The conversations we don’t have (but should)

A few people have noticed that I have been entirely silent on this blog for quite some time.  Others have noticed that I’ve been absent from my personal blog as well as Facebook, Twitter – pretty much all of my usual online haunts – since the fall.  Their somewhat apprehensive inquiries – “How are you doing?” – have been appreciated, even if they’ve been met with rather vague replies: “I’m ok”, or, “I’m hanging in there”.  Or sometimes they’ve received no reply at all, because I haven’t known what to say.

I read a blog post recently, forwarded to me by someone who I consider a good, considerate friend as well as a colleague and mentor. That blog post shook me a bit, I think because I recognized myself in its words so prominently.  It prompted me to write a post of my own, because I think it’s important and because I think it might help me, personally.  So … deep breath … here we go.

At the start of the fall term, I was feeling very busy but very good. My research program was on track; I had recently found out that my latest manuscript was accepted for publication; a cool collaboration on a fun project was well underway; my teaching assistantship was providing me with really excellent opportunities for personal and professional growth. In early November, I started to settle back into a normal routine after presenting a bunch of research and social media talks during a whirlwind tour of interesting conferences. Upon my return from the last conference, I felt like I needed a week or so of a “breather”, a little time-out to recharge my batteries.

That week stretched into ten ten days. Then two weeks. Then a month. And before I knew it, and really without understanding or even really noticing how quickly the time was passing, it was suddenly the end of the term and I hadn’t accomplished even a fraction of what I’d intended to.

The thought of tackling any of my badly neglected projects – research, blogging, responding to the growing stack of emails I’d been putting off – the mere thought of this could easily put me into a tailspin of stress, worry, and anxiety that would last the entire day, and keep my brain whirring uncontrollably at night. This led to even more avoidance.

Then, over the holiday break, I got a pretty bad cold. I stayed in bed. As much as my body was miserable, it felt good to just lie cocooned in my blankets, sipping tea and watching movies on my laptop and not thinking about much of anything. Only very grudgingly did I finally admit that I was technically well enough to get out of bed during the day and get some work done. I really didn’t want to. Not at all.

In January, I announced on my blog that I’d be taking a break from blogging. Around the same time, everything else that I did in my “free” time pretty much stopped. Truthfully, I had no interest in doing these things because I was no longer getting my usual sense of enjoyment out of it.  Worse, I felt like simply wasn’t capable of managing it all. So I stopped – all of it – except for the bare minimum of what I needed to do: my research, a bit of course work (a seminar every other week), and a bit of teaching (which I also scaled back to about a third of what I’d been doing previously).

Even with all these cutbacks, however, tasks that would normally take me a few hours to complete were taking days or weeks, and much of it felt excruciatingly difficult. My naturally lousy attention span was down to zero, I wasn’t able to stay focused on any task for more than a brief time, and again, the stuff I usually really got a kick out of doing just wasn’t turning my crank. I’d have brief moments or even multiple-day streaks lasting up to a week where I’d make to-do lists and feel like I was getting my groove back and being my usual productive self.  These never lasted. Then I’d feel worse.

As a person accustomed to successfully juggling a ton different projects and hobbies on top of her research and other professional responsibilities, this entire situation freaked me right the heck out and made me feel like a fraud and a failure.

As a commuting student, I work from home most days. In the safety of my private domain, I started taking comfort in my ability to complete small, inane, routine tasks that would normally be boring for me. Things like doing dishes, walking my dogs, preparing a grocery list, making meals. These felt manageable, and allowed me to enjoy small moments of success that let me escape from my feelings of ineptitude. I also kept up with my regular workouts, because they made me feel better, if only for a little while. Beyond these basic activities, I felt useless and rather out of control. I would escape in the internet for hours (mindless, aimless, farting-around-on-autopilot-type escape) to avoid these feelings. The day would eventually come to an end, and I’d escape again in disjointed sleep.

My inner dialogue during these months reflected my turmoil. I would alternately coddle myself (“You don’t need to worry, you’re doing the best you can. Just leave that task for tomorrow, no one will mind.”); bully myself (“What the hell is your problem, get your lazy ass in gear and get some freaking work done, you loser”); and lie to myself (“Everything’s fine. You’re not that behind. You’ll catch up next week. You’ll feel better in the spring when the sun is out more.”)

