Ode to the Things I Am Not

For the less observant among you, I’m just going to point out: it’s been a long ol’ time since my last post.

Since that last post I have been back and forth between the idea of “Coming Out” and “Carrying On Regardless”. I think Coming Out is on for a winner because hey, look, I’m sitting at my desk and writing, which is something I have not been capable of doing for a while.

Often people talk about the trigger for their depression, but I really didn’t have one. It was probably a slow starter, prompted forward my on-going struggles with anxiety.

Every Instagram selfie was a person I couldn’t be, every article on Twitter something I could never write, every Facebook post an experience I could never have. If that sounds pathetic, imagine how it feels. I attended a workshop on academic writing and had to leave a few minutes in because the guy kept talking to the audience as though we were capable. I know (or my anxiety knows) that I am far from capable.

My anxiety got to the point where just opening a Word document would send me into a panic attack (yes, a few awkward moments at work), or the idea of trying a new experiment would make breathing difficult. I would be afraid to leave the house and developed a near phobia of my workplace. I would wake up in the night sobbing uncontrollably at the thought of having to try and get something, anything achieved during the next work day.

But then I stopped caring. I stopped trying to go to work, I stopped trying to go outside and I stopped trying to do the things which I knew would make me feel better. My anxiety had made a friend in the form of depression. Hey, buddy.

I went home to visit family and thought very seriously about staying in my home country. It was even recommended to me by a health professional. But part of me knew that running away from my problems wouldn’t make solving them any easier. It would probably making returning to work even more difficult.

For a long time I was in denial. I wasn’t depressed, I was just lazy. I wasn’t anxious, I was just vain and self-conscious. I had three different health professionals give me the diagnosis, yet I was still convinced that it was my fault for being a lazy attention seeker. This is what anxiety does. It makes you doubt yourself, and it can make you hate yourself.

It was only once I started to get better, and read some of my journal entries back to myself that I realised how real my depression is. It’s hard to write that in present tense because sometimes I go through these waves of improvement where I can really feel like myself again. But it’s still there. I still have a Mental Illness.

It means a lot that I was able to sit and write something tonight. Thanks for reading and please take care of yourselves and your friends.

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Sometimes Marc Maron Says Things

“How long does this exorcism take?(…) You’re always gonna come up against yourself eventually, and you’re always gonna come back to the same place. You think you’ve gone through some changes, you think you’ve made some progress, and you probably have. But then that old feeling comes back. Oh fuck, what, this is IT? (…)Yes, this IS it. But it was no different than when you were feeling good a day or two ago, when you felt great about that thing you did.(…)I just don’t know why those things don’t get cataloged properly. Once you start cataloging the good things, or the progress you’re making, you shouldn’t have to regress back to the shit zone!…I don’t want to be the guy who spins the same plates all day and repeats the same cycles. Something’s gotta give. I mean, I gotta cure cancer or something. (…)Though I guess that’s a pretty high expectation of myself. I mean I don’t even have a Bunsen burner.”

-Marc Maron (who sometimes says things)

(This whole episode was wonderful, and it made me openly sob on public transport. But then that’s not unusual.)

(I love Allie Brosh)

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A Cop Out

So I’ve been going through a bit of a valley of shit and was waiting to get out of the other side, so that I could write a post that goes something like this:

“Hey kids, sometimes life gets you down. But ya know what? *insert major realisation here*. In conclusion: it’s going to be OK.”

But I wasn’t getting out of the valley, and I still haven’t. I’m now getting to the stage where I have started to notice OTHER PEOPLE getting sick of my negativity. Instead of responding to this by readjusting my perspectives accordingly, it’s all turned into a kind of positive feedback loop, wherein I’m just left internally yelling, “I KNOW, RIGHT?! HOW ANNOYING IS PESSIMISM! GOD!”

When I take a step outside of my own brain (sorry Nikola), I can see how people would get confused and frustrated by my constant gloom. A lot of really (potentially) exciting stuff has been happening recently. Intrigued?

Reasons for me to not feel shitty:

-I got to talk to lots of *famous researchers at the Keystone Conference about my project AND THEY GAVE A SHIT (*in my field)

-I’ve had the offer to go and do some of my project work overseas.

-Because of this blog, I’ve got involved in a super exciting science careers/ gender equality project.

-I may have found myself a beautiful mentor in doing so.

-The inaugural EMBL PhD Australia Symposium, which I was on the committee for, went so so so so fabulously last week.

-I’ve finally got my teeth stuck into the Scientists in Schools project.

-I was invited (INVITED) to give a talk to a group of school girls about careers in biology.

