Chin Up! Cheerleading and Bias in Academia by Jennifer Lynn Sarai Kriegel

TW: Sexual assault

A Pragmatic Pollyanna

Fear. Denial. Avoidance. Guilt. Self-blame. Wavering or low confidence. Self-judgment. Self-punishment. For weeks, I have been avoiding these entities which I keep in my shadows. Generally, I pretend they have vanished. Mostly, they have. In their place have grown or returned: strength, courage, and resilience. These are coupled with strategic planning, tenacity, and optimism. Such attitudes have allowed neurobiology to work primarily in my favor with each new positive experience, and regeneration of new cells that have only understood fear as a residual, rather than direct impact, a balance that has taken years to achieve.

Those who have been affected with mental health issues in any walk of life have at least once encountered the phrase “chin up!” suggesting that the affliction is, in fact, their own fault. Consistently, on my journey I have encountered both such stigmas, as well as resounding cheerleaders championing my success. Because of the stigmas, I generally refer to my condition as “recovered.” Also, maybe, because it’s also hard to admit to myself.

Before academia, my darkness included multiple traumas, including two distinct traumatic sexual assaults, and a hardwood board raised to my head. Before the DSM-V, those who treated me considered me the classic picture of what would come to be known as “Complex” PTSD. I chose research and academia, the study of episodic memory, because of what happened to me, taking the strength and resilience I developed as an individual, and studying the intricacies of the mind to improve knowledge for future generations. This choice in its light and darkness, was intricate. It is beautiful. So am I.

Some background, for those unfamiliar with the field of learning and memory. Stress functions as a strong motivator for adaptive behavior in many species. Learning. Adaptation. Motivation. Humans, like other species, thrive on stress. Evolutionarily, it improves us. Competition means survival of the fittest, when we also leave explanation for traits such as collaboration, and altruism. In a normal situation, our response to stress and stress hormones is an inverted U-curve. That is, increasing stress increases our performance until we reach capacity; once we get to this point, it rapidly declines. The “fight or flight” mechanism of the noradrenergic response which occurs in reaction to extreme stressors is an evolutionary survival tool. Faced with danger, individuals able to escape the situation or prove stronger than the challenger survive. These survivor genes are passed on, viable for future generations. Importantly, this mechanism is intended to last a short period of time. Chronic or more severe stressors than an individual can handle result in the maladaptation known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. Although PTSD is often equated with veterans and military experience, PTSD might also develop from situations of genocide (Holocaust, Rwanda genocide), or other extreme racial hatred. Additionally, it can be born of repetitive child abuse, cases of sexual assault or domestic assault/abuse, and other traumatic experiences. These experiences can happen to anyone. Some of them might occur again and again – a reason for our body’s defense mechanisms to remain active. 

Personally, there is nothing I hate more than being told my nervous system’s natural ability to protect itself in the face of danger is an illness. That said, two decades following my first assault, I still experience body memories (physical sensations which are decontextualized from the content of the memory) of being anally assaulted every day. Every. Day. It’s a little maladaptive. 

The Pothole

Academia is a strange pothole. A crater in the midst of society that if hit just right, one can be jolted forwards, or alternatively stuck in paralysis. It is a world where we simultaneously expect ourselves and others to perform at superhuman standards, yet see nurture as if a mother’s womb, where we are coddled and protected from the remainder of society, with our liberal policies and forward growth. We profess a culture of tolerance and inclusion, but actually judge ourselves for being human. 

Several individuals in the midst of their own journey have warned me regarding the propensity of academic work to increase the likelihood of a mental break. While I am uncertain if these individuals had knowledge of my history, in likelihood it may have served as potential dissuasion in the case of certain weakness. They cited the potential for anxiety can develop based on performance expectations. Long hours with little reward. Isolation. True, repetitive disappointments in any environment can lead to lowered dopamine levels. Certainly, repetitive cycles of data collection, analysis, publication and grant submission, with sparse reward among the rejections could easily make academia a field of chronic disappointment for those who are not its most brilliant. Such disappointment often leads to depression, dysphoria, and fatigue, a result of interactions of stress and dopaminergic reward systems (see Baik, 2020).

This is precisely why, for the last several years, the current push in academia is to highlight its weaknesses, and how an environment with a high stress level, and without built-in support mechanisms can lead to mental fatigue, depression, and other forms of mental duress or mental illness. Researchers have also emphasized the importance of providing support to those who encounter mental challenges during their academic experience, as well as those who enter with preexisting conditions (Loissel et al., 2019). 

Traces of Positivity and Pessimism

Throughout my academic career, more than several individuals have cheered my progress; in this, I am fortunate. Our experiences, our memories, are the traces of whom we will become. Mentors and advisers, colleagues and peers who have seen few flaws: noting an enhanced resilience, a greater determination. In the early years, success for me was a mechanism of sheer survival. I spent over ten years on a U.S. Social Security Disability income – a subset of the retirement taxes for the elderly which is put aside for individuals who become unable to work permanently or temporarily prior to retirement age. I clawed my way through a second degree to start life over, being championed from the wings. 

