The Beginning of a Dream and accident with reality:
Every student fascinated by life sciences wants to be a “Doctor,” and I was no exception. But when I failed to clear the entrance examination, I was lost. There was no “plan B.” From dreaming of being a neurosurgeon (because the nervous system is the most challenging chapter to understand and only the weak choose an easy subject- was my motto), I was doing my bachelor’s at a private college. The first year was a drag. In the second year, I had a fantastic teacher who was trying to get a PhD fellowship. She inspired me to learn more about the research field. While exploring other fields (read MBA), I knew what I did not want! I did my master’s in botany accidentally (entirely another story for some other day) and started preparing for National Eligibility Test (NET) exams.
The year 2014-15 was worse for me. I somehow knew that something was wrong with me. The emotional turmoil was a part of me due to my childhood trauma, but the physical symptoms like
palpitations, chest pain, and migraines were new to me. I was diagnosed with clinical depression but did not take it seriously. So, a parallel health battle started. My emotions were on a roller coaster- I would start crying in the middle of a lecture. I would feel suffocated in a class full of students and wanted to either throw up or run away. Suicidal thoughts became common and amidst all this was my desperate need to clear the NET for a PhD. It was a do-or-die situation for me. Until then, I believed that the depression and other symptoms were temporary, and once I cleared the exams, everything would be as before.
A new journey with unhealed past trauma:
After the exams, I took a vacation for a week and thought that the worst was over. I joined a national lab as a project assistant until my results were out. This was the first time in my life that I was away from home: a new city, a new language, new people, and an introverted me. My challenge was that I had theoretical knowledge about tools used in plant biotechnology but zero handling experience. I was so overwhelmed and scared. I spent the day afraid of making mistakes, and the nights anticipating failure in the awaited results. In November 2015, I got the result, and I passed the CSIR-JRF. Life was easy on me for a while. Although, my nightmares still accompanied me. The first year of coursework almost went smoothly, until the exams. My old symptoms, which my parents used to call exam phobia, came back, and this time, they were uglier. Everyone knows that mental health issues are a hush-hush in our society but convincing yourself that this is a ‘condition’ that can be treated, and you are not crazy, is a task. As work pressure increased, so did the symptoms. Panic attacks, mood disorders, sleep disorders, and lack of appetite with a whirlpool of emotions (fear, anger, guilt, and shame) brewing inside me, I continued my work somehow. The symptoms were visible to everyone but not the cause. So, I was deemed incompetent, lazy, a liar, unfit for a PhD degree, etc. When all my batchmates were busy with their research, I ran from pole to post to find out what was wrong with me. It took me two years to finally reach out to a psychiatrist, and by then, things had gone pretty bad on the work front. I took a leave of absence for a month and started proper counselling. Against all opinions and advice to quit, I resumed my work. But now, everyone knew about my mental health issues (a so-called confidante spilled the beans), and they had their perspectives on this. The juniors and interns were told to stay away from me, as I could physically harm them and sabotage their experiments! At one point, I started believing it to be true (gaslighting). You can imagine the rage that had built in me.
My support system:
I was fortunate to have found a therapist at that time and some great friends who saved me. But I still had to go to the lab every day, where everyone thought I was either crazy or a brilliant actor at power with Meryl Streep (I wish I could take that as a compliment), and I still had a lot of work to do. But I dreaded facing those people.
Coping strategy: IGNORE. You cannot fight ignorance.
I started using earphones to ignore my lab mates’ voices (it was triggering), and I tried working in other labs (thankful to friends) when I did not need my lab-specific instruments. I avoided social interactions with my lab mates, seniors, and supervisor. I worked late into the night when most of them had left. I carved my own social circle with friends who were like family, and things started improving. Finally, after six long years with 3 COVID waves, I successfully completed my PhD in April 2022. My supervisor admitted during my viva that he did not think I could make it till the end!
I had always been vocal about my mental health condition. I am not ashamed of it. I got help because I asked for it. I still have unresolved issues and trauma from the past six years and am still in therapy. But I love my subject; I still want to work as a researcher, learn more, and reach out to students like me.
For those suffering in silence - DON’T. Talk to your friends and family. Anxiety and depression are ‘conditions. They don’t define you. You are worthy of everything you are working towards. Reach out, ask for help, talk, and discuss; you might also help others. The world needs more empaths than any professional.
This work was created as part of a science communication internship at BioXspace.
Edited and approved by Dr. Jyoti Chhibber-Goel and Dr. Bharti Singal