Dropping out of my Ph.D. saved my life

I like to say on this blog that my midlife crisis started three years ago, which is essentially true, but the fact of the matter is, I’ve been in crisis most of my life. The the real flame out started in 2001 when I started a Ph.D. program. I went back to Vancouver after very successfully finishing a Master of Arts in Sociology at Queen’s in 2001. I hadn’t taken a break from academic work since after my Mom died in 1995, a huge mistake. So after an honours BA at UBC and a Masters at Queen’s, I decided to move back to BC which was a huge mistake.

Saying that my trauma was triggered the minute I got off the plane is an understatement. I think I had a massive panic attack that lasted about 2 years. You think I may be exaggerating but I’m not. Genuinely not kidding, it lasted 2 years when I fled the province with Meg by car.

I started the Ph.D. program with the highest of hopes. I wanted to be an academic and I thought I would be a good one. I really did. But I couldn’t deal with my trauma, be in Vancouver, I was completed burned out from overworking myself and I flamed out. But let’s go back to what I think happened and then, with almost twenty years perspective, maybe did happen.

I started in 2001 and it seemed like it was going well. I had no idea what fresh hell awaited me – the people were competitive, the city was cold as hell (both the weather and the people) and I had no idea what I was doing there. But I faked it, sort of. My supervisor whom I gone to work with could clearly see me flaming out in my first year because she didn’t like my work and didn’t hold back in telling me. She told me on a weekly basis how truly terrible it was for someone in a downward depression/anxiety/shame spiral was super helpful.

But she didn’t know about the spiral and I didn’t tell her. In fact, I couldn’t tell anyone. I was so afraid and ashamed about having depression that I didn’t think I could be a Ph.D. student and be diagnosed with a mental illness. It was pretty dark and being in a doctoral program was soul crushing. I think the most mentally healthy of people suffer as doctoral students. The sole purpose of these programs is to strip students down. To make them prove their scholarly worth. To try to push every piece of ego out of their work, as has been done to them. It’s not only dehumanizing, it’s unconscionable.

So every time someone has asked me about doing a doctoral program, I’ve advised them against it. And not because I hold a grudge against the program or that I spent years feeling like a failure because I couldn’t finish it, it’s because I genuinely believe it’s not worth it. Very, very few people who get Ph.D.s these days get a full-time, tenure track jobs. That’s the golden carrot they dangle in front of you when you do a doctoral program. And it’s far too elusive these days to be worth the struggle. I’d love to hear from people who had a good recent experience with a Ph.D. program, it would make me believe more in the sacrifices required.

With 20 years hindsight, I can see that I was so unwell even before I got to that program. And going back to Vancouver, after being away from the pain and trauma for two years, was a huge mistake. I could feel the mistake in every bone of my body and I didn’t listen to it. I refused to listen to the voice that told me not to be there, to pull the plug. If I had known then what I know now, I wouldn’t have done the Ph.D.program, I wouldn’t have gone back to Vancouver and I could have started my healthy life a lot earlier than I did. I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to get my shit together. But you all know what they say about hindsight. If you have the opportunity to listen to the voice that tells you, don’t do this, just tune in, just for a minute. It may pivot your life in ways that are a lot healthier. xo Janet

Being shamed for emotional reactions is a powerful motivator

Credit: @frizzkidart

Kids grow up with a view of the how emotional responses are suppose to work just by watching their parent or parents or primary caregiver(s) respond to the world around them. They also understand how to emotional responses are supposed to work by how their caregivers respond to them. Children want to know if their emotional responses are a) acceptable and b) normal. Being shamed for having emotional responses as a kid is a sure fire way to teach children not to: show emotions, connect with their emotions, and/or that they are a freak for having a normal emotional response to something stressful, sad or upsetting.

So, if we take this logic into adulthood, what do we get? Disconnection, lack of empathy for self and others, a fundamental belief that we are somehow different or inherently flawed/unfixable. We suppress or repress our emotion, we bury them in food or alcohol or other quick hits, we have difficulty being vulnerable or connected to others, even those we love the most. It’s a shame cycle that isn’t pretty – I have difficulty expressing my emotions because I have an built-in shame response about doing this, people view me as lacking the ability to connect or be vulnerable, I feel more shame for being defective or broken in some way. Rinse and repeat.

What do we do then as adults when this is happening? Can I think my way out of this? Yes and no in my experience. The first thing I did was learn about the range of human emotions and that these are totally normal for me to express. Sounds weird but it’s true. Second, I learned from my therapist that we’re all flawed and fallible, that’s being human, and that this is, also, totally normal and ok. Third, I learned that when I default to an emotional response that isn’t functional or rationale (extreme worry, anger, frustration, etc), that I can write down the story I have in my head about what is going on and work it through. What does that mean? In cognitive behavioural therapy, therapists use things called “thought records”. It sounds weird at first but once you do them on paper a couple of times it gets pretty easy to start doing it in your head. I do these in my head a lot when I have anxiety or when I’m really frustrated by something. I’m not an expert on CBT, a therapist or a source of advice on thought records but if you want to learn more, go here.

I have found that there are tools and resources that help me when I’m in a shame spiral, particularly when it comes to feeling guilty, anxious or getting angry/frustrated about something. Shame is something we learn as a kid in so many different ways and all of it comes with trauma. But we can unlearn the shame we feel and respond differently. We can work through the trauma and the thoughts or mental scaffolding we have built up around it. This is a way through, not away from, tough stuff emotionally. Keep leaning into the fear of being emotional exposed and you’ll find it’s not so scary after all. xo Janet

“And now the attic is right here”

I watched David Letterman’s episode with Kanye West on Netflix recently and while Kanye’s politics are not totally clear to me, I love his music, always have. When I watched the episode, I was really intrigued by some of the very self reflective things he had to say about his bipolar diagnosis and his experience with psychiatric medications. I have a long history with meds as well so I was really wondering what he was going to say about why he isn’t taking any right now. I won’t give away the ending but surprise, he’s rich enough to have a doctor come to his house every week to monitor his mental health. This does really make a difference.

So when Kanye experienced “ramping up”, as he describes being manic in the show, he was rushed to hospital. His retelling of what happened next is heartbreaking, I encourage you all to watch the episode and listen to what he has to say. What I want to remark on is his exchange with Letterman on how we used to treat people with “those problems” and how we are treated now. Letterman remarks that we all had that “one crazy Uncle Al” who used to, “live in the attic”. And Kanye responds, “and now the attic is right here”. It’s a great moment between the two of them.

I want you to think about the stereotypes and biases we have about “those people”, the ones with mental health issues or a diagnosis of mental illness. We don’t live in attics anymore, or at least if we do, I hope it’s a really nice penthouse or loft. The truth it, some of us are lucky and have access to great doctors and decent medications. Some of us live in nice homes and have good jobs. Some of us can afford really good therapists. Some of us can afford gym memberships and fresh, healthy food. You get the picture.

So, the next time you think about your “crazy Uncle Al” or Aunt Sue who “can’t cope” or Mom who is super high maintenance because she has an anxiety but doesn’t know that or doesn’t want you to know, think about me. Think about Kanye West or Robert Downey Jr (yes, the guy who plays Iron Man has mental health issues). We’re “those people”, we just happen to be a lot more visible these days. xo Janet