Sunday, 2 July 2017

The Fog

Written by Ian

Trigger warning - mention of suicidal thoughts.

Cutting through the fog is what I needed to do.

The lone scholar myth persists and is still the model of an academic. Individual achievement and “genius” is what the system is geared to reward. The relentless academic tournament where only a few “win” is exhausting and takes a toll on mental health, especially when things aren’t healthily competitive, but hyper-competitive as they are now.

I bought into the lone “genius” scholar model. Probably both consciously and subconsciously. Academia can be isolating and has been for me.

My internal dialog has an outsize influence. It has the credibility of a scientist working to falsify any positive idea I might have. The negative, harsh voice is one I would never apply to anyone else. Connecting to others can be challenging partly because depressive mood is not something I want to spread. However, luckily, I do have a few close friends—whom I would take a bullet for—to open up to, although none of whom I speak with enough.

There’s pain in the fog; a longing for light to cut through or for me to find a way to part it, if only temporarily.

At its thickest, there are two solutions to dealing with the fog. Waiting for the fog to abate, even partially. And there have been times when it feels oppressive and functionally no different from being dead. Suicidal thoughts crept in. I never had means to act on these thoughts, and had one motivation to not carry through: those good friends and family. I would wish to get hit by a bus or have some other fatal accident befall me.

Having these thoughts obviously didn’t help my work.

The fog thickens in times of uncertainty.

I’ve had to come back from that oppressive fog that began six years ago, when I nearly didn’t go on. That was a time I somehow waited out the worst. A time when taking any steps, any actions, seemed futile.

Coming back from that has been a big accomplishment, and I feel shows strength. All through this I kept going, kept learning, and was kind and patient with myself. I found new ways of connecting to people, mainly through Twitter. I started talking openly about depression and mental illness, particularly as it affects academics. I started writing about science too, beyond the technical writing, by guest writing on other blogs. I’m learning to be an editor. I’ve decided I want to step away from the lab bench, which has recently happened. As of this writing, I don’t have anything full time lined up. This latest uncertainty is a test of the network I have built up of close friends and acquaintances, and a test of my ability to go after new opportunities and reach through the fog to ask for help and connect to the wider world. How much will the fog close in this time?

Depression, even when well managed and apparently in the background, seems likely to be with me the rest of my life. The fog can thin and even disappear for a time, but never seems far away. Though even when it’s away, some of the habits developed in the fog’s isolation remain.

I fear stepping into another situation like academia. My next career step is one where I hope I can still further science, education, critical thinking, and the public’s connection to stories of science. Ultimately I hope it’s a career that’s better for my mental health than academia has been, by allowing me to connect more.

There are systemic and cultural changes to academia that can and should be called for like truly preparing PhDs and postdocs for careers beyond the tenure track. But for individuals coping with depression or another mental illness, I encourage them to find someone outside the fog to talk to. To build a support network (like Chronically Academic) of close friends/family and acquaintances, one at a time. Starting with a therapist is fine too. Medications may help lift the fog enough to feel and act normally as well. Resilience is easier when there are supportive people that are visible and accessible. That may include your advisor and other mentors—always build up a network of more than one mentor. Mentors can be anyone that positively influences you or your learning and having people to go to for specific things makes you less isolated and I believe learning from others, or just learning new ways of thinking, can help treat depression (it’s not *that* simple, but it has helped).

Navigating through life with a fog of depression over the brain isn’t easy, but it can also make those managing depression mentally tough and more resilient than may be apparent to even them.

About the Author

Ian is a plant scientist, science writer, and editor who recently transitioned out of academia. His science writing can be seen on his blog, The Quiet Branches. He can be found on Twitter at @IHStreet.

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