Monday, May 27, 2013

Mental Illness and Grad School: You aren't alone

As I bind up these various articles, notes, and papers  into neatly-made subject-specific binders for my comprehensives, I am left to reflect on past  years and the struggles I have had.  Currently, I am not even half way done with my courses and the tower of binders is higher than our coffee table.  My roommate faced a similar situation in January while studying for her comps.

But it gets me thinking.  There's a LIFE in there.  There's my academic life- the good, the bad, the awful, the REALLY good.  There's a student just on the verge in there and an academic ready to publish in there.  Well, on that last part, I can dream, right?

In there, I manage to see that even during the worst times of my life, I've managed to take good notes and keep it relatively together.  There have been points when I honestly didn't feel like living was the best option in my life.  Most of those points were pre-grad school but my first year here was hellacious.  It was wrought with financial difficulty when the university made an accounting error and granted me no money for 3 months.  It was full of more financial difficulty and physical pain after an emergency surgery left me with a $3500.00 hospital bill in the middle of my second semester.

And yet, here I am.  I'm the strongest I've ever been.  It hasn't been an easy week, after all.  My roommate is dealing with tough shit, too.  Everyone is.

Recent talk of mental illness on twitter got me thinking about things.  Several people have been talking about this on my feed.  One commenter noted that she was dealing with problems that seem to be similar to issues that I have with OCD but didn't want to be "labeled" or have it reported back to her supervisor.  Grad students worry about such things.  Hell, I worry about this blog labeling me in some ways but I think the blog shows that there is far more to me than OCD or bipolar disorder.

Most people wouldn't see me and go "yep, she's got a mental illness".  A lot of people are surprised to find this out if they ever get to know me well enough.  I certainly don't TRY to hide it.  If someone is to ask me, I cop to it because I want to show people I'm NOT afraid.  And that's a personal prerogative   Not everyone has to be so open.  But I don't appear any different.  I do well in my program.  This year is a year that has been rough because I have been diagnosed with something new.  PTSD is now the new word.  Another diagnosis - oh, joy!

But my therapist said something to me that stuck.  How many people can you think of that you would label as being "OCD" or "bipolar"? "No one," I replied.  But then he asked me how many people I know have mood or anxiety disorders in academia.  I counted in my head for quite some time.  He then asked me how many people that I had known had had panic attacks.  I counted some more.  There were more people than I could count on fingers and toes.  And, while these disorders may be "labeled" something, I don't label the person that.  I doubt that anyone else does the labeling thing, too, despite a high prevalence of mental illness and anxiety disorders among academics.

It's not a surprise that many of us have such similar issues.  Grad school is incredibly stressful.  It can be down right impossible.  You work 80 hour days, you take your work home with you, and the only people you generally hang out with live with you, work with you, research with you, and share your interests.  It's a giant, stress-induced fishbowl of epic proportions.  We're talking The Hills for smart people sort of drama!

I work in an office with 14 of my colleagues - basically all in one big room.  We know WAY too much about one another and boy have I seen a lot of panic attacks.  I've talked people down and they've done the same for me.  So I know many people who suffer from similar illnesses.  But they are still just people I know, respect, and talk to on a daily basis.  They are friends and colleagues.  And no one judges them for it - or they really shouldn't.  That'd make them terrible people.  As long as you do your job and aren't a total ass, no one cares.

But that doesn't mean you should suffer.  And labels only matter if you let them.  I don't think of myself as bipolar, for example.  I, like many people in my family, suffer from the disorder but I am still probably the most functional diagnosed person in my family.  That's a source of pride in some ways.  I'm NOT the disorder I was so afraid to be labeled as.  I did not want to suffer the way I have seen other family members suffer.  I did not want it to be this ugly mark on my record.

But, you know what?  It's not.  As long as I don't let it.  It's not easy to do that.  It's easy to get sucked in and scared.  I'm not saying that it hasn't taken a long time.  It's taken three years of intensive therapy, maintenance, and drugs to get me to this point but that success is on me.  A lot of other people do the same and you'd never know.

And really, everybody's got SOMETHING.  If it's not mental illness, it's a death in the family or something major.  One of my colleagues lost his father last year.  His father was dying while he was taking comps.  I have had friends that have suffered from really bad illnesses themselves while dealing with the stress of grad school.  Some people have families or start families.  Everybody's got something that makes things hard.

So, don't feel alone.  Just feel like you have the right to be stressed and you have the right to talk to others about this stress - especially medical professionals that CAN help.  And feel that no one has the right to define you with a stupid label, sure.  But get that help and hold your head high.  The only other choice is to throw your hands up and give up.  Fuck that.  You're a grad student.  You came this far partially because you ARE crazy for wanting to do this to yourself and partially because you are insanely motivated and WANT this.  Don't let anything take that from you.  You are a million, billion times stronger than that.


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