Friday, January 4, 2013

Lauren's Experience with Depression During & After Grad School

If I could tell all y'all who are considering going post-ac or becoming grad school quittas one thing about mental health issues in academia, it would be this:

Depression doesn't feel like you think it does.

I wish I'd known this eight years ago, when I started experiencing what I now recognize as symptoms of depression, but what I thought were thyroid problems, or PMS problems, or motivation problems. I thought depression would be like, crying all the time. Feeling "sad." I had images in my mind of damsels in distress on fainting couches.

But depression has manifested very differently for me.

For many years, while I was a grad student, depression manifested as physical symptoms, like: stomach problems, excessive fatigue, lack of energy and motivation, heart palpitations, and changes in my menstrual cycle. I experienced intense emotional swings and was distractible to the point that I couldn't finish end-of-semester projects on time. I thought it was my thyroid, but my tests came back fine. I thought it was "adrenal fatigue" or some kind of nervous exhaustion brought on by an intense summer of graduating/moving/getting married, but it lingered years beyond that event (and adrenal fatigue is bunk, fwiw). When my acerbic doctor mentioned the possibility of a "mood disorder" I dismissed it completely out of hand. How could my mind wreak such havoc in my uterus? In my aching legs?

I truly believed I could "think" my way out of unhappiness. If I just found the right field of study (I switched PhD programs). If I could just find the right career path (anxiety about jobs preoccupied me from the moment I matriculated in 2004). If I could just find the right areas of focus for comps. If I could just hit on that perfect diss topic that hasn't already been done, that will make me excited enough about school to motivate me through the rough patches. I believed what this erroneous and wrong article promotes about depression in grad school: eventually I would pull myself out of it. I sought the help of a talk therapist at that time, and joined a grad student support group, and both of these helped a lot, but the problems persisted. As we've said elsewhere, graduate students are more likely to suffer from mental health problems, and of them, women suffer the most.

Five years ago, I started my second PhD program (having taken an MA in my first) and gave birth to my oldest daughter. Two years later, her sister arrived, an unexpected joy. The stresses and responsibilities of "real life" piled on top of my internal struggles with grad school. Bone-deep fatigue beyond anything I could imagine. Intense stress over childcare and finances. My children were chronically sick during much of this time. My marriage was on the rocks. For over a year, I felt lucky to make it out the door at all, let alone make progress on my comps exams while balancing family and teaching duties. I sought the help of a therapist again, and again, it was very helpful, but the underlying hopelessness remained.

Finally, I couldn't do it any more, and I quit grad school during the 5th year of my 2nd PhD program. I hoped that the freedom, the relief, would cure what ailed me, but (perhaps unsurprisingly) it did not. In "Fallout: The Psychological Debt of Grad School," I write:
Thing is, this has been a tough six months for me. Quitting grad school is incredibly difficult, as we have documented, and I have struggled with it. But really, it’s more than that: quitting grad school shook me to my core, and now it’s bringing up a bunch of really messy, dark stuff that’s been dormant, too. I’m now dealing with deeper, more longterm problems that have been on hold or deferred or ignored while I was in grad school. The last 2-3 months have been extremely hard for me, emotionally, even though on the surface everything worked out fairly well (I have a good job and necessary income: things could be so much worse). But I liken it to lifting up a rock and peering at all the gross stuff beneath. Or cleaning a room that seems rather messy but then you get in there and realize, oh shit, this is going to take me all day. The depression and unhappiness that led me to quit grad school is just the tip of the iceberg. The confusion and identity shifts that quitting brought on go way deeper than just the vocation I was aiming for, or the kind of student I wanted to be.

I never became suicidal, but I did often wish I could just disappear. I couldn't walk away from my problems, and I couldn't solve them, so I wished I could just go away and have my mind be quiet, for once.

Nine months after quitting grad school, I saw a psychiatrist. She was very nice (and she has an MD and a PhD -- double trouble!) and asked a series of questions. I told her that I'd had a moment where I sort of "zoomed out" and looked at my life for the last ten years and realized I'd spent more time being stressed and unhappy than I had being content and pleased. I said I was fearful that I didn't know how to experience happiness. She said, Yeah, well -- that's called depression. She gave me a prescription for Lexapro. I started taking it every night. I also started up therapy again.

At first I was just sleeping better (it is a sedative, after all). Within a week, I noticed that I wasn't so edgy. I was more patient with the girls and felt less tense and like I might scream if someone asked me a question one more fucking time. A few more weeks passed and I started picking up projects that had languished for a long time. I started feeling genuinely happy. I could sit on my couch and enjoy it in a way I'd never been able to before. I always had this raw internal emotional reality, a sense that I should be doing something, a sense that something was off, often a sense that I should feel happy right now but was not happy. Now that I am on medication, I don't feel that grating grumpiness inside very often. I just feel happy. I smile inside.

I wrote a long post about this at my own blog, but I want to reiterate something I stated over there:
Treating my mental health problems has been so transformative that I hate to think others are out there suffering. If you’ve ever thought you might benefit from treatment from depression or anxiety, if you’ve done the therapy thing but feel stuck, if you have been down for so long you don’t remember up, please consider contacting a psychiatrist and trying something new.

Consider contacting your University's student counseling or faculty/staff counseling service. Call a community resource center and ask about low-or-no cost counseling. See if student health has a psychiatrist on hand, or what your insurance will cover if you have it. (I do recommend talking to a psychiatrist, versus a generalist, about medication.) I just can't tell you what a huge difference it made in such a short amount of time.



  1. [...] reading Lauren’s and Currer’s stories that chart their experiences with depression during and after their PhD [...]

  2. The2YearLifeoftheMindJune 1, 2013 at 8:48 AM

    Your article is immensley helpful. I found that after being in education for 10 years, it had a profound impact on me, an otherwise strong and hopeful person. I have a suspicion that the constant stress changes your brain chemistry for the worse. I ended up with serious muscle issues and a prescription for Zoloft and am feeling better. The situation can almost destroy your ability to be happy because the system is exploitative. So glad you found relief, as have I. If something stops working, the best answer is to remove yourself from it.

  3. f*ck, you even used the same words.
    " never became suicidal, but I did often wish I could just disappear. "
    The problem? Is that in helping everyone else, you DO manage to disappear. Like a pro, so good that you don't even notice you did it.

    The difference is that I don't have two young kids, I have a 32-year old and a 60-something year old kids that I didn't give birth to.

  4. The more I learn about suicide, the more I see the "wishing to disappear" feeling as a latent suicidal impulse. I see that more clearly now. I hope you talk to someone about your feelings.

  5. Acts 16:31
    They replied, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved--you and your household."

    Luke 12:8
    "I tell you, whoever publicly acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man will also acknowledge before the angels of God.

    Please belive in Jesus and he will change your everything abruptly !!!

  6. I do believe in Jesus, but he can't reach into my brain and make the chemicals work differently. Mental illness needs treatment.


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