Before the frisson of just getting my Ph.D. dies out and becomes secondhand news, I’d like to share something really personal with you guys. Admittedly, this post is also to serve more of a reminder for me, lest I forget how I got where I am today. I’d battled with the idea of openly talking about this due to the sensitivity of the matter, but I am finally OK with making this public. I became restless when I decided not to share it and have only become freer from letting it out, hence sharing this post with you all. I know sharing a post like this does not come without letting go of some privacy and also experiencing vulnerability, but if you’ve been following my recent posts, you will notice that I’ve been tethering with the idea of becoming more vulnerable. To read this story, you have to understand that it comes from an experience, a lived one and mine. And I have since moved on from this experience. I am writing this to get the conversation started and remove the stigma surrounding mental health issues than to garner pity and sympathy. So, don’t call me to ask how I am doing because that’s not why I am writing this post (I am doing quite fine, nonetheless :-D). This is not a cry for help!
Like every achievement in life, bagging my Ph.D. came at a price and a cost. The price of having a newfound understanding of who I was and the cost of letting go of the self I had imagined I was. I’d first like to thank everyone for the good wishes and overwhelming congratulatory posts. I don’t want to show you a one-sided story featuring the glitz and the glamor of bagging a Ph.D. because I think it’s equally important that you get to hear the other side of the story.
What most of you don’t know is that smack-dab in the middle of one of the most crucial stages of my graduate studies, I had a major life event that triggered a cascade of other events that sent me spiraling into a major episode of depression; the type I’d describe as ‘situational’ depression. It was the kind that left me bedridden for months even when there was nothing physically wrong with me. It was the kind that would make me weep on end over nothing and everything and leave me drained me of any energy to carry on about my daily living. Now, if you’ve never battled with depression before, let me try to paint a picture with words for you. Note that there are many types of depression with different presentations, so my ensuing description is based on my own experience.
Therefore, I crave your indulgence in not generalizing my experience with depression as if it were a one-size-fit-all-approach. While I cannot yet talk about the specific events that contributed to my experience, I can give you a glimpse of what depression meant to me. It came creepily with subtle signs that started with prolonged bouts of sadness, loss of interest in activities that used to be of interest to me (anhedonia), long spells of insomnia, and uncontrolled crying. Depression also meant not being able to produce good, quality research — a measure of productivity as a Ph.D. student. Writing my Master’s thesis was particularly difficult because my thought process was too compromised. The more I sank into depression, the harder I was with myself to ‘snap out of it’ and get back to the me I was used to being and the me everyone expected me to be. I can only liken depression to drowning and fighting with the strong underwater currents.
Before the onset of depression, I’d struggled with perfectionism — a trait I had glowingly paraded as a strength, both verbally and in my college resumes. This trait became a toxic combination once my depression kicked in. I recall the first time I had a sit-down with my advisor who began to notice my regression and gently encouraged me to seek help. Depression, to me, also meant living in a world of heightened sensitivity to self that was wrought with negative thoughts, loss of self-efficacy, and a myopic view of the promises of tomorrow. Every passing day was hellish, and my daily activities that didn’t previously require any effort became Herculean and almost unachievable.
Luckily for me, the crescendo of my depression was in the summer when I did not have any coursework as I am sure I’d have most likely failed my classes. I was at my wit’s end, and despite how self-aware I can be, I did not know that what I had then was depression. It was like playing ‘Taboo’ with oneself, where you say all the buzz words but you quite never get the correct word.
My breakthrough came when I got a push notification on my phone that a new article had just been posted on a blog that I’d subscribed to. A blog that was maintained by my very good friend who also happens to be a Psychiatrist and writes on mental health issues. He had posted a short piece on depression (which I didn’t think was relevant to me, yeah, the gross irony), but what stood out to me was a link attached to the post that was a screener for depression. To amuse myself, I clicked on it, and the results were alarming. It suggested that I needed to seek medical help immediately and with the encouragement and support from my husband and a couple of close friends that I had confided in, I did.
Therapy, I thought wasn’t for me. Of what good was it to sit down with a stranger to have them nitpick your brains and awaken the demons you had kept tethered away in the not-so-quiet and dark recesses of your mind for so long? I am not a fan of pep-talk and supine positions, and these two things were all I thought therapy had to offer me. I wanted it to be a one-time thing and never go back again. Oh, but it was more than that! What softened my hard motives and cracked my tough exterior was when the counselor asked me where what country I was from and after I told her mentioned how hard it must have been for me to make the trip to the clinic. She got it, by Jove she got it, and that made me break down in tears.
