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Processing Fictional Trauma: 11:59 Edition

Bringing myself to write this article has been more difficult than I was anticipating.

For someone that writes a weekly article on processing fictional trauma, one would think that I’d be more effective at processing my own fictional trauma, but this week was really and truly harder than most for a variety of reasons. Getting to an emotional place where I have enough of a sense of peace that I can put my thoughts together took awhile. But here I am. Finally.

Long Week

I recently read that there are two types of Arrow fans… there are those that casually watch the show each week (or binge every few weeks/months), and then there are those watch the show and read every interview, analyze every episode, and discuss all things Arrow all the time. In this vein, I think that this article will be broken down into two sections, because there are two very real traumas that happened as a result of this episode: The onscreen trauma, and the trauma in the fandom.

SPOILERS FOR EPISODE 4×18

YOU WILL HEAR WHO IS IN THE GRAVE. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

On-Screen Trauma:

Last week’s episode of Arrow finally, after a season of buildup, showed us who is in the grave. Laurel Lance… The Black Canary herself… took a knee. The very idea that a television show based on the Green Arrow would kill off the Black Canary is almost unthinkable. But it happened. And as the writers have promised, this death is real.

Laurel Lance as we know her is not coming back.

I have always had a hard time helping others grieve the death of a loved one. I became a mental health therapist because helping people with their emotional problems comes naturally to me… but for some reason, when someone died, I tended to become awkward and run away from it. When I began working in the field, I quickly realized that it wasn’t just me. A lot of therapists struggle with helping others dealing with bereavement. As therapists, we are ready to help work through things and bring hope to people.

But death is different. There’s nothing to repair or to fix. All you can do is accept.

And that is no easy task.

For many, the death of Laurel Lance, and the knowledge that there is no hope of her coming bimagesack was a truly traumatic blow, fictional or not. While Laurel has been a divisive figure with fans of the show (people tend to love her or hate her), the fact is, she had an extremely powerful story. She survived massive trauma and humiliation – the death of her sister (twice), the death of her longtime boyfriend, the humiliation of their deaths happening while they were cheating on her andLaurel_drinking the hugely publicized nature of it, the death of her next boyfriend who died saving her, her parents’ divorce, her father’s drinking problem, her mother’s distance, plus a slew of near death experiences… She went through a lot. And for awhile it beat her. She resorted to drugs and alcohol because she lost the ability to cope with both her own actions and the actions of others, and as addiction is a genetic disorder, her path to the bottle wasn’t terribly surprising.

But she rose above.

Despite no one wanting her in the life of crime fighting – not her father, not Oliver, and not her sister – Laurel fought back against her addiction, and became a super hero. She may not have always made the healthiest decisions along the way, but Arrow has never been a show about super mentally healthy people. It’s about people battling their demons, and trying to channel them into doing good in the world.

Laurel went from being a drug addict to a superhero. It’s a hell of a powerful story for someone who may be struggling with addiction themselves or know someone that is. I believe that her story brought hope to many, as well it should.

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But now she’s gone.

So in trying to process a death like this… the death of a character whose story had given so much hope to so many, and whose death perhaps feels like a loss of all of that acquired hope, how can people learn to cope? We can go through the stages of grief, sure, and hopefully come to accept it. But how can people come to accept? I don’t proclaim to be an expert on bereavement (remember the awkwardness I mentioned above when dealing with death? Yeah…), but I can tell you what often helps me. And that is finding meaning within the loss.

For many people, losing the Black Canary has led to profound feelings of anger. The show KakaoTalk_20160411_174921011has never been really true to the comics, but killing the Black Canary seems to have gone just too far outside comic canon for some people to handle. I will admit that I don’t know much about comics, and so I can’t make any declarative statements there except that I know sometimes Batman’s Robins die, showing precedent even in the DC comic universe for major character death. But… none of that matters. Feelings just are, whether anyone thinks they should be or not. And anger, as I’ve mentioned in other articles, tends to be an emotion that is almost always accompanying or even masking another deeper or more personal feeling… such as giphydisappointment, hurt, or feelings that trust has been violated (much like Laurel’s season 2 anger was masking her grief, guilt, and insecurity). And I think that for many, those are the feelings that are currently being experienced with regards to Laurel’s death. Many people expected that eventually Laurel and Oliver would find their way back together, as that’s what happened in the comics. Many people felt that Laurel, if not with Oliver, would continue on her own super hero journey alongside Oliver as part of Team Arrow. Many people trusted the writers to continue the story of their beloved character, and feel disillusioned, hurt, and incredibly, incredibly sad that she’s gone.

