Managing Isolation as a Field Biologist by Partha Sarathi

Growing up, I moved around places because of my father’s job and I never found a sense of belonging with any one place. Losing connections with friends every time was painful and it has always been difficult for me to let go. Knowing that I would inevitably move again and knowing that I would have to let people go again, I kept on making more friends. However, it wasn’t until I experienced an unspeakable tragedy when I lost friends and someone special to a terrorist attack that my first experience with depression occurred. At the time I had no idea that I was even suffering from a mental illness. Things changed in that moment for me forever. According to my therapist, I have never been able to completely recover from that tragedy in 2008.

The reason I started with that paragraph instead of directly jumping into a discussion of academia is for everyone to know that academia did not triggermy mental illness; I had experienced it before following a tragedy. We are human beings, and we bring previous life experiences with us to our academic studies. However, there are certainly elements of academia that affected my mental health, including the narrative that sometimes we can only be academics and cannot have lives outside of our work. I hope that sharing my story here will help others to feel less alone.

Starting my Ph.D. journey

I joined my Ph.D. program after looking for a position for four years after completing my Master’s degree. I am still grateful to my supervisor who went out of his way to get me the Ph.D. opportunity that changed my life. I was super excited about the prospect of working with a wild primate, long-tailed macaque in Great Nicobar Island, India. Simultaneously, after giving it a lot of thought and finding solace in my mind I decided to commit to a serious relationship as well. It was the start ofsomething great. After years of grief, I was finally able to move on, and more importantly, I was happy.

It wasn’t until six months later that I realized how isolated I would be. But I loved the work, and it felt it would be worth it. Unfortunately for me, Great Nicobar Island had very limited connectivity whether it was transport or communication. Campbell Bay, where I stayed for the next five years, is the southernmost territory of India and is actually closer to Indonesia than mainland India. To reach it, onewould have to start a journey from Chennai, Vizag, or Kolkata (at least when I was there), where one can take a flight or a ship to travel to Port Blair which is the capital of Andaman and Nicobar Island. 

From Port Blair, you can either take a ship which is the most affordable means of transport, or a helicopter (beyond my economic status to know anything about it). The ship takes a day or two to reach Campbell Bay. There are occasionally direct ships from Chennai to Campbell Bay as well. The island of Great Nicobar is huge with most of it covered in dense tropical rainforests with people living on the east coast and northern parts of the islands. The population is about 3000 and is comprised of mainland Indian settlers, Nicobari tribe, and Shompen tribe. As you can imagine, there weren’t too many people around me! The facilities there were scanty with three places to eat, and one sub-standard public health center which lacked a proper X-ray machine. 

During a time in our lives when the Internet is almost a non-negotiable necessity and internet speed is a matter of envy, the islanders were still using G, not 4G, not 3G–just G. It would come in pockets, and just to download a file of 10 MB we used to keep the internet on during the night! Although this was difficult, I was aware of this before I travelled there. I accepted this aspect of my work and I did not expect much. I used to travel home and work on the mainland once a year. I used to stay a month in which I used to spend a week with my girlfriend. As a result, I was somewhat removed from the hustle-bustle of modern civilization. But it had its advantages. The pristine beaches, the monkeys I used to follow, occasional dolphin sightings on the beach, and long bike rides on the coastal roads were everyone’s envy.

Isolation suited me just fine – until it didn’t

I have never been a social person; in fact, I have always been known as the quiet person. This is in part the way I was raised, but also the fact that I was bullied and experienced a chronic illness at school. I hold on to the people I am close to, sometimes much. I wouldn’t say that I am an introvert, but I am no extrovert either. I am a people person; I like stories of people’s lives and I like being a part of these stories. I didn’t realize how many of these stories I was missing during my Ph.D. fieldwork. People I had at my field-station and my girlfriend were the only anchors I had. I enjoyed interacting with the locals and got close to them but there was a sense of foreignness because of our different lifestyles. Although it seems like I am complaining, actually I am truly grateful for the people in my life that made me a part of their own stories.

Human beings have an inherent need to be social. I was always been interested in this idea, and for my PhD studies I chose to understand what it means to be social and how our social behaviours evolved. So I started looking at the macaques for answers. I was enjoying the work, and every day I followed the long-tailed macaques in the wild to understand their behavior along with my team. Every day I understood the macaques a little more but my own social life took a hit which I did not realize immediately.

Increasing stress and despair

For my Ph.D., I was paid a salary out of the project fund which would cover my stay, groceries, official travel to Port Blair, and once a year travel to the mainland. As a result, it was not easy to cover other expenses like spending time with loved ones or even medical costs. After three years of the project and 1.5 years after my Ph.D. began, the salary ended. It started a long year of working out of my own expenses, managed by some “rainy day” savings and money from home. Things were made worse by the fact that my colleagues were on the verge of completing their Ph. D. data collection and would leave the island soon. This would mean that there would be no more helping each other financially and emotionally. Eventually, they both left and I lost my confidantes and friends. This meant more reliance on the long distance relationships, and bringing in more people to help me collect data. I even ended up employing new field assistants from my savings and mentoring them as well. This was a very uncertain time during the Ph.D. and I was afraid it would take longer to complete. Even though I loved being on the island, I felt like it was on hold. I was getting more frustrated and it flared up my anxiety to really high levels. 

