Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Currer's "Pangs" at Leaving Academia: Stress and Phantom Pain

Sometimes the toll of leaving academia manifests itself in "funny" ways. For me, this meant never-ending infections, gastrointestinal issues, and chronic pain. As I was wrapping up my degree, applying for non-academic jobs, and preparing to graduate I realized I felt poorly all the time.

Initially, I assumed a host of minor ills had all decided to randomly hit me at once. Later, I thought I had pinched a nerve in my sciatica. Yet no matter how much rest I got, the pain never improved. Then the pain spread. What started in my posterior and upper thighs spread to my left arm, then my upper back, then my lower back, then my right arm, and then my right leg. My entire body felt like burning. Tingling, shooting pain with a little side order of a persistent head-in-a-vise headache. Frustrated and confused, I decided to go to a local urgent care center. (I write in greater detail about my experiences here.)

My doctor informed me that my pain was mental.

Me: "Mental? Like you're saying I'm some kind of hysterical 19th c. housewife?"

Doc: "No. Mental like you've been under tons and tons of stress for at least a year, if not longer. Mental like your body no longer realizes how to process serotonin and so you don't sleep and you always feel anxious. No sleep and anxiety=pain. Chronic, migratory pain. Instead of doing a hundred thousand dollars worth of diagnostic testing, looking for something rare, I'd like to put you on a temporary round of antidepressants and see if we can't sort this out."

At which point I promptly burst into tears. You'd think I might feel happy to hear I wasn't being handed a death sentence or a life-threatening illness. But, nope. All I felt was CRAZY. Crazy, weak, and like a failure for not managing my stress better.

day 90-humility katyhutch via Compfight

Me: "I'm not taking antidepressants! I can do this on my own! I'll exercise more! I'll relax! I'm not a quitter! Everyone takes antidepressants now and most people don't even need them. I won't be a statistic!"

Doc: "Well, don't take them. Live in pain. Or take them and feel better. Youve got two choices."

When he left, I sat there feeling ashamed, embarrassed, and like a loser. Logically, I knew that there was nothing wrong with therapy, antidepressants, and/or mental health issues. (For fuck's sake. One of my primary research areas is disability studies! )My dear friend accurately and clearly reassured me that this was a chemical issue, not just mental. Like a diabetic who needs insulin, my body was not operating right chemically. But, this rational knowledge of the circumstances, my body's rebellion did not fit my neat, orderly Type A overachieving picture of self-control. Ultimately, I swallowed my reservations, dealt with my shame, and took the pills. I'm so glad I did.

Since my diagnosis I feel much better. My medicine does wonders for my sleep. Since taking my medicine I haven't experienced that kind of pain again. Getting help for my phantom pain was the best decision I could have made. At the end of the day, the only one who made me feel any stigma about taking antidepressants was me.

For any of you readers who might be on the fence about seeking help for depression, anxiety, or phantom pain, I hope this helps. You'll be glad you sought treatment.


  1. I used to break out in hives. I'd never gotten hives before grad school -- and never even during the first few semesters. The first time it happened was right before comps after I'd stressed and stressed about a conversation with my adviser. I thought I must have eaten something I was allergic to, but I don't have any known food allergies! I dismissed it as a fluke, but then it happened again and again, usually around the same time as something that was especially stressing me out. Sometimes, I'd wake up in middle of the night itching, after I'd had some horrible dream about academic failure. I didn't seek treatment, though I probably should have. Magically, though, after I finished the degree and came to terms with leaving, the hives stopped. It's been almost two years since I've had an outbreak.

  2. [...] reading Lauren’s and Currer’s stories that chart their experiences with depression during and after their PhD studies I was [...]


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