And that is completely understandable.

I’ve never been secretive about my love of Felicity, or of Olicity. But as someone who still can barely accept even the existence of River Song (sorry Mrs. Lance…) because of my Rose ship, I get it.  It is hard when you finally fully realize that the couple you love is never going to be together, or that the character that you adore is never coming back when you feel that the story would be better if they did. I’ve been there, and it’s brutal. And this is where we come to the meaning making.

Making meaning from loss is a deeply personal thing, and so I won’t even pretend to tell anyone how to do that for themselves. But what I can do is offer some suggestions for helping to start that inner dialogue, or share my own thoughts. Any time I experience a loss, I try to think about what I have lost. What good things were brought into my life by this thing/person/etc? If Laurel Lance was an inspirational character for you, I suggest that you reflect on why. Rather than focusing on the negative emotions regarding her death, work on focusing on how her story positively influenced you. Yes, she is a fictional character, but that doesn’t mean that she hasn’t impacted your life… I know that many characters on this show have certainly impacted mine. Think about ways that you can incorporate things that her character taught you into your life going forward. Just as Laurel used her traumas to try to make the world a better place, see if you can put your fictional trauma to similar use.

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Another thing to do is look at the journey her character took. I usually leave the plot/storyline analysis to the literary folks, but there was something about this episode that I found to be very profound. We’ve always known that Laurel and Oliver dated for years, and that it wasn’t a terribly healthy relationship… lots of cheating, unrealistic expectations, and general dishonesty. We also know that while the show that we’re watching is only loosely based on the comics, it is essentially the origin story of the Green Arrow. And I don’t know about you, but when watching this episode, I realized…

Laurel Lance is the origin of the Green Arrow.

While Oliver Queen and Laurel Lance, the Green Arrow and the Black Canary, will not end up together romantically in the television show Arrow, what is clear is that in this origin story, there would be no Oliver Queen or Green Arrow without her. Laurel kept Oliver safe on that island, she gave him something to strive for, a reason to live. She grounded him and reminded him of goodness in the world during those years away, even if he didn’t feel like he deserved it. Her strength inspired him, and her resilience fortified him.

Oliver Laurel

Laurel’s impact on his past gave him a future. And her blessing and acknowledgement in the hospital means that he’ll be able to accept that future.

While I would never discount anyone’s feelings, I would simply say that for me, showing Laurel as very clearly being the origin of the Green Arrow, priming him to be able to find and accept the help and love of Diggle and Felicity who helped move him even further into his journey, truly honors her character and venerates her within this story.

That sounds like an awful lot of meaning for her character to me, even if they now have to go on without her.

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Fandom Trauma:

If you’re not part of the Arrow fandom, in that you don’t frequently discuss the show with others (likely through social media), then this section may come as a surprise to you. If you are a part of the fandom, then you already know what I’m about to say.

The fictional death of Laurel Lance has brought about so much real negativity between real people online that it is truly staggering to see (and was, btw, a large reason why I had such a tough time writing this article). And this is not, by the way, only coming from one “side.” This negativity is coming from everywhere, and I think it’s time we had yet another very real, very honest conversation about it.

I am a hard core fan of Felicity Smoak, and the fact is, if Felicity had been in that box, you would’ve found me under a table sobbing with a bottle of wine and a stuffed animal, and then after I stopped crying (which would’ve taken a really long time), I would absolutely take to social media to confront the writers about the grievous mistake I’d felt they’d made because I would be pissed.

It would’ve been my right as a fan to do so, and we all have the right and sometimes even the need to express our emotions.

The problems happen when the fandom stops thinking about how to express their feelings in the most constructive and healing way, and instead just becomes plain reactionary.

Expressing your feelings is important. However, if your expression of feelings begins to involve personal attacks on other fans, writers, producers, or actors, or involves death threats, we have officially gone past the point of healthy expression and into cruelty and yes, illegal activity. Making yourself feel better by attempting to make someone feel worse is not going to get your voice heard. It’s not going to get your opinion taken seriously. And no, you can’t convince me that it really, truly, makes you feel capital B Better.

