My Journey to Mental Illness R̵e̵c̵o̵v̵e̵r̵y̵ Maintenance by Zoë Ayres

TW: Suicide ideation

I was first diagnosed with clinical depression during my PhD program. I was experiencing near-daily suicidal ideation at the time and had realised that I needed help. For as long as I can remember I had compared myself with others and minimised my own experience, by looking at the struggles of those around me and thinking “What do I really have to complain about?”. I had steady income, a supportive husband, friends and family that would be there in an instant, if I were to simply ask. That’s the thing with depression: it can make us feel incredibly guilty for not feeling happy, despite clear positive things in our lives. Our internal self-deprecating voice can make us spiral further and further down into guilt. The disgust and anger I felt towards myself for not “appreciating” those that love us and “how good we have it” made me feel even worse, until I turned that hatred inwards. The thing is, we are not in control in these moments. We can’t simply ask our brains to be kinder to us through willpower, just like we cannot fix a broken leg through thought alone. It takes support, resources, and time to get better. 

The purpose of this blog is to talk a little bit more about my own mental health journey through the recovery process, including lessons I have learned along the way, the resources I have explored, and how I manage my mental illness on a daily basis as a successful scientist. I almost cannot believe I have written “successful scientist” down, but I am going to own it for once. 

My Mental Health Journey

I am not going to spend time in this blog focusing on what drove me to the deep depression I found myself in during my PhD. A lot of the reasons behind how I felt have led to my #AcademicMentalHealth advocacy work, and why I am committed to research culture revolution as a lot of my personal mental health struggles were made much worse by environmental factors and pressures present during PhD study. Instead, I want to focus on my journey towards “recovery”. 

There was a moment post-diagnosis when I made the decision to live. It was an epiphany of sorts for me, where I realised I wanted to stay. I would love to be able to give you advice on how to reach this moment, but I struggle with the words to describe my thought process and feelings at the time. Realising you are worth *something* is an incredibly personal journey. All I know is that I promised myself I would never get as low as did – and to date I have kept that promise to myself, and have no intention of ever breaking it. 

My 1st Lesson: Mental illness is not the ”suffering Olympics”. No-one wins by comparing one person’s struggle to another’s. If we are struggling, we are all worthy of help. It does not matter if someone else has a different story to yours. You matter.

After this point I decided to do whatever I could to be “well”. I sought medical help, and started taking antidepressants. I am very fond of “Fluxy” my fluoxetine, which initially helped and continues to help lift my mood. For a while I felt well again, and thought that I was “cured”. After medically coming back off the antidepressants, I quickly relapsed, and whilst I was not as bad as I was previously, I felt angry at myself for taking one step forward and two steps back. I thought a “well” person would be able to navigate life without medical help long-term. The real turning point for me came when I realised that I was never going to just be “well” again without assistance. It took a lot of time for me to overcome the stigma of taking medication to manage my depression, but I now realise I am a happier, healthier person because of it. 

My 2nd Lesson: Medication for life is more than okay. We wouldn’t stop someone getting diabetes or high blood pressure medication, so the same should apply for mental illness. If medicine helps you get through the day, that is okay. 

More recently, spurred on by the pandemic, I also decided to undergo therapy. Not because I felt I was in crisis, but because I wanted to learn more about myself, and talk through my thoughts and how I interact with the world with another human being. I was scared about the idea of going and sitting on a couch and laying my life bare. I was afraid of judgement and having my experiences downplayed, or worse, being told that I shouldn’t be struggling because I have supportive friends and family. In reality, none of this happened. I even ended up going to e-therapy using Zoom for therapy, so the only couch I went near was my own! I found that my therapist was kind and caring, did not dismiss my issues, and helped me work through my feelings and emotions. This allowed me to talk through my depression, as well as the pressures I experience being a woman in science, and often the only woman in the room, including how this fuels impostor feelings and makes me doubt myself even when there is clear evidence I am good at my job.  

My 3rd Lesson: Therapy isn’t like the movies. It is okay to go to just speak to someone who is impartial and can help you work through how you are feeling. It is more than reasonable to go to therapy for maintenance as well as during crisis (though I do acknowledge there are financial access barriers to help). In fact, if you can, I think it is a really healthy thing that more people should consider doing. 

More recently with suggestion from my therapist I have started to explore and understand that I may have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). When ADHD was suggested to me, my own internalised ableism and absorption of stereotypes: “I am not boisterous”;  “I wasn’t misbehaving all the time at school”; “I haven’t struggled to excel in my studies”. Over time I have come to realise that ADHD is much more complicated that the stereotypes allow. I started to notice that hyperactivity for me is often skin picking, or bouncing form one project to another. I also binge eat for the dopamine hit, which is common in ADHDers. Further, for so long my ADHD has existed side by side with a “perfectionist” trait (including having lists of lists) meaning that I hold myself to unreasonable standards, masking who I am to the world, and fighting against my very forgetful nature, which adds stress and anxiety into my life. 

My 4th Lesson: Autism and ADHD are vastly underdiagnosed in women and girls, and the behaviour we associate with these is often based on stereotypes, which can be a barrier to us receiving diagnosis. 

My journey towards diagnosis is still something I am exploring, and I am still unsure if a formal diagnosis is needed for myself, personally. By just accepting that I may have ADHD has made a world of difference to my anxiety, because when I am forgetful now, instead of deciding to micromanage my schedule to an inch of its life, instead, I let myself have some slack, and understand that the world won’t fall apart if I let go and just take my mask off for a while.  I realised that things will wait and people will forgive, so I might as well forgive myself too. 

My 5th Lesson: Masking takes such a lot of effort, and trying to fit in can actually mean adding more strain. I have started to work with my own style of working (intense periods of working, followed by struggling with motivation) and rather than punish myself around my productivity, focusing on the end goal, not the route I take to get there. 

Actively Staying Well

It takes a surprising amount of energy and time for me to stay well, and even now after navigating my illness(es) for just under a decade, I still slip up from time to time. I have accepted that I will never “recover” from my mental illness but I can learn to live with it, and even manage it well enough that I function well most of the time. I manage my mental health through medical help (thanks Fluxy), exercise, and connection with others (one of the reasons I love Twitter). 

One of the things my therapist picked up on is how much I wanted to “rid” myself of my mental illness, that I always talked about it in a negative light, and that it needed to be minimised and gone. My thinking on this has changed so much in recent months: I now choose to embrace my slightly kooky brain, because without it I wouldn’t have the creativity and passion for so many things around me, nor the strong empathy I feel for others. I love that about myself. I have learned that me and my brain have to work together: no longer fighting, but creating a beautiful, quirky symbiosis. 

Zoë Ayres

Zoë is both an analytical scientist and a mental health advocate, working on improving mental health awareness in academia. Her work is on both reducing the stigma around mental health as well as working with universities to improve support available. Zoë is the author of a series of mental health posters – find out more at Outside of work Zoë enjoys gardening, travelling and archery, and likes going for cocktails with friends. You can find her tweeting here.