If you follow any PhD-related Twitter threads, you’ll know that the mental health of PhD students is a hot topic. It is not new news that we are a relatively unhappy, struggly bunch. I don’t think this is specific to doing a PhD, with the challenges of being in ‘academia’ receiving as much if not more attention. Guidance abounds on how to manage both the PhD and academic life in ways that don’t pose serious risks to one’s mental health. Balance and all that. Common sense stuff, really, although harder in application than in principle. But because I can be somewhat contrary here, this is a post about how to manage doing a PhD in ways that will almost guarantee mental illness. Consider it a message of foreboding, a sort of DO NOT GO BEYOND THIS POINT sign hanging wearily off a tree in the darkening part of the forest.
First, an analogy or two. Until I submitted my PhD at the end of last year, I was part of a PhD group (support group, if you will). Some of the discussions we had in this group were around the value of metaphors in capturing the experience of doing a PhD, or different parts of it. Writing a thesis has been compared to baking a cake, or moulding a sculpture. There are bits of it that have been described as a swamp of sadness. It is no secret to those who know me that my PhD experience was awfully awful. The best way I have been able to describe the lived experience of it is by comparing it to a civil war. While most of me was held up in a prisoner of war camp, detained in solitary confinement and tortured by the other most of me, the remaining bits were running around outside torching all the lovely buildings and bombing all the lovely parks that had taken so many years to cultivate, leaving nothing but a wasteland in their wake.
And, on the day that I submitted the corrections for my PhD, allied forces arrived and rescued me, releasing me back into normal society and my regular life. There was much celebration and jubilation in the streets. There was a welcome home parade. There may have been trumpets. But when you’ve lived in a torturous kind of solitary confinement for so long, life above ground, in ordinary society, is too bright and loud and foreign. And when all the structures you used to have to live in – those lovely buildings and lovely parks – have been burnt to the ground, you no longer have a template for being human-in-the-world. So while those around you celebrate, you wonder if there’s a way of getting back to the camp, where existence was tortured but familiar. Where you knew how to be in a way that now feels entirely lost to you.
Ambivalent feelings post-PhD are, I believe, quite normal. What I have noticed, though, is that there seems to be at the very least a tangible sense of relief. Having spent many months, and sometimes years, shackled to your PC in trying to do this One Thing, the freedom of no longer having to suspend your life to work on that thing is surely exhilarating. But what if completing your PhD is subjectively not the happy achievement that everyone assumes, understandably, that it must be? Although not explicitly said, the conversations I imagine people are silently having with me go something like, “So, you were miserable while you were doing your PhD, and now your PhD has gone away and you have finally got the degree, and you’re still miserable?” I wish I could say that the degree-awarded letter I received a few days ago made a dent in this. It didn’t. If anything, it made me feel worse: guilty for not feeling joy, for not recognising and embracing the privilege that working towards and obtaining this degree is. For not feeling proud and clever and capable – all the stuff that, surely, a Dr-somebody should be.
Instead, I find myself sitting in a burnt out landmine, wearily asking Google why I’m feeling this way, warily writing this post. Could this be burn-out? An understandable kind of post-traumatic stress reaction that has been identified as somewhat common, physically, mentally and emotionally? Have I broken my body by sending so much adrenaline and cortisol up into it to sustain the kind of pace that only a constant fight-or-flight response could sustain? Or have I broken my work self, now swinging to the opposite extreme and having the reaction of a petulant child whenever adult-me tries to get me to work? I do seem to only operate on two modes of self control more generally in my life: utter extreme or none at all. I’m either all in, all the time, denying myself any other way of being or being in the world, or I’m all out. At the moment, this all-out pretty much just looks like an amoeba that flops about from minute to minute and day to day, with one small thought bubble above its head: eh. On the inside, the self-disciplined (read: torturer) bit of my self may have lost its weapons and its power to flagellate amoeba-me into actually Doing Things. But it still has its words. And those words are used with powerful effect to paralyse the floppy amoeba into further self-hatey floppiness. It’s a bit of a cycle, and it’s particularly vicious.
