What I hadn’t noticed was that slowly over those first six months, I had slipped into depression and developed chronic anxiety. My mild case of imposter syndrome had snowballed into constant worrying coupled with heart palpitations. My heart raced like I was in a full-on sprint at the slightest moment—while answering a question in class or pressing send on an email.  


I had trouble sleeping; I was working six days a week. I wasn’t eating well; I stopped exercising. Most days I woke up not knowing how I would make it through the day. I had to give myself a pep talk to get out of bed—just take it one hour at a time, one minute at a time, even just one second at a time, I repeated over and over.


I was overwhelmed, tired, sad, angry, and keeping all this to myself. In some ways, I compartmentalized and kept these feelings from myself.


I couldn’t admit that something was seriously wrong. Grad school is supposed to be hard, right? It seemed like everyone I spoke to was working the same schedule and expressed feeling just as, if not more, stressed. So, I convinced myself, I had to suck it up and keep going. As a graduate student, this was life, and you had to deal with it.


But dealing with it, the life I found myself in, felt not only agonizing but also incredibly isolating. It required that I lie to almost everyone around me. Underneath the smiles and I am Fine’s, I felt like I was drowning. But I became so skilled at pretending that most people didn’t even notice.


I went to Petco that day because I was desperate for something to change and I didn’t know where to start. I still couldn’t put my finger on what exactly was wrong.


But the idea that “pets make this whole endeavor a lot more bearable and a lot less lonely” kept resonating in my head. I needed to find a way to make my life more manageable, and I wanted to feel less lonely. Getting Bernie made me realize that I was struggling, that nothing about the way I was living was healthy or normal, and that I needed help.


I know it sounds silly--that a fish put me on the road to recovery. But sometimes the truth reveals itself in funny ways. Wherever my truth came from, I had named it and at the very least I felt like now I could do something about it.


About the Author

Ana Rosado is a Ph.D. student in History at Northwestern University. She is the Content Manager of Just Tryna' Graduate. She loves talking self-care, mental health, and work/life integration. You can reach her via email.