…and yet. I’m not excited. I’m pretty sure that this is all about to come caving in, the minute someone realises that (I’m not actually supposed to be here). Despite all of the above, and the number of friends, family and co-workers spurring me on, my anxiety remains (see Fig.1). I’ve come to see that it doesn’t matter what’s going on externally, I’ll always find a reason to question my own validity, and that’s the way it’s always been.

self belief

Figure 1. Theories for self acceptance strategy A.Ideal scenario i.e. a falsity. B.Actual scenario.

When I realised this, I decided to make another list. A much more depressing one than the one above.

Reasons I have previously found to question my own validity as an actual human, capable of achieving things:

-Not having a boyfriend

-Not having enough friends

-Not getting along with absolutely everyone I have come into contact with

(warming up now)

-Being overweight

-Not being pretty enough

-Not wanting to play violin anymore

-Not liking sports

-Not partying “hard enough”

-Not being a mermaid

OK, so that last one hasn’t bothered me in a while, but it used to. I was thinking hard for a while about what it is that’s bothering me so much right now, so I could stick that one on the list too. Then I realised there were lots of reasons, and that made me sad and it probably didn’t matter anyway.

Putting that list together was a bit emotionally overwhelming for me. I saw how ridiculous it all looks now and consequently how ridiculous “Not getting a western blot to work” will most likely look in 5 years’ time.

You’d think now is when I’d start to write about how I’ve learned my lesson, and I’m moving forward and not sweating the small stuff etc. But if you were paying attention at the beginning then you’d know that’s not how it’s going to go, OK?

I’m still frickin’ crabby. I’m still worried. Writing experiment plans and literature reviews still makes me nervous. I’m still pretty sure things aren’t going to go my way. So here’s my shoddy excuse of a conclusion:

Creating things makes me feel better, and I just created this blog post.

shutup1

The Unavoidable Vulnerability of Research

I had a bit of a dud week this week. I was planning on doing some flow cytometry; but I didn’t get around to booking it until Monday and, surprise surprise, the machine had been booked out. So I switched tact and decided to finally run some plate assays I had been avoiding. Unfortunately, I seeded my cells too low and they never quite got over the hump. By the time I realised the cells couldn’t be used, it was Wednesday morning, I didn’t have any backup cells and I wasn’t going to have any lab time on Thursday.

It was going to be an experiment-less week.

I got over this annoyance fairly rapidly (go me!), as I realised it had been a while since I sat down and did some reading. Last time I presented my work, I got some pretty interesting questions about the project background, which I had never actually considered. In short, it was about time I got in some reading. At this point, I had already envisaged my blog post for the week. It was going to be called, “In Favour of a Week Off,” and it was going to be all about how fabulous it was to get lost in reading material. HA.

There are an infinite number of questions people could ask me about my work. I still don’t know what my results mean. In order to increase the chances of me knowing the answers to questions and being about to properly interpret my data, it’s in my best interests to read as much as I can get my hands on. Somewhat inevitably however, I would reach a point in a publication where I struggled to understand. I would have to spend a long time making notes and scribbling out concepts, then when I looked at the time I would panic as I realised what a huge, time consuming and exhausting experience this was all destined to be. I began to replace note making and scribbling with procrastination, and my reading slowed even more.

In one of my efforts to procrastinate in at least a somewhat productive way, I found myself listening to a TED podcast. I heard from another researcher; a vulnerability researcher named Brene Brown. Brene described the phenomena of shame and vulnerability, wherein shame is something which we will all experience, and it can be described more accurately as the fear of disconnection, or the fear that we’ll get spotted for “not being (blank) enough”. I realised that what I had been struggling with was shame. I was scared that I would get spotted for not being smart enough, and therefore not truly belonging in the scientist community.

I was scared that, unless I read and understood everything in my field before I talked about my project in public again, I could be shamed for not knowing enough. No wonder reading was such a stifling experience. I was unintentionally telling myself that, unless I knew everything, there was no point even trying. But, in reality, of course we can never know everything about our field. Whenever we walk up to the podium or stand in front of our poster, we are exposing ourselves to the vulnerability that one of our peers will point out something we hadn’t thought about or realised before. It’s a vulnerability that we just need to get used to, because it’s all part and package of what we do…or, as one of my new favorite researchers would put it, 

“If you’re gonna go into the arena, you’re gonna get your butt kicked.
…as scary and dangerous as that sounds, it’s not as scary and dangerous as spending your life on the outside looking in.”

Instead of fixating on what I don’t understand, or all the mountains of papers that I haven’t read yet, I just need to get on with it, and (more importantly) give myself credit where it’s due, instead of getting stuck in cycles of self-abuse.

 

Learning Make Me Stupid

After my last post, a had a few friends check in with me, worried that I was struggling a bit under the pressures of PhD life (thanks guys!).

One of these friends is a PhD student himself, and so I was a bit confused by his line of inquiry in particular. I mean, aren’t we all struggling under the pressures of PhD life? Don’t we all consider quitting at some point? Isn’t that just…normal?!

