It’s 2am in Richmond, Virginia and I’m freaking out. My roommate is asleep and the city is starting to get too quiet. I can’t sleep. The melatonin shows no sign of kicking in and I am trapped in Tumblr’s endless scroll. I reblog some pictures of Natalie Dormer and tag them for my friend Natalie to see. Tomorrow I will text her about postmodernism and the comic book. Luckily, I have a few more hours of talking on Facebook to my friends on the West Coast. Danny and I chat for a while. If I still can’t sleep there is always the never-ending stream of Twitter. I have more than a thousand followers now, when they reply it is a gentle reminder that I still exist in some capacity. I am alive.
I should read. Sidonie Smith’s Subjectivity, Identity, and the Body sits on my nightstand. It’s worth the time and investment to go through it again, maybe get some new insight on the subject of autobiography. I am supposed to be working on my dissertation, an examination of autobiographical comics written by women of color. Instead, I’m lying in bed trying to quiet my own inner screaming demons. I can’t read. I can’t sleep. What is happening to me?
I should write or draw or do something, anything creative. I am paralyzed by fear and something worse. Everyone says I am doing fine and that learning is a process. I spend forty-five minutes on Pinterest. Boot socks. Healthy baked chicken nuggets. I nervously check Facebook again. Someone’s liked my latest status update. Back to Pinterest. Kale. Funny memes. Affirmations. This is anxiety expressed online. I know something is wrong but do not have the words to express it. Instead, I scroll.
This semester, something happened that I could not explain. I have written on the dangers of Imposter Syndrome before, I knew this was different animal altogether. It was like suddenly a thread was snipped. The world seemed a little less colorful. I felt drained, shaky and afraid. It became difficult to concentrate. I missed important deadlines. I am a grad student doing what I love to do – reading and writing about comics, presenting at conferences, and attending talks. Why was it suddenly so hard to get out of the bed in the morning? Why was talking about my ideas becoming so difficult?
Culturally, we have a fraught relationship to madness. We glamourize the mad, manic genius. Being passionate and being crazy seem to go together. Plus, healthy is boring. It’s better to be the night owl eccentric than someone that cares about something as banal as sleep hygiene. We read the stories of writers working in a burning frenzy, with brilliance pouring out of them. But what happens when the fire goes out?
Academia seems to particularly glorify behavior that others might consider unbalanced. We fetishize extremes in personalities and lifestyles. We encourage it. Fellow grad students brag about how little sleep they are getting and what cup of coffee they are on. I played that game. I drank Red Bull like water and made jokes about getting a caffeine IV. All the while we are constantly being reminded that the academic job market is terrible and we are most likely going to end up homeless adjuncts. It is a certain kind of pressure. It is strange and stressful. It can be overwhelming.
Until one day I could not cope. I was not sleeping. Eating seemed like a major inconvenience at best. It got to the point where I realized I didn’t really care whether I finished school or not. I was terrified and exhausted. Finally, I called my parents, convinced I had lost my mind and ready to give up. I sent emails to my dissertation chair and to the director of my graduate program. I explained what had been going on. They were nothing but supportive and helpful. I visited campus mental health services. Friends both online and IRL provided invaluable assistance. Even Tumblr’s endless scroll yielded resources and advice on self-care.
Most importantly I started my own research on the topic of anxiety and depression in academia. It turns out that many high performing scholars have struggled with mood disorders or mental illness. The Professor is In has complied a list of resources. Reading other first-person accounts has been incredibly helpful.
I am an academic, working towards my PhD. I am also someone struggling with depression and anxiety. I know now that not sleeping and putting so much pressure on myself put me in a potentially dangerous position. The truth is, nothing is worth putting your own mental health in danger. Take care of yourself physically and mentally first. Talk to someone. Make getting better a priority.
This column does not have a neat resolution. I wish I could say that all of my problems were solved and that I am cranking out pages and pages of scholarship. Some days it really sucks to get out of bed. I am getting help but am still very much within the struggle. I am taking it one day at a time.