Mental health and my PhD

Mental health and my PhD - image  on https://scholarculture.com

DISCLAIMER: This is my story of anxiety and depression. Please consult a doctor or health care practitioner if you are seeking help for your anxiety or depression.

Now entering my fourth year of my PhD. I sit here a bit stunned thinking “how did I get here”? Perhaps it’s because I am entering into my fourth year and only starting my proposal now. Perhaps it’s because I was supposed to get married and couldn’t because of COVID-19. Or perhaps it’s because I can hardly look at myself in the mirror because of the acne on my face and my hair is literally falling out. Whatever it was led me to this question “how did I get here” and had me searching for answers.

I am currently reading rockstar and writer genius, Glennon Doyle’s book – “Untamed”. I am only 30 pages in and I am already on board and ready to drink whatever she is drinking. In her book she tells readers to “quit pleasing and start living”. One of the lines that has stuck with my the most is when Doyle asks:

“Isn’t it all supposed to be more beautiful than this?”

I remember so vividly starting my PhD. I was so determined to not get exactly where I am today. I exercised, I ate clean and healthy food, I took small breaks and even mini vacations. I did all of the things you were supposed to do in order to avoid the pain that I saw in every upper years PhD’s eyes. “I am not going to get to that point” I naively thought to myself. I was entering my PhD, so ecstatic to learn and follow my passion in my work “I will aim for balance and do whatever I need to do to achieve that” I told myself with tenacity.

In my first year, the graduate supervisor shared some advice that always stuck with me “the PhD is a marathon, not a sprint”. My first year was, of course, a wild ride. I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and learned more than I ever thought I was capable of learning. I took a couple weeks off as a vacation before I worked all summer – thinking two weeks is what most people get as vacation, so this seems reasonable. But looking back I think I spent most of waking hours walking around like a zombie and at night sleeping as much as I could. The thing about the advice is, I had never run a marathon before. And I didn’t train for it before I started.

I entered my second year a bit more confidently, only to be knocked on my butt while putting what I learned into practice. During the second semester in my second year, I decided to finally admit that I need help managing my anxiety and depression. I went to see a doctor and we tried a few different anti-depressants over months at a time. None of them worked for me and honestly they made feel worse than I already was feeling. So, in consultation with my doctor we decided it was best for me to stop.

After I stopped the medication, I actually felt the best I had felt over the past two years. (which goes to show how much the medication was negatively impacting me). I was so happy to be off the medication and I was ready to get back to balance – eat healthy, talk to my therapist regularly, exercise, get rest; thats what you do to maintain “good mental health” right?

Well life loves to give me a good laugh. Right then and there I was knocked back down with some personal family issues.

This led me into my third year, where I was supposed to complete my qualifying exam in June 2019, which was delayed to December 2019. And then delayed yet again because it wasn’t up to the standards of my committee and I needed to make revisions. I recently just passed in March 2020. Needless to say, this rejection and lengthy process set me back. A lot.

The qualifying exam process was baffling. I didn’t feel like I could breath until I passed that exam. And I am still trying to process how it all played out.

After I passed, I realized my nerves were completely shot. My face was breaking out in acne. And because of my perfectionist tendencies I have a mental health issue where I pick my skin, which makes it much worse. I am also experiencing Alopecia – a condition where your hair falls out due to stress. See bottom right photo where I have patches in my hair and where it is starting to grow back again so it’s shorter than the other pieces. Emotionally, I realized I have nothing left to give. Nothing to give to my family, my friends, least of which, myself.

Mental health and my PhD - image  on https://scholarculture.com

But I passed, while also going through a global pandemic, and here I am, asking:

“Isn’t it all supposed to be more beautiful than this?”

As I start to write my research proposal, I am also starting to think about how I can improve my mental health. My automatic response was – get into a routine, exercise everyday, take breaks, schedule a therapist appointment and eat clean. But I have to stop thinking this will save me. I’ve been there. I’ve done that. It doesn’t work long term.

And although a lot of my research works towards dismantling dangerous and harmful systemic structures like academia, as well as the expectations that are placed on women, I know I am not going to change that overnight, or alone.

Instead I am going to the opposite of what I normally would try. Instead of looking outwards, I am looking within.

I plan to put myself before my work. This is not easy for me.

I plan to sleep in, instead of waking up at 6am, just to sneak in a few more hours of work.

I plan to sit in stillness.

No matter how uncomfortable it feels.

Or how much I tell myself that I don’t have time for this.

I know the answers to manage my mental health are within myself – not within any outside sources.

And I need to find myself again.

I need to listen, trust, believe and love.

It’s interesting, although I feel broken – I also finally feel free.

