When I originally set out to write this blog, I was going to tell a beautiful story of a PhD student who struggled at first and rose to greatness. That wouldn’t have been truthful, because mental health recovery isn’t linear. It is a wild rollercoaster ride. So, here is the brutally honest story of my PhD so far.
Everything was going pretty well for quite a while. It was the most at peace I had been with myself for a long time. That is, until I tested positive for COVID-19 in October 2020. Spoiler alert: I still haven’t recovered. After my 2-week isolation time, I returned to work. Despite colleagues telling me to take it easy, I jumped straight back in. Classic academia: presenteeism at its finest. The pressure I felt from losing all that lab time in 2020 was weighing on me, so I just pushed on through. Well, instead of recovering I got worse. It was miserable. Every experiment physically hurt. I was running myself into the ground. Publish or perish is not meant to be taken literally… right?
With the support of my tutor and lab group, I paused my studies and walked away. I officially had “Long COVID”. To be perfectly honest, most of my withdrawal time from my studies has been blissful; the lab was a source of pain for me for quite some time. Of course, when you’re pushing through illness to be there everything just gets much harder. Stepping away from my research gave me space to breathe. I felt so free and so relaxed. I could take care of my physical health as my priority.
As time progressed, the burden of prolonged illness weighed on me. My poor physical health was exacerbating my poor mental health and my poor mental health was exacerbating my physical health. I was starting to spiral once again. So, this blog now has a different meaning for me. With this piece of writing, I reminded myself of the time I pulled myself away from a dark place. I reminded myself I am stronger than I think, and I am capable of doing it again.
At the start of my PhD, I had just graduated from my BSc and I was ready to take the research world by storm, leaving the struggles and stress of undergraduate life behind and looking ahead. At this point, I had been diagnosed and treated for Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD). So, armed with the tools that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) teaches you, I started my journey.
It didn’t take long for me to realise the realities of academic life. You look failure in the eye on a daily basis, and I believed that I wasn’t equipped with the tools I needed to survive the pressure. My mental health deterioration wasn’t far behind the deterioration of my lab work.
I was, of course, hiding this from everyone around me. Academia doesn’t feel like a safe place to talk about such things, after all. The invisible judgement from others around me in academia as a whole prevented me from doing so. How could I admit to being mentally ill? Especially with something relating to being emotionally unstable. People might just stop trusting me as a scientist. I felt like the academic community would never accept me. My symptoms happen inward, I don’t show them until I am alone, and I come across as incredibly high-functioning. It is how I have always gotten away with not speaking about my mental health.
I reached a point where it was time for therapy, once again. This time, I received CBT from the brilliant charity, Anxiety UK. My therapy largely focused on my struggles with being a PhD student. I learned little tricks to cope that I still use today. For example, if I have a bad day in the lab and everything has gone wrong, I am allowed to be upset on my walk home. I will blast my “Bad Day in the Lab” playlist and sulk all the way home. Once I get home, that’s it. No more being sad, I need to let go. This gives me a finite period of time to process my anger, so I don’t ruminate and dwell.
Life was great again, my research started to pick up and all was well… until it wasn’t. I was piling so much on myself and trying to achieve bigger and better things. Then I met my dear friend, burnout. My mental health couldn’t keep up. I was having these fleeting explosions of anger, then sadness, then happiness, then emptiness. In a bottomless pit of despair, I went on the Mind website for advice and stumbled across the Borderline Personality Disorder page. Everything just made sense. I never felt comfortable in my diagnosis of GAD (mostly because I had been lying to my therapists). I finally felt like I understood myself. It was later confirmed by a doctor and I was outlined possible treatments.
An Introduction to my BPD
“I’m just terrible. I’m the worst scientist to ever exist. I’m the worst person to ever exist. Why did I ever let myself do this? Why did I think I was capable? Why do I even exist? Everyone will hate me soon. Oh no, that person just looked at me. I did something stupid. Now they’re going to tell everyone how stupid I am and everyone is going to hate me. Just work and don’t speak. Don’t do anything else stupid. I’m letting everyone down. I hate myself.”
And then the world went blank for a while.
Welcome to my brain when it is taken over by Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), sometimes referred to as Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder. BPD has a wide range of symptoms that differ from person to person (Image 1).
This isn’t something I have shared publicly before.
At points of extreme stress, I will have what I call an ‘episode’. The only thing I can compare it to is when you shake a fizzy drink bottle before opening it and it just explodes to fill the entire room. My body shakes, my brain is going at 100 mph, the rage I feel is unnatural and always directed towards myself. It climaxes by me dissociating completely. Kind of like when you’ve drunk too much and just blacked out.
“Being borderline… Feels like having two souls. One is genuine and kind and so, so loving. The other is malicious and cruel and so, so hateful… You can never decide which one is yours”
I’ve realised this isn’t something to shame myself over but to celebrate and say, “Emma, you’ve done seriously well to battle these demons and get this far”.
Looking to the Future: Feeling Like Myself
After that diagnosis, I put in a lot of hard work to grow and begin improving my mental health. I honoured how I was feeling. I changed my entire perception on mental health, because finally I was truly connecting with my treatment. I started to see the positive aspects of my personality that were linked to my mental health (Image 2). I learnt that BPD sufferers are recommended mindfulness techniques and I decided to try some of these. I had always done yoga but it began to have a different meaning for me. Without sounding too dramatic here, yoga saved my life. It is a beautiful practice that grounds me to the present and teaches me to slow down my thoughts. I have also met the most wonderful community through this. I dived into it head first. I also bought myself an incredible therapy book for people with BPD. Most people can’t afford therapy and the waiting lists are very long in the UK. This book allowed me to take control of my mental health whilst I waited for a referral, which as a control freak, I appreciated.
I established healthy working habits. I stopped putting pressure on myself to work on the weekends like I had convinced myself everyone else was doing. Academics are often praised for their dedication to their research and encouraged to put their research before their physical and mental well-being. Well, sorry, that isn’t for me. I need my down time. I also learned how to see my failures in a positive light. You learn so much from failing. It is an invaluable experience. I’ve also learned to see my BPD in a positive light, and illustrated in this image by @ukborderline on Instagram.
Finally, I was able to accept that our research really isn’t in our control at all. Your results will be what they will be. That is the whole point. Just because something doesn’t happen like you planned it doesn’t mean it was wrong. I had been told this so many times, but I needed to work it out for myself. I made my mental health my full-time job, and it paid off.
I am so grateful to this journey. I am so proud of myself for getting this far. Even though I have stumbled again recently, I know I have the strength to get back. And whoever you are, so do you.
Emma is a 3rd year PhD student in Molecular Biology and Cellular Signalling in the UK. She studies in the field of NF-κB signalling and loves how signalling pathways talk to each other. One of her favourite parts of her PhD is demonstrating undergraduate lab practicals. Emma is also passionate about Science Communication and has a podcast (Persistently hard Days) and an Instagram (p.h.days). She uses this platform to educate, break stereotypes and battle misinformation. In her spare time, she is a yogi and adores music.