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.
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Nothing in the world can prepare a person to lose a loved one. Sure, mental health professionals can explain the stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance)1, but the path and duration of the journey is entirely individual – in my experience it’s like wading through a heavy substance. On good days you can move forwards slowly, one step at a time. Other days, it’s easier to stand still, or move backwards into the path you’ve already created. This can make it difficult to see a future, and it can feel like everything becomes more challenging. You can see then how this type of scenario could impact a person in their early academic career, which is already widely regarded as an extremely challenging time.
I sadly lost both my parents in my late teens which had a huge impact on my wellbeing and an even bigger impact on my career decisions. Now, it may have taken me a very long time to be in a place where I feel comfortable enough to talk about those experiences, but I now feel that it’s important for me to raise awareness in the hopes it may help people understand how to support individuals in similar circumstances.
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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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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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