Posted by: unlikelygrad | December 1, 2009

depression and graduate school

I suffer from chronic depression. People who don’t know me well would never guess, because I hide it well. But depression is an integral part of my life nonetheless, and has been for almost 25 years.

Is there a genetic component to depression? I assume so, because at least two of my sisters have chronic depression, and my other four siblings have dealt with depression in the past.

I have never tried anti-depressant medication. Part of the reason is that I hate medicine; the other part is that I know it wouldn’t work. You see, my sister Cassie (who knows about this stuff, both from personal experience and professional involvement) tells me that medication is only truly effective if taken at the same time every day. I’m the sort of person who can barely manage to take antibiotics three times a day for ten straight days, much less getting the timing right. So I recognize that taking a pill at the exact same time every day is probably beyond my capabilities.

On the other hand, I can’t just let depression take its toll on me; if I ever did so, it would literally kill me. Or, rather, I would kill myself. And so I’ve figured out a variety of coping mechanisms over the years–cognitive behavioral therapy, exercise, meditation, and just plain keepin’ busy. These do not change the frequency with which I suffer depressive episodes–they still occur every 2-3 months–but they greatly modify the amplitude of my mood swings. In other words, I may feel a “little blue” but I no longer get suicidal.

As I emerge from my first depressive episode since beginning grad school, I am realizing what a very big contribution my husband makes to my ability to deal with depression. You see, this time, he wasn’t around when it happened–and, for some reason, I had trouble engaging my familiar coping behaviors. Though I never felt suicidal, I found myself falling into the familiar downward spiral: having trouble getting anything done, not sleeping well, walking around in a haze, blaming myself for not getting anything done, not sleeping because I knew I should be doing more, being even more tired, walking around in a haze…

Results of two weeks of depression: one test with a score 10% lower than previous test in same class; two homework assignments in another class with scores under 70% (!!!), and the realization that I did not learn much of the material that was presented in *any* of my classes during those two weeks.

My (very successful) sister Courtney once said to me: “When I’m not depressed, I work like the dickens. I make a name for myself as being such a hard worker, such a brilliant student, that when depression hits, no one notices that I don’t do anything for a few months.” To which I have to say: Amen, sister. I’m sure that will be the story of my life in grad school.

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Responses

  1. This is an issue that I’m all too familiar with, to the detriment of my academic career. It’s difficult and there is no end in sight at the moment, but I still aspire to one day attend grad school. Thanks for being open about your experience. It gives me a glint of hope for myself.

  2. I have the same feelings too, It hard for me because it is in line with the seasons. So, November -February, I want to hide and disappear, and i cant seem to write (not good being in a humanities PhD student) particularly during Winter Finals when i usually have 20 page papers due. But like your sister, because of my dedication in the first months, when I ask for extensions, people are willing to give them to me. It’s a rough cycle, but I’m learning to get through it year by year.

  3. I have some episodes too! These are the times when even a smallest event takes can really upset me. I am glad it currently only lasts up to 5 days per month (touch wood). Yes and my husband aids me come out of it too. Just looking at my son sing to himself or do his homework also makes me feel better.

    There are times when I feel upset about having taken “precious” time out of my life to raise a family, but then what they give me is definitely much more than what a grad school can ever give me!

  4. Your sister is so right. I’ll have to remember that. I don’t have depression, but my anxiety issues sometimes put me right out of commission.


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