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.
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,