When you’re in a hole, it’s so hard to see your way out of it. What’s worse, for a while there, I didn’t even know how deep the hole was. I was getting by, and on paper you would even think everything was going great. But in reality, for about two years now, things haven’t been good at all. Mental Illness Awareness Week was two weeks ago, and it is time for me to reflect on my journey out of a pretty dark place and to stand in the light.
The last two years of my life have been objectively pretty shitty. My spouse cheated on me not long after we moved to a new city for me to start my postdoc*, and the relationship eventually fell apart; a close family member had some serious health problems and I was too far away to help**; a TT job offer got rescinded because of toxic*** backroom politics of the kind that I don’t think I’ll feel safe talking about even when I’m old and tenured; and inner-departmental politics were unhealthy and I was caught between students who were desperately asking for help and an abusive faculty member who was too powerful for me to take on.
Unsurprisingly, this has generated a lot of anxiety. Eventually, a friend dragged me to the crisis center at the university’s mental health clinic, and I got diagnosed with panic attacks. I suppose it shouldn’t have been a surprise. I was alone in a new city, away from my good friends and family, unhappy with my work life, and not doing much better in my personal life. I developed a dislike for the city I was in, and also didn’t enjoy the weather. I tried seeing two different therapists over the course of about a year and a half, but I can’t say that it was doing very much for me. There were just so many things going wrong that I couldn’t control, and of course the uncertainty of also being on the job market at the same time was not helping at all. My insurance wouldn’t cover more than roughly a 45-minute session every other week, but things were moving far too fast and there were just too many of them happening at the same time for it to be effective.
At various points I thought that I was doing better. Professionally, papers kept coming out, collaborations were ongoing, I was presenting at all the important conferences, and I was getting praised and noticed by major players in my field. I was doing my best to keep business as usual. On the personal life front, I decided to take a break from dating to focus on myself, and was doing my best to go out and meet new friends who wouldn’t know about all the messes in my past. I started exercising, and I was also eventually able to take some time off to travel home and be with my family.
But there were also relapses. Really, I think the best way to describe it is that I was fragile. Any little thing could break me. Getting stuck in traffic and being so late for a talk I was supposed to give in a reading group that it had to be rescheduled. Breaking my phone and having to get it replaced. Getting an abstract rejected from a conference that wasn’t even all that important. Things that are perhaps unpleasant, but on a normal day I would shrug right off. But these (and other) bumps in the road would send me spiraling down for days, to the point of considering suicide and even googling ways of doing it. I wasn’t at the point of actions, but the thoughts were there.
I kept this from my family. They were far away and spending time in the hospital with a sick relative. They clearly knew something was wrong, but I doubt the knew the extent. Most of my friends are also colleagues, and the fear of rumors kept me from talking to them (there was already enough gossip about my job offer and relationship going around as it was). Besides, this wasn’t really something I wanted to talk about on the phone with someone who was far away. I had one close friend who I trusted with this information, who helped me talk through the irrational thoughts I was having.
I knew I needed to make a serious change.
And as luck would have it, I was able to land a new job and move away. I resolved to take the change of location and the opportunity to start over with new colleagues as my chance to change the narrative. I still had to wait several months for my new insurance to kick in, but as soon as I could, I found a doctor I got along with, and I told her the whole story. Following her advice, I decided to start taking an SSRI. I was wary at first — I don’t even like taking meds when I have a headache. But I did my research and decided it was worth a shot. I use glasses to correct my vision and I don’t think that’s in any way “messing with reality” or “not really me”, so why not do the same for my mental health?
The change was immediate and remarkable. I had some side-effects that completely went away within a couple of weeks, but I immediately started sleeping longer and better. I have been more upbeat and, I suspect, louder. Initially this was strange and I felt like I needed to hold back when I felt like I was being too outgoing. But it’s funny how fast it’s become natural. Several of my friends who I saw when I went to visit my PhD institution told me that I seem very happy. And even some colleagues who see me no more than one or twice a year remarked at a recent conference on how glad they were that I seem to be in a better place in life. Which I was mortified by, to be honest, because who knows what kind of godawful vibes I was sending before if people who are passing acquaintances noticed.
It’s only been about two months since this change started. I am still adjusting to the new me. What I now think is the ‘real’ me. I am now finding it hard not to hold back when I want to laugh and be loud, as ridiculous as it sounds. I am listening to music again, and its just occurred to me that I haven’t been doing that for almost two years. I just bought myself some colorful socks. I wear less black. I wasn’t even aware that I was making those choices, but I just seem to want different things now. There are still setbacks, and I have no illusions that everything in my life is fixed. But I really do believe that I can handle things now. I am slowly making my way back out of the hole.
Some of the things that have helped me most were finding a trusted friend to share this with, so it’s not a secret I am keeping from everyone (though I am very selective in who I share it with!), exercising, time-tracking, and actively scheduling time off for social activities, grooming time, and sleep. I am trying to get better at saying ‘no’ to things, and when I’ve done so, I’ve found that everyone around me has been supportive and understanding.
I am not advocating for or against deciding to take medication. But I am advocating in no uncertain terms for taking care of your mental health. Needing to seek help is nothing to be ashamed of. Seeing a therapist is nothing to be ashamed of. And needing medication, if together with your doctor you decide that that is the right course of action for you, is nothing to be ashamed of. Getting the help you need is something to be proud of, and you are not alone. So many of us are sharing the hole with you, and if you just reach out, we will hold your hand and help you through.
* but long enough after we moved for them to have met all my new colleagues, so people kept asking about them long after we had split up.
** they are doing better now, thankfully.
*** in fact, from all that I’ve been able to gather, some people’s actions were actually illegal. Certainly they were unethical.
Have you been in a hole lately? Share your experiences being in the hole and your advice on how to climb out of it.