What can help is if we all, as a fandom, take a step back. Take a collective deep cleansing breath (or ten), and attempt to come back to the discussion table with the understanding that if we want our thoughts and feelings to be respected, we have to respect others’ first.

We all have feelings about Laurel’s death, and many of them are strong. I think that many – if not all – of us have that one fictional character that we really attached to, and who really helped us through a dark time. For some people, that character is Laurel. There are some people whFelicity Laurel Hugo really didn’t like Laurel, and she triggered super negative things for them because of things that they have been through with people like her. Both types of people are going to have a significant emotional response to this episode, but it’s important to try to remember that if you weren’t a fan of Laurel, you are experiencing positive emotion, while those who loved her are experiencing loss. Try to be respectful, and remember that on any given week, we might be the one to lose that character that’s near and dear. These writers have proven that nothing and no one are off the chopping block, so be kind to others. You never know when you may want that kindness coming your way.

Also remember that everyone grieves in different ways and at different speeds. Some people will move past this quickly, even if they were stunned and upset at the time, and some people won’t. And that’s okay. Let everyone grieve at their own pace, and don’t judge them for it. You never know what Laurel may have meant to them, or what internal demons they’re fight that day.

The other thing to remember is that, while it may feel like our fandom is at war, a war can only exist if both sides choose to fight. If someone posts something hateful on their Twitter timeline, there is absolutely no reason why anyone has to respond to it. Even if they hashtag it, or even mention you by name, there is absolutely no reason why a response is necessary. None. Unfollow, block, mute, report, move on. Put your energy into engaging with people that will make you feel positively, and do not feed the negativity that others are struggling with. It doesn’t help you, it doesn’t help them, and it for damn sure doesn’t help the fandom.

Felicity Laurel

Finally, the point that I know is made on a regular basis, but I’ll go ahead and make it again because it cannot be stated enough: All forms of entertainment, including television, are meant to enhance your life positively in some way. If you have found that this show no longer enhances your life positively, or is making you feel so emotional or upset that it is affecting your life and/or your overall mood, it may be time to reevaluate your participation in this fandom. There is absolutely nothing wrong with taking a step back from this or any show, or from the fandom, or both. There is nothing keeping you here. You have made no commitment. Taking a breather or leaving entirely can sometimes be the healthiest things we can do for ourselves, both in fandom and in life. I am a hard core Whovian, to the point that I have a Doctor Who quote tattooed on my wrist. And yet, during this last season of Who, no matter how much I wanted to love it, I realized I was getting angry and upset every week. And so I stopped watching. And as much as I miss it, as much as the decision made me incredibly sad, it was the best decision for me. I will watch it when I’m emotionally ready and able… or I won’t. And in the meantime, I have found Arrow which as affected me profoundly and brought great amounts of joy to my life. Closing a door to open a window and all that. There is plenty of amazing television out there, and there are literally billions of amazing people. If Arrow no longer makes you happy, find something that will. You can come back any time you like. We’ll be here.

Always Here for You

The Conclusion:

This week’s episode of Arrow hurt. It hurt more for some than others, and it will continue to do so. If you are struggling to accept this fictional loss, I encourage you to reach out to some safe people to help you process those feelings. If you’re not hurting for Laurel, but are struggling with the recent negativity within the fandom, I encourage you to take the time to remember that those you see expressing anger are likely actually experiencing some level of pain and disappointment, and see if that affects the way you interact with them. Remember that while reacting negatively is the easy knee-jerk thing to do, it’s not always the best thing to do for ourselves or for our fandom.

And remember that, as my boy Donnie Wahlberg always says, if you spread love, love will spread. I hope, Arrow fandom, that you’ll take that advice to heart.

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Exploring and processing fictional trauma and how it related to our real lives is a topic I am passionate about, so if you’d like to chat further (or if you need a virtual hug), always feel free to find me on Twitter at @Chrisha_DWGrrl (fangirling) or @DrFangirlPhD (academics).

