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My Story of Depression in Grad School

There came a point for me, during my fourth year, when things just bottomed out. I wasn’t teaching or taking classes, since I had just become a candidate, which meant I had a year of fellowship to get going on my dissertation. I’d been struggling for a while with a generally manageable level of stress and anxiety and what (looking back) I now realize was depression. None of this seemed unusual though, because grad school is a stressful environment to begin with, and it’s so easy and common for anxiety to develop over 5-7 years of graduate school. When everyone around you is generally stressed and often dealing with anxiety to varying degrees, that starts to seem normal and you don’t think much of it. At this point, if I was noticeably out of sorts, I would talk about myself as being stressed, or in a funk, or full of melancholy or ennui, or just in a weird mood.

Fourth year began, and I no longer had the structure and the workload of coursework and teaching. All of a sudden, mountains of time to read and write and think rose up around me. It was the thinking that got me. Research and writing can be a social endeavor, but for most of us, it’s a solitary, sometimes lonely experience. It requires that we spend time alone with our thoughts—ideally, thoughts about our research. In my case, it gave me opportunities to delve unfettered into dark, brooding thoughts and feelings that seemed to be multiplying. It allowed me to get caught up in thoughts I couldn’t shake and to spiral deeper and deeper into those thoughts, without any way to stop my awful descent.

I want to preface this next bit by telling you that I am in a much better place now. I’ve taken steps to get the help and support that I need (which, for me, means counseling, medication, and regular exercise). But it took me a lot longer than it should have, and a lot of the reason for that was that I was embarrassed and ashamed about how I was feeling. I felt weak and pathetic for not being able to deal with my problems better. After all, my life is pretty good, in the grand scheme of things. I don’t regularly fear for my physical safety and I always know where my next meal is coming from. I don’t have to face the big problems of the world, and I’m aware of that. The thing is, that doesn’t mean that my problems weren’t real, even though I told myself that. And despite the ugly things I told myself, I wasn’t a failure or weak and I didn’t need to “just get over it.” I needed more than that.

Back to fourth year. This year still haunts me, because I truly lost a year of my life. I went through the motions, and as far as I can tell, no one really saw that my internal world was falling apart. I showed up to lectures enough that my presence wasn’t missed and I kept up a fun, peppy exterior on social media. I’m a generally extroverted, energetic person and I kept up that appearance. If I couldn’t be my fun-loving, social butterfly of a self, then I simply wouldn’t go out, and I worked desperately to keep anything that was going on inside of me from showing up on the outside. No one saw the mornings when I couldn’t get out of bed and would cry and sleep and try to will myself to get up and work, but simply couldn’t. No one saw the way that I couldn’t control my mind and so I controlled my body instead, exercising more than I ever had and eating less than I should have. No one was there to see me the day that Robin Williams died and I couldn’t stop thinking about suicide and despair and the sort of hopelessness he must have felt, as I gasped and cried in my living room. That day was an important day for me, not because my life was personally affected by Robin Williams in any meaningful way, but because I couldn’t break myself out of the spiral that I was in, and for three hours I cried tears of something between sadness and terror—sadness because thinking about someone else’s pain reminded me of the inescapable, uncontrollable feelings that seemed a permanent part of my life and terror because for the first time, I felt empathy and understanding instead of visceral revulsion when I thought about suicide. Not in a concrete way, but I realized that the reason was that I was firmly holding onto the hope of a light at the end of the tunnel. The prospect of feeling how I felt for the rest of my life was such a terrible, awful feeling that I understood why someone might kill themselves. And this scared me so much that I finally did something. I finally got on medication and I started looking for therapists. And I started telling some close friends about what I was wrestling with.

Once I came to terms with the fact that all was not well in my mind, I started sharing bits and pieces of what I was feeling with people. It was mostly because I felt like I had absolutely bottomed out and I felt like I had let people down, and I needed to explain myself. I knew I hadn’t been myself, and I wanted to apologize, even though I was dreading the inevitable judgment and pity that I thought I would receive when I owned up to the dreaded D-word. Depression. Like if I said it out loud, it would become real in a way that I could never undo. But no one responded the way I feared, partly because my friends are kind and compassionate people and partly because mental health issues are so shockingly common in graduate school, even if most of us suffer in silence. I started to write this because I wanted to tell my colleagues that they aren’t abnormal or alone if they’re struggling, and it’s ok. Sometimes life is more than you are equipped to handle on your own, and it will be extra difficult for you to realize that your mind is sabotaging you, because your mind has always been your greatest ally and helped you to accomplish your goals. It will be hard for you to stop brushing off how you feel as a “funk” or whatever other euphemism you prefer—because it will be scary and hard for you to think about calling it mental illness, because it will mean that your greatest attribute is somehow faulty or defective, and that will be just as scary to face as the realization that you can’t function how you are.

But the thing is that I always knew all that. None of it really made any difference.

The real reason I want to write about this in a public forum though is that this is not a story we talk about personally. We talk about “the crisis of mental health in the academy.” We talk about how to deal with mental health issues among our students. We talk about how we need to erode the stigma of mental health, but we talk about all of this in the abstract. We rarely sit down and tell our peers and colleagues that we’re hurting and we’re struggling and we’re scared. We’re scared that all of the good things our brains can do—the things that got us to graduate school at a top university—might come as a package deal with the heavy, pressing weight of despair or the resigned and detached numbness or the deep, empty pain. To say that we’re scared of “stigma” is to side-step the gravity of it all. Stigma is a tidy word to describe the complicated mess of different emotions that swirl around depression and other mental illnesses. The fear that (as evidenced by the anonymity of this post) an already-bleak job market will be much harder to navigate if people knew about your depression or anxiety. The confused and conflicted sense of being absolutely destroyed by your mental and emotional state and yet not feeling like that’s a good excuse for your failures. The deep anxiety that comes from realizing that you entered academia because you wanted to do what you loved, but something about academia is making you unhappy in a way you’ve never felt before. The terrible realization that you may be woefully ill-equipped to deal with the academic lifestyle if having time alone with your thoughts goes down a horrible, dark spiral more often than not. The concern that if you can’t handle 5–7 years of grad school, how will you have a career?

I know a blog post on the Rackham blog won’t change any of these big issues, but my hope is that anyone who is going through something similar will at least know that they are not alone and they are not abnormal. I’m in no position to offer real advice, and in my experience, everyone finds their own ways to cope, whether it’s therapy or gardening or medication or physical activity or baking or something entirely different. But know that you are in good and numerous company and it’s ok to take some time to take care of yourself, in whatever form that may take.

If you find you are having a similar experience or would like to talk to someone, here are some places on campus that can support you:

Additional websites with information and resources: