Sometimes I’m pretty torn about doing my PhD. It’s very high pressure, and you need to be constantly motivated. You’re essentially trying to justify yourself as being deserving of the highest educational attainment in the modern world. You’re very likely going to be have to teach and do a lot of public speaking along the way. You can probably appreciate that this isn’t really an ideal situation for someone struggling with depression and anxiety.
But on the other hand, doing my PhD allows me a level of control over my work that can satisfy my obsessive tendencies. I can choose to not show up to work if I want to, and I can take time off and write in bed if I’m just not feeling it on any given day. Moreover, I’m very lucky to have the opportunity to dedicate my time and effort to a topic that I love – and I get paid to do it.
It’s an interesting balancing act.
Some background about me: I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety as long as I can remember. Although I really hate putting it this way, it kind of comes with the territory when you’re gay. Having said that, depression runs in my family, and I can’t really pinpoint one particular experience from my childhood or adolescence that ‘started’ it. It’s been there for a long time, and I suspect it’s going to be one of those lifelong things that just stick.
I was bullied a lot as a kid. When I was very young, it was because of my crooked teeth and the fact I was (and still am) useless at sport, but once kids started realising that there were differences between how boys and girls were meant to behave, it quickly became my femininity.
High school was much worse – the sadness and anger I felt about my bullying very quickly turned around and became a visceral self-hatred that followed me everywhere I went and affected everything I did. But it was frankly impressive how I managed to balance this self-hatred with a hostile attitude to my peers that reeked of narcissism and classism.
I surrounded myself with the kind of people who actively nurtured and encouraged my self-destructive tendencies so that they would not have to be left alone with their own mediocrity. This was disastrous for my academics, but I didn’t care. To put it bluntly, I didn’t plan on surviving to the end of year 12.
As the end of school drew closer, I realised that I would never have to see any of these people ever again. This is when I started to worry about my chances of getting into university. I had taken psychology in senior school and I had started reading The Bell Jar. I was clearly very deep, and very clever. I wanted to become a psychologist so that I could fix myself, and then every other sad gay kid out there.
My pitiful TER (the South Australian ATAR equivalent) meant that without the handicap points I got from learning a language and being in a feeder school for low-SES students, I would never have been able to get into my chosen course – a double degree of psychological science and social science. While that sounds sort of impressive, it is more or less just a bastardisation of social work and psychology without enough focus to qualify in either field.
When I realised both this, and the fact that I couldn’t ‘fix’ my own mental health problems with a textbook and a high distinction in Psych 1A, I relapsed. The best that I could hope for out of this degree was a job as a counsellor or a low-level caseworker, and the thought of having to talk to strangers every day and be heavily relied upon to remedy complex problems filled me with a deep, existential anxiety. This followed me through my ‘middle years’ and caused me to incur a few fails on my transcript.
During my degree I had been intrigued by sociology and politics, and this time around, I didn’t have that no-light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel sense of doom that had affected me through my adolescence. Though there were times where I felt tempted to give up, I persevered. There were always new paths to choose.
I had also met a boy.
Thus began my meteoric rise to the top. Not really, but life did get a lot better from here. I realised that my passion for social justice and for queer liberation could be channeled into more than being a counsellor, or a psychologist, or anybody that has to deal directly with vulnerable people. Though I resented it, I acknowledged that my social anxiety meant that I would have to pursue something with significantly less social pressure. This is an important point, and I’ll come back to it later.
I ended up getting involved in student politics, and I became a thorn in the side of the University of South Australia, advocating for better facilities and services for LGBTIQ students. It was the view of the student union that the University was attempting to replicate all of our services in order to justify redirecting our funding, ultimately aiming to shut us down entirely. So, this was an uphill fight.
It’s a fight I couldn’t win, as I was about to graduate and couldn’t stick around long enough to see my vision of a more inclusive and nurturing campus come about. I hope that future students can pick up where I left off.
I decided to take the enormous step of moving interstate. I enjoyed sociology, and I decided that I would move to Newcastle to live with my boyfriend, and to undertake honours in social science. Two birds, one stone. I had been encouraged by a few academics at UniSA to pursue queer liberation and sex education, which were two topics I had impressed them with in my final year.
Skip forward two years.
I had somehow managed to complete my honours year with a mark of 89%, allowing me to easily attract an offer for a PhD in sociology and anthropology. However, my middling undergraduate GPA, which was impacted by those pesky fails, meant that I was not offered a scholarship. I came to another fork in the road. I had to compromise: I enrolled part-time in my PhD while living on the dole. Yep, fun times.
