This blog post belongs to the “Mental Health In Grad School” genre.
Well, see what you think.
Winter 2015 I broke out in hives. It was a confusing experience: I’ve never suffered from hives before, and there’s no history of it in my immediate family. It just seemed like one day my skin turned red and itched like Hell.
They appeared at pressure points/joints, but covered my whole body. Raised welts popped then simmered down – here one hour, faded to a red mark the next. I have pretty good self-control when it comes to scratching, but they still hurt.
It took a while for me to link the symptoms to “hives”, at which point I Googled “anti-histamines” and went hunting in Rite Aid for bottles of pills. In the interim I had trouble sleeping because of the pain. As my bodies natural anti-histamines cycled down for the evening I had to rush out the lab, before my neck and face started to turn reddish purple.
I was given the option of prescription-grade anti-histamines, but settled on 2 brands of over the counter pills (Zyrtec in the daytime, Benadryl overnight). I figured out that really hot baths just before bed got rid of the pain, as did sleeping on the cool wooden floor if I was unlucky enough to wake at 2am. The hives went away in the summer…then came back a little while later. Going off the Zyrtec led to bad flare-ups, but eventually my body’s natural anti-histamines took control.
When first I went to the university health centre they asked me about any lifestyle changes that could have triggered my full-on allergic reaction (diet, laundry detergent, etc). I could only shake my head and smile faintly.
Stress was the blatant cause of my hives.
If I was allergic to anything, it was grad school.
I can handle deadlines, criticism and failed experiments. I managed 2 years of my PhD without a major auto-immune malfunction. When stress got too much for my body to handle was when a series of insidious, small problems piled up.
I moved into a new apartment off campus. I needed to live by myself, but the place I chose sucked up huge quantities of my salary. When home-to-lab was no longer a 5 min stroll but required a car journey or 20 minute bike ride, I had to change how I conducted research and structured my day.
Lab mates moved on. The individuals I’d been closest to – who in fact I’d relied on socially – had to exit the picture; as the group social dynamics shifted they seemed to cut me out. I was now in charge of several big group responsibilities that had once been split across 3 people. It felt like I was doing 95% of the work of keeping the group functioning…but getting no “social rewards” for my effort. A piece of equipment was malfunctioning, the person designated responsible for maintenance pretended it wasn’t. It seemed I was the only person who cared enough to get it fixed. I became angry and resentful.
My project stalled. I’d been lucky to kick off my PhD with a short project that led to a 1st author paper quickly, and had made good progress with tricky projects after that. But when I finally got within the parameters of “publishable data” once more, I was told to go away and make the data even better. I couldn’t. Months passed.
From what friends have told me about their own experiences, when grad school goes wrong it is because of this kind of pile-up. It’s never just that you have a tough project, or are struggling with your home life, or have lab problems. It’s never one big disaster that throws you into misery. You probably don’t even realise how bad things have got for you until the demons force their way out.
For what it’s worth, I went for a session with the university’s counselling services shortly after the hives broke out. For me it didn’t work out: I never scheduled any follow-ups. Partly because recognising I could use counselling was simultaneous to (finally) recognising I had a serious problem I needed to address. I also didn’t connect with the counsellor I was assigned to: I wanted to get away from feeling upset and angry, not talk for 60 minutes about it.
[My “do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do” advice would be to try a second or third counsellor if the first one doesn’t work for you. And you probably aren’t going to solve everything (or even anything) in your first appointment.]
Things got better. I’m not sure I was super-proactive, more that I adjusted to the new circumstances and they stopped stressing me as much. Maybe it’s bad to write a “Mental health in grad school” post that argues “well, y’know, the best way to deal with problems is wait til they fade of their own accord”. But that’s sometimes just what happens.
…Well, a better way of saying that could be: “It’s not the circumstances, but how you react to them that matters”. I could focus on doing my group jobs as professionally as I could and decide that others dereliction of duty wasn’t my problem. When I fixed that piece of equipment I made it clear to my boss that I’d used my initiative to solve the problem, so got credit for that. Understanding that circumstantial set-backs weren’t permanent or a reflection of my personal qualities helped too.
Quitting is a valid choice if you experience this kind of mental/physical health misery. The friends who told me their stories left grad school (all of them, I believe) and were telling me about it 5-10 years down the line. They’re all successful adults whose professional trajectories and lives I admire. A PhD is never worth wrecking yourself over.
My hives are still there. They haven’t erupted in a long time, but they remain under my skin, waiting for the opportunity to flare back up. Next time though I’ll be ready.