Courage and Fear

My Dad once said to me that faith is believing despite your doubts while Nelson Mandela said:

I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.

And this has been rattling around in my brain the last two days. Why? Well you see, after writing Saturday’s post, I finally screwed my courage to the mast and emailed it to Dad. He  had figured out I was keeping a blog a while ago but I didn’t want him to read it because I was afraid, as I often am, of being open about my feelings. Cue a worried phone call Sunday morning and me in tears on and off all day. We talked about what I could do and what I wanted to do and whether it was time to go and see a Doctor already.

God, even admitting to this in writing feels embarrassing.

Going to the Doctor’s and asking whether I was stressed enough and ill enough to get time off sick felt like weakness. Felt like failure. Scratch that, feels like failure. Present tense.

Just listen to my Jerkbrain: “I’m supposed to be strong enough to cope with this. It’s not like I’ve been that ill. Come on, it’s just a few more months. See, you feel fine now – do some work, just a bit of Cell Tracker. How about that Excel spreadsheet? Now that you’ve got some time, how about you do all those things you haven’t got round to? You could clean your armour, polish your sword collection, fix that pile of clothing you’ve been meaning to mend for months, finish making that medieval shift for next season. Oo, you could hoover your room, hang your swords on the wall, tidy up your dresser, put your speakers up. Food shopping, how about that? Laundry? Dishes? Tidy the living room? Two weeks off is loads of time! No reason you can’t get all that done. You could even get around to visiting all those museums and art galleries in town that you still haven’t been to after living here for two years! Hell, how about a bike ride or a run? Yoga class? Those physio exercises you never do?”

Feelings? Embarrassed. Ashamed. Uncomfortable.

Feels like? Weakness. Failure. Giving up.

Gotta love how my brain just never shuts up. If I was going to diagnose myself, I’d say I suffer from chronic perfectionism. That my brain could use the necessary time off I need to recover slightly as an opportunity to beat me about the head with my massive home to-do list is just wonderful. It’s also what I knew would happen if I did get time off sick, and was one of the reasons I didn’t want to. You know, aside from the major one of feeling ashamed because it shouldn’t be necessary.

So instead I’ve got plans to go and stay with family for a week and to visit friends I haven’t seen in months. Then I’ll have a few more days back here before a follow-up Dr’s appointment and a counselling session, and my intended return to work date. Telling my family and friends was such a relief, even though I felt uncomfortable admitting to what’s going on.

I’ve even told a couple of mates in the lab. That was hard. Saying out loud that I can’t currently do this because it’s making me sick feels awful but such a relief. I have, obviously, informed my supervisors but I’m also debating the merits of emailing a few select people in the lab. My instincts are screaming at me to hide my weakness even though I know my lab folk will be supportive, all because of the stigma surrounding mental health and illness.

Interesting aside was one of those jokey conversations in the lab when Elaine said to me something along the lines of “oh, you don’t strike me as a very emotional person”. To which I responded: “that’s because I do all my crying in private”.

Never a truer word was spoken.

I’m frightened people will see me as weak, when it’s myself that sees me that way. I feel ashamed of being ill enough and stressed enough that I actually need a break. I defend my need for a break on the grounds of “look, I’ve been ill! Read my long list of illnesses!”, where the unspoken word is “physical”, rather than just straight up admitting saying I’m too stressed out. Look at how I’ve used the word “admitted” in this post, and how it speaks of me feeling like I’ve done something bad that I ought to be ashamed of, when all I’ve done is to make the difficult decision to listen to my body and look after myself before things get even worse. How messed up is it that even making that decision to look after myself is such a difficult one, fraught with such emotion and fear? See how our culture will just about allow you to be physically sick because that’s something you actually can’t help, whereas to be emotionally sick is your own personal failure and inability to suck it up? Good grief, how I wish we didn’t see it that way, that we took mental well-being just as seriously as physical well-being.

