Me, Myself, and my Mental Health

The original version of this post appeared on BritishNavalHistory.com and can be found here.

I thought long and hard about whether or not to write this post. Certainly others have already written about the subject far more eloquently than I ever could [See herehere, and here]. And there are no shortage of news articles about the “rising mental health crisis” in academia, which you can read herehere, or here. Furthermore, I’m no expert in the field of medicine or psychology. But I realized as I was talking with my students the other day that there is still a major stigma against mental health in the world at-large, especially in academia. Those in academia, whether students or faculty, often feel that if they suffer from some sort of mental health related issue—whether temporary or a permanent part of their life—that it means they’re weak or “not cut out” for the demands of academia or that they’ll never “make it.” So I’m not going to wax philosophical about large-scale solutions or attempt to “fix” the issue in this post. But I want to contribute to the conversation as we seek solutions by offering my own personal experiences and maybe suggest some starting points.

Often when we talk about mental health, we do so as if it is entirely separate from our physical health [further stigmatizing it in many ways]. But the reality is, our mental health is intricately tied to our physical health—whether our mental health impacts our physical health or vice versa. Just yesterday, a student of mine developed sudden onset chest pain and collapsed before being rushed to the emergency room. Knowing this student as I do and based upon our many conversations regarding school, work, and life responsibilities, I have no doubt that this was a physical response to an often hidden, internal war we rage with ourselves. I know it because I suffer from that internal battle myself.

My First Diagnosis

I have always been something of a perfectionist. I’m notorious for editing my papers as I write them (which, I’ve been told, is absolutely terrible for productivity), for reading over emails ten times before I send them or having legitimate mini-panic attacks if I find an error, and for berating myself for never being productive enough. Mental health issues run in my family: ranging from severe clinical depression to anger management issues to opioid dependency to general anxiety disorder. So it wasn’t a surprise to my mom when, at the tender age of 13, I was diagnosed with clinical depression and general anxiety disorder. I was treated with a barrage of medications as doctors sought one, or any combination, that would “even out” my hormones, serotonin levels, or mood/emotion neurotransmitters. I tried Prozac (which increased my suicidal thoughts), Wellbutrin (which caused my 105 lb frame to lose nearly 15 lbs in less than a month), Lexapro, Zoloft, Celexa, Cymbalta (which worked for a short time), and Effexor, just to name a few. Nothing seemed to “work.” In spite of this, by all accounts I appeared “normal.” I was an active kid who played on the soccer team and was a (albeit “nerdy” and “unpopular”) cheerleader and played softball. I had friends and I took AP classes and was in honors programs. But I suffered from severely low self-esteem and took to self-harm in the form of cutting from the age of 15 until 20. When my mom found out, I just found new ways to hide it. Cutting was the only thing in my life I felt like I had control over.

When I went to college, I decided to quit trying new antidepressants and did my best to manage my mental health issues on my own. That really meant that I tried to suppress them as I took course overloads nearly every semester of 18-21 credits while working part time and trying to maintain some semblance of a social life. I suffered from frequent headaches (sometimes to the point of migraines), neck pain, back spasms and pain, dehydration, irregular sleeping patterns, anemia, and poor eating habits (affecting my energy, which often felt non-existent). I was ALWAYS tired. Even though I tried working out or being active to help counter some of these issues, every time I was the least bit active, it felt like my heart was going to explode out of my chest. I generally attributed those feelings to the asthma I had been diagnosed with as a child, but my inhaler was no longer effective in treating the symptoms. So I became less active, which freed up time for my academic work, but did nothing to improve my physical (or mental) well-being. I wanted to be the woman who did it all. I wanted the 4.0 GPA and stellar recommendations and perfect hair and a fit physique and beautiful handwriting and to be artistic and adventurous and travel and publish, etc.

Graduate School

My friends in college were supportive and we helped each other through those struggles. Having that safety net, I think, was one of the major contributors to my sanity during those years. So when I graduated a year early and had the choice of staying at the same college for grad school or going to another local college nearly 3 hours away, I stayed so that I could stay with my friends while they finished their degrees. I couldn’t bring myself to leave that sense of security. And while in grad school, I made new friends in that program who filled the void when my undergraduate friends all graduated and left. I coped with my mental health issues in my Master’s program by consuming copious amounts of coffee (I’m talking, quite literally, 12-18 cups a day), binge drinking, and developing unhealthy attachments to my significant others at the time. Looking back on those days, I appeared like a disaster waiting to happen. I clearly couldn’t “do it all” and I clearly wasn’t actually addressing my mental health issues. A total breakdown seemed inevitable. I am fortunate that such a breakdown never came to pass and I’m still not quite sure how I avoided that scenario as I headed into the PhD program.