During my second baccalaureate degree, several people expressed faith in me. A psychopathology professor who affirmed that while others sought to define the mechanisms of resilience, I exemplified it. A research professor who believed in my determination and dreams. A professor who let me into a small honors class where I learned that often the most gifted students had struggles that set them apart, as I did. Somehow, I learned to judge myself a little less each time I saw myself through the eyes of others. Later, there would be more. My master’s adviser, one of the kindest and astute men I’ve ever known, and a man I hope to never let down. A neurobiology professor who encouraged me not to give up, by silently requesting this with her stance, more than her words. A post-doctoral researcher who would openly discuss the importance of PTSD research in studying episodic memory, who was open about ordinary things: the importance of not choosing an asshole for a mentor, because it would be a miserable five years, and who was one of the first who saw my insights and intellect as separate from my disease. Another, her own story down to earth, who reminded me not to judge myself relative to the progress of others.

Not everyone would be supportive, of course. 

While I was pursuing my second baccalaureate, I took a class called “Death and Dying.” This was a course that celebrated and sought to understand the human response to death, loss, and trauma. Discussing various topics of loss caused members of this small environment to develop a trusting relationship with each other and open up about personal loss. On one occasion a guest speaker was directly behind me, giving a dramatic presentation of a newsworthy event:  the murder of a young woman with a baseball bat, where the victim was struck from behind. The guest speaker proceeded to slam on the desk behind my head as he spoke of her being struck down. This triggered my startle reaction, causing me to cover my head defensively, give a piercing shriek, and exit the room. While inhibition of extreme emotion in normal circumstances is a general requirement, inhibition of emotion in this circumstance would have been, in my opinion, abnormal. No one should have responded with apathy to this gruesome event, albeit my response was more dramatic. Almost every individual in the room reacted, most more distant than I from the speaker. Others jumped out of their chairs, shouted in exclamation, surprise, and disturbance. Still, my response was singled out. This was unacceptable in a course where we were asked to accept the emotions of others and offer them dignity in their expression.

At the time, I tried to explain that the most recent trauma I’d experienced had been a two by four board raised to my head. Despite the fact that the circumstances should not have required this, noting the previously described noradrenergic mechanism, and the manner that the potential that repeat events can result in continued hypervigilance, my response should have been understood given the context. Instead, the professor had the gall to tell me that my human reaction meant that I (but not the other students) was not prepared for the field, while having no idea what aspect of psychology and cognitive neuroscience I was planning to pursue. In my belief, my reaction was singled out as unacceptable to the professor not because it was extreme; it was unacceptable because she knew that I had testing accommodations in order to provide a silent environment due to my PTSD. 

This was my first experience in academia having my right to pursue my passion questioned, and whether my ability was sufficient based on my experience. It was not the stability or rights of those who had assaulted me that were questioned, but mine. There was something deemed to be inherently wrong with me and my interactions with the world around me. Later, this would inform my decision, among other subtleties, about which area of memory I would pursue.  

After completing my master’s degree, a staff member I worked with during a research position I held at the same university (a woman I called a friend and had discussed some small amount of my history with personally) would suggest that nearly every woman experiences assault. Furthermore, she asked me if I had ever considered that I was weak compared to other women, in my inability to stop experiencing decontextualized memories, occasional bouts of fear, guilt, or insecurity. This taught me that even those who have experienced similar events can close themselves off to compassion, as I heard “chin up!” resounding from all she spoke, perhaps even the question of whether I was malingering, despite the fact that I was working, and not requesting any accommodations, unless I took an occasional sick day earned from my benefits package as guaranteed by the state. I am assuming she had never woken to flashbacks and hypervigilence, night terrors, did not have the persistent sensation of being assaulted, that she didn’t beg physicians and doctors for the latest medications, therapies, only to feel isolated with the symptoms so loud that she couldn’t believe life could ever be bearable again, and to try and leave it behind. 

Too often, the stigmas and the negative experiences are the ones that stand out and make an impression. They strongly influence our decisions. At times, I choose avoidance; often I choose not to admit that I still experience symptoms of PTSD. It is easier to call oneself “recovered”. I compare this to someone with leukemia who has gone into remission and needs to be checked every five years but has no signs of the cancer or relapses on a regular basis. But this is not the truth. 

Every day, there are residual pieces of my experiences that color my life. I would not even be a researcher, have interests in episodic memory, or still be on the path to my PhD without these. Rather, I would be a 7th grade Language Arts teacher. Although I would never face the difficulty of demons that my amygdala cannot forget, I would not have the opportunity to address the importance of open discussion of mental health, inclusion, and supportive environments. Academics are less likely to crack under pressure where there is support, and there is room to be human. As someone trained in the field of the brain, psychology, and its neural mechanisms, that means formally supporting our peers whom we already support theoretically in outward discussions with the public, or scientific papers on subsets of psychological, cognitive, and neurological complaints. The brain is fragile. One genetic difference changes everything. Even for those of us with normal or gifted brains, things can change in the face of an instant. Experiences beyond our control, that even the strongest might succumb to. There are so many brilliant people, as I learned long ago in an honor’s course, who face decisive struggles yet are capable of becoming and doing so much for the world, provided others do not experience discomfort over their presence, or authenticity. 

Reference List

Baik, J-H. (2020). Stress and the dopaminergic reward system, Exp Mol Med, 52(12):1879-1890. doi: 10.1038/s12276-020-00532-4.

Jen Kriegel

Jennifer (Jen) Kriegel is a Clinical Data Specialist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. She holds a Master’s in Science in Psychological Sciences from the University of Texas at Dallas, and a Bachelor’s in Psychology (magna cum laude) from the University of Arizona. As a survivor of multiple traumas with Complex PTSD, she supports greater diversity and inclusion in research and universities, mental health awareness, and pursuing the gift of our experiences. Goals include completion of her PhD and mentoring others in episodic memory research, including those who have overcome great odds to pursue their passion.