Poverty, Academia, Depression, and Shame. Part III

[Read Part I, and then Part II.]

Part III

Depression—I am not an outlier.

I have been an extremely high-functioning depressive most of my adult life. Until I wasn’t.

We falsely assume that all depressives are sad, melancholic. And while it may present that way, the primary symptom of my depression has always been anhedonia, which is a psychiatric term to explain an inability to feel pleasure. It’s a particular kind of numbness to the joys of life. And while I could certainly always laugh, when I look back at these depressive episodes there is a pattern of decreasing creativity where I became mechanical, dazedly executing routines of work and school. Because I have always been something of a workaholic, few people would notice when I began to feel anesthetized to life’s challenges. My default autopilot functioned in high-performing drive.

Until it didn’t.

In 2015 I began to feel bad. Not depressed, at first, just bad, with a confluence of physical symptoms. I was eventually diagnosed with an autoimmune disease named thyroiditis or Hashimoto’s disease, which can cause depression. [You can read the full saga here.] When the brain doesn’t get the hormones it needs from the thyroid, it causes micro-inflammation that can result in cognitive problems: memory loss, faltering for words, inability to concentrate, and, in my case, a profound, dangerous, depressive episode. I began to fantasize about being dead. Not killing myself, necessarily, but the death of my aching body. I imagined lying down and sinking beneath the floorboards, resting between the stories of buildings, slowly decomposing. Or being on the grass and disintegrating into the earth, worms eating my flesh, body becoming a liquid that seeps deep into underground caves of total darkness.

It was comforting.

Two years after my diagnosis (almost to the day) I am doing well medically and mentally. I look back at periods of depression in my life (though none were even close to being as severe as this last one) and wonder what would have been different had my thyroid disease been treated earlier? My physicians do not think that I have a mood disorder and have put anti-depressants on stand-by. For the record, I will pop those pills like candy if my doctors recommend it. I cannot risk falling into such a deep hole again, because I am barely surviving the aftermath of the last one. If it only takes one family crisis for students from poverty to drop out, I am doing my damndest to white-knuckle my way through to the end.

Illness derailed my plans to such an extent that my finances, living, job, and school situations are all currently uncertain. This is causing a punishing amount of stress. I am far more concerned about not having a place to live than I am about my exams. I feel caught between immediate short-term essential needs and long-term goals for life. While this tension is not new, I am, admittedly, deeply exhausted that it is familiar territory. When does it end? I’ve been working since I was twelve years old. When you are poor, thirty years of work is not an investment that produces dividends, because the work you are likely doing has no mechanism for advancement. You cannot domestic-service your way up to even the working class much less the (disappearing) middle class.

Part of the reason I went to graduate school was because it can elevate your social status. It wasn’t the main reason, but a fragment of the appeal package. Twenty years ago, in my angriest days before going into therapy, my bachelor’s degree was a process of first thinking that I wasn’t good enough, then thinking everyone was stupid because they seemed far too naïve about everything, then maturing (a little) and realizing that my upbringing gave me a specific kind of perspective that was useful, and rewarded. I still think everyone’s naïve. But now I also include myself.

Here’s the rub: I’m not an outlier. A colleague of mine attempted suicide and they were withdrawn from their PhD program, and they then attempted a second time. I cannot view this incident as anything but a cruel warning to the rest of us. It’s not faculty that receives those calls from a concerned family member. They don’t get asked to be there for a twenty-four-hour suicide watch. And they are certainly not the ones that witness the intense shame that comes along with feeling like you’ve failed. [My colleague is doing well now—(un)fortunately the suicide attempts prompted expedited medical intervention.]

Graduate students are suffering from a convergence of factors that has produced statistically significant problems. It’s a crisis of mental health. Academia doesn’t know what to do with the hoards of depressed grad students wondering if they’ve wasted years of their life in pursuit of jobs that no longer exist, being not adequately financially supported, in a society that doesn’t recognize their achievements, while under political attacks on higher education from far-right rhetoric, where faculty pays lip service to addressing privileges but that is not reflected in how students are treated. Beyond the data and think pieces are actual graduate students, trying to survive this brutal environment.

Can we not do better? I sit here asking myself if I will be kicked out because I didn’t perform as well on my comprehensive exams as I admittedly know I should have. It’s not even remotely in character for me to submit sub-par work, but for the past two years, I have not been functioning at my usual high-performance badass self. And I’m okay with that. It was a deliberate decision to centralize my medical recovery over phd-ing, and so I hit the gym in favour of books. It may have been necessary, but it also means that I am now unclear of how to negotiate finishing my thesis, trying to support myself financially, and not slipping back into harmful, workaholic patterns. That’s how I got in trouble in the first place, autoimmune disease or not.

Many professors have extolled my potential and expressed that it would be a shame if academia “lost me.” I never want to appear ungrateful for their encouragement or support. I’ve received quite a bit. I mentally compose thesis acknowledgements that carefully lists everyone that encouraged and helped me. My mother has been the most consistent of emotional supports, taking money off of her high-interest credit card to pay my rent when I first got sick. [And just to be clear, I love her deeply and will defend her fiercely. I can talk shit about my childhood, but you most certainly cannot.] You can’t do this alone. You need people in your corner to survive academia, because there will be plenty of people who are not. (And to those weak-ass haters I offer a dignified *snort* and a gracious Go Fuck Yourself.)

I don’t have answers. A draft of this last section has been sitting on my laptop all week, as I was hoping for some insight into how to complete this brief miniseries of emotional exposure. None arrived.

I imagined I’d write this piece from a position of power, somewhere along the line of post-graduate and into successful professional career. That scenario is one that proves I can overcome my conditions, and a plea to help those students that I know are struggling. In my fantasy Oscar acceptance speech (for adapted screenplay of my book, naturally) I say, “Grad students, this one’s for you. Don’t let academia kill you. Don’t let it kill parts of you. Stay alive. I love you.”

Instead I offer this: if anything here has made you uncomfortable, don’t rationalize it away. Don’t blame it on my all-too-present-these-days rage or upbringing or stress-induced academic paralysis. If you are faculty or grad student or adjunct or chair, don’t feel bad or contempt, but instead sit in that unease. I am not an outlier. We are all around, looking at this system of higher education and how it fails us, choked by a problem that seems too big to fix. We are looking at you—the words you say in class, the policies you enact, the readings you assign, the students you favour and those you do not, the money you disperse, the chances you give, the blinders you put on—and we wonder if academic brilliance justifies all the times we’ve swallowed our dissent because you have far more power. Choose the tension. Because while pity may be useless, discomfort most certainly is not. And I want you to be uncomfortable.

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