Growing up, I moved around places because of my father’s job and I never found a sense of belonging with any one place. Losing connections with friends every time was painful and it has always been difficult for me to let go. Knowing that I would inevitably move again and knowing that I would have to let people go again, I kept on making more friends. However, it wasn’t until I experienced an unspeakable tragedy when I lost friends and someone special to a terrorist attack that my first experience with depression occurred. At the time I had no idea that I was even suffering from a mental illness. Things changed in that moment for me forever. According to my therapist, I have never been able to completely recover from that tragedy in 2008.
The reason I started with that paragraph instead of directly jumping into a discussion of academia is for everyone to know that academia did not triggermy mental illness; I had experienced it before following a tragedy. We are human beings, and we bring previous life experiences with us to our academic studies. However, there are certainly elements of academia that affected my mental health, including the narrative that sometimes we can only be academics and cannot have lives outside of our work. I hope that sharing my story here will help others to feel less alone.
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It’s 5am, the sky still shrouded by darkness. I feel the cool, crisp air and smell the damp earth beneath my feet. A few cars pass by underneath the overpass. A block ahead, glowing in perpetual wakefulness, the building where I work stands calmly. I always trust its light to guide me through the last stretch of an otherwise dimly lit walk. Still, I carry pepper spray in hand. It’s unwise to assume that every shadow is harmless at this hour.
I reach the building and put on a hand sewn mask that Ma had made for me. Ma and Ba live several states and two time zones away. It’s already past dawn there, and Ma must be preparing breakfast. I press the handicap door opener to avoid touching the door handle, walk into a spotless foyer littered with colorful ergonomic chairs. My shoes echo through the silent halls. Motion sensor lights pave the way to the elevators. I scan my badge to the fourth floor. Time to start another day working alone.
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In 2018 I decided to take a leap of faith. Unhappy in my job and recently out of a difficult five-year relationship, I had finally mustered up the courage to reach out to a leading sleep scientist whose work I had been following for a while. I dreamt (no pun intended!) of pursuing a PhD in his lab, though my unconventional background almost stopped me from trying. I had a Bachelor’s degree in marine biology and terrestrial ecology and had just spent 6 years working as a microbiologist, while cultivating a side hustle writing about science and health news. I knew I wanted to change course to physiology, and the necessary steps to get there, but I had crippling fear that no one would take me seriously, due to my lack of a prescribed path.
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