Apparently not. “Of course I don’t think about giving up,” my stunned friend reassured me, “I just love learning!”. (What a dick, right?)

To quote Carry Bradshaw; This got me to thinking…

I don’t love learning. I love KNOWING what the hell I’m doing. Maybe that’s why this whole process is particularly difficult for me. When your full time job is studying, you don’t spend much time in your comfort zone.

I, personally (not sure about you guys) don’t  spend much time patting myself on the back once I have the hang of something, because quite often that one thing I suddenly understand or am capable of is just a brick in the wall of PhD-dom. Maybe not even a whole sodding brick. So, really, I spend all my time trying to do things, and not much time wallowing in the awesomeness of the fact that sometimes (sometimes.) I succeed.

Also, because of my anxious nature, that whole time that I’m trying to do or understand something, it’s very hard for me to believe that I will ever even get there. Despite the number of times I have got over molehills before, who’s to tell me that this particular one is actually a mountain and I’ll NEVER get over it? What if I forget my hiking equipment? What if I brought too much to carry? What if my legs will fall off?! And so on.

It’s thoroughly unpleasant, the whole learning experience, really.

I know that the only way to make things easier for myself is to accept that learning takes time. Sometimes all this shit does drive me to consider giving up on my PhD. But I think I’ve got to the point now where I realise that these fears and anxieties aren’t restricted to academia. If I want to be a happy, healthy human IN GENERAL, I need to learn to BE NICE TO MYSELF.

And also to stop worrying about my legs falling off.

The Decision That Wasn’t

Several weeks ago, I made a decision. 

I mean, I was pretty sure I had made a decision anyway; I just had to keep waiting for the right time to write a blog about it because then I’d know that I’d really made a decision. 

I’m not very good at making decisions.

After some long discussions with my supervisor about the realities of a career in research, as well my long standing aspirations of working in science communication/ public engagement, I semi-made a decision. Namely; I was not going to stay in research once I had completed my PhD, but instead move onto those aforementioned aspirations.

At first this felt pretty liberating. I didn’t have to worry about negative hypotheses, or “bad” data. I didn’t have to worry about whether experimental failures were indicative of a doomed research career. Get in, get a thesis, get out. 

Of course, feelings of liberation and generic positivity do not tend to stick to me for long. I soon realised that, instead of ridding myself of anxieties by moving away from academia, this action would probably just shift  all my worrying to another area of my life.

Namely; what if I’m walking out on academia too early? What if there is actually potential for me to succeed there? What if I spend the rest of my life feeling bad for giving up on something before I had really given it my best? In short, the thought of walking away from research made me feel really guilty. 

There are plenty of academics who walk away from academia. Contrary to what some “successful” academics i.e. ones who are still around for the time being, would have us think, this is not due to them being bad at science or not working hard enough. It’s a matter of mathematics. There are $x available for research, and >x researchers and projects competing for this (dwindling) pile of money. Just short of  0.5% of PhD students will make it to the level of Professor-dom. If I could make a living doing science for the rest of my life, without having to repeatedly prove that I was doing it significantly better than 80% of the rest of those poor bastards out there, then I might be a bit more willing to give it a shot.

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Less than 0.5% of PhD grads will make it to the level of Professor-dom (from the Royal Society report, “The Scientific Century: securing our future prosperity”)

I always tell myself that, if the worst comes to the worst and I have to walk away from my PhD, I’m not completely unemployable (I mean, I’ve had jobs before at least) so things will be OK. “OK” in this context mostly meaning: not homeless. However, I’ve been in the academia game for nearly two years now, with a 9 month stint as a bioinformatics research assistant  and 15 months of PhD-ing under my belt, and my self worth has already become intrinsically linked to the quality of my work. The idea of simply saying to myself, “Whelp, I tried, I failed, onto the next challenge!”, tends to invoke a paralysing feeling of worthlessness. 

I guess what I’m wondering is: what is it about academia that makes academics so crazy: why do we attach our self worth to our academic productivity?

Discussions regarding mental health in the context of academia have recently been brought to the forefront of academic discussions within the twittersphere, thanks in part to the publication of this somewhat terrifying Guardian article. Scrolling through the comments, I noticed one along the lines of, “You’re all delusional, academics aren’t the only ones suffering, we’re all having a tough time out here!”. Is it really the academic environment which fosters these feelings of personal inadequacy, or is it just all in the nature of being human?

It makes me think: what about all those aforementioned poor bastards who had to walk away from research before they were even ready? They had to walk away after they had poured their heart and soul into grant applications, experiments, teaching, committee meetings ON TOP OF their PhD in itself.

Guys, how are YOU going right now? Does it really get better out there? 

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Evidence: I really do love Biology! Just maybe not enough to surrender my sanity.