This story is Part 2 of a series. Read Part 1 here. Jolene is using a pseudonym to protect her privacy.
Slowly, the clouds of my depression started to lift. After a few months of being deeply depressed and not doing much else besides watching TV, I started to feel better and realised how lucky I was to have found Spencer. But getting back to my old self was hard – no, it seemed impossible. All those months of finding excuses not to do my research now made me wonder if I actually could do it anymore. My thesis was no longer just an academic challenge; it was an anxiety-inducing terror. I would sit at my desk to work, but be too afraid to crack open a book. My heart pounded as I imagined myself trying and failing. The fear associated with my research project became a permanent dull ache that was present in my chest, no matter what I was doing.
As I became more active again in academic life and the social events that go along with it, I found that I was not the same person I was before. For example, when we began new semesters in my department, some of my older colleagues liked to lighten things up by doing a round of “fun” introductions. You know the type: “What would you be doing if you weren’t in academia? What kind of fruit would you like to be? What’s something about you that no one in the room knows?” As an outgoing and sociable person, this sort of thing had never bothered me before. But now I felt panic rising in my chest, certain that I would not able to think of anything interesting in time. I worried that I would sit in silence when it was my turn, or worse yet, say something embarrassing. I had no choice but to slip out to the bathroom and sit alone, waiting for my racing heart to calm down.
I also had trouble getting along with my colleagues and fellow grad students because every imagined slight was a huge deal to me. Even little things like a request to move something that was in someone’s way, or a nod instead of the usual smile hello made me constantly worried that my colleagues disliked me and were talking about me behind my back. I didn’t feel comfortable confiding in any of them, for fear of making this problem worse.
What was wrong with me? What was happening to me?
* * *
I talked to my doctor about my graduate school work and my newfound social anxiety. She recommended more therapy. It was a new year and I qualified for six more visits. But the new therapist brought up things that were triggering and tough for me to deal with, so I stopped going after a few visits. I had discussed anti-anxiety medication with my doctor, but I was afraid that the drugs would change my personality. I decided it would be better to try to deal with my problems on my own.
So, I soldiered on, but my social anxiety only became worse. While attending a birthday dinner with friends, I had a complete break-down over something one of them had said to me. I wasn’t able to share with anyone why I was so upset as I started to cry. Not soft, quiet, mousy tears, either. They were big, gulping, crocodile tears. This was an embarrassing scene, with at least one or two strangers coming over to ask how they could help. I wanted to leave and go home, but a friend was worried it might not be safe because we had all been drinking. When I think about it now, I clearly needed help, but I ended up staying and having an evening that I still wish I could forget.
That evening was a big turning point for me, because I realized things had gone beyond what I could rationalize as normal. The extreme anxiety I felt over research and grad school had seemed like it was so common among students that I never believed I really needed help. But I also knew that “normal” people, even grad students, can usually control themselves in public.
I was still really scared about taking anti-depressants because I thought that my personality might change. Being authentically me was really important. But I went back to the doctor to finally talk about medication.
To be continued.
This was Part 2 of a three-part series featuring Jolene’s story. Click here for Part 3 – here’s a preview of what you’ll read:
On the reflection front, I’m still figuring things out. Would all this have happened to me if I hadn’t gone to graduate school? Did graduate school really ruin me?