Being from a country that sweeps mental health issues under the carpet like grandma’s dirty linens, it was especially hard for me to come to terms with what I was going through. That first session with the Therapist was far from pep-talk; it was cathartic. So I decided to keep going, and I did for a total of two years. During my time in therapy, I learned about radical acceptance of self (mine), mindfulness, and self-compassion (especially since I was very good at taking care of others and too often at the peril of my own self), — a Messiah complex deeply rooted in my first-born syndrome.
Therapy opened me up to a whole new world of exploring myself and feelings I had repressed for so long. I learned how to view perfectionism as a double-edged sword (as a weapon to kill and also to defend) as I’d always regarded it as a positive trait. I learned that the combination of my perfectionism and depression was largely responsible for my procrastination; my uncanny ability to initiate projects and leave them unfinished. Through therapy, I coined a mantra that has solidly become my ethos — explore the gray areas; an entirely unexplored and uncharted terrain having always seen the world as either black or white.
Through therapy, I became more gentle with myself and realized that I was worthy to be loved by myself and acknowledged my negative suppressed emotions (sad, angry, mad), especially that it was OK to feel those when needed. Therapy also renewed and restored my faith in God. Through therapy, I was able to chisel my inane sensitivity towards suffering in others into something more empathy-driven. This new perspective also made it even easier to openly talk about my struggles with other graduate students who I sensed were going through similar issues as I had. I should also mention that my recourse from depression did not occur overnight, and it took a lot more than therapy to get to where I am today. But by getting out of bed using whatever strength I could muster to go make that appointment with the Therapist was the first domino chip that triggered the cascade of healing and wholesomeness that I now enjoy till this very moment. I have learned how to openly talk about my feelings and surround myself with a community of friends who have been a source of support for my mental health and more.
So, this is me saying it is OK not to be OK. This is me saying that you should not suffer silently through depression, that you can seek help. This is me saying that seeking help is not a sign of weakness. It was particularly challenging for me to own that label of ‘depression’ because it was not a mold that suited my cheerful, hunky-dory, upbeat personality. Those who know me and are hearing about my experience with depression for the first time might probably find it shocking or even incredulous to believe. To these people, I am humbled by your high perceptions of me but know that depression is not choosy; sans your type A, type B or type X personality, it can affect anyone.
Three years later, I have successfully defended my dissertation and bagged a Ph.D. Another sweet validation of how far I’d come was my advisor nominating my dissertation for a campus-wide award in the category of ‘best dissertation.’ If you know my advisor, you’d know that she’s not one to easily give such confidence away without substantial evidence.
I have long gravitated away from my fear of writing, and between 2015 and 2017, I published ten peer-reviewed scientific papers (seven of those within the recent year alone!) and now regularly keep a journal of my thoughts privately and through my blog post and Facebook page. Telling you of this achievement is not to blow my own horns nor show you how strong and resilient I am but how great God is.
He can take your deepest, darkest moments (or in my case, the longest summer from hell), and use them for something more glorious.
There is nothing dirty or shameful about struggling with mental health issues; like most problems/ailments we go through once we shed light to it and confide in the right people, help, and reprieve won’t be too far along.
Furthermore, as a Christian, I don’t feel ashamed talking about my experience with depression as I have found it useful in connecting with other people. I think we should talk about mental health more often as much as we talk about other health conditions. This is me trying to add to the body of empirical evidence that depression is something that does not have to limit anyone; we can indeed rise above it.
So here’s me hoping that you’d always choose life when your thought processes no longer sound like your own and the reflection you see in the mirror looks more like a caricature than the actual you. That if you think you are alone and no one understands, remember that one out of every four people struggles with mental health issues; that’s one ‘Mo’ for every additional three friends you put on that lineup — think about that!
Here’s me saying that a new day will dawn tomorrow and you’d be there with me to practice your purpose once again; one replete with choosing life and finding ways to be more gentle and compassionate with yourself.
That you would always remember to remind yourself that you are enough and always will be.
That every baby steps you are taking right now to get back on track are a significant move towards the right path.
To everyone that walked this journey with me, especially through my darkest times, this post is also dedicated to you. I could not have made it this far, bagging my Ph.D., if you had not committed your time and patience to me. You sat with me in that cold, dank room and laid still with me until the dawn came. I can and would go far now because of you. And I will always remember to keep giving it forward to others. And you all should be proud of this achievement of mine because you have a stake in it; I am after all a walking investment.