My mother was diagnosed with bipolar disorder shortly after I was born, and shortly after her grandfather, who she loved deeply, suddenly died. As an adult, I can make sense of it: I can reason that the combined effects of grief and pregnancy on her body did something to bring to light an illness that had been latent; but when she told me when I was a child, I thought maybe if I hadn’t come along, my mom wouldn’t be sick.
Bipolar disorder is highly heritable, and both of my parents have diagnoses. I’ve known this for most of my life and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t scare me.
It has taken years for me to push back against all of the ableist rhetoric that society has shoved into me. The thought that depression was something I could just push through if I tried harder. The idea that if I went on medication I would lose myself, I would change. The notion that if I went to therapy I was weak. That I couldn’t seek services because then it would be official, I’d be crazy, and what’s worse than that?
And frankly it’s all utter bullshit—but it took years to deprogram.
So here’s where I am now: I’m a first year grad student in science. I’ve been diagnosed with depression, but not with bipolar disorder. Since I got my first diagnosis a few years back I’ve been upfront about my family history and incredibly vigilant about my moods. I note anything that feels like being “up”, or manic, for too long, I note if I am sleeping less, and I tell my doctors. We’ve found a medication that keeps me stable and lets me live a pretty damn wonderful life. I’m very aware that I may display more serious manic symptoms in the future, and if that happens I’ll go straight to a doctor to talk about treatment.
And here’s what prompted this writing: I am starting to see ways in which grad school promotes my sick brain over my healthy self.
I don’t think I have to explain too much that grad school is tough. The first part of this quarter has been especially brutal to me, though: I’m taking two very demanding classes, serving as a teaching assistant for a giant undergrad class, and trying to get started in my new lab. I’m also in a new city and don’t quite have my mental health care structured yet—I started laying groundwork in the fall, but couldn’t find a way to make time in the beginning of this quarter to finish sorting it out.
And then my meds ran out.
It was more trouble than usual to get them refilled—the prescription I’d gotten months sooner wasn’t in the system anymore, the prescribing doctor was out of town, I couldn’t pick up the meds on weekends—so I ended up without medication for a longer stretch than I liked. During this time I noted that I didn’t feel too down. I was still able to get my work done and I was grateful for that.
There was one Friday night I was in lab late. I’d set up an experiment so that I would start imaging around ten, since my busy class schedule didn’t really allow for other times during the week, and I wanted my weekend to myself. So I went to lab and got started, but a few things didn’t work along the way. Something was wrong with the lamp on the microscope, but a postdoc came and helped me fix it. She expressed surprise that I was in and told me I must be so dedicated, so hard working! After imaging my first batch I realized that the auto-focus wasn’t working. Some troubleshooting revealed that my sample just wasn’t compatible, and so I had to take the hundred or so images I could normally automate, manually.
I remember after taking about 50 images I was thinking wow, I can’t believe I’m not upset about this! But this is totally fine! At least there was a work-around, and I can still get my data!
And I looked at the clock, and it was around 1 am.
And I remembered that the night before I hadn’t really slept—more napped—and got up early to finish a class assignment.
So here I was awake for about 21 hours, on just 3 hours of sleep, taking images and feeling mighty fine. Cue alarm bells.
This isn’t a story about a scientist who let her mental health go and kept living on three hours of sleep a night. I went home and slept well into the next afternoon, and made up for it again the next day with even more sleep. I was back on my meds a few days later and in my doctor’s office to talk through this with her a few days after that. That night of feeling “up” was all I needed to realize that the pressures of school were doing something I didn’t like to my brain and pushed me to be better about my health.
I’m writing this, though, because of the kind thing the postdoc said to me as she helped me with the microscope. “You’re so dedicated. You work so hard.” I know she had only kind intentions. But I can see my mental illness, up on a pedestal, offering me something that looks like an advantage.
People constantly “joke” about research being all consuming. But reality is that researchers push themselves beyond hard sometimes. I have colleagues who regularly spend over twelve hours a day in lab. For some, I’m sure that really is a byproduct of passion or drive. But for me, this can be a manifestation of my illness. And having my illness, this tendency to get so hyper-focused and lost in a thing for so long, glorified—it feels disgusting. It feels unsafe.
So how can we build a culture that is safer for our mental health? What steps can we take to promote a culture of balance that keeps us happy and healthy while still producing top notch work?