This story is the final part in a series. Read Part 1 and Part 2 here. Jolene is using a pseudonym to protect her privacy.
It was time to get help. My anxiety had worsened to the point that it was obviously problematic. Just thinking about my research project made me break out into a sweat, and my social anxiety was putting a heavy strain on my friendships.
With help from my doctor, I started on an anti-depressant that my doctor felt would be effective, but not one that my body would become dependent on. It was important to me to be able to get off the drug if I wanted to, and I was also still worried about the effects that taking medication might have on my personality.
The drugs had a marvelous effect. My depression disappeared completely, and my social anxiety dramatically improved. I laughed at my old worries about the drugs “changing” me – it was the opposite. They brought the authentic me back. I felt more like myself than I had in years. My social anxiety wasn’t totally gone, but I was motivated to go out and have fun again. And when I did, I didn’t spend the whole time worrying that others were out to get me or disliked me.
But my anxiety about grad school was more resistant to change. I still woke up almost every morning with a knot of fear in my stomach that just wouldn’t go away. Even when I was able to get to my desk, sometimes I just sat doing nothing at all, afraid that I would be unable to complete a project if I started it. Fear of disappointing my research supervisors loomed large.
As the medication reduced my level of distress to a more manageable level, I was able to begin developing anxiety-reduction strategies, allowed me to me to be a more productive grad student. For example, practicing mindfulness, and breaking down tasks into small, manageable steps was very helpful.
Eventually, graduation came. I had completed grad school, thankful that the final journey towards the finish line felt more like a triumphant sprint rather than a pathetic crawl (the outcome I’d sometimes imagined). Wearing my graduation gown and getting hooded was an amazing feeling. The difficulties I’d had along the way added to the pride I felt, and made my PhD meaningful to me in ways that none of my previous degrees were.
Adding to all of this, I was fortunate enough to get a real adult job almost right out of grad school, in the industry I wanted. I had the feeling that I’d accomplished my mission: grad school complete, job acquired. What was there to be anxious about now? I still didn’t love being dependent on a medication, so I decided to try to slowly reduce my dose.
* * *
Naively, I anticipated no problems, so I was completely taken aback when familiar sensations of social anxiety returned. I began to feel nervous and uncomfortable at work-related events, even though I knew my colleagues relatively well by now. The thought of being asked to share in a group setting was enough to bring on nausea. Once again, I found myself slipping off to the bathroom at opportune times to avoid participating in activities. Fear of judgement from others returned. Text messages or emails from friends would set me off into tears if I saw the slightest hint of displeasure or even ambivalence. I started to need to check in with Spencer hourly if he loved me and planned to stay with me. I also started to have something that was brand new to me: full-blown panic attacks. The stress of work combined with distress about being ostracized or disliked could reduce me to a crumpled weeping ball on the floor, gasping for air.
This period of my life genuinely confused me. I couldn’t understand why this was happening. I had often felt that graduate school “ruined” me. After all, hadn’t I started graduate school a young, eager, well-adjusted person, and ended… well, quite a mess?
It had never occurred to me that my problems would come along with me even as I left graduate school behind. It was a big moment of realization as I finally understood that my mental health problems are part of being me, not just part of my identity as a grad student.
* * *
I’m back on my medication now, and I’m doing much better psychologically. Thanks to a job with benefits, I’m able to afford regular therapy. On the self-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? Or did I develop depression and anxiety during that time simply because I was at an age where the onset of such problems is common?
Another question I struggle with – to be honest, especially since I was asked if I was interested in writing this story for AMHC – is whether I am “mentally ill”. I’ve taken a look at the official criteria for anxiety disorders, and I think it’s obvious that my anxiety is persistent, pervasive, and sometimes uncontrollable. But the criteria also focus on functioning: clinical-level anxiety is also supposed to make it difficult to function effectively in daily life. Does this apply to me? I sleep well, eat well, have a great relationship, great friends, and hold down a stable job without difficulty. My guess is that like many other intelligent, capable people, the current diagnostic criteria which focus strongly on the ability to function would likely allow me to slip under the radar for an official diagnosis. But at the end of the day, the decision to get help and the decision to use medication is mine. Right now, I feel like it helps me be the best me – grad student or not.