Until next time,

Christine

13 thoughts on “Mental health and my PhD

  1. Thank you for your vulnerability. It is beautiful.In a different way but similar experience I share. It is an unhealthy indoctrination of externally expected lifestyle based on the past experiences of the leadership. It is not right, how they were treated and it’s not right to be continuing that cycle. It is time for a collective enlightenment. But, as you said, we already hold the answer and I’m going to finish with queen Bey : “i’mma keep running, cuz winner don’t quit on themselve”. Peace and love to you my dear. I see you ❤️.

    1. Thank you for reading and for sharing. Its a vicious cycle that needs to be broken. Collective enlightenment is beautifully put and exactly what we need. And to end with that quote from Queen Bey – snap snap snap!!!! This comment means so much – peace and love right back at ya. Thanks again.

  2. Love your vulnerability. I’m doing my Masters so it’s not as difficult as PhD for sure but it’s been a very challenging journey for me too with my mental health getting affected and so I could totally relate to what you shared. Also, I’ve struggled with acne since I was a teenager so completely understand about stress break outs. It’s the worse punch in the gut when you already have a ton of things on your mind. If this helps in anyway, I love your updates on Instagram and it really inspires me to keep pushing forward in my studies…so rooting for you to complete yours! Will keep you in my prayers!

    1. Master’s is absolutely an incredibly demanding journey. So glad to hear you love the Instagram and more importantly that it brings you inspiration <3 Will keep you in my thoughts too, good luck with the rest of your Master's.

  3. This is such an important post, and I’m so so glad you are putting yourself before your work <3 I'm a part of a graduate student collective and we talk all the time about how academia does not allow us to make time for our lives, to put ourselves and our communities first, and how it actively exploits our passions for academic production. It's ridiculous and so counter to so much of the work that many of us doing in academia.

    Academia is always talking about social change, but when it comes to changing the conditions under which their grad students work, suddenly we are entitled, ungrateful, lazy, etc. etc. It's so infuriating! I have a dream of beginning an abolitionist university that allows us to do the things we love without the harm the university inflicts. Let me know if you're in hahah <3

    Thank you for your vulnerability, it's so incredibly important!

    1. “How it exploits our passions for academic production” such a powerful line. And hell ya! You know I am in for starting an abolitionist university! Haha I love this dream <3

  4. This makes me feel so seen, so thank you! I started with the same motivation and commitment to not overwork myself…and here I am going into fourth year and questioning my worth and place in the PhD program. It’s been a rough week, a rough few months, and a rough few years. I always look at your insta and think how you have it all together, you work so hard. Whereas I feel I am lazy, bored, and floundering. I also saw a therapist regularly, and had 2 (!!!) bouts of stress-induced hairloss in the last 3 years. Both were a result of my overseas fieldwork and a combined result of stress and recurring illness I experienced while there. I feel empty, emotionally and professionally (and sometimes even physically) exhausted. So last week, out of necessity, I said no to a book chapter. Then I said no to a collaborative paper. Now I am about to say no to new research contract. I am finally setting boundaries and prioritizing my work, myself really. I still feel like a I will need a year or maybe a decade off if I ever make it through this marathon. Thank you for being vulnerable, you are not alone ❤️.

    1. I am SO happy to hear you are setting boundaries. I am still working on setting more myself too. There are so many similarities to our experiences. I try to be honest with both the good and “the bad”. Thanks for your comments. We will get through this marathon together <3

  5. Thank you for sharing. I just finished my master’s while working full time during my second year.. besides the disappointment of an online graduation, and debating whether I should even meet my classmates, who are from different parts of the world, before they leave.. during this phase I picked up immense acne which bleeds and hurts… and I thought it would go away since I’m done.. but nope..
    But after reading your words and just knowing that I’m not alone, and that healing is possible is so encouraging. I can only imagine the tough journey a PhD can be.. and even though I may not know you in person, please know that you are amazing (for simply being able to put your struggle into words and sharing it). In a way, you’re looking out for all of us. I appreciate you so much!

    1. You are not alone. Let’s heal together. Thank you for also sharing your story in the comments and for your encouraging words <3

  6. Thank you so much for sharing. As I read your article I found myself relating to many parts. It seems like an unfortunate enevitable graduate school experience when it doesn’t have to be. My advisor also told me that a doctoral program is a marathon and not a sprint and when you said you’ve never training for a marathon before, that openned my eyes and allowed myself to give myself and accept grace. I delayed my program’s timeline by a year as well and I thought I was a complete failure only to later see that in that time, I built myself up to be way better than I imagined I could ever be. And it is so strange that in a pandemic, I am flourishing. Please continue to hold your platform and inspire others, because we truly are not alone in this process. Thank you so much!

    1. It is super unfortunate that it seems to be a common experience. I am so glad this post gave you some relief, acceptance and grace. And also glad to hear you are flourishing at the moment. Thank you for also sharing your experience. Peace and love!

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