Content warning: Depression, pet death
I’m a solitary person by nature. I prefer to spend my time in my own company, watching a film or a TV show, or crocheting to keep my hands busy. I don’t mind being in my own head – in fact, for the most part, I prefer it. I wasn’t fazed by lockdown: being told to stay indoors didn’t substantially alter my daily routine, and I figured I wouldn’t have much trouble adjusting to the state of the world if I was already used to spending the majority of my time in my room. Back in April of 2020, I was chatting with a friend who asked me how I was coping with lockdown. At the time, I’d been unemployed since graduating from my MA five months previously; I was in the process of applying for jobs, but also considering undertaking a PhD. I said, and I remember it exactly, “My life literally has not changed at all, so I’m fine.”
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One afternoon in the summer of 2008: Boom! I found myself flat on the grass after being tackled by a friend during an outdoor student party. For a couple of days, I hadn’t been myself, and this day I was going sky high! I barged into conversations expecting everyone to listen to me, made many inappropriate jokes and jumped on stage to claim the mic from an unsuspecting artist. “What the hell are you doing?!”, my friend said to me. He helped me by (physically) getting me back on the ground.
The Long Road to a First Diagnosis
I have been dealing with having bipolar disorder ever since. I experienced quite the mental crash that year and spent a few weeks at my parents’ house resting, seeing my first psychologists and preparing for a return to university. After changing university course, I was a physics student and besides pushing myself through the degree, I was enjoying the social part of being a student. I was a member of a student association and this typically meant lots of fun activities. As I already had friends from all these activities, I skipped all the social introduction activities when starting physics. Because of this I became a student who did most of my studying alone. This carried on into my personal life too. I don’t share my feelings much and almost never ask for help.
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My body knew there was a problem before my brain. During my doctoral program, I began to suffer full-fledged panic attacks several times a day accompanied by sensory issues. Loud noises were piercing triggers, and a passing siren would leave me in a fetal position. I had never experienced anything like it, and I felt like I was spiraling out of control. There were other problems too. Opening a Word document to write or cracking the spine of a book sent waves of anxiety and panic through my body that came to rest in the back of my throat. I constantly replayed conversations with colleagues and faculty in my mind, highlighting my every fault. I needed hours before and after classes to work myself up and calm myself back down from these interactions. But the panic attacks were my primary concern: I couldn’t control them the way I could adjust my schedule to satisfy these mental rituals by which I got through the day.
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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.
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I am a third-year PhD researcher at the University of Edinburgh. Throughout school, university and postgraduate studies I have often been my own harshest critic when it comes to defining academic success.
Completing my PhD during a global pandemic made me step back and try be more realistic in my goal-setting, and more adaptable to managing change. I wrote this blog in the hope of reminding myself, and others, that productivity is fluid and highly impacted by factors outside of our control. A reminder for self-compassion and accepting that whilst social comparison is often inevitable, remember every destination has many routes.
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When you feel death getting closer, you inevitably reminisce about your life: your best experiences; your worst moments; the things you said you were going to do but, in the end, didn’t; the things you did not expect to happen, but did. And if you contemplate on these things a bit, you will likely come to the same conclusion I reach: our life is ruled by the values we hold, which help to determine our priorities and the choices we make. For example, going to that concert instead of studying for a math test, attending that family gathering or staying home, and even bigger things like moving abroad alone or staying in your country of origin with your romantic partner. Priorities dictate our experiences, and if you don’t have much time left, you will most likely think of those hours you wasted on allegedly important (but truly irrelevant) matters.
In this blog, I will discuss my experience as an undergraduate student suffering from anxiety and how the current educational system’s flaws affect many students’ mental health and self-worth. Additionally, I will stress the importance and impact of having – and being part of – a supportive, non-stigmatizing environment, as well as share my ongoing recovery journey and what has been helpful during it.
