Mental Health: Silence When Things are Bad

When Things are Bad, I Stay Silent

I spent several hours this week writing a post giving insight into my mental health issues, only to decide that I couldn’t post it for fear of “sounding crazy”.  And the truth is, that’s what this post is about.

When I have a great day (I had a rare one last week), I had no worries about posting it to social media.

I got a few likes (plus some on Facebook), and no one questioned the first half of the sentence.  Good thing, too, because more days than not are rough.  This week was one that was extremely rough, so much so that the fact that I was able to function through it was a miracle.  (Info on functional vs non-functioning: 1 2 3 )  And it wasn’t extremely rough because of anything stressful going on in my life.  In fact, things are going rather well.  It was just a random flare up of my mental health issues, which occurs far more often than I’d like.

As a reminder to new readers, I’ve just finished my 3rd year as a PhD student in Cancer Biology.  I’m also a queer transperson with, apparently, plenty to talk about.  In my view, I’ve been incredibly successful given my past, but that didn’t make life easy when my mind was working against me all this week.

Isn’t depression temporary?

Without going into as much detail as I had planned, I want to mention that this is NOT a post about feeling sad or depressed sometimes.  While this can be serious and has its own struggles, it isn’t the kind of mental health issue I’m talking about.  I’m talking about my experience, where most days mean dealing with depression, anxiety, gender dysphoria and/or some other issue.  And when I say most days, I mean even on days when things are great!

It’s a mental struggle practically every day.  I push myself harder than I have to, perhaps harder than I should, to succeed.  Nothing’s ever enough, but I choose to keep pushing.  I don’t expect to ever get better, but I try to persevere despite my issues.  You never know whether today will be good, bad, very bad, or a disaster.  And there are far fewer of the former and far more of the latter 3.

I also want to note that these are issues that have grown, with my first diagnosis when I was 8 years old.  This has nothing to do with being in graduate school or any other part of my current situation.  The truth is that I LOVE what I do.  I love the research, I am privileged to live a good life making a decent amount of money, and I’m in generally good health.  I’ve positioned myself in a lab with a supportive PI, with labmates who are nice and helpful, in a program that cares about me, and at a university where I can even get insurance that covers being trans*.

 

How do you live like this?

What I want this post to be about is not my mental health issues themselves.  It’s about how I live with mental health issues.  So let’s start with how I know when I’m going to have a really bad (aka barely functional) week.  Here’s a short list of a few things I use as “signs”:

  • Reclusiveness.  The feeling that if I see another person, I might explode, and if someone talks to me, I have no idea if I’ll be able to respond.
  • Escapism. I’m a master of escaping from these kinds of thoughts, but sometimes it goes too far.  It’s hard to give exact examples of this, but I know it when I see it.  Usually it’s focusing either too much on a problem that isn’t important or focusing a lot of attention on something important, but in a way that isn’t productive.
  • Daydreaming.  Those moments where I thought I was working, but the next moment I’m pulling myself from some kind of daydream, often that I don’t remember.  Sometimes, several minutes or more have passed.
  • Lack of motivation.  Sometimes I really want to do something, but no matter how much I want to, I just can’t.  Sometimes I try to force myself anyway, and that usually ends badly.
  • There are others that I won’t go into, but the main point here is that I see a definite change in both external mood (how I act around others), productivity, and motivation.

I try to look out for these things.  Sometimes it helps, sometimes not.  Everyone might have different signs that today (or this week) is going to be exceptionally difficult, but this is it for me.  What do I do when I notice these signs?

  • Limit obligations. There’s sadly not much to be done except minimize damages.  The earlier I notice the signs, the better I can plan around the issues.  I’m privileged to be in an environment where this is possible!
  • Work from home. Again, a privilege of my situation.  I chose the school, lab, and project specifically with this in mind.  When things get tough, sometimes I can work from home.  I try to do this, and it usually shortens the span of these horrible times from a week or more to days.
  • Limit interactions with others. This may seem counterintuitive to some, but people other than my chosen family stress me out.  By limiting engagement, I’m able to be in more control of stressors, which is comforting.
  • Setting short term goals. Importantly for me, I still want to get work done.  So I make tiny goals that accumulate over the next week or so.  These things are easy to accomplish and add up to larger goals.  Together, they add up to one large goal that I would usually set, except I can have little successes when I need them most.

Why don’t you talk about it?

It’s rare for me to ever bring up these issues, and haven’t talked about them at all until the past month or two.  I’ve recently tried to start because I think it’s important.  But why don’t I talk about it?

We’ve built a culture where we don’t talk about it, where we feel we can’t talk about it. There are articles talking about why this is, so I’m not going to go into it on a larger scale than my own experiences.  But I’ve decided to talk about it more so that I’m not always holding it in.

The biggest reason that I don’t talk about it is that I’m worried that others will see me as a negative person.  This may be hard to believe, but I’m actually quite the optimist about most things.  It’s a strange balance, I admit, but true.  I have been taught that no one wants to follow a complainer, no one wants to hear when things are bad, and no one cares when I am struggling.  So it appears to the world that things are fine most of the time.  That’s the point.

But I believe that holding it in is dangerous.

We all have our limitations.  I’m cautious about getting mine out in the open.  I did not feel comfortable being specific about my mental health issues in this post.  I kept thinking, “If in the future, I apply for a job and they see this post, will they think I’m crazy and not hire me?”  It’s easy to think that isn’t the case, but then again, you haven’t seen the thoughts I recorded.  And it’s just something that most people don’t have to worry about, along with whether their employer is open to differing sexualities or whether I need to hide that I’m transgender before I’m hired or the host of other things that make me and my situation “different”.

What does this have to do with anything?

Why does this matter for my future as a scientist? I’ve had people tell me that “science is different”, that it is the one place where you can be yourself, and as long as you do good science, you can succeed.  I’m not doubting that it’s better than other career tracks, but it still exists in a world that is used to people being a certain way.  We are a society that hires people who are “like us” and often worries that people who are different will disappoint or struggle.  The world of science is still political, whether we like it or not.

As a PI, I would need to mentor others, be available often, and do all the things I’ve listed before.  As I proved to myself this week, I can push through hard weeks, even those where I lose some ability to function normally.  But should I?  There is no network that I know of for me as a PI to work on or deal with my ongoing issues while writing grants, mentoring students, and being on committees.  I don’t believe that this traditional track has the resources available.  Maybe there are at your university?  Tell me about it in the comments.  Maybe there are at my university, but what about at the department level?  And how do I approach that with my lab?

Despite my love for science, and my wish to contribute to our growing body of knowledge, I feel limited in what I can do and how far I can go by who I am.  I’m not unique.  There are many people who struggle with these kinds of issues, and I applaud those of you who have made it work in academia.  I’m still trying to find the right path for me.

 

How do we change our community to allow those with mental health issues to flourish?

Well, this is where I need your input.  What are your thoughts on the current status of accepting those with mental health issues, especially those more like depression and anxiety?  What can we do to welcome them into scientific careers?  Are there science related jobs that work well for those like me?  What resources are or should be available to help us flourish?  Is there a way to be flexible with all the demands that investigators have to deal with?