As it is, I want to take some time to blog about how I feel about being off sick as a PhD student over the next few weeks. I want to put my story out there because I know I’m not the only one going through this. I want to put it out there because courage is doing the stuff that makes you feel afraid and ashamed, when you know that in an ideal world there would be no cause to feel that way. I want to put it out there, because if I don’t share my story, who will?

9 thoughts on “Courage and Fear

  1. A very tough decision, but I’m glad you’re getting some recovery time. Best of luck, and I’ll be reading!

  2. I’m pleased that you have shared. My depression lasted ~3 years from the end of my data collection period of my PhD to the end. It was pretty crap, as for the first half, I just thought I was burnt out (which I was initially) and tired, and scared of failing, and had confidence issues.

    But then I saw a counsellor and realised that, no, I actually had depression. It runs pretty strongly in both sides of my family, so I’ve never had any issues about the stigma around depression and other forms of mental illness, and I would freely talk about it (if I felt I wouldn’t start crying halfway through – geez I was over the crying but I had very little control over that. Damn tears!!). But I’ve never had it so badly that it lasted so long, and was so debilitating that I couldn’t even get out of bed.

    My brain slowly stopped working properly, so I loss my recall, analysis, basic cognitive skills. I felt lazy for not doing more than having a shower some days. I felt that I was letting the team down, as other researchers were able to finish their PhD and they had kids or part-time “proper” jobs. So why couldn’t I?? Recovery can be a slow process, especially when some days you are fine. That’s what got me.

    Eventually, I withdraw from my PhD and it’s taken about 8 months to get better emotionally and physically (i.e. being able to remember things, follow conversations without hitting a blank halfway through, being able to hold a couple of different thoughts and links in my head at the same time, being able to analyse my data and keep the understanding long enough to write it down).

    It was the right decision. I’m glad I did it. But it was also hard not to feel sad and a failure while I rebuilt my skills and knowledge again, and while those around me submitted and passed their PhD.

    Now I am well enough to start writing papers again, and still aim to complete the thesis but one paper at a time as I rebuild my skill set. If you need to take time off to look after your health, then do it. It’s only a project. Your health is not.

    One thing that really helped me was hearing about other people’s expereinces and knowing that I wasnt alone. And that I had others who understood that I was not a failure; that it was something that I had little control over at times.

    So I hope my (long – sorry!) comment will help you, and whatever decision you make (regardless of how long you have it for), you make the right one for you – not for your career, or your supervisors, or for the prestige or anything else. You are pretty amazing for talking about it on this blog, so keep up the good work! And thanks for helping me talk about it too. It’s all part of the management process.

    • Thank you for sharing your story too Nicole. That all sounds absolutely harrowing and I am glad you’ve been able to put the pieces back together and start writing again. I found the very act of starting was the hardest part, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that.

      It’s been three months since I wrote this post and things are looking up. 🙂

  3. From someone who has been there.

    Towards the end of last year, I had to take a month off from PhD life. I felt like I was trying to get out of bed every morning (which was often so, so difficult in itself) and trying to walk, and think, through tons and tons of melted marshmallow. I couldn’t cope with the smallest of problems, and cried. A lot. Every day. I only admitted (to very few at the beginning) that there was something wrong after having a panic attack in public, in front of my mum. She wouldn’t let it slide (naturally), but I felt pissed off at myself for having an attack in front of her, and now having to deal with it. My brain was saying, “For god’s sake, you can’t even hide this now; just how pathetic are you? Now we are going to have to deal with this and it is ALL YOUR FAULT.” I felt embarrassment, failure, shame – all those things you talk about.

    I accessed our university’s counselling service, which was really difficult. I wasn’t ‘the type’ of person that needed counselling! In some twisted form of humour by the universe, when I eventually managed to email the counselling service, my email bounced back (wrong address). My black dog thought this was hilarious. (“You can’t even email a counsellor successfully. You really are just crap at, quite literally, everything, aren’t you?”) Anyway, I went. I cried even more. But it was truly the best thing I ever did for myself. My counsellor is now like a god to me (that’s probably not normal). I will be mentioning the service in my thesis’ acknowledgements. I also joined a gym, and went to pilates, had alternative therapies (massage, reflexology) and tried really hard to do nothing for my month off. That was the hardest bit. As you say, you brain then tells you you should be cleaning the house, babysitting other people’s kids etc etc. My counsellor actually challenged me about 3 weeks in to do nothing. To sit. Read (magazines). Watch daytime television. It was difficult.

