Nadia, a successful academic who privately struggled with anxiety, returns with Part 2 of her story. In Part 1, she shared about the early days of her graduate career and her eventual decision to practice self-care by taking time to work on her writing in a remote location.
Content warning: sexual assault and abortion. Please practice the utmost self-care if you continue reading.
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Full of hope for my island sabbatical, I gave notice on my apartment. I packed up my life and figured out exactly what I could fit in my truck to take across the Rockies. I was getting rid of so much stuff that reminded me of my old, married life and it was feeling cathartic and healing. I was wrapping up experiments at a furious pace. Things were looking up. I could almost taste that salty breeze and feel the wood stove heat on my feet.
Twenty-one days before I moved, I went out with friends to dance and blow off some steam at a show. Most of our group went home, but another friend and I went to another pub, post-show. At some point, someone slipped something in my drink. I have only snippets of that post-show part of the night embedded in my memory. When I woke up, I realized I’d been sexually assaulted in my own home by the friend-of-a-friend who helped me get “safely” there. The victim mentality set in; my self-talk went something like: But it wasn’t violent. He used a condom. I’d probably been flirting too much. Maybe I’d had too much to drink. I probably did something to suggest I was ok with us having sex. I was fine. It would be fine.
In the beginning of December, I moved to that little cabin on Vancouver Island, spending much of my time there on the couch, cooking, or snuggling my cat. Every day I would sleep in and stay up late. I would walk to the beach. When it came to my academic responsibilities, I attempted to write, analyse, work on anything, but I kept spinning my wheels. I would take breaks to go to Vancouver to see Conrad, a man I recently had started dating. The cabin provided me with a place to just be. No one, other than my cantankerous old man cat, expected much of me. The isolation, though potentially unhealthy, was healing for the time it lasted. I was fine. It would be fine.
Yet, my committee grew impatient. One of them even became verbally abusive during our phone meetings. We didn’t talk about mental health. At no point did any of them ask, “What’s going on for you?” Or “are you ok?” But if they had, would I have been honest? I likely would have said, “I’m fine. It will be fine.” I didn’t want to disappoint anyone else; I’d already done that enough, hadn’t I?
After a winter away, I returned to my school for what was meant to be the final stretch. I spent the summer finishing up all my labwork, while developing a running and yoga practice. I was living with a high-achieving academic friend, and I took pride in thinking that I was engaging in self-care and healthy habits. My cabin time had paid off, I thought. Yet, I was staying in the lab all hours of the night, wanting everything to work perfectly. My committee was still toxic. But I was holding onto a dream: I wanted to move to Vancouver for my final stretch of writing in September. In preparation, I secured lab-teaching positions in the area. Everything was coming together.
I was fine. It would be fine.
I wrapped up my labwork, stored my samples, packed up the rest of my life and my cat, moved back across the Rockies to start my new life in Vancouver, and moved in with Conrad. Despite all of this, something wasn’t right the first month I moved. I was exhausted and nauseous all the time. I couldn’t walk up the hill from the train station after teaching without being winded. I’d missed a period right before I moved, but thought it was from the stress of everything. I took a pregnancy test: there were two lines. I took another, but I already knew the truth. And for the first time, I acknowledged that I was not fine. It would not be fine.
After long days of deliberation, I sought out the support of a women’s health centre. I made the decision to terminate the pregnancy, speaking to a counselor for nearly an hour before committing to the decision. We talked about my financial situation (poor), my support system (moderate), and my mental health (failing). I was not fine. I would not be fine and nothing about bringing a child into the world at this time would make it be fine. I could barely afford rent and groceries and had just started a new relationship. How could I possibly bring a child into the world? Conrad held my hand as the procedure was done and helped me home, propping me up on the couch with plenty of things to care for me while he went back to work.
But I was not fine. It would not be fine.
