I am a law teacher and postgraduate in law who has lived her life according to a plan. I can say with pride that I have been academically very competent throughout my life. I passed all exams with flying colours and therefore I assumed that I would easily land a job. However, the Covid pandemic and changes in my personal life made it hard for me to secure a job.
In this blog, I will discuss my journey through depression and anxiety and how these affected my professional life. I will also discuss how accepting the problem and seeking helped me find a way forward.
One day, I found myself sobbing incessantly in front of my counsellor. She had diagnosed me with mild anxiety and depression. She asked me several questions as she tried to understand my distress. After a few minutes of trying to decipher why I was so upset, she remarked, ‘You are grieving…’. Through my tears, I looked up at her in shock and confusion. ‘You are grieving the loss of the life you wanted and could never have’. Before that point, I had associated grief with the loss of a loved one. But the moment she uttered these words, I tried to process a new aspect of grief. Every question made me think about how I landed in this situation.
The Experience of Loss
I was always a studious kid. Eat. Study. Repeat. I had followed this routine diligently over the years; as a result, I was expected to pursue academia as a career option. My parents had high expectations of me and I also had a lot of hope for my future.
In 2018, while applying for Master’s courses at prestigious universities abroad, my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Two months later, she passed away. We were grief-stricken, to say the least. I experienced nights of gut-wrenching pain and spells of weeping. I was present when she passed away, and the pain of her death was immense. I linked that pain to my own loss of self. She was my biggest supporter and cheerleader. There was a part of me that left with her, and it was a part that only she knew existed.
I was admitted to a Master’s degree at a university closer to home as I did not have the heart to leave my father alone during this time. My postgraduate degree almost took double the time to complete as the pandemic hit. With universities being shut it was almost impossible to get my dissertation viva scheduled. After repetitive requests and constant reminders, I was able to schedule my viva. This was accompanied by increasing frustration since I was unable to find a job. With COVID cases rising and admissions paused at many universities, trying to take admission to a doctoral degree program became a Herculean task. Professionally and academically, I felt my life was moving at a snail’s pace. There were almost no jobs available which meant I was mostly sitting at home looking for work opportunities and feeling frustrated.
In the meantime, I was also struggling to cope with a set of new norms and a change of place due to marriage. I moved to a new city after my marriage, where job opportunities were limited. Also, my husband had a different set of priorities and adjusting to those took some amount of time.
Physical Manifestations of Stress and Anxiety
A year later, even in relatively calm situations, I started experiencing heaviness of breathing and hand shaking, and on some occasions, I would experience chest pain. This was my body’s way of communicating stress. These symptoms would subside after a few minutes. For quite a while, I tried to hide it from my family. On most days, I tried to dismiss my symptoms of anxiety and stress as I was hoping that the symptoms would disappear on their own. I did not want to come across as a weak person. After a few days, my husband noticed it and I tried to dismiss it as a minor concern.
During this period, I joined as an Assistant Professor in a regional college. This was wonderful as I thought I was a born teacher. I was excited to return to work and be back in the classroom after a long time. However, I realised fairly quickly that the work culture was quite toxic. We had little academic freedom. The male employees would make sexual remarks against the female employees and even the students. It was something so pervasive in the organisation that everyone turned a blind eye to it. I felt trapped and during this time my anxiety only got worse. There were days when my husband would dismiss these simply as outbursts, but there were times when he understood.
I had my moments of doubt too. Was I faking it to get attention? Was I overreacting to minor situations? Or I was not being strong enough? I was often told that people have far bigger problems than I did, and I needed to have more patience in life in general. To be honest, my problems were not huge, and many people do struggle a lot in life. Personally, however, I was struggling professionally to find a job suitable to my calibre. My family life was not entirely smooth. I blamed myself for not being professionally capable enough. I further blamed myself for marrying someone who did not understand my perfectionist attitude towards studying. I was also responsible for two homes: my paternal home and my marital home. After my mother’s passing, I thought that I had to be strong for my father, so I kept my feelings to myself. In retrospect, I was craving a home that I did not know even existed.
The panic attacks got all the more frequent. At this point, I started worrying constantly. What if I had a panic attack while I was driving? Or while I was teaching? I had extreme spells of crying in the middle of college. I would look for an empty classroom and cry my heart out, then wash my face and deliver a lecture. I felt my workplace was a gloomy place. Teachers were expected to perform administrative and marketing duties along with academic obligations. It was quite overwhelming for me as teachers were handed over with a variety of miscellaneous duties instead of being treated as professionals. There was little or no academic freedom. There were instances of differential treatment with respect to the management towards the faculty members. This translated into a stark difference in the workload handled by the employees.