While in my PhD program, I really had to come to terms with the fact that I hadn’t been successfully coping with my mental health problems at all and that if I didn’t make some sort of change, I would be bound for collapse. Unlike the MA program, which allowed a high level of sociability, I found the PhD program to be much more isolating. Not only had I moved a solid 8 hours away from my friends and family in North Carolina, but this time I had no roommate, no significant other, and no real connection to the area. I made friends in the program, to be sure, but it wasn’t the same. I think part of that is because we knew that as colleagues at this level, we were—in many ways—in competition with each other. Competing for fellowships and research grants and travel awards and conference slots and the best classes to teach as part of our assistantships and publishing opportunities. And I’ve found that academia—especially the humanities—can be an isolating place. Unlike some fields, collaboration still feels fairly taboo and viewed with skepticism within the field of history. Even outside of graduate school, the competition for ever-dwindling resources causes many to keep their peers at arm’s length. And bringing up any perceivable “weakness” like mental health problems felt like putting a target on your chest. The same things I’d struggled with earlier carried over to the PhD program: headaches, general body pain, nerve sensitivity, poor sleep, lack of energy, frequent illness, etc.

It was while I was in the PhD program, though, that I met my husband. He wasn’t in academia and he provided me with an outside perspective and clarity that forced me to really reflect on what I’d been doing to myself for the last several years. He recognized that I was running myself into the ground and that it was affecting me physically. My husband encouraged me to take frequent breaks, would remind me to eat and to drink water and to reduce my coffee intake, and tried to keep me from staying up to all hours of the night working. I wish I could say that I managed to turn everything around immediately; that marriage was my cure. But the fact is, that’s not how this works. I’m still a work-in-progress. But in meeting him, I’ve made some important discoveries about my mental and physical health that may help me learn how to more effectively manage my own issues and maybe help my students find ways to address their own. Because there is no one-size-fits-all approach.

New Diagnoses

The first major breakthrough was the fact that some of my physical issues were the result—not of asthma—but of an undiagnosed heart condition (that took 2 years, countless stress tests, 3 echocardiograms, a Holter Monitor, 1 transesophageal echocardiogram, and 4 cardiologists to discover) called Ventricular Septal Defect. Knowing the issue and finding treatments to address the symptoms has helped me to regain some activity in my life. I know, now, that I have to limit my cardio exercise (so I save it for hiking) and can focus on things like strength training and yoga in my general day-to-day. Additionally, I can no longer have the excessive amount of caffeine I once consumed in my younger years. I’m sure that my 12-18 cups of coffee a day in grad school really took a toll on my heart health and I potentially put myself in a very dangerous position without realizing it at the time. Finding the energy to be active is still difficult and I often use my lack of “free” time as an excuse to not be physically active. But yoga is having some small therapeutic effects on my mental health.

The second major breakthrough was when my current physician diagnosed me not as having clinical depression with general anxiety disorder, but as having Biopolar II disorder. The treatment process is different for Bipolar II and there are new options for me to consider in consultation with my physician. The tricky part is recognizing when I’ve slipped from my personal “normal” into a hypomanic episode or a state of depression. My husband can clearly tell when I’m in a hypomanic episode because I exude confidence, express a more positive outlook, and often have difficulty focusing because I jump from task-to-task much like someone with an attention deficit disorder. Those episodes are easier to recognize and often last for a very short amount of time. The more difficult to ascertain is when I’ve slipped into a state of depression, because it tends to resemble my personal “normal” initially. But I begin to realize when I’m in one of these states because my thoughts become more negative, my self-esteem drops, I lack the desire to do basic tasks (like showering, putting makeup on, brushing my teeth, or even moving my body at all), and I become even more tired than usual. When I thought I suffered simply from clinical depression, I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t just always feel as good as I did in what I now know was a hypomanic episode. I would beat myself up for not being able to maintain those positive emotions and outlook.

Post-Graduate Life

Whenever I meet my students for the first time each semester, I always include these 2 facts in my “introduction.” Several people have expressed to me that they think this is a bad idea because it makes me vulnerable, whether to attacks or manipulations from students or to repercussions from the administration where I work. I’m aware of the risks associated with being open and honest about my diagnoses. That it’s too personal. Certainly my personal life and details are still mine and I don’t “overshare” with my students. They don’t need to know that I cried in the shower for 45 minutes last night for no real reason. But I find that most of my students develop a new sense of respect for me as a result of my honesty about my general diagnoses because so many of them are struggling with their own mental and physical health issues. And when you know you aren’t alone, or that there’s someone who has managed to achieve success in various aspects of life, it provides a sense of hope that they can do it too. It has led to several students feeling comfortable enough to share with me their own struggles and I can point them in the direction of local or campus resources that can help them. Because too often they are either unaware of or afraid to seek out those resources. But with support, they’re more likely to take advantage of what’s available to them. And hopefully this means they’ll be less likely to suffer physical/mental breakdowns, fail classes, or drop out entirely.