When the only way you have been able to Perform and Adult for the past year or so is by locking yourself in a torture chamber and waterboarding yourself, this a problem for performing and adulting going forward. This, the mean voices tell me, is not some understandable psychological, physical, emotional reaction to what was essentially a year of self-annihilation. It is pure laziness. It proves that all the notions that you had during the PhD that you are in fact not capable of doing such are true. It has not left you with the skills they say a PhD should equip you with. In your case, this has all just been one long ruse (impostor syndrome, on steroids). Sure, there was persistence and perseverance under the most extreme kinds of awfulness. But all that means is that the degree you obtained was not in fact in (insert topic here), but rather in sheer, inhuman self-discipline and grit. And in doing so, you managed to break said self-discipline and grit, along with any other bits of you that had started to actually feel like they belonged in the world. So, here you are, five years later, in all ways less-than than you were before.
But, say some of the softer, much quieter voices, what about depression? Isn’t there the possibility that the kind of year you have just emerged from took a toll much deeper than a few weeks’ break over the Christmas vacation was ever going to resolve? In some ways, that would be the best-case-scenario conclusion to reach here, the one where I am now in the familiar, biologically-driven cycle of a depressive episode. The PhD, for me, was something of a trauma and I managed it in the least constructive way possible. This would certainly qualify as a trigger for an episode of major depression. I was due for one anyway. But here’s the thing. Depression magnifies all the worst things you already believe about yourself. So it can be hard to know when you’ve crossed that line into an Actual Episode, or whether this is just you being your usual dark and twisty self. My best indicator is usually losing the ability to function, where getting up and getting dressed and going to work – let alone doing any of the work that feels suddenly entirely overwhelming – takes superhuman effort, which only occasionally results in me being able to actually get up and get dressed and go to work. Or go anywhere, really. And right now, I am still able to do this most days. I’ve just managed to pull off finishing a whole PhD, for goodness sake. That qualifies, I think, as quite high up on the functionality scale. And tends to complicate the whole is-this-an-episode-no-it-can’t-be-just-pull-yourself-together narrative.
And then: there are questions of purpose, of what value I contribute to the world. For a very long time now, the only purpose I had was to complete this torturous PhD. But doing so has not made me feel any cleverer or better or more worthy. And if, while completing this PhD, I managed to burn down any other small bits of me that might have been useful in the world, what I am left with? The lack of purpose and the what now? do seem to be somewhat typical of the post-PhD experience. But when your entire self becomes wrapped up and defined by this thing, at the expense of all other things, the post-PhD is not simply a case of finding other things to do, other ways to fill and spend one’s time, reconnecting with the bits of yourself that had to go silent while you worked intensively on this thing. You know, the pragmatic stuff, like resting and reading and going out into the world and eating cake and Being Social. All of which might start to mirror, again, the lost or neglected bits of yourself back to you. It’s also about trawling through the burnt out rubble to begin to put the structures of your self back together again. Spraying a bit of graffiti on the smoldering buildings to pretty them up a little until the hard labour of reconstruction is complete. A task that, in the face of depleted energy and depleted everything, feels impossible to get off the ground.
So where does this leave this newly-doctorated me? This one, Google was less helpful with. I wish I could easily say or see that this is clearly depression of the familiar and biological-imbalance kind, which gives me a familiar plan for treating it, hoping that perhaps this imbalance is what causes me to spend so much of my time wanting to stop existing. But what it if is not that? If what all the mean voices are telling me – that I am fundamentally disordered and useless and incapable of regular human things – are true, how do I push forward in spite of that? Especially in the face of the bright and shiny new doctor title that is supposed to represent the opposite of those things. Writing this post seems to have been the only Proper Thing my weary brain has been able to do since submitting my PhD. And I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about why I felt compelled, first, to write it, and second, to Put it Out There in some public way. Laying bare the poor-me tale that follows. Writing these posts have often been a way of helping me to make sense of the experiences I have. Writing them in something of a public forum allows me to write for a benign, if silent, audience, which is what makes it possible to write them at all (the mean voices in my head would never allow for it to be written just for me). There is also always the hope that my own n=1 experience might hold resonance for someone else, that even one small bit of this might help someone else feel less alone in their struggles. But if I’m honest, this time, I’m writing this one to the benign audience, for me. In the hopes that I’ll be the person who feels less alone and less oh-my-god-what-is-wrong-with-you-you-are-so-dis-ordered, precisely because some part of this might ring true for someone else.
[Image credit: https://fineartamerica.com/profiles/mario-sanchez-nevado.html]