When I wrote what I thought would be the first entry in my blog, I thought it was going to be about how to get through a PhD with mental health issues. Since then I have been told that I actually have a chronic illness, which technically means that I am disabled (though I am still struggling with accepting that).
Although the blog is probably going to be more about the chronic illness aspect of it, it doesn’t change the fact that I suffer from depression and anxiety and this was my main concern about doing the PhD.
So I have decided to publish the first post as it was originally written. It’s a bit long (sorry about that). But I think it is a good introduction about me and the anxiety and depression, which affect me and many other PhD students.
– N, xx
First of all, thank you for stopping by. I am not sure what has led you to my page, but if it was through google (like I did before I started writing) I imagine that it may have had something to do with PhD, anxiety, depression, or perhaps physical illness. If so, by reading on maybe you’ll see that you’re not alone. Or maybe you’ll find that my situation is so different from yours that it isn’t relevant.
The truth is, I don’t know anyone quite like me. I am a sick child. I have been sick as long as I can remember. Some of it purely physical, such as needing surgery for ear problems as a toddler or an ankle, which refused to heal properly for about 3.5 years of my mid twenties. Some of it physical with a clear psychological undercurrent, such as constant tummy aches and nausea in my early teens. I got all sorts of scans and they found physical reasons, but when I moved to a different school at 16, the nausea and pain disappeared. And still some of it psychological such as cutting, suicidal thoughts and eating disorders (past) and anxiety, panic attacks and depression (current).
On a normal day I take 9 prescribed pills (4 different types) excluding pain medication, half of which manage my mood and anxiety.
As many others with physical or psychological illnesses, I have persevered and I worked my ass off on my undergraduate, volunteering part-time in my lab next to doing a full-time degree. But during the MSc my work suffered. Not (just) because my schedule was much fuller, but mostly because I was falling apart at the seams. I kept telling myself to just push through, that after that next essay there would be a bit of time to cool down. I told myself this again and again and somehow I got through it without crashing completely.
Don’t take me wrong. I handed in some work on my MSc that I would never even have considered submitting on my undergraduate. I skipped many lectures because I just couldn’t see the point in going and by the time I handed in my final essay I just couldn’t care less. I had spent waay too much money on a degree, which I didn’t care about at all. But once that final essay was handed in, all that remained was the dissertation which was due 4 months later.
However, this was when I realised that my depression was back. I hadn’t even noticed it creeping up, but it was when I tried to explain to my partner that how I was feeling didn’t have anything to do with him, I noticed that I was listing symptoms. Disturbed sleep, no joy from stuff I used to enjoy, constantly hungry but really couldn’t be bothered to eat as the thought of everything just made me nauseous, completely lacking in sex drive.. you know, the usual suspects. So I got myself to the doctor and got back on my antidepressants. But having been on them before I knew what to expect and my supervisors agreed that I should take a few weeks off on medical leave.
My aim was to take off 2 weeks. One week on holiday in Spain with my partner and one more week to get fully adjusted to the meds. Weirdly, there didn’t seem to be many side effects this time around (expect for the side effects from the sleeping pills my GP had given me). It actually felt like my body had been craving them and it was now back to normal. But, when I wanted to start back up with my work, I found that I was still extremely lacking in motivation. It was a struggle to do even the simplest tasks, like reading, so 2 weeks became 2 months.
I kept doing little bits here and there but I was mostly useless for 2.5 months. I had already been offered and accepted my PhD grant, but this summer I was close to just throwing in the towel and giving up, I even had a meeting with one of my supervisors where I told him this and we discussed ways of trying to make it work.
The only thing that actually got my through was the fact that I was scheduled to give a talk at a conference on my MSc dissertation topic. I had to get something done by then. And after giving the talk and hearing the feedback, I got a fire lit under me and felt so motivated again that I barely stopped working for the next 2 weeks while I analysed and wrote my entire dissertation. Without that conference I am not sure that I would, even now, have finished writing my dissertation.
I wanted to keep going after handing in – get more results etc. (my dataset wasn’t finished), but my supervisors told me to rest, relax and recharge my batteries so I could get through the PhD. They are both amazing and super supportive. But sometimes all I can see when I read their emails is their disappointment and that they see me as fragile (though they say nothing of the sort).
But of course, I am fragile. As much as I hate to admit it, I am. And even though I have been trying so hard to convince department heads and supervisors that I am strong enough to get through a PhD, I know that I am not. Especially since 2 days before my PhD induction the nausea and tummy ache came back after 10 years. It has now lasted 2 weeks during which I have also not been able to gather my thoughts and do the reading my supervisors have told me to do.
So I am one week into my PhD and I already feel like I am failing. And maybe more importantly, I know that I probably won’t be able to make it through the PhD, especially not without a break.
I know that I am not alone. Many PhD students crack under the pressure, some drop out, some take extended breaks, some stop caring about it altogether. But I think this is made worse because we don’t share. Because there is competition, because we don’t want to look weak in front of our supervisors (though I routinely cry in front of mine) and colleagues, because we try to power through or because of some other reason I haven’t even thought of.
Anyway, I am here to share and talk (write, really) about my process through the PhD and maybe shed some light on these issues.
– N, xx