There are still things that I struggle with in terms of finding “balance,” in my work and life, especially when I’m feeling particularly isolated in my new location and job. I still have trouble sleeping (but my two loveable Boxers try to help with the best puppy cuddles ever). I don’t eat as well as I should (Repeat after me: cheese is not a food group). And sometimes I forget to eat entirely or I overeat. I often have to force myself to be active (paying for a yoga membership helps) and schedule time to call friends and family (a huge shout out to those friends and family that stick with me, even when I feel like the world’s worst at keeping in touch). Although I try to stick to a sleep schedule, I end up working 16+ hour days and sleep too long in the mornings. I feel immense guilt if I don’t finish something right away or if I don’t spend ALL day working. I tend to answer my email immediately and at any time if I’m awake, even on weekends. And I overextend myself with commitments to committees and volunteer opportunities and conferences and projects. But I’m taking baby steps. And hopefully I’ll get better at saying “no” to things that matter less so I can start saying “yes” to things that matter most. Some of the things I’m trying to implement (some more successfully than others):

  • Eating breakfast
  • Drinking enough water
  • Not answering emails after 8pm during the week unless it’s an emergency
  • Limiting my answering of emails on weekends
  • Attempting social media-free weekends
  • Doing yoga at least 3 times a week
  • Creating a schedule to set time specifically for class-related work, research, and committee responsibilities to prevent too much emphasis in one area
  • Reducing my commitments
  • Allowing myself some down time each evening without guilt

Hopefully in time these will become habits, not just attempts. In the world of academia where I feel a constant sense of competition, grapple with imposter syndrome, and have an overwhelming schedule, it’s even more important for me to recognize the limits of my mental and physical well-being and to not overextend myself. And I want to encourage my colleagues and my students to develop self-awareness and set their own limits. Until we can talk more openly about our struggles without fear of repercussion or admonishment or shame, I worry more of my students and colleagues will find themselves on the verge of mental and physical breakdowns.

Enjoy this picture of my dogs and one of my attempt at sociability with colleagues for a belated Galentine’s Night:

My Boxer puppies.

Me & some colleagues.

Bad Blogger-February Goals

Wow, where has the time gone!? Obviously, I’ve let everything (reading, editing, writing, work, etc) get in the way of maintaining this blog and website. I admit it: I’m a bad blogger. But rather than virtually flog myself for this shortcoming, I’m going to just jump back on the proverbial bicycle and start 2015 with renewed vigor. Here are my goals for February!

Professional:

Try not to let job rejections get me down. Yesterday I received three new rejections, each stating something along the lines of how I was “a competitive candidate” but that they chose to go with someone “better suited” to the position. My friends and colleagues have reminded me not to take it as a personal attack on my experience or abilities, but to see it as the Universe telling me that that was not the right job for me. I hope they’re right. And maybe I’ll be able to enter the academic market in the Fall.

Continue to apply to any and all jobs matching my skills, interests, and abilities. I can’t let the rejections stop me from applying. And I need to learn to market my education and experiences in a way that show that while I’ve been in school non-stop, it doesn’t mean I don’t have applicable experience. This may require a serious CV/Resume overhaul and I desperately need to seek professional help.

Try to get one of my dissertation chapters published. I’m nearly done with the suggested edits to one of my chapters and I need to try to get that submitted somewhere ASAP. The worst they can do? Reject me. I have nothing to lose.

Academic:

Finish the edits to the three completed chapters. In this way, I’ll be all set to write the last two chapters, as well as an intro/conclusion, and be able to submit the entire manuscript to my advisor for the full edit. I strongly believe that if I can just keep my chin up and my motivation high, I can finish the dissertation in time for a Summer 2015 graduation. It’s ambitious, but doable. There’s honestly no reason I shouldn’t be done already. But I’ve let issues with my advisor and my own personal fear get in my way. No more. It’s time to buckle down and get it done.

Make sure I’m keeping tabs on my students and emails. I want to make sure that this, what may be my last semester teaching a class, is the BEST semester EVER! This weekend, I need to make sure that I’ve made my video introduction and have checked on their discussion posts.

