Getting unlost in my PhD required accepting my bipolar disorder.
The summer after I finished undergrad, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder II. I spent the summer on the top floor of my parents house. I meditated, I did yoga, I ran; but I also felt a lot of distress over my time in college. I had loved my experience of undergraduate research, but my last year in the lab had been hard. And I knew that after my freshman year my experience of academics had felt more like survival than the deep engagement of really learning.
The summer ended and I moved to Boston to start my PhD. I did some of the right things - set up counseling and psychiatry appointments, slept seven or eight hours a night - but I stopped spending time connecting to myself. I thought I was doing fine. But, I was experiencing my high moods intensely. In certain classes I wanted to get out of my seat and dance. I struggled to align my actions with my academic priorities and my classes didn’t go as well as I wanted. I was hyper-stimulated by other people. There were multiple parties where afterwards my girlfriend would say to me, “Who was that?”. It didn’t add up to me being an effective PhD student, and I failed my thesis proposal exam my second year.
My 4th year I switched projects. I was excited about the way my research would now combine the biology I was interested in with a technological strength of the lab. But I struggled to make progress. I did experiment after experiment without stopping to fully analyze the data. Angle after angle didn’t quite work, yet there was always a high to ride from the new plan that would solve everything. Eventually I was a 6th year, then a 7th year. My committee chair said “You have done a lot of things, but not really found traction with any of them”. He was right, but I wasn’t able to hear it. I was also failing to think about my mental health; and I had stopped, in consultation with my psychiatrist, taking medications for my bipolar disorder.
In October of my 8th year, my most trusted mentor told me that he was worried about whether I would pass my defense. That conversation, combined with my own growing awareness, made clear that if things didn’t change I was not going to complete my PhD. I took some initial steps. I recruited a colleague to help me with my experiments. Having someone else witness my experimental procedures started to assuage some of my insecurities. And having to communicate my plans resulted in better decision making. I also started asking for feedback on figures and writing. But it wasn’t enough. A hypomanic period began in November. I interrupted conversations compulsively, was easily distracted, and was spending too much time in lab. One evening, my advisor stopped to check on me before he left for the night. “Are you okay?” he asked. I said I was fine.
A few days in to 2020 I started sobbing. I cried as I walked to and from lab, I cried myself to sleep, I cried in conversations with colleagues and friends. I had no first author papers. And I still didn’t have a plan for finishing my PhD. Then, one evening, I opened a book about mindfulness and depression. I realized: even though I am “doing”, I am depressed. And I am also feeling overwhelming shame about my inability to slow down.
After that revelation, I started to focus more on my mental health. I saw a counselor. I meditated for five minutes every morning. Then, I listened to a podcast episode where the host described their experience of bipolar disorder in a way that I connected with. This re-connection to my mental illness led me to start seeing a new psychiatrist. Then the pandemic hit. Space from lab was welcome, but the fact that I could work without even leaving my room triggered a new hypomanic period. But, at least I was exercising regularly. And I ordered a stack of books about bipolar disorder. Eventually, I told my psychiatrist that I wanted to try taking medications that treated hypomania.
It's been six months since I started taking lamictal and aripiprazole. It’s been five months since I stopped doing PhD work on Sundays. It’s been four months since I identified a path to a first author paper. It’s been four and a half months since the committee meeting where I could feel myself listening to subtle and explicit feedback. It’s been four months since I started going to bed by midnight. It’s been six weeks since I started attending the group dialectical behaviour therapy sessions my psychiatrist recommended. And it’s been a month since I realized that if the thesis chapter that I have cared about the most over the course of my PhD never gets published it doesn’t mean I am a failure.
My PhD is not over yet, but the end is in sight. In addition to learning technical skills and how to actually apply the scientific method, I have also learned how to better manage my mental illness. I now know that to achieve my goals I have to prioritize my mental health. Finally being able to harness my brain feels like a pretty big win.