The silver lining

A young woman in science opens up about going through worsening mental health during her PhD and coming out of it stronger.
By | Published on Mar 8, 2021

Ed note: On the occasion of International Working Women’s Day 2021, TLoS peeks out of its off-season sabbatical to post this important perspective of a woman in Indian science.

Trigger warning: Descriptions of panic attacks, depression and anxiety

It has taken me several years to see the silver lining in the suffering I faced dealing with clinical depression and anxiety. I could not see how it could be good in any way, for example, when I had to excuse myself in the middle of an academic workshop and run to the bathroom with a panic attack, while struggling to breathe and almost passing out. 

As I write this now, I am looking for evidence to justify that it was a difficult period. I tell myself that I need to look for old prescriptions from my psychiatrist to confirm that those actually were three whole years of my PhD. I was on long courses of antidepressants and weekly therapy sessions to function. Ironically, the only smile associated with these episodes was on the small circular pill I carried everywhere, an SOS medication in the case cold shivers came on and my chest tightened.

The hopelessness I worked through to pursue a PhD-based career is not something I advertise often. While I have spoken about it openly, I have trimmed the edges and mopped the spills as I speak about it. I have arranged my anguish in neat paragraphs for the benefit of others. However, such a narrative does not really capture how messy this time was for me or how I walked around with a lump in my throat and a tremor in my hands for weeks and months. Or, how the emotional distress was actually physically painful, or how I often kept working in the lab whilst weeping uncontrollably. My retelling of the PhD time doesn’t ever include the time I had multiple panic attacks late one night and had to sleep on a friend’s hostel room floor, shivering, because I could not trust myself with what I might do. When my mental health was at its worst, I was incapable of getting on with things a young child could be expected to do—waking up, cleaning myself, eating and sleeping. It slowed my progress.

What were the reasons behind my failing mental health?

An important driver of my failing mental health was the environment I worked in. While there was no abuse or hostility from my advisor, there was also no encouragement, discussion, collaboration or interest in my work. I was left to fend for myself on most fronts and the engagement with my advisor was mostly administrative. I was given superficial, dismissive advice when I asked for guidance, which turned out to be detrimental. My poor mental health combined with this disdain for my work affected me greatly.

In this state, I applied for funding, collected data, wrote computer code, managed grant money, trained interns and finally wrote my PhD thesis. Along the way, I almost gave it all up multiple times because it was too painful.

It is a miracle that I graduated, although with much delay. Even as I made my way, trailing behind in this marathon, running sometimes, walking often, I saw how other students struggling with mental health issues dropped off and, eventually, disappeared. These people were extremely bright, hard-working and committed  scientific minds. What pains me the most was that they were forgotten by the community. No support system existed that could have helped them face their challenges. Academia did not care for their personal and painful struggles. It did not have the patience for them to recover and finish work that they were committed to and clearly skilled at. Their absence was perhaps conveniently explained away to committees as driven by personal issues that had nothing to do with science or its people. It is sadly said very often in our community that the (perception of) purity of science must not be tainted by human messiness.

The silver lining

After making it to the other side with the two bold brass letters engraved before my name, the holy guardians of the purity of science still trail and hound me. What do I really have to show for all those years? This question may be fair, and I am willing to stand up to the scrutiny. But, they also question my skills, my integrity and my commitment. They question my perseverance.

My perseverance.

Judgement is easily passed especially if someone goes unknown, and condescending tones declare, with half-veiled implication, that I am not good enough—the catch-phrase of academia. While this happens, I can actually see the line of basic human decency being crossed.

The silver lining from my experience of suffering from depression and anxiety is that I am closer to knowing myself better than ever before. Now, I know what is important to me and what is not. I chose to stay because I know that my work gave me a small spark of joy even when a big, thundering, black cloud hung above my head. I was able to recognise these small moments of affirmation and keep going because of the support from my therapist, psychiatrist, friends and family, who cheered me on from the sidelines. The silver lining is that I know my strengths like the skin on my hands, which helped me wade through dark murkiness in the past, and I believe will continue to do so. My silver lining is that I am aware of the disregard that academia can have towards people like me. I am prepared for the day I am denied opportunities for not being good enough when I know am. And honestly, I will be fine. I will take my skills, integrity, commitment and perseverance to a place where it holds value.

But to academia, I will just say one thing. All of the ones who left are your loss.

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