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Processing Fictional Trauma: March Hiatus Edition

MASSIVE SPOILERS FOR ARROW 4×08 & 4×15 and

LEGENDS OF TOMORROW 1×06

READ AT YOUR OWN RISK

I posted my first article on fictional trauma back in December after the Fl/Arrow crossover. It was the first time I’d really seen fictional trauma grab hold of fandom in real time, and I was really blown away by not only the emotional impact of the episode on the fans, but how the fandom itself pulled together to process. That article was described by someone as a love letter to the fandom, because we had all pulled together in the face of fictional trauma and helped each other to heal.

This article… is not a love letter.

Last week’s episodes of Arrow (4×15) and Legends of Tomorrow (1×06) caused reactions in the fandom that were every bit as powerful as what happened in Arrow 4×08 (if not more so), but my observation of the reactions of the fandom were quite different.

ARROW 4×08 and 4×15 SPOILERS:

In 4×08, I think we could all agree that Oliver made a bad call. Perhaps an understandable one, but ultimately a bad one. We were shocked. We were angry. We were frustrated. We were hurt. But we primarily agreed.

This week the big reveal happened. We heard Oliver’s side. We heard Samantha’s side. We heard Diggle’s thoughts. We heard Vixen’s experiences. And most importantly, we finally heard from Felicity.

And suddenly, the fandom could agree on very, very little.

On my own Twitter timeline I saw opinions ranging from solid support of Oliver to solid support of Felicity. None of which I necessarily had a problem with, because I understand and support them both. But when I branched out a bit, opinions started getting a bit more forceful, up to and including people calling Felicity a selfish bitch (which Mr. Amell didn’t take too kindly to) or Oliver a lying asshole who doesn’t deserve Felicity. I didn’t see support groups so much as I saw debates, going from those that were lively and good natured all the way up to hurling profanity at each other. It was a little jarring, if I’m honest, as I (naively) thought that now that everyone had put all their cards on the table, the fandom would now feel a bit more understanding about where everyone was coming from. But that was not the case.

So the question I’ve been pondering this week is: why?

After talking with my usual groups of post-game fandom friends to process the episode (some of which led to some of those good natured debates I was talking about), I think I have a sneaking suspicion as to why this episode was so divisive and caused such an This is about heartemotional stir which made it difficult for us to turn to each other. This episode, based on the issues with Olicity, tapped hard into experiences many of us have had with trust in relationships… and it’s likely that we’ve been on one side or another (or both) of the Olicity argument ourselves, and were experiencing high levels of stress and hurt at the time. In psychology terms, one of Freud’s defense mechanisms is called transference, which is where we “transfer” negative feelings we have about one person (in this case perhaps a previous relationship) to another person that may have similar qualities (Oliver or Felicity). Maybe that’s what caused so many of us to lash out about their actions?

From my own personal experience, I can tell you that I totally get where Felicity was coming from. As a matter of fact, her speech about how she understood Oliver’s Felicity Breakup Croppeddecisions but just wanted to be a part of the conversation? I’ve given that speech word for word multiple times, being a step-mother myself for more thanOliver Breakup a decade now. But even though I thought I’d made peace with most of those issues, when my husband sided with Oliver in the argument, my hackles went up and we had a spirited  conversation that ran just shy of an argument… over an episode of Arrow. Which is 100% because of our own issues.

But if my husband and I can relate to the Olicity argument, and have it invoke things in us and our own relationship that bring about those kinds of strong feelings and conversations, I guess that means the writers were pretty damn authentic, even if it was painful to watch.

With episode 4×08, most of the anger at Oliver had dissipated by the next day, and people were working their way towards acceptance, even if they were still sad and frustrated. They were starting to see a way through for Olicity, even if they knew it was going to be difficult. But there was a striking difference between the circumstances in that episode, and those of 4×15, in that this episode was followed up by Legends of Tomorrow, the combination of which ended up being the 1-2 punch for Olicity fans.

MORE ARROW SPOILERS +

LEGENDS OF TOMORROW 1x 06 SPOILERS

In episode 1×06 of LoT, the day after seeing the Olicity break up, we are shown Star City in 2046… in a future where Star City has gone completely to hell. Diggle is dead, Oliver is down an arm (but up a goatee), and Olicity is not together. Basically, we are shown what will happen if Olicity doesn’t make it. And it is rife with sorrow, anger, and pure desolation.

What we are left with, going into hiatus, is a complete lack of hope for the future.

