I've asked a scientist who has struggled with mental health issues and substance abuse through STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) graduate school to write about it, to highlight the pressures faced and the way problems are noticed, exacerbated and often, perhaps unintentionally, masked over the course of education. This as well as other recent posts regarding mental health in academia, as well as in journalism, give me hope that the subject can be discussed openly, without isolating those who struggle (over 1/4 of adult Americans). Below, please find one scientist's unedited personal story.
So, graduate school. Cassie has asked me multiple times to write an anonymous guest post on this, so, since it is a science and addiction blog, “here goes nothin’!”
What does a typical STEM graduate student want out of this micro-career of frugality? Frankly, it varies; not far or wide, though. There are students who have ambitions that are exclusive in individual industries, and don’t consider themselves marketable in those respective industries without letters further than those of a Bachelor’s following their moniker.
And then: there are the true believers, among which I consider myself. It’s hard to admit, but anyone telling you that they are doing cancer research because they care about saving the human race is completely full of shit. The true believers fall into one category: we are addicts. Bad ones. Nearly everything about our personality involves excess and addiction. Every day that we generate data, we are the first people in the WORLD to know something. Something that might just DIRECTLY save someone we know and love. Such a train of thought borders on megalomaniacal. We are not chastised and criticized for being addicts, yet we are. Nearly every STEM student would read my preceding paragraph and somewhere, even in their deepest subconscious, knowingly nod their head.
My story echoes this addiction. And I continue to be such an addict. I pursued science from the start, despite receiving offers for multiple art scholarships. It was KNOWLEDGE I truly wanted. Truth or Death. And I’m not exaggerating when I say the pursuit of truth has nearly killed me in multiple occasions and places. Heavy equipment in bad conditions, falls from ledges, etc. etc. But, I will betray the deadliest of all below.
Academia is out to get you. It is designed to do its best to make you fail. It can make your life hell. Here is my story: I have PTSD. I sure didn’t know it until it almost killed me. Three times, at last count. The stress of graduate school as a STEM student brought on depression and anxiety, a fairly well documented phenomenon. Now add an advisor that you dearly love, trust and respect, BUT is an old school Ivy League graduate bad-ass who reminds you of your abusive father in temper and capability of anger. Guess what? That’s PTSD trigger number one. Number two? The funding deadline. Despite storied students of yore taking up to a decade to finish, the current economy is not nearly so kind. You get 5-7 years to get shit done and get the fuck out. And, if you’re REALLY lucky, health insurance (don’t get your hopes up, kids, it’s about as rare as hen’s teeth in STEM graduate programs). Number 3? Public speaking. It has put me in the hospital. Literally. In the mother fucking hospital. All in the name of Science. Or, rather, more correctly, the illusion of science that is actually simple, yet evolved, tradition in disguise.
Before being diagnosed with PTSD, I had already seen a school therapist. I tried to hide my self-medicating with sips of the hardest liquor in America, but to no avail. One morning I ran out. I decided to chug a Red Bull, take a long shower and let the worst be done and over with. One small problem: there are a very few amount of drug types that withdrawing from can be a death sentence. Alcohol is just such a drug. Within 12 hours of my last sip, there were black and white movies playing behind my eyelids. I ended up in the hospital with REAL delirium tremens. Yeah, not the shakes normal people call the “DTs”, this was actual, real siezures, feeling a spider that isn’t there bite the top of your head. Every white noise (think hard about how many you hear in your day) becomes a song from the Lawrence Welk era. Unfortunately, no pink elephants.
As much as it pains me to say it, graduate school is a crucible intended to break you. And as it evolved, it has evolved to be very adept at just that. And yes, I’m happy about that. Who do you want working on those cancer drugs? To quote Carl Sagan: “self-correcting, ever-changing, with this tool we vanquish the impossible.” Who do you want swinging the hammer, so to speak? Of course not a drunk that ends up in the hospital, but ponder this:
Do you think I knew I had PTSD or anxiety doing group assignments and sleeping until noon on a Wednesday? Of course not (although I did hold 3 jobs at one point, just to stay enrolled as an undergraduate). Now, after almost 11 years of below minimum wage living, learning the new misery and bane that is a panic attack, learning how to fail, AND that I had PTSD on top of all that, I face the edge of the cliff that is the real world. Was it worth it? It was like any other addiction: you see yourself at your worst, you lose relationships, there are a few good stories involved, and you end up with a LOT of regrets. That’s my confession and my STEM graduate school story. And why I give addicts in all shapes, sizes, stages and condition their due credit.