This blog is part of a special issue, released for World Mental Health Day. At Voices of Academia (VOA) we strive to make sure your voice and experience is heard. Dealing with loss is complex and an additional strain on our mental health during the academic process. The blog was recorded as part of a conversation between our guest, Jemima Thompson and Marissa Edwards (one of the VoA team) earlier this year. This is the second part of the interview.
Part 4: Identity and the Value of Past Experience
M: And you said also that you felt anxiety and imposter syndrome. Do you think that’s a result of what you went through with your husband? Or do you think that’s more just the PhD environment?
J: I think it’s six of one, half dozen of the other. I think again you have that feeling of, “I really am the imposter. Everyone else’s imposter syndrome isn’t real but mine is” and it’s that weird cognitive dissonance, isn’t it? Like, “I know that it’s a syndrome and that’s more a perception, not a real thing so I’m not really an imposter but I definitely am.“
M: Yes, absolutely.
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As I leaned against the wall of my apartment, tears running down my face, one thought kept circling around and around in my head: “This shouldn’t be happening.”
Indeed, from all outside appearances, my life was pretty good. I had completed my PhD with no major difficulties, I had a supportive family and a wonderful circle of friends, I had no major health problems, I had a job that I loved and knew I was a strong candidate for a tenure-track position in the near future, and had no significant financial difficulties. I was incredibly privileged and still recognize how lucky I was. So why was I crying so hard, and why couldn’t I leave my apartment?
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Imagine only breathing through a straw. Now imagine only breathing through a straw while running up stadium stairs – that’s what it’s like to breathe with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), a progressive inflammatory disease of the airway that causes shortness of breath. My dad was diagnosed with COPD in 1998 when I was 4 years old and my brother had just been born. My dad’s parents often smoked in the car with the windows up, filling his childhood with secondhand smoke. He started smoking cigarettes when he was 15 and had tried to quit for decades before smoking his last cigarette in August 1996. In 2005, he got bad pneumonia for the first time, which lasted half the year and stopped him from ever being able to exercise again. I was just 11.
My path to graduate school and science began with my dad. We both loved reading, learning, and trying to understand the world. We often spent our time together coming up with grand theories of the world while watching the birds. Our shared love of learning fuels me to this day, even in the most intimidating moments of graduate school.
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At the end of 2018, my partner died unexpectedly. I had just applied for a PhD scholarship. I was 23 and a widow, two facts that seemed incompatible. My whole world changed. I was deeply grieving the loss of someone I loved dearly, who was also my biggest support and who had encouraged me to apply for my PhD in the first place. A few weeks later I received my PhD scholarship offer, which was equally exciting and terrifying. I knew grieving was going to be difficult. I knew doing a PhD was going to be difficult. How could I manage to do both?
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