During the first few months of my PhD, I felt another relapse coming on. I felt like I was working too hard for no guarantee of success whatsoever. I had also suffered poor treatment by the job providers I was forced to see. One particularly useless employee at MAX Empoyment tried to enrol me in a work for the dole position in a factory in Muswellbrook so that he could quickly get me off the books. This was despite my having neither a car nor the ability or interest required for manual labour.
This was the last time I can remember seriously contemplating harming myself.
I showed up to an assessment interview at Centrelink for special consideration very near tears. I hadn’t slept in days. It was a humiliating experience. For that hour, I felt the butt of every joke about dole bludgers, welfare leeches and crazy people. The interview ultimately went fine. I stepped out of the building with a plan.
I saw my GP and made the decision to go back on psychiatric medication. I had been on medication previously, but I had stopped in my last year at UniSA because I was convinced that I was ‘cured’. My GP wrote me a prescription for Cymbalta and gave me a referral to see a psychologist.
My moods gradually stabilised, and with the support of my boyfriend, my friends, my supervisors, my therapist and my GP, I was able to start getting some solid work
done. By the end of my first part-time year of my PhD, I had managed to publish a journal article, have a second article accepted, and give a well-received presentation at the peak Australian sociology conference.
I couldn’t help but burst into tears when I got the phone call telling me that my hard work had scored me a PhD scholarship to begin in 2016. Goal reached. Bam.
I couldn’t have achieved any of this if I hadn’t taken the risks I did, and if I hadn’t pushed myself to the brink. Adelaide me couldn’t have done this. Two years ago me couldn’t have done this.
Now I’m 24, I’ve gone through the confirmation process for my PhD and I’m more or less stable. But it’s not quite as simple as that. My supervisor punted me right into the deep end when she volunteered me to teach a first year class which had just opened up due to demand.
Don’t get me wrong – I was thankful for her advocacy on my behalf and retrospectively it was one of the greatest things I have achieved so far – but after getting off of the phone with the course co-ordinator to confirm my ‘promotion’ to casual academic, I got into bed and hyperventilated for a good hour.
This would involve public speaking, which makes me anxious because I am self-conscious about my articulation and occasional stutter. It would involve the pressure to carry a group of kids through their first formal experience of sociology.
It was make or break. It was life or death. Well, it sure felt like it.
For my first class, I was shaking, stumbling and burning red. I went through the course outline clumsily, and discussed the requirements of each assignment. I did the done-to-death housekeeping talk: respect each other’s boundaries and opinions, do not disclose information about anybody else outside of this tutorial.
Then I paused. Fuck it.
I told the class that this was my first time teaching and that I suffered from severe anxiety. I explained what I do as a PhD student, and why I love sociology. I reassured the class that I’m willing and able to help, and to bear with me while I find my footing.
Most of the class smiled, and I felt the warmth. “That’s okay,” one guy said to me. “You’re doing fine,” said another. I finally exhaled. Okay. Do your job.
There are a few things that I’ve managed to pick up while I’ve been studying with mental illness that have really helped. I figure that I may as well share them, because I would have killed to have skipped the figuring out time and get straight to the remedy.
Firstly, acknowledge and accept that your anxiety and your depression will never be cured and will never just go away. I know that sounds harsh, but if you are like me and are a chronic sufferer, it’s time to think about management rather than a fix.
The rich tapestry of your lived experience, personality, sense of humour, relationships, quirks and kinks have all been influenced by your anxiety and depression in some way. Some are unquestionably bad ways, but others make you who you are. And you’re great.
Secondly, the bad effects of your illness can be managed. It’s not weak, nor does it make you a shill to ‘big pharma’, to rely on therapy or medication. Antidepressants and beta blockers are not manufactured by the Illuminati, are not poison, and will not kill you. It’s not weak to seek help.Without regular sessions with a psychologist in combination with Cymbalta and Propranolol, I would not have been able to achieve what I have.
But it is worth noting the unpleasant withdrawal effects that come with forgetting to take it, or trying to ‘quit’ them cold turkey. These can fuck with you. Basically what I’m saying is go and see your doctor, and take patience, commitment and an open mind.
Your GP can prescribe medication and can set you up with a ‘mental health plan’ which entitles you to a certain number of free psychologist sessions. This is done through Medicare, although I believe health insurance should cover this for International students.
Thirdly, it’s important to have an escape and to make time for it. Schedule it into your calendar if you have to. Whether you like gaming, reading, drawing, exercising, shoppng, sleeping, tantric masturbation or meditating, make time to do something that makes you feel good.
Finally, talk your problems out. Don’t be afraid to ‘confess’ that you’re struggling. Seek help and rely on your friends, your supervisor, your family and peers. Don’t leave it to fester until you’re in crisis mode. But however bad it gets, there is always a path for it to get better. You just might need help finding your way.