After a long time away, there came a time when I could finally be with my girlfriend. My girlfriend came to the islands to start her own work and although I was still on a different island it was way more accessible. This was the first time in my relationship a time had come when I could spend more than a few days with my girlfriend. However, the catch was that it was also the final year of my data collection. As soon as she arrived, I had taken some time off of my work to get her settled. It was nice but I could immediately sense that the physical distance apart for so many years had put some emotional distance between us as well. We realized we had become nothing more than excellent roommates.  We talked it through, decided we needed more time, but once I returned to my own fieldwork we broke up. I was devastated and it affected me deeply. I was already struggling with shift of field base, lack of money and new field assistants. It went bad to worse when a new colleague was severely injured in an accident on the island and this made me increasingly anxious about the isolation and lack of access to medical care. 

Returning home

I was able to get the data a needed to complete my Ph.D. just a few days before having to leave the island. Once I reached on mainland India the hustle-bustle, fast internet and food was something that took time to adjust to. I was slowly starting to miss the islands and also the life I knew before the completion of last year. I did not adapt well. Although surrounded by my labmates I was feeling lonely and then one day any emotional strength I had left gave away. I broke down, but I couldn’t cry; instead I felt strangled and trapped. I realized that I was coming to terms with my grief and loss. 

With time, instead of getting better, I was getting  worse, with my mood shifting a lot and it affected my life. I was always sad and experienced frequent headaches. I am grateful to the friends who were with me even though I snapped at them at times. I knew I needed help but I couldn’t find anyone who could consult for free as I had no money to spare for treatment costs. I was barely surviving with food and analyzing my data. I couldn’t look forward to anything. The zeal for living was not strong and one night the thought of self-harm/ending it painlessly came close. Luckily I didn’t do anything about it but I kept having those moments, usually after sundown. Over time, instead of being disturbed, these thoughts became normal. I was getting used to it. Most of the days I was paralyzed and I couldn’t do anything. I was aware that a lot of people were probably going through difficult times too, but it didn’t give me any comfort. 

It was moving to a new job in a new city that gave me something to look forward to and lifted me up emotionally. The new city Bangalore treated me well. I found some really great friends who shared my values and also were fun to be with. It was their warmth which made me feel close to them and helped me live a life that I could enjoy. 

Even though I was much happier, I found my anxiety levels increasing and I had no control over this. Luckily, the institute where I worked with had mental health counselors on campus and for free, and I believe that this should be available everywhere in the world. This was the first time I got the help I needed and found someone to talk to who understood what was going on. It was a pleasant experience for me but I was far from getting better. The counselor knew this and recommended seeking help from a clinical psychiatrist. I followed the suggestion and although it was a bit expensive I went through with the session. The sessions helped me with my anxiety and I was diagnosed with ADHD and depression for the first time in my life. Prescription medicine did wonders and on top of that I did a lot of cycling which kept me fit and relaxed. Depression never went truly went away, but I was managing.

Once the Bangalore stint was over, I returned to my Ph. D thesis work but continuing my medicine and cycling. I was able to focus and finish my thesis writing in one and half months. My anxiety levels were in check although ADHD and the ever-present depression didn’t leave my side. But I was able to live with them and I accepted them as constant companions in my life. 

Looking forward

The experience that I really wanted to share in this blog was that I had no issues with my Ph.D. or my supervisor or the team. I worked in a perfect lab environment. It was mainly the isolation on the island, my turbulent personal relations and really tough financial situation which were responsible for making my Ph. D a tough ride. A wonderful lab environment, the beautiful island where I worked and the monkeys were special and helped me throughout. As soon as I left them behind, things got tough and I realized that these feelings were always there and were effectively masked. I struggled greatly at times but the experience taught me what I need in order to flourish: human connection. 

At the moment, I still struggle and I experience some of the same issues. I am skeptical of people, commitments, and still have strong anxiety issues, but I am still hopeful that I will be able to make my life better. I focus on academia which believe it or not is my escape (call it Stockholm Syndrome) and I am trying to get better at my hobbies as well. Lockdown has also been an eye-opener which tells me that I need to meet more people and give them a chance. I haven’t seen it yet but I have started to believe that there is a light at the end of this tunnel. I look forward to traveling and seeing the world, meeting more people, and speaking their languages to know their stories. I don’t want to miss out on any stories and not be a part of them. I am looking forward to seeing a new world.

Partha Sarathi

Partha Sarathi is a recently minted Ph.D. in primatology. He studies social relationships in non-human primates in India. He worked on Nicobar long-tailed macaques for his PhD and loves the island where he worked. He is interested in studying the evolution of facial expression in primates. He is also a co-founder of Association of Indian Primatologists which spreads knowledge on primatology to less experienced researchers in India and research in India to the world. When not working, he loves cycling, reading fiction and search things to watch. He aspires to be a voice artist and a comedian.