I am an early-career academic who struggles with depression and chronic anxiety. My mental illness goes back much further than my involvement in academia, but the two have always been connected, sometimes disablingly so. At the same time, however, my experience of depression has also been productive and inspiring of my academic work.
I was first diagnosed with depression aged 13. Even at that age, my mental health problems were closely associated with academic achievement: my sense of self-worth bound up with doing well at school and being perceived by others as ‘intelligent’. On various medications, I was unwell and deeply unhappy throughout my teenage years, resulting in the decision to take a year out between GCSEs and A-Levels. This was a successful strategy: upon my return to school for Sixth Form I found myself flourishing: I was engaged with my studies and achieving well in them; I was making friends; I was articulate and confident. For the first time in my life, I felt like a proper person. Perhaps this new contentment was too much for my unconscious to allow myself; at any rate, it didn’t last long. At the beginning of the following academic year I had a breakdown, and was unable to attend school (or pretty much leave the house) for nearly a year. Despite a disastrous change in antidepressants, I was able to keep up with my studies enough to sit my A2 exams in the summer, and, astonishingly given the circumstances, I achieved well in them.
Back on the sertraline medication that had worked reasonably well for me since I was 16, I then recovered enough to prepare for starting university at in October. It did not go smoothly. Much of the time it was a nightmare, but I coped. I was lucky enough to make some very supportive friends, and attend a college that takes it pastoral responsibilities very seriously. I managed to stay at university. Over the years, with some dramatic peaks and troughs, bits of therapy, and a pretty high dosage of antidepressants, I slowly started to get better.
Two years ago, when I graduated with my PhD, I thought a lot about my early weeks as a first-year undergraduate student; about how far I had come, and how I would not have managed to achieve this without certain friends and family. I was hugely grateful and enormously proud.
More recently, I have been thinking again about those earlier experiences of depression, tied in with the pressure of the need to achieve academically at school, and my difficulties with life after the doctorate. My postdoctoral experience is the same as that of so many others: I have not yet managed to secure employment in my chosen field, despite having a CV full of publications, teaching experience, various extra research activities, and the good opinion of those who have worked with me. I knew when I started my PhD that this was how it would be, but I wanted to do it anyway – I needed to do it. I thought and researched and wrote about what I wanted and needed to explore, and when I finished it I told myself that even if nothing came of it career-wise, it was worth doing for its own sake. I still believe that. And I have also been lucky enough to secure enough part-time work in the sector to earn a living through activities that can count as ‘career development’, and give me enough time to continue postdoctoral research independently, and also apply for funding and jobs.
But, two years on, it has taken its toll. Unsuccessful applications, combined with a perceived lack of productivity since my PhD, have resulted in an overall sense of failure. In a highly competitive field, with its discourse of overworked overachievers who need to be doing all the things all the time, I feel deeply inadequate, and this is also tied in with guilt: I feel I have not succeeded at many of the things I’ve attempted because I am not good enough, and not attempted as much as I should have, because I am lazy and cowardly. This has made me reluctant to engage with the wonderful support and resources now available to ECRs, such as The New Academic, because I end up comparing myself negatively to all those at the same stage as me who have jobs, or are applying for the same posts as me, and should be getting them rather than me because: look at that CV! And all those blog posts, and tweets, and research networks!Looking at the profile pages of other academics is my guaranteed way to induce hyperventilation and nausea.
I have also struggled to develop my own research since finishing my PhD, what with limited time, support, resources and mental energy, and the shame I feel about this has often prevented me from making any progress with the work: fear leads to procrastination, and anxiety to inability to concentrate. Of course, I do not fully acknowledge all of the things I do achieve and the tasks I complete because they are never enough. With depression, and with academia, there is no such thing as enough.
All this coincided with an attempt to come off the antidepressants after nearly 17 years. In April last year I decided that I was well enough to give it a go, and seeing as I was working part time, and feeling reasonably happy and settled, this was as good a time as any. Now I sometimes wonder what on earth was I thinking?, but it was a brave decision, there would never have been a perfect time, and I try not to regret it. I tapered off the meds very slowly – over the course of 5 months – and hoped that the symptoms I was experiencing were transitory and would pass once my body’s chemistry had adjusted. A few months after coming off the drugs completely I was barely managing to function normally, couldn’t remember the last time I had a day without crying, and accepted that I needed to go back on sertraline.
I had forgotten – it had been so long – the side effects of the first weeks of taking SSRIs, and for a few days I felt about as bad as I had for a decade. Unfortunately this coincided with two day-long seminars of the Learning and Teaching qualification I am currently enrolled on through my learning support work, and two days of presentations and discussion on ‘the nature and purpose of higher education’ was the last thing I needed at that time. Because I felt like higher education was killing me. What had possessed me, I wondered, someone who has suffered since childhood with a crippling sense of inadequacy and perfectionism, to seek a career which is extremely competitive, demanding, and involves continuous self-scrutiny and laying oneself open to the judgement of others? I decided I’m just not the sort of person who can be an academic and be happy. All that mattered now was that I get through this, and get better.
A few days later, worrying about whether I could not be an academic and be happy, I realised two things. Firstly, that I hadn’t made the wrong choice in going into academia. It was never a choice. It’s just who I am, to read and ask questions and write and teach and argue. The profound grief I feel at not having progressed more with my postdoctoral research, and especially at not having written anything substantial about it, is a different matter from the pain of not having an academic job contract. The former is about what I find ultimately fulfilling, and yes a great cause of turmoil and doubt, but also of satisfaction and joy. The latter is about economic security, but more than that about ego, and I don’t want my self-worth to be determined by recruitment panels or funding bodies. I decided that I don’t need an academic career following a conventional trajectory, and it may well be that I never get a full-time permanent academic contract. But I do need to research and write and wrestle with ideas, and thus I decided I would do as much of this as I could manage whilst trying to get well.
That was a few months ago, and now, settled on a moderate dose of sertaline, I am starting to feel mentally healthy. I have accepted that I have been ill, and thus it is ok for me not to have managed to work as much as I would have otherwise. I continue to try to accept that whatever one’s mental condition, it is really difficult to maintain the motivation to research independently and look for jobs in an overcrowded field, and that I should value what I have managed to achieve, not berate myself for what I haven’t. I have also been making progress with my research – slowly, but of course the early stages of a research project are slow, especially when one cannot work on them full-time. I have started writing again (a little): ideas flow more freely and I am more able to concentrate. The chemical changes of being off antidepressants had much more effect than I thought they would, and I am beginning to function normally now. I have also been re-engaging with the research community, something I had lacked the confidence to do for the last year, planning to attend conferences, and last month taking part in the annual retreat of a research group with whom I did my PhD.
The paper I shared on the retreat reflected on the problematic interrelation between theory and personal experience in my research, and I read to the group something I had written in my journal a couple of months previously. In my distress at not having written anything about my research into craft and new materialism, I forced myself to write something–anything–related to it, so I wrote about knitting a complex lace shawl as a way of alleviating anxiety. Reading this paper at the retreat reminded me that my struggles with depression and anxiety have in many ways been productive for my academic work. The experience of mental illness and patriarchal religion led to the questions that resulted in my doctoral research in feminist theology. Thinking about narratives of mental illness and recovery fed into my discussions of the construction of ‘the personal voice’ in scholarship, as I used an autographic approach in my thesis. And now, after depression and anxiety had stifled my academic work for many months, they were once again beginning to inspire it.