Nadia’s Story: Persistent Paralysis and a Prolonged PhD (Part 1)

This story was submitted anonymously to AMHC, and uses pseudonyms to protect the privacy of the writer.

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I was that overachiever in elementary, middle, and secondary school. That kid who was labeled “gifted” and given extra work to prevent her from being bored. The one with the highest grades in her graduating class. The pride and joy of parents who wanted their children to achieve what had not been possible for themselves. The one who got a full-tuition scholarship for her undergrad, then a full NSERC scholarship (Canadian graduate funding) for her MSc. Then, for her PhD, another NSERC along with a prestigious provincial graduate scholarship. The youngest “Woman of Distinction” in Science and Technology in her city. The loving wife. The devoted daughter. The sweet, loving friend. The actively involved volunteer. The dog-rescuer. A real rockstar both personally and academically, right?

Nevermind those days during my MSc that I spent not being able to get out of bed or convince myself that getting dressed was actually a reasonable thing to do. Those days when I convinced myself I was just “feeling blue” because I hadn’t gotten enough sleep, or eaten the right food, or gotten enough exercise, or it was winter, and I’d catch up tomorrow. Those days when I didn’t deliver on thesis deadlines or stayed up all night to reach one that I’d optimistically set for myself, only to not quite get there because things weren’t right… and then how could I show that work to anyone? Those days when I spent putting off thesis writing, data entry, analysis, and publishing because I was paralysed. Emotionally. Mentally. This wasn’t writer’s block, it was full blown “I-can’t-do-this-because-if-I-even-start-I-will-fail-and-someone-will-be-disappointed-or-know-who-I-truly-am-which-definitely-isn’t-all-this.”

But above all, I was often hopeful. Optimistic. Paralysis wasn’t an option I was willing to accept.

I was fine. It would be fine.

Upon reflection, I was a high-functioning person struggling with serious anxiety. Yet, I had a support network, supervisors, and a partner who believed in me. They bolstered me when I had those days, when I quietly spoke about them. I commonly heard, “It’s ok. You’re just in a slump. Just get back on the writing horse and it’ll be fine tomorrow.” So I did. I pushed myself, and I finished that MSc and jumped straight into a PhD in September 2009. We never talked about mental health. I was fine. It would be fine.

My PhD was a new start for me: a new city, school, and field of research. An opportunity to grab academia by the horns and pursue my dream of a research lab with the dynamic teaching opportunities I had envisioned and put up on a shiny pedestal. I was going to reach that goal no matter what life threw at me. I always had. Life, however, had other plans; plans that didn’t leave much room for the perilous grip I had on self-care and my own mental health in the first place.

After the move, my husband and I soon realized that we had become quite incompatible. We went to counseling, we took some time apart, we started to patch things up, but I wasn’t willing to let go of my academic dreams. We thought we could work around that. My husband’s dad passed away, and he decided to return home without my support. I kept going to school, working long hours, catching on to new concepts faster than anyone else. I excelled in my graduate classes. My supervisor was proud, and she was a hard mentor to satisfy.

I was fine. It would be fine.

Two months later, my youngest cousin was struck and instantly killed by a drunk driver that blew a stop sign. I flew home to carry his casket at his funeral. My family was a mess. I flew to a conference two days after the funeral and presented two talks to excellent reception. I was excited to keep on my track. I would grieve my cousin in my own way and time. It would be fine.

A black and white photograph of a person with long hair, wearing a sweater and hat. They are staring into the distance, away from the camera.

Months later, my husband and I divorced. He moved home officially to be with his family. I stayed and kept going. Though my life dreams outside of school were demolished, my academic dream was alive and well, and I was on track. I saw a counselor. I became more independent. Yet, during that time, one of my main supports walked out of my life. She didn’t agree with my husband’s and my divorce decision, and wasn’t going to be there for me. But I was an independent woman on the right track. I still didn’t talk about my mental health with anyone. I was fine. It would be fine.

In a post-divorce recovery attempt, I went on an extended road trip with a friend to the Pacific Northwest, but things were starting to slip. I wasn’t getting things done on time. My supervisor and committee were starting to become upset with me, visibly and verbally at times. My “excuses” weren’t enough. I needed to get back on track. I came back, but I was never fully present. I felt numb. I was constantly fighting to get out of bed, but mostly winning. I won two more small scholarships, and I was traveling to conferences and teaching well. I was fine. Eventually everything would be fine.

My supervisor started to become toxic. I dismissed it as her being “hard on me.” She was, after all, an Oxford scholar who finished her PhD in 3 years, completed two successful post docs, and achieved tenure four years into her first academic position. I slept little, spending marathon nights in the lab redoing experiments that wouldn’t work, likely because I was constantly exhausted. I wasn’t willing to admit defeat. I was fine. It would be fine.

I finally started to feel like everything was crumbling. I was suffering from insomnia. My supervisor and one of my committee members continued to be toxic. One of my labmates entered psychiatric care. No one was talking about graduate student mental health. I finally looked into taking academic leave. I pulled up my scholarship terms and conditions and my school’s policies. However, the scholarship conditions stared me in the face: “maternity leave or medical leave with a valid physician’s note.” But, I was fine. How could I possibly get a physician’s note for being burnt out and just needing a break? So I clawed my way through two more years, as a single, independent, raging ball of a woman, struggling with life while still being a successful academic. I still had my academic dream. I still wanted it.

Eventually, my NSERC scholarship ended. My provincial scholarship was still valid, but didn’t have an official leave clause. I was going to have to keep going on; quitting was clearly not an option. While on a backpacking trip on Vancouver Island, I made a new friend who needed a housesitter for the winter while he traveled the world. He invited me to bring my cat and stay at his little island cabin 10 minutes from the beach. I decided that I needed a change of scenery, a place away from the academic climate within which I’d found myself. I told my committee during a meeting that I was leaving to write elsewhere. They did not take it well, but had little control over me at that point. They did put me on academic probation, which was nearly heart-breaking for me; I was the overachiever. I’d never failed anything. But I was certain I just needed this break to take care of myself. Then I would be fine.

Everything would be fine.

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Click here to continue on to Part 2.


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