I spent another year struggling intensely with my mental health. Hours became days of not getting out of bed. Conrad became exasperated and ran out of the energy and desire to support me. When I could, I escaped through distraction – whether dancing or volunteering, it allowed me to deny that I was suffering very much. I was still paralysed every time I stared at the screen to write or analyse anything for my thesis. My scholarships had ended, which meant that I now had more flexibility in terms of my schedule.
I took a semester of academic leave to decide if I wanted to finish. But, as things started crumbling in my relationship, my thesis felt like the only thing I had to hold on to. The constant in my life. On the other hand, this “constant” was also paralyzing me, and had turned me into the creature I barely recognized. But I was dedicated to salvaging it. I was not fine, but I’d worked too hard to get to where I was.
I finally started to accept that my mental health was compromised. That these struggles I was having were the sign of something deeper, telling me that I really wasn’t fine. I consulted the internet, but the conversations about mental health and academia were only just starting. How could I possibly be depressed? Or anxious? I couldn’t be those things. I was an achiever. An academic rockstar. This was just a really hard stretch, right?
Conrad pushed me to seek out a counselor. I found someone who was doing her practicum so I could actually afford the cost. She suggested that our labels can define us, so saying I was “depressed” would make it so. She suggested I use the term “limiting space” when I was in those deep, dark moments. This was a subtle shift, yet it was what I needed at the time. I got out of bed more. I put on pants more. I wasn’t fine, but there was hope I could be.
Eventually, my relationship with Conrad crumbled. I wasn’t yet done my thesis and my now ex-boyfriend asked me to leave the house we shared. I found myself facing a decision that felt like admitting defeat or relied on the true kindness of others: leave Vancouver entirely to move to my prairie grandmother’s house with my cat, or take two friends (Nathan & Jordan) up on an offer to stay with them until I could get back on my feet and finish my thesis. I’d grown to love it in Vancouver. I’d fostered a space in a community I adored. I had started a social advocacy group that used education to create safer spaces for social gatherings. I was surrounding myself with a chosen friend-family that accepted me for all of me and didn’t stigmatize mental health struggles. I chose to stay.
I was not fine, but I would begin to heal.
One year later, in November 2015, I defended my PhD. I convocated in June 2016 as my family and one of those friends who’d offered me a soft place to land stood by my side. Since late 2014, Nathan has been one of my biggest cheerleaders and is now my partner in life. I am still struggling with my mental health, but have grown to show myself enough self-love to seek professional, experienced help. I am working through PTSD from the sexual assault and complex trauma from other events in my life. I am learning how to love myself again. I am working on creating routine around self-care practices, transitioning from a mindset of self-care as work to something essential for me to practice self-love and thrive.
I know now that my PhD itself didn’t cause my mental health decline, but it set me up in an environment where admitting anything less than excellence was considered a failure. My fellow academics and I didn’t talk about mental health, but we needed to. I have a long road ahead to fully heal all of those old wounds, but I’m finally in a space in my life where the veil on mental health is being lifted. I have a supportive community around me, personally and professionally. I am nine months into a challenging and rewarding job within the federal government, working with an incredible team and manager. We are not afraid to talk about mental health, self-care, work-life balance, and are encouraged to truly take time off to decompress.
For now, I’ve let go of that academic dream I put on a pedestal. I’ve come to value myself to a degree that allows me to realize I don’t want it enough to sacrifice my health, physical and mental. I honour and respect all of those who pursue that dream. Now, I’m working on creating new ones. I am surviving. I will thrive.
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Please know that you are not alone. There are options in every city.
1 in 3 women have been sexually assaulted in their lifetimes. If you or someone you know is struggling with sexual assault, or a sexual encounter you feel might not have been your decision, please consult you local sexual advocacy center (often termed “crisis centres”).
We’ve gathered some links for you that may be useful:
- Sexual Assault Support (and for our readers in Australia)
- Sexual health
- Women’s health (Australian resource)
- Self-care in academia: Times Higher Education and PhD Talk or (and of course, our team’s self-care article!)