Personal:

Get the dogs caught up on their vaccinations. With moving twice in the last 6 months, my poor pups are about a month overdue for their updated Bordotella shot. Also, we need to get them their annual heartworm test and set back up on Trifexis. Now that we’re more settled, I have the time to research vet offices more thoroughly (the last couple of experiences in the area have not been great) and find them their new, sole veterinarian office.

Date Kyle. My husband and I have been trying to save money and eat healthier, so it’s rare to find the time to go on a date that is both inexpensive and doesn’t involve a restaurant. I’m hoping to set something up, like a drive out of town to go hiking or a trip to Savannah, just the two of us. No phones, no distractions, no stress.

Finish Make it Happen by Lara Casey. This book, and Lara’s story, is incredibly inspirational. But it forces you to face your fears, acknowledge your mistakes, and challenges you to stop chasing perfect. At times, I shy away from this difficult task, but I make it my goal to finish this book this month.

Keep up with going to the gym. I’m paying for the gym membership, I better use it. I’ve done really well in the last couple of weeks, but this week, I really lost track. Tomorrow, I’m going to kick butt and get back into that gym. No excuses. It’s all about making a schedule and sticking to it, not letting my irrationality get in the way.

Same goes for meal prep. Again, I was doing really well cooking up all our meals on Sunday so they were ready to go. Since I had to wait, though, this week to buy chicken on Tuesday, it threw my schedule off and I failed to meal prep this week. I’ll be going to the grocery store on Sunday and making sure I have everything ready for meal prep (including lunches) this week. I’ll also make all of Kyle’s lunches on Sunday so he doesn’t have to go out for lunch.

Make time for phone calls. I’ve gotten better about maintaining more contact with friends and family via text/Facebook, but now it’s time to take it a step further. I need to make it a point to spend at least 15 minutes in a voice conversation with my loved ones. It doesn’t have to be every week, but it needs to be more than once a month.

Here’s hoping that I can manage everything while maintaining my sanity and a smile on my face!

April Goals

Academic:

Complete new suggestions for BNH Book Shelf categories-Now that I’ve talked with both Justin and Sam, I need to go ahead and finish creating a new list of categories for the Book Shelf, organize the current book lists under the new categories, and send them off to Justin and Sam for approval.

Daily Writing-I have a new mentor who is helping me with the writing process. She has projected a completion goal of all dissertation chapter drafts (no editing) by the end of the summer (July). To accomplish this, I must write at least 10 pages weekly (broken down into roughly 500 word-minimum daily goals).

Launch my summer class page-I need to make sure that I have all the components for the course set up and ready to go for the start of summer session in June. The earlier I get this done, the better.  I actually knocked this one out yesterday! Great start to the month!

Write up my Fall course syllabus-This will mainly be tinkering with a former syllabus, but I need to get it out of the way and ready to go for when the Carmen system opens up the Fall class pages for editing.

Personal:

Work out-I want to make sure that I incorporate even the smallest of workouts daily, whether that’s attending the gym for weights/cardio or a class, or doing something in the house like yoga.

Set aside relaxation time-I want to make sure that my dissertation goals, teaching, preparing to move again, and my BNH responsibilities don’t interfere with my ability to relax. Each morning I’ve set aside 1 hour of quiet time with my coffee. At night, I’ve set aside 30 minutes for quiet reflection. And on Sundays-no work!

OAH Conference-I want to make the most of my time in Atlanta. First, my friend Jen will be with me and we need some quality fun time. Second, I’ll be attending most of the job search/networking forums to get prepared for entering the job market in the Fall.

Update on March Goals

Academic:

Start editing the BNH Book Reviews Site–As a new member of the website BritishNavalHistory.com, my role is to re-organize and edit the Book Reviews section. Since it’s going to take a lot of work, I want to make sure I don’t bite off more than I can chew. My first steps will be to go over the plan with Sam and Justin via Skype and then get more comfortable with editing the page through WordPress.  I managed to speak with Sam and Justin and get a plan outlined for tackling the Book Reviews section. Lately I’ve been contemplating new categories and will be making this my priority for April.

Construct new chapter outlines–Now that I have new, solid direction for my dissertation, I need to write up a new set of chapter outlines not only for myself, but to send to my advisor so that she and I are on the same page. These outlines are nearly complete. I’ll be finishing them tomorrow and sending them off to my advisor. The next step will be getting back to chapter writing.