Cant Deal With This Shit Gif

Because the fandom was still reeling from the Olicity break up, and all of the emotions, both fictional and personal that it stirred up, seeing this dark, dismal future seemed to stoke those emotional fires even more. The stakes were shown. Now being on the right side of the debate isn’t just about whether Olicity gets back together, or resolves this one specific argument. It’s literally the fate of the ENTIRE WORLD. Which is obviously one of the primary ways that television differs from real life, but then again… when it’s our emotions, doesn’t it feel like in these pivotal relationship moments that the fate of the entire world is at stake, even if it’s just OUR world? Being right, and being acknowledged as being right, becomes a need that’s almost desperate in nature. In the case of the CW DC universe, whatever side of the Olicity debate you’re on, you NEED to be right or the world will end.

And so back to debating the fandom went.

It’s been a week today since LoT aired, and I semi-purposefully waited this long to post this because I was curious to see how the fandom would resolve this issue, especially when we are staring a month long hiatus in the face. I think… that it’s been a struggle. At the time of my posting this, my current thoughts about the fandom is that we’ve moved on from the Olicity debate (because it’s too painful, or just because we’ve talked Ship Warsit to death? Hard to say…), but are now focused on who’s in the box. Maybe because it’s a potentially happier thought for some (which doesn’t that just sum up this fandom in a nutshell? LOL), though obviously potentially devastating for others. This has led to more negative expressions of emotion between certain factions in the fandom, but of a far less personal nature, I’d say. The debate over who Oliver should love is a topic that we can talk about without getting nearly as close to our own real traumas as discussing the Olicity break up does. It might be a true over-dramatization, but it’s possible that the Olicity/Lauriver debate is as negative as it is right now, just because people are still struggling with the negative feelings, fears, and hurt left over from last week’s episodes and so they’re coming out in other fandom activities/discussions (a defense mechanism known as displacement). Or maybe people are just nervous about the rest of the season. Or maybe it’s a combination of both. Or maybe I’m totally off base. It’s been known to happen occasionally. 😉

One thing I can say is this: Dr. Travis Langley, who has been a big source of professional inspiration for me, teaches college psychology by using fictional characters and their situations. He says that when we look at trauma in the real world, it can be hard to get past the horror to delve into studying the true psychology of it. But when we, say, look at Batman, suddenly talking about how a child may react to seeing their parents murdered becomes a whole lot easier. In processing Arrow this week, I was fully aware that I was projecting many of my feelings onto Olicity, but something that snuck up on me was the fact that I haven’t been mad at Oliver throughout this story line, just a bit disappointed. I knew he was trying to do his best, even though he really could’ve made some better choices. I was able to give him the benefit of the doubt, because I feel that as a man (albeit fictional), he’d earned it. And then I had that moment of clarity… that maybe I didn’t always give my husband the benefit of the doubt that he, too, had earned.

I encourage everyone who responded strongly to Arrow this week (or any show, really, ever) to do some introspection as to why you may have had the reaction you did. Talk to support people about it. Journal about it. The results (and the positive therapeutic benefits of watching TV) might just surprise you.


Author’s Note: Fandom — especially fandom as huge as Arrow — is a far reaching and highly complex beast, and as one person I can only see the parts of it that I can see. If you have a different perspective on this topic, or saw/have seen different things, I welcome your feedback and discussion!

If you want to reach out, you can find me through the comments here, or on Twitter as @drfangirlphd or @Chrisha_DWGrrl.

 

 

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PhD Work/Life Balance: Does it Exist?

dissertation As of June 1, 2015, I have completed all my coursework and passed my doctoral comprehensive examination, and am officially ABD. All that’s standing between me and that fancy pants PhD is a dissertation. I’ve been working towards it for two and a half years, and now it is time. But in this unstructured time between comps and my dissertation term officially beginning, when I’m getting ready for this new phase in my life, a new complication appears: How in the world am I supposed to structure my time and manage everything? How in the world am I going to survive?

While I am currently not working, to say my life is complicated would be a bit of an understatement. I am in a transition period not just in school, but in a variety of areas of my life. My daughter is 3 and is transitioning into pre-school in the coming months. We are getting ready to put our house on the market and find a new place to live. My parents are working on moving from my childhood home to their new home in a new state, but are currently working through some health issues while preparing both houses for moving. My role as a step-mom is forever transitioning into whatever it is the kids may need at the time. And of course these are just the transitions I feel comfortable talking about openly online. While I feel like I am moving forward, I also feel like I have very little solid foundation from which to work, which is a terrifying prospect.

