It is all too common to see PhD students work themselves to the point of physical and mental illness in order to complete their studies. It is less common to see PhD students who feel that they are under such pressure that the only option is suicide. But it does happen. There is a culture of acceptance around mental health issues in academia – and this needs to change. (source)
I have read a few recent pieces from The Guardian about mental health issues and academia. This has caused me to reflect upon my own experiences as a woman with OCD, a casual academic, and prior to that, an undergraduate and postgraduate student. In this post I am not speaking for all people with mental illness, or even all people who have OCD. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is a term that encompasses a wide selection of behaviours and compulsions, and the experience that one person has is likely far different to that of another, even with the same diagnosed condition.
OCD has manifested itself in different ways for me, in different points of my life, however one thing has held true for me for as long as I can remember. The reason it took so long for me to realise I had anxiety because I didn’t know that was what it was. I became so used to being consumed by panic and worry that it never occurred to me that it was even a problem, it was and is my default setting. I am always fucking worried, or as I would tell myself, a “realist”.
I was not diagnosed with OCD until after my daughter had been born. My pregnancy had been horrendous to say the least and I had become extremely unwell. One observation I had made, even before this diagnosis, was that the behaviours I had adopted during my pregnancy (obsessive thoughts, rituals, obsessive Googling) were just an extreme manifestation of behaviors I had experienced since I was a teenager. However many of these could easily be written off as quirks, or eccentricities. I have always been a “worrier” and come from a long line of worriers. My Mum is a superhero whose superpower is the ability to leap to the worst conclusion in a single bound and I found that I followed suit. I used to do silly things, that I recognised as being silly as I was doing them. The pegs on the line had to match in colour on a single piece of clothing or something would happen to my brother. That is ridiculous. I know it’s ridiculous, but it was an easy enough ritual to do, would make me feel relieved once I had done it, so really what was the harm?
I was never particularly successful at high school, a point that some people find surprising given the academic aptitude I displayed once I got to university. The only subject I gave a shit about was 3 unit English. Whether or not that still exists or how that system works I have no idea, but that’s what it was called in the shadowy era known as the late 90s. I got to uni and I crashed head first into Cultural Studies and English and Sociology and fell in love. I loved the thick books of photocopied readings full of Stuart Hall and Foucault and Dorothy Porter. I loved the writing and the reading and the discussions. I loved discursive analysis and semiotics and ate it all up. What I didn’t realise at the time was that I began to engage in behaviours which were unhealthy, and perhaps even damaging, but because these equalled success within the academic context it didn’t even occur to me to question them.
I lived only a ten minute walk away from campus, if that. However it became my mission to always be “on time” to class. However what is “on time” for me is actually grotesquely early for others. I had to be the first person in the classroom, I don’t know why but I had to be. I would sometimes get to class as early as 60 minutes before it was scheduled to start in order to avoid the shadowy spectre of ‘lateness’. I don’t know what would have happened if I had have been late, and I never asked myself the question of why it was such a big deal either. I would use this time alone in the classroom to review the readings and mentally prepare for class discussion.
The Smart Casual is so punctual!
I would hand in assignments at least a week earlier, if not more. This was in the pre-eLearning era which meant that I handed my beleaguered tutor a physical print out which they would then have to store until the assignment was actually due. They would be astonished, or annoyed, or confused. I had to do it, to give myself at least temporary respite from the anxiety that was a part of my daily existence. Once I had handed it in I would feel okay, it was one less thing on the list. Why would I want to leave it until the night before when I could relieve some of that grinding worry by getting it out-of-the-way a month or so before?
The Smart Casual is so organised!
My marks were of the utmost importance to me. If I didn’t get at least a D I would be devastated, and to be honest less than a HD made me profoundly unhappy. I worked and stressed and worried and in the last two years of my undergraduate degree I got a HD average, but at what cost? I wasn’t in any social clubs, I had only a small group of friends, and I worked only short-term temp jobs between sessions in order to make my studies my absolute number 1 top priority above all else. My only respite was Thursday “uni night” drinking sessions where I would drink to get drunk. Drinking culture was a massive part of undergraduate life so this wouldn’t have even stuck out as unusual. I drank to escape my own stupid mind.