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TW: Descriptions of self-harm and scars
COVID-19 hitting the UK coincided with my contract ending in a job I loved in the Space Industry. Of course, this was not renewed and I found myself unemployed, and looking for work in the midst of a pandemic. I had worked in the Space Industry as a Thermal Spacecraft Engineer for the past six years, it’s a pretty niche job and there was not much demand for this skill in April 2020. After getting over the shock of my unemployment, and being reassured by my partner’s furlough, I decided to take some time to think about what I really wanted out of my next role. Looking back at the jobs I have had, I realised I loved the research side, the designing something new, and the ability to explore my academic curiosity. This is what convinced me it was time to make that a full-time role – so I applied for a PhD in Energy Storage and started at The University of Southampton in October 2020. It has been the best decision I ever made.
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TW: Suicidal ideation, eating disorder
In 2017 I started my Undergraduate course in BA Geography. Going into it, I had my own perceptions of what a ‘perfect’ student, researcher and scientist looked like. I thought to be successful you needed to have an empowered, independent, and busy personality. The ‘hustle’ movement of glamorising all-nighters and drinking as many energy drinks as you can to give you the anxiety buzz needed for staying awake. I thought my diary needed to be full of study days, extra sessions, and experience in the field. I struggled with all of these because as a recovering anorexic with bipolar disorder and a long history of perfectionism I found it hard to meet both the expectations I put on myself and the reality of university life.
It took a lot of courage for me to be able to talk to my supervisors, my tutors and my institution about the mental health issues I was facing, and it took an admission to the mental health crisis team to finally take that step of saying, “Hey—I am not okay and I need support.” For the remaining two years of my degree, I constantly battled between wanting to be the best I could be and do the best I could do, but also struggling with being a student with a mental illness. In my third year, March 2020, I hit a rock bottom with that struggle and it nearly ended my life. I was underweight, severely depressed and I had little energy to function without thinking about dissertations, research, and lectures.
Fast forward to present day: I am a Post Graduate Researcher in Law and Criminology working on research that I believe has changed my perceptions of not only academia but also life in recovery. My aim with this blog is to share some of my coping strategies I have learned along the way with you.
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Reflecting back, I think that overall I had an “easy” PhD, though it didn’t always feel that way! I completed it by the end of 2019, and the more time passes, and the more I separate my self-worth from my studies, the “easier” I think my PhD was. Except that it was not. A year before I submitted my thesis I was suffering. I thought that I would not finish, and that I was not good enough. Not only were my results bad, but I could not make sense of my data, let alone put a publication together. I used to cry a lot from what I thought were the weirdest causes. I used to compare myself to others, I used to think I was worthless. Except that I was not. And if you have the same feelings, join the club, you are not alone!
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Prologue – February 2020: Pre-pandemic in the UK
I’ve spent the morning traversing half the length of Britain. The chill of winter hides in every shady corner but is powerfully countered by direct sunlight, resulting in a day of constantly putting on, then taking off, then putting back on my coat. Maybe I’m just restless because I’m on my way to a PhD interview. At King’s Cross I take a smaller, more tightly packed, less ventilated tube along the Victoria line. In the five-minute walk between Victoria station and the location of my PhD interview I bump shoulders with more people than I’ll see in the next ten months of the year.
When I’m ushered into the interview room, I’m informed that the panel of ageing academics will not be shaking anyone’s hands today – just to be safe. I’d like to think that despite my many insecurities, I am capable of admitting when I’m wrong, so I won’t make out like I was some sort of Nostradamus. The amount of people I’ve been in contact with throughout my journey seems normal, not skin-crawling and so the lack of handshaking strikes me as more rude than cautious, I think it’s a little overkill for ‘just some flu in China’. The UK had yet to officially register any coronavirus related deaths, but there had been a few confirmed cases. Two of which had been international students at the University of York – where I’d spent the day interviewing for a different PhD funding scheme just a few days prior.
“Don’t get COVID!” my family joked to me the day before I left for York. And it was a joke.
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