The Taunting of a Blinking Cursor: Depression and the PhD

Every day when I wake up, one of the first things I do by habit is wake up my computer. As I do this, I’m inevitably greeted by my in-progress dissertation. Since I advanced to candidacy in Spring 2016, I’ve been attempting to make headway on chapters so I can finally be finished with my doctorate. I started this program in the fall of 2013, and people have been asking me since I began when I would be finished. (If you want a quick track on pissing off a graduate student, ask them when they’re going to finish their degree. It never fails.) The doctorate and dissertation in themselves are quite a daunting hurdle to overcome. For me, when I see that word document every single day, I’m reminded of my own personal demons and the overwhelming sense of anxiety and hopelessness that comes with seeing the blinking cursor and the page counts that never seem to go up, no matter how much effort I promise to and do put in that week.

What most people don’t know is that I was diagnosed in early 2014 with major depressive disorder, along with generalized anxiety disorder. While this has been something I have dealt with for many years before the diagnosis, the pressure and competition in a doctoral program became extremely intense and overwhelming to the point where I decided I needed outside help. I attended personalized therapy sessions and take way more medications that I ever thought somebody under the age sixty would take.

Despite all of my efforts, I still struggle every single day with these issues, and I rarely want to actually leave my apartment, much less work  on something that may well be considered one of the most important things I will have to create during my entire graduate career. I have not presented at a conference since 2014, since the last time I did, I nearly had a mental breakdown from the stress of having to speak to strangers about my ideas, while also accepting their criticism. While some may misconstrue this as laziness, to me, this is my reality. This is an everyday struggle, and as someone who seeks to be a people pleaser, I feel like I let others around me down since I do have these issues. As someone who suffers from imposter syndrome, I always worry that the more people are exposed to my work, the more they will think that I am a fraud for getting this far, despite the fact that I have worked hard for all of this.

The thing about academia is that you don’t hear of many colleagues speaking on issues that they have, especially if they’re related to anything like a mental illness. What people don’t talk much about is how isolating being in a doctoral program actually can be, and when you’re depressed and/or have anxiety, it makes it even more isolating. In general, people mistake depression and anxiety with, “well, yes. I too I get sad and stressed out. That’s normal!” Which, yes. That is normal. It’s difficult to understand what a depressed or anxious person goes through without actually experiencing it for yourself. (I would not wish it upon anyone.) During my presentation for my prospectus and my comprehensive exams, I felt an intensive amount of daily anxiety, and I sometimes questioned why I chose to put myself through this.

My answer is this—I have an intense passion for history. While I don’t necessarily have that same passion for writing, the dissertation is a hurdle that one must get over in order to have a doctorate in history, even if you aren’t at all interested in research academia as a career. So, every day that I wake up and stare that cursor down, all I can hope is that my fight will be worth it in the end.

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