In the meantime, great things were happening all around me. I have a strong, compassionate and supportive partner whose academic and professional successes were mounting steadily (a testament to her hard work and talents); a beautiful home; a new baby niece; a fantastic research project, a lab full of intelligent and charismatic labmates, and an incredible advisor; a list of professional accomplishments from the past year that anyone could be proud of; kind and thoughtful friends both online and off.

But I wasn’t happy. There was absolutely no reason for it, and my scientists’ brain drove me mad trying to rationalize the situation.

Now, here’s the rub.

I have lived very intimately with various forms of depression and mental illness in my life, through the experiences and struggles of affected loved ones. I know the signs and cycles well.

Ironically, I failed to recognize them in myself.

A couple of weeks ago, I said aloud for the first time: “I’m depressed. I have depression. I’ve probably been depressed since the fall. I don’t understand why, but it’s there.” I made an appointment to see my family doctor, and I’m starting to take baby steps towards addressing the problem.

So that’s where I am, and where I’ve been.

Why am I telling you all this? It feels a tad TMI, to be honest, even for me (an extroverted over-sharer). Because I don’t think I can say it any better, I’m going to quote part of the blog post I mentioned earlier:

I’m not writing this so you’ll feel sorry for me. I’m writing this so people know that it can – and does – happen to anyone. […] The prevalence of mental health issues in academia – even if only publicized for grad school – are staggering. […] We can’t make it go away by ignoring it – instead we need to make mental health a normal part of everyday conversation, just like physical health, thereby reducing the stigma around it.

These conversations are important. They have the potential to change, even save, lives. So I’m joining the conversation.

I’m not sure what the next few months will look like for me. I’m going to keep plugging away at things as best I can. I’ll probably have to step well outside my comfort zone in the meantime. Again, a quote, that hit very close to home:

All the logic, graphs, or smarts in the world won’t fix it. For things to improve I have to delve into the murky world of feeling and emotion. Thing is, that world is super uncomfortable to me, and certainly didn’t get me where I am. Being smart and rational, tenacious and tough, did. But that won’t help me much now.

Being smart, rational, tenacious and tough certainly won’t hurt, I don’t think. But yeah – that murky stuff will probably have to be waded through before I can come out the other side.

To everyone who has kept tabs on me, sent friendly emails, tweets or thoughtful things in the mail – you know who you are, and I thank you for your support. To anyone who recognizes themselves in what I just wrote, please know that you’re certainly not alone; mental health issues are extremely common among academics, and graduate students are some of the hardest-hit. Know that there is help to be found if you reach out.

McGill Counseling Services:

Macdonald campus

Downtown campus

4 responses to “The conversations we don’t have (but should)”

  1. Kathy says:

    What a touching article. Thank you for sharing and best wishes as your journey continues.

  2. Pam says:

    Not TMI at all. All to important to discuss. Last year I loss my 40 year old husband who struggled for many years with depression but who could not admit it for fear of what others thought. He was too young to die. He too was smart and logical (an engineers mind); funny and handsome.
    We need to embrace each other. Be patient with each other and have compassion. And we need to talk about what Depression is and that Depression is an inclusive illness that can be treated.
    Thank you

  3. Cyn says:

    When I went to university a hundred years ago I went a full year being depressed working so hard at just being good at faking it DidNOT talk about it. Two other people who were as depressed as me because it was brought on by a bad night of drug abuse. They did not want to discuss it and told me to get on with life and don’t be depressed about being depressed. Really ? Finally went to health services and got some useless councling but at least I had a label on it it wasn’t the drugs. It was depression
    After two kids and post part depression I finally went on anti depressants. I was always worried. What if I took them and they didn’t work. Then what would I do ? So happy my psych said if you had a diabeties -would you take some Meds ? Come on. It’s the same !! 19 years later I have got to say I LOVE ANTIDEPPTESSANTS. Maybe someday they will stop working. I hope not Meanwhile I have read this to my daughter who studies at McGill. She sees to be the only person there NOT depressed or anxious – but thank you for your post cg

  4. Sarah says:

    Aw man. I still think of it as an unlikely explanation, even when I’m in the thick of it, for the disappearance of personalities online.

    I wish I knew more people as honest and relatable as you. I have a well-established history of depression+college, and a couple of things have helped me a lot – goofy mantras from unexpected places (a Lifetime movie, a country song), and absolutely professional treatment (drugs first, therapy when affordable) – but what helps most is knowing from experience that it won’t last forever.

    The trick, of course, is getting up before things fall too terribly to pieces – but if anyone can, I think you can.

    This post is a really great start.

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