The Smart Casual is so smart!
Now I am not arguing that being punctual and organised and smart aren’t all good qualities to have, because they are in fact all exceptional qualities to have and will serve you well both in the workplace, and in life generally. However they must also be weighed against the personal cost that they present. However to me none of the above ‘symptoms’ I mentioned signalled that something was wrong. I cast these behaviours in a different light: they instead meant that I was a born academic, I hit the milestones, I got the marks, I submitted the First Class Honours thesis and if constant “worry” was what it took to get it done, well so be it.
It is this element of my personality that has brought me the most personal success and recognition, is also a part of me that has caused me the most anguish. It was my (unrecognised and undiagnosed) OCD that was part of the reason I dropped out of my PhD without seeking assistance or guidance from anyone else. I had been so successful as an undergraduate, I never needed help to get the HD’s, so it seemed to be an admission of failure to put my hand up and say “help me”. I didn’t want to need help. I had worked as an undergraduate in isolation and it had got me places, I don’t know why this stopped working when I was a PhD student. I think it was the isolation, the fatigue of working on a massive project with seemingly no end in sight. I felt like I was a burden to my PhD supervisors. Coupled with the breakdown of a long-term relationship it got to the point where the only option I had was to walk away. While I did what I had to do to cope at the time, I have regretted that decision ever since.
I have learned to recognise these unhealthy patterns in myself now. While I have learned to temper my more extreme tendencies, these patterns still remain. I am early to work. I get things done always. Deadlines are not a challenge to me, as the only way to avoid the extreme anxiety they cause in me is to face them head on and get that shit done. The point of this post is that I understand the pressures that undergraduate and postgraduate studies can cause, and I empathise with the myriad ways that students may use to cope. Many students procrastinate, I could never do it myself but I get that is what works for some.
OCD has kind of become a buzzword, shorthand for ‘anal retentive’ or ‘obsessed with cleanliness’. Image macros about OCD make it about patterns and hand-washing. That’s not my thing. My house is almost always a shitfight, and a crooked picture or mismatched pair of socks has zero impact on my well-being. According to Jeff Szymanski, OCD in pop culture tends to focus on the disorder as being “cartoon-like” with individuals “portrayed as eccentric, sociopathic, or dismissively (just another hand washer)” (source). The reality of OCD is much messier. Yes it can be hand-washing, and Monk style obsessive counting and cleaning, those are real manifestations, but they are not the only manifestations. Really OCD just refers to the myriad of ways that different people choose to alleviate their extreme symptoms of anxiety. I was and am a master of keeping my symptoms imperceptible. I don’t scream or swing from the rafters or scream obscenities at the train station therefore I must be okay. Except sometimes I’m not.
I have visited friends who’ve said offhand remarks like “I am so OCD about my dvd collection” or “I am so OCD about cleaning” and while I get it, it also makes me sad because it completely dismisses the reality for me and others who have this particular brand of mental illness. Our painful reality becomes a quirky idiosyncrasy. I don’t take it personally, the people who have said these things are almost always the most caring and empathetic people I know, but it reminds me that there is a thing wrong with me, a thing that is somehow good but also bad, a thing that makes me strange and wrong but also punctual and smart.
If you are reading this and it strikes a chord then I urge you to reach out to people around you. Some people get driven to the point of illness by the stresses of academia and this isn’t okay. For others, academia just exacerbates the tendencies that already exist, and that’s not okay either. Don’t drop out. Don’t disappear. Don’t think that you are lesser than, or weird, or sick. It’s okay to be a worrier, it’s not okay to be consumed by worry. Your campus should have mental health facilities available for both students and staff, please make use of them. If you are experiencing more urgent issues and are in Australia then call Lifeline on 13 11 14.