Mia’s Story: Part 2

In Part 2 of her story, guest contributor Mia shares her continued struggles with mental health, experiencing depression after her OCD treatment. Her mental illness interfered with her ability to succeed in grad school and caused her to question whether she was on the right path. In other AMHC personal stories, writers have shared that seeking out help was the first step towards recovery, and eventually, success in academia. But Mia’s honest account also reminds that things do not go this way for everyone. Regardless of the outcome, we believe that every story is worth telling, and worth hearing.

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In my previous post, I wrote about my lifelong struggle with OCD and my eventual recovery. But this was only to be the beginning of my struggles in academia. Although my OCD was under control, I was still the overly-sensitive, neurotic person I had always been and I was soon to discover that this PhD was to be no easy feat.

With my OCD under control, I was hardly surprised to find that my brain switched to being prone to depressive episodes. Many of my family members also suffer poor mental health, suggesting a genetic basis to my mental health issues. So I had the feeling that without taking medication, the OCD I had successfully conquered was going to be replaced by something else. Funnily enough, even during my most anxious times I had never experienced depression – I desperately wanted the anxiety to end, but not my life. I was never sad about my situation, just horror-stricken and guilty about my own thoughts. So depression was new to me.

In the beginning, I almost didn’t mind it. I tended towards becoming numb and emotionless, or very angry, rather than feeling extremely sad. As horrible as these feelings were, I felt that this was preferable in comparison to the terror of my former anxiety. I now realise it shouldn’t have to be one or the other – but I had accepted that I’d likely never be a happy-go-lucky person with energy in spades, so if I had to settle for something, I’d rather it be a tendency to fall into the occasional depressed rut. That was until the ruts started getting progressively worse.

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A black and white photo of four seabirds flying in a row.

Unfortunately for a grad student, depressive episodes mean no motivation, poor self-esteem, and, in my case, constantly trying to quit what I’d started. I dealt with constant doubt that I’d made the right decision, and found myself pondering every day whether I should just get out while I still could. The parallels with my final undergraduate year were undeniable. Why had I come back to do this? Obviously something had attracted me to research. I was, undoubtedly, passionate about my topic, but every small setback sent me into a dark place and I’d spend weeks struggling to get back into a routine or any remnant of productivity.

Uncertain about my future, I went to see a career counsellor. After hearing me talk about my research for ten minutes, she said she had no doubt I should continue because my enthusiasm for helping my chosen population was so evident. I left this appointment greatly confused. If I wanted to do this, why was I so easily deterred? I was so happy to be rid of my OCD that it hadn’t occurred to me I should bring up my depressive symptoms with my psychologist. So I persevered. My productivity when I am feeling well is so high that these periods of absence were rarely noticed by my supervisor – overall, it balanced out. When I had a few months without an episode, he would comment on how efficient I’d been lately! These comments brought into focus for me that I am extremely capable, notwithstanding this “defective” brain of mine. These comments motivated (and continue to motivate) me to keep pursuing a career that I’m still not sure I’m entirely suited to. Yet, there are elements of academia where I am indeed rather skilled. I can write a paper in a day if I want to – provided of course it doesn’t require any background reading!

My supervisor became, as I expected, greatly bemused by my frequent attempts to quit. In the beginning he would try to talk me out of it because “everybody feels like this sometimes”. No doubt he also saw my passion and enthusiasm during my ‘up’ periods, and saw the potential there. However, our relationship eventually started to deteriorate.

At one point, my supervisor suggested that I didn’t have enough data to write up my thesis, and encouraged me to conduct another data collection phase. When I refused, my supervisor expressed his deep disappointment that I had “given up”. He also blatantly stated that he believed the lack of data was due to a lack of trying on my part, which I simply could not accept. If there was one period during my PhD where I had consistently worked hard, it was during data collection, and to have him belittle my efforts, in spite of what it had cost me, was infuriating. At this point, I held so much anger toward my supervisor that I made frequent excuses to cancel our meetings. When I did see him, I was blunt and immature. Our deteriorating relationship did little to help my motivation; without our regular meetings, my tendency to disappear into depressive ruts for weeks on end become worse.

The cycle continued into my final year: get depressed, try to quit, come out of my depression, try desperately to catch up on lost time.

The cycle continued into my final year: get depressed, try to quit, come out of my depression, try desperately to catch up on lost time. During one depressive episode I announced to my supervisor that I would finish my PhD, but that I would not be continuing in academia. Again, he was disappointed, but not surprised. I had previously arranged a short visit to an overseas university for later that year. Naively, I’d seen no reason why my recent announcement would impact this. When the university contacted me to start the planning process, I took my supervisor the forms for signing. He looked confused, and said that if I didn’t plan to continue in academia, I shouldn’t be representing our lab overseas. I was instructed to email the hosting Professor and tell him I was leaving the field, and therefore would not be coming. I was deeply embarrassed and furious. If I was to finish the degree, shouldn’t I be afforded the same opportunities as everyone else? Of course, in hindsight, I now completely understand this decision. This was my doing, not his. I had let my depressive self ruin what could have been an incredible opportunity to bulk up my CV, form collaborative relationships, and spread my research internationally.

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This is how I would sum up the experience of my PhD – a long list of missed opportunities due to my mental health problems. Eventually, I finished my PhD. But I survived, I didn’t thrive. I finished with a thesis, but no papers – integral to getting a job in my field. I had one minor conference presentation that I was forced into, no ongoing collaborative relationships, and a supervisor who had no faith in me whatsoever let alone any plans for future collaboration. My options as an academic seemed severely limited. Where does one go from here?

…continue on to Part 3 of Mia’s story

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