When going into my comps quarter, I was excited at the prospect that if I completed comps and passed immediately, I would have two months with which to play with to get my personal life settled and prepare for dissertation. Time to have fun, and remember what my kids look like. Time to organize myself. Time to do something crazy, like read a book… for leisure. Time to just be. And yet, it seems every time I get some free time, some unavoidable crisis comes up to fill the time, stopping me from being able to manage the things that I was planning to manage. This week alone, my mother has gone through a (potentially unsuccessful) medical procedure, my 3 year old has gotten sick and has required me to take her to the doctor twice, my husband has gotten sick and has required me to take him to the doctor once, and I got a pinched nerve in my neck requiring medical intervention for myself. This is above and beyond the swim lessons that needed to be gotten to, and the pre-school that needed to be toured (which had to be rescheduled due to illness already). Not to mention the complete lack of sleep due to illness of the kid, the older kid requiring food three entire times per day, and attempting to keep up on laundry (much of which has been vomited on) and dishes so that nature will not reclaim the house, and my social worker friends won’t have to awkwardly report me to children’s services after visiting (though, let’s be honest, none of my friends are coming anywhere near this disaster).

tumblr_ltz2w3NJmK1qgavwyo1_500So, okay, perhaps this week is a fluke. Surely life can’t always be this insane. And yet every night when I go to bed and envision what the next day is going to look like, I wake up to a total curve ball. I was assigned my dissertation mentor close to two weeks ago now. I originally contacted her more than a week ago, and she invited me to call her at some point last week so that we could get to know each other and touch base on how to go forward. Every day I envision that the next day things will get back to normal, I will begin to organize myself, figure out what I need to do, and contact my mentor. And yet here we are. I feel like I’m drowning before I’ve even had a chance to begin. It’s disheartening. What if this is normal?

At this point in my life, I’ve done a lot of things. I’ve been a step-mom for more than 12 years. I’ve been a bio-mom for more than 3. I’ve worked as a therapist for more than 5 years. I’ve been a student for decades. I am no stranger to the wild balancing act that is life. But there seems to be something about lately, with so much in flux, and with so little of my time truly structured that I seem to be finding far more challenging than normal. I can’t tell my sick toddler not to be sick. And I can’t leave my sick toddler with my sick husband so I can organize myself (or, ya know, sleep). I can’t tell my parents that, though they’re drowning and can’t do anything but sink further into despair without my help that I’m unavailable when my mom is screaming in pain and my dad is having a panic attack. So what do I do?

The answer that we always hear in these situations is to set boundaries and then make the tough calls to do what you need to do for yourself. Well, sure. I have no problem making the tough calls. What I need help with is what to do after that. How do you deal with the consequences of the tough calls? The results? I know the standard therapist line that to care for others you have to care for yourself first, and I believe it with all my heart. I really do try to practice what I preach. But when you have an unstructured life… when you have no “boss” to tell you when you need to work… how do you set those boundaries? How do you tell people you have to work, even in an emergency, when they know damn well you’re the one that sets your own hours? How do you figure out how flexible to be, and how much of yourself to give to others and how much to keep for yourself?

I actually truly welcome any input from those of you who have been through this. I want to be the best student I can be, while also being the best mom, wife, and individual human I can be as well. I have goals that go beyond being a wife and mother and getting my PhD, such as finding a new place to live that I actually like, traveling to new and exotic places, reading and writing books, figuring out what I want to be when I grow up, and figuring out how to live in some of those exotic places I intend to travel to (as well as figuring out how to pay for that!). But when I can’t figure out how to find the time to pick up the phone and call my dissertation mentor, the rest of it seems completely unattainable. Will life ever calm down? What do I do if it doesn’t? How do I get my hands around the situation?

Anyone who wants to chat about this, feel free to leave a comment here, or tweet me at @drfangirlphd. I look forward to learning from the experiences of others dealing with similar kinds of crazy and shamelessly stealing and using your successful techniques for my own benefit! Just kidding, I promise I’ll give credit… just please take pity on me and throw some advice this way!

-Chrisha

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