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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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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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. The blog is in two parts, and there is a link to the second part at the end of this post.
From Jemima: Since this interview was recorded in April, I sadly lost my father to COVID-19 the following month. In light of this devastating turn of events I wish to dedicate this interview to him and his memory, and to all of those who have experienced the loss of a loved one during one of the most challenging times in living memory.
Part 1: The Start of the Journey
Jemima (J): I’ll start in the beginning and how I ended up in academia because I think that’s an important part of the story for me. So, I’m 32 now. I came to academia quite late. It wasn’t like I went from 18 went through the Bachelors, the Masters, and a lot of people have taken that route where they’ve just stayed in academia the whole time. I’ve been in and out and done all kinds of weird stuff.
The reason that I ended up where I am now is partly because of what happened previously in my life. My PhD is in medical education looking specifically at doctor-patient communications and patient-centred care. The thing that made me feel that this is so important and why I want to do this was that my husband had multiple sclerosis. He was diagnosed when he was about 24 and he died about five years ago. During that journey and all of those hospital appointments, I learnt about all of the multidisciplinary stuff that’s going on and the complex, complicated connections between healthcare professionals and the community and hospitals and even inpatients/outpatients.
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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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