Join the Twitter #writingpact–I’ve seen several colleagues using the hashtag “writing pact” to keep themselves on point. This month, I’d like to start participating in “writing pact” and get at least half of my second chapter drafted. If I’m good, I’ll get the whole chapter drafted. I did not manage to complete this goal. I am adding it on to next month’s goals.

Write my summer syllabus–I need to get this written up (probably just an edited version of last summer’s syllabus) and get my summer books ordered. Completed.

Get my summer class page up and running–Once I have the syllabus edited, I need to make sure that my Carmen page is up and running for the students. The Carmen website did not have the summer pages ready to work on, so that is being moved to April’s goals.

Write my teaching philosophy statement–Since I’ll be entering the job market in the Fall, I think it’s high time I get my teaching philosophy out on paper. While it seems overwhelming, I’m determined to get a draft of it completed this month. Again, this was at the bottom of the priority list, so it is something I am moving to next month’s goals. I managed to reach half of my goals. Each month will get better and better.

Personal:

Get back to the gym–In the last couple of weeks, with lots of traveling and friends visiting, I’ve fallen off my workout routine. I’ve decided that rather than sticking to the rigid daily routine I was working on before, that I’m going to incorporate a lot more cardio activity and then stick with the weight lifting routines I can do without a buddy. I sort of accomplished this one before coming down with the flu. Now that I am recovered, it’s back to it tomorrow!

Spend more time with new friends–I only have a short time left here in Fayetteville, so I want to make sure I spend as much time with my new friends here as I can. I want to designate at least one day a week to social time (in person, not online). Had a few coffee dates this month!

Spend less time on social media sites–Aside from my duties with BritishNavalHistory and my academic work on social media, I want to spend less time checking my personal Facebook. I was somewhat successful with this goal. It’s a work in progress. But I did participate in Unicef’s program in which they donate water to people in need for every 10 minutes you spend without your phone. In just a couple of days, I spent nearly 20 hours without it.

Have one date night a week with my husband–This is a no brainer. The further along he gets in his program (and the more work I have to do with my dissertation), the less time we get to spend together. I want to designate one night a week to a no-study/no-school date-night. Getting him on board will be the tricky part. This one is still a work in progress as he prepares to move on to the next phase of his course.

Finish the two novels I started–I am most of the way done with both The Scarpetta Factor and Dust by Patricia Cornwell. I need to go ahead and finish both of them! Incomplete so far.

How did you do this month?

 

March Goals

Academic:

Start editing the BNH Book Reviews Site–As a new member of the website BritishNavalHistory.com, my role is to re-organize and edit the Book Reviews section. Since it’s going to take a lot of work, I want to make sure I don’t bite off more than I can chew. My first steps will be to go over the plan with Sam and Justin via Skype and then get more comfortable with editing the page through WordPress.

Construct new chapter outlines–Now that I have new, solid direction for my dissertation, I need to write up a new set of chapter outlines not only for myself, but to send to my advisor so that she and I are on the same page.

Join the Twitter #writingpact–I’ve seen several colleagues using the hashtag “writing pact” to keep themselves on point. This month, I’d like to start participating in “writing pact” and get at least half of my second chapter drafted. If I’m good, I’ll get the whole chapter drafted.

Write my summer syllabus–I need to get this written up (probably just an edited version of last summer’s syllabus) and get my summer books ordered.

Get my summer class page up and running–Once I have the syllabus edited, I need to make sure that my Carmen page is up and running for the students.

Write my teaching philosophy statement–Since I’ll be entering the job market in the Fall, I think it’s high time I get my teaching philosophy out on paper. While it seems overwhelming, I’m determined to get a draft of it completed this month.

Personal:

Get back to the gym–In the last couple of weeks, with lots of traveling and friends visiting, I’ve fallen off my workout routine. I’ve decided that rather than sticking to the rigid daily routine I was working on before, that I’m going to incorporate a lot more cardio activity and then stick with the weight lifting routines I can do without a buddy.

Spend more time with new friends–I only have a short time left here in Fayetteville, so I want to make sure I spend as much time with my new friends here as I can. I want to designate at least one day a week to social time (in person, not online).

Spend less time on social media sites–Aside from my duties with BritishNavalHistory and my academic work on social media, I want to spend less time checking my personal Facebook.

Have one date night a week with my husband–This is a no brainer. The further along he gets in his program (and the more work I have to do with my dissertation), the less time we get to spend together. I want to designate one night a week to a no-study/no-school date-night. Getting him on board will be the tricky part.

Finish the two novels I started–I am most of the way done with both The Scarpetta Factor and Dust by Patricia Cornwell. I need to go ahead and finish both of them!

 

Do you write monthly goals? If you do, I’d love to hear them!