My panic attacks reached a level where I would breathe vigorously for hours, and I also experienced shaking. For example, if I tried to stop my left arm from shaking my right arm would shake even more vigorously. This was happening not only when I was tense but when I was alone and relatively calm. Some nights were really hard. I would keep panicking until I finally fell asleep, and then I would shake while I was sleeping. I was scared that if anyone saw me, they would think I was insane or having fits.
I would give myself deadline after deadline to seek help. Month after month, I hoped my symptoms would disappear on their own. I had major apprehensions about therapy and medication. I had a misconception that if I started taking medicine, my body become dependent on the drugs and crave them. I felt I was losing control over my body. Seeking help isn’t a sign of courage, I thought. I also had apprehensions as to how my family members would react to the idea of medication and therapy. However, somewhere I did realise I had to seek help.
The Day I Decided I Needed Help
One day my chest felt so tight that I felt I was having a heart attack, and I realised that was it. I need to go visit a doctor sooner rather than later. I was very sceptical of the entire process. One part of my brain accepted my decision to ask for help; in fact, I liked the idea of having a safe place to discuss my feelings. On the other hand, I judged myself for not being competent enough to handle my feelings on my own.
Where Am I Today?
Luckily for me, I was able to find a psychologist and psychiatrist who work with me through counselling and have also prescribed medication to help improve my situation. I have been undergoing therapy and medication for over two months now. It has been a long process and a series of small revelations for me. Therapy has helped me uncover my strengths and learn new skills to cope with life’s changing circumstances.
My crying spells are under control. I am a lot more upbeat and in a cheerful mood. I have given up on feeling guilty. I have also tried to stop feeling professionally inadequate and comparing myself with my friends. I religiously attend my therapy sessions and my husband and I are also undergoing counselling together to improve our relationship.
I still plan to pursue my PhD in the coming years. In the past, I believe that I defined myself too much based on my academic goals. My academic achievements would define how successful I was in life. Currently, I have taken unpaid leave from my university and I am pursuing my hobbies and trying to explore newer dimensions of my personality. I am spending my time publishing research papers and upgrading my skills for a better job. I have also reported sexual harassment incidents to the management. However, I feel that the management isn’t proactive about finding solutions to these problems and prefer to ‘brush these incidents under the carpet’.
Based on my experience, I have learnt the following:
It is acceptable to ask for help: Looking back, I realise that I was quite unwell. I believe that if I had sought help earlier my symptoms would have been easier to handle.
Therapy is not like it is in the movies: Therapy is not a single process. Nor it is a feel-good session. Nor will you have one sudden realisation that will change your life. It is a slow, multi-dimensional process that will give you the tools to gradually change your life.
It can get harder before it gets better: At times, your therapist might take you into a dark space. These are areas of your life you had put away in a box, never to be opened again. It can be overwhelming. But as you face your fears and let them out in the open, it will slowly get easier. Every session is hugely different. There are no right or wrong feelings.
Consistency is key: As I already pointed out, that there is no eureka moment. To get to know the patterns of your mind and bring about a change, it is important to attend sessions regularly, complete any therapy “homework”, and put strategies into practice. I have been honest and consistent about acknowledging my thought patterns and made a deliberate effort to change my thought patterns. I make it a point to inculcate meditation and yoga in my schedule to calm my nerves.
Don’t feel guilty for seeking therapy: I felt very guilty before meeting my therapist, however, I realised I was being too hard on myself. My psychiatrist taught me to see the brain as an objective organ that needs to be treated the same way as any other part of the body. For example, if your stomach is giving you issues, you are likely to consult a gastroenterologist to help you deal with the problem. If you are having anxiety or any other mental health issue, you should consult a mental health professional for assistance.
Comparison takes you nowhere: Often we compare ourselves to people around us. Yet there will be some people who would have had it easier than ourselves and some who have had to deal with much more challenging issues. Everyone deals with problems differently and comparing ourselves and our unique situations is not very helpful. Instead, I have realised to make the best use of what I have. I have started to look internally and focus on being a better version of myself every single day.
This entire process has made me kinder, loving and patient towards my own self. I have weekly therapy sessions and I am able to manage my stress and anxiety better. I have identified my trigger points and am in the process to manage them with the help of my partner.
Gurnoor. LLB (H), LLM is a Lecturer at a regional college in Punjab, India. Her field of specialization is criminal law and her research work pertains to ‘Rights of Victims in India’. She is in a process of trying new things and discovering new facets of her personality. She can be found at @ firstname.lastname@example.org