This post was submitted anonymously by a member of the AMHC community.
* * *
A few weeks ago, I defended my PhD. It was a wonderful day. My family, friends, and colleagues from across campus came to show their support and celebrate with me. My partner took the day off from work and helped me format my slides while I reread my hastily-written presentation over breakfast. Once things were underway, I felt calm and authoritative; I was even having fun. The questions seemed easy, and before I knew it, the hour had passed. Champagne, speeches, and a restaurant meal followed. I couldn’t imagine a happier end to these years of graduate study.
* * *
Cut to four months ago, at a department conference, when I was chairing a panel in Russian. Although Russian is not my first language, I’ve worked hard at perfecting my language skills over the last decade. I had read the papers in advance, prepared my questions, and looked up key vocabulary in Russian. I was as prepared as I could be, but I had been awake since four o’clock in the morning, my heart pounding, and my mind whirling. It was nine o’clock, and I was tired, dizzy, and unable to eat.
Standing in the center of a bowl-shaped amphitheater, I introduced the speakers. My voice wavered. I made basic declension errors. I avoided eye contact. I was standing in the lions’ den, and I couldn’t speak logically, let alone in correct Russian. I tried not to notice a dear professor friend doodling in the back row. After the presentations, I asked dumb questions just to make other people do the talking until the clock reached 10:15. When coffee time came, I escaped out the back without saying good-bye to the panelists. Ashamed, I took the back roads home and collapsed on my bed, scrolling social media for the rest of the day.
Helplessness, hopelessness, shame, tearfulness: this all reminded me of my first semester in graduate school. I had moved to a new country while in the midst of an existential crisis brought on by a loss of religious faith. I lost 20 pounds in the first five weeks, and there was one weekend when I cried nearly nonstop for no particular reason, managing to take a break long enough to give a subpar talk at the major conference in my field. (I’ve never managed to get an abstract accepted there since.) I went to the health center where a culturally insensitive therapist laughed at me, before telling me that my problems were too religious.
I pulled through Year One; this time hope came in the form of a summer in Prague, learning Czech. My housemate was a local, and we threw dinner parties for my classmates and frequented bars, drinking and talking until sunrise. Four months away from my department was like hitting the reset button. In Year Two, I threw glamourous parties every weekend with my new Spanish housemates, and I fell in love, the head-over-heels kind I didn’t believe in. I married that person and wrote a dissertation, and when things were hard, they were also always simultaneously wonderful. I was clipping along at a rate that astonished my supervisor, and my commitment to fun weekends—camping, road trips, rock climbing—astonished my fellow grad students.
* * *
So, when I found myself unable to speak Russian and rapidly losing my composure at the department conference four months ago, I remembered what beginning grad school was like. I recognized that I was overwhelmed by this transitional stage: finishing my dissertation and applying to jobs. I knew that these symptoms were a sign I needed to reach out, not an indication that I was unworthy or unintelligent. Even though my partner thought I seemed mostly fine and simply needed a little help organizing my workflow, I knew that I needed psychological help.
One Sunday, I checked myself into the health center. I felt immediate relief knowing that there were caring experts who would help me. They explained my options: a quick-acting anti-anxiety medication and an overnight stay, or a next-day appointment with a psychologist who would refer me to a psychiatrist and a regular therapist. I chose the latter.
My therapist is a brilliant woman who reminds me of the mom in the movie Juno. Like Juno’s mom, my therapist has a clear-eyed approach to health and relationships.
My psychiatrist is a calm and smiley person. She told me that most people either start taking medication or require higher doses during the academic job market season. I asked her whether she wishes she could prescribe anti-precarity academic labour laws. She laughed. I now take an antidepressant every day, and I have an additional prescription for a more fast-acting anti-anxiety medication to use as needed.
Since that weekend I checked myself into psychiatric care, I have felt more in control of my experience, even as I’ve pushed through a difficult semester. I succeeded in submitting my dissertation on time, and I am very pleased with my work.
Here’s another part of my PhD defense story, the part I have been leaving out in the version I tell my acquaintances and colleagues: the day preceding and the day of my defense, I took the prescribed dosage of fast-acting anti-anxiety medication to prevent panic attacks. I knew that I needed my energy for my intellectual work, and I believe this was a good decision. I also knew that this medication would disrupt my digestion for a few days. I was able to perform well at the defense, but in the days following, I felt quite nauseated. I was unable to eat or sleep properly for another three or four days as my body recovered from an intense physiological and intellectual performance. A week and many naps later, I felt fine.
I share these details because I think that it’s important to acknowledge that even a smashing scholarly success has a complicated history. My success rests on the support of many people—partner, friends, colleagues, and family, and my happy ending to grad school was in large part made possible by therapists, medication, and good health insurance, along with my own initiative in identifying my needs and reaching out for a mid-semester intervention.