I am destructively depressed; I sometimes think about hurting myself. These are my medicated thoughts – perhaps you’d call them ‘secrets’? An insight into my secret life; information I cannot share with you at work, on conference coffee breaks, or at lab-group festive lunches held at mid-price eateries of least offence. This may be an uncomfortable read for some – it’s uncomfortable, but it’s true. Welcome to my secret life as a Bipolar PhD student.
First Year Breakdown
It was in the late summer of 2016, one year into my PhD studies, when my life first fell apart. I’d completed my BSc in Biomedicine only one year prior, achieving first-class honours with special commendations for my academic excellence. I was doing well, and I was hopeful; but despite my seemingly successful academic trajectory, I’d been struggling with my mental health almost as long as I’d been in education. The build up to my breakdown was gradual, but the incident itself was over in minutes. I won’t recount in detail those few strange moments that changed my life forever (that’s a story for another time); but what I will tell you, is that I was at work when it happened. I was amongst colleagues, peers and friends at the precise moment I snapped.
To be frank, I don’t remember much except the fear. I do remember sinking to the floor. A shaky plastic cup filled with luke-warm water, placed between my palms by a trained-in-something administrative assistant who swooped in immediately with genuine concern. Little sips and deep breaths. First aiders didn’t come. “Go home and rest” they said “You must be exhausted”. “We all go through the same” they exclaimed, “the first year breakdown”. After that, my memory is blank; I know I went home early so I guess I must have rested.
The notion of the “first year breakdown” has stuck with me ever since, not least because it was only days after my breakdown that I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder – type 2. Bipolar type 2 is an illness characterised by extreme changes in mood, with periods of severe depression persisting over weeks, months – I wonder, is it possible to be depressed for years at a time? There are many types of Bipolar (5 types, we think), though type 2 is the most commonly diagnosed – it’s not that uncommon. Each type of Bipolar varies slightly in it’s symptoms, but each is essentially characterised by manic (or hypomanic) phases of mood elation, followed or preceded by not-necessarily-equivalent phases of clinical depression. I suffer with both, but more so the latter. I also experience mixed moods (hypomania and depression at the same time), which ultimately caused my breakdown back in 2016. My life-changing mixed mood came across as no more than a severe case of imposter syndrome, anxiety perhaps, and a strong drive to succeed.
Beware of working too many hours, skipping lunch, paranoia-fuelled panic and over-reaching for success, especially if accompanied by a foreboding sense dread: it’s a potentially life-threatening mix, especially for someone like me.
Upon my diagnosis I was given medication, therapy, and reasonable adjustments at work – which helped. Again I won’t go into details here; the point is that I was patched up pretty well, and soon enough I was allowed to return to my academic life. This is where my breakdown story ends and my secret life as a Bipolar PhD student really begins; I had to learn to live with my Bipolar, not despite it, and I had to learn to cope with my PhD if I was ever going to reinstate my normalcy. I found myself going through two of the most intense experiences of my life, simultaneously, and both with conflicting requirements on my time, energy and mood.
A Constant Weight
I can’t quite describe the heavy weight of a medicated mood. It’s a heady stupor: coffee required by the litre, waking by 1pm and doing what you can to make it through the day before grabbing your next opportunity to close a weary eye. ‘Hot-desking’, but for naptime. Needing to nap a lot – sounds like a lazy PhD student to me – see what I mean? Without my medication I’d never have achieved the level of recovery I am blessed to enjoy today, but it took me a long time to both physically and psychologically adjust to its effects. Unless you’ve been in exactly this situation, you can only imagine how hard it is to say, “I didn’t do the experiment because I overslept – again”. It’s difficult to talk about this side effect of recovery, without over-sharing details about your medication and medical history – I guess that’s why I might let some think I’m just a lazy PhD student, but I know I’m capable beneath the fog.
The other unexpected challenge that I faced was the therapy. The ‘reasonable adjustments’ to my PhD schedule allowed me ample opportunity to attend both individual and group therapy sessions – thankfully my attendance was never in question and that was never a problem. The challenge that I faced was not so much in attending therapy itself, but in returning to work after my appointments. The discussions you have with your therapist don’t dissolve from your reality the moment that you step back into the office, they tailgate you – no category 2 swipe-for-access barrier will keep your demons at bay, I assure you of that. After therapy I would return to the lab with emotions thick like agar jelly and a magnetic flea in my mind; it’s hard to make the switch, from absolute vulnerability to conscientious confidence and academic prowess, especially if you can’t allow yourself a little time in between. Compartmentalise, if you can.
Take half an hour between your therapy session and returning to work; it helps maintain a calm exterior and it helps keep the secret.
The Importance of Role Models
My third and final insight harks back to the beginning of my Bipolar story and runs straight through it. Back in late August of 2016, when my life first fell apart, I had no Bipolar role models to learn from and this made me question everything. I became one of the worst kept secrets in academia – a PhD student with poor mental health, yet I had no one to turn to for relatable experience. Whilst my mental illness was not because of my PhD, it sure as anything played a big part in my narrative and I needed to know I wasn’t alone. I was painfully aware that whilst academia was starting to accept and discuss the endemic problems of depression and anxiety, no one quite understood Bipolar, least of all me. I realised that I was unaware of anyone like me within my field.
Is it possible to do a PhD in molecular biology, alongside the challenges of being Bipolar? The answer is, “Yes, it definitely is”. I know that for sure because I’m alive today, currently at the end of my PhD studies. I’m doing well again. I’m hopeful again.
By reading this article, you have become part of a small but significant movement; a movement which hopes to bring validation, support and awareness to those experiencing mood disorders during their PhD. By reading this far you have helped to destigmatize me, and others like me, perhaps even someone you know – like I said at the beginning, it’s not that uncommon. Thank you for reading my story. For those of you who’ve made it this far, and those of you who need to hear it most, I leave you with this: We exist.
Sophie has recently submitted her PhD thesis in molecular nutrition and is now preparing for her viva. During her PhD, Sophie developed a passion for disability inclusion in academia and writes about academic mental fitness on her blog (www.theinfraredrum.wordpress.com). Sophie is a keen science communicator and passionate writer. She is currently seeking opportunities in science and health journalism, where she hopes to forge an exciting future career. You can find Sophie on Twitter as InfraRedRum
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