    I was so frightened that I would be seen to be weak. A failure. Or even, slightly crazy. In the end, that wasn’t at all what people seemed to think. Now, I am happy to talk about it with most people, or all those who are close to me anyway. I have found that the number of people who are also experiencing or who have experienced a period like this is surprising. Or it surprised me, anyway. I have also found that people seem to be almost relieved when I talk about it, open to talk about their own experiences, and our relationships have grown stronger as a result. You are doing a great thing by talking about it here. This is what needs to happen.

    Now, I am doing so much better. I do still have ‘the fear’. Will it come back again? Is it starting again, or do I just feel a bit grumpy today and will be fine tomorrow? I am back, and writing, and intend to submit in September. It does get better. You will feel better. I can’t say it more eloquently than Stephen Fry, so here he is:

    “I’ve found that it’s of some help to think of one’s moods and feelings about the world as being similar to weather:

    Here are some obvious things about the weather:

    It’s real.
    You can’t change it by wishing it away.
    If it’s dark and rainy it really is dark and rainy and you can’t alter it.
    It might be dark and rainy for two weeks in a row.


    It will be sunny one day.
    It isn’t under one’s control as to when the sun comes out, but come out it will.
    One day.

    It really is the same with one’s moods, I think. The wrong approach is to believe that they are illusions. They are real. Depression, anxiety, listlessness – these are as real as the weather – AND EQUALLY NOT UNDER ONE’S CONTROL. Not one’s fault.


    They will pass: they really will.”

    (Full transcript:

    Apologies this is just SO long. Your post really spoke to me, and it is where I was at a few months ago. Please feel free to get in touch, if that would help in any way.

    • Aahhh Lizzy, our experiences sound very similar indeed. And the part about feeling like a failure and being not the type of person to need counselling, yep, been there, done that. Stephen says it so very well, it’s just hard to remember when society is like “It’s ALL YOUR FAULT, you WEAKLING.”

      I took nearly two months off in the end, and I am so much better for it. I’ve even submitted a draft of my first results chapter and it wasn’t terrible! Like you though I’m scared the stress might build up to intolerable levels again and make me physically sick again in addition to being a walking stress ball. Regular yoga and mindfullness classes are helping a lot so far.

      Hugs and best wishes for your own studies. 🙂

      • I’m so glad you are feeling more in control of your PhD again. Or that’s how I feel anyway; for so long, it was controlling me. And, I am so with you on the yoga and mindfulness, they really help me too. I’ve also found setting a daily word target for writing helps as then I feel like, when it is done, I can switch off for the day and not be constantly thinking, “Is that all you’ve done? Sit here for another 3 hours, because that is pathetic.” For me, it is all about managing the beast that is my PhD!

        Big well done on submitting your first draft! That is brilliant. The hardest bit I found was actually starting writing, and now I am trying to do a little every day, it seems easier.

        All the best as you continue writing and submitting great things 🙂
        Take great care.

        • Aren’t our thoughts horrible to us? I would like to set a daily word count but I’m still in the lab so it’s been more helpful to set aside “library days” each week to give me space to write. Setting intentions for my library time by deciding things like “today I’m going to produce these three figures” or “do an hour’s data analysis” has been beyond amazing. It has the same effect of shutting up the jerkbrain thoughts that say “Is that all you’ve done?”

          I’m hoping once more of the data analysis is done that I will be able to focus more on the writing side of things!

          Thanks for the congrats. It means a lot! You take care too and stick around. There’ll be more about the PhD process soon enough.

          (I realised that I’d not posted as much here as I thought I had about it. You know when something is taking up so much of your thought space you forget others don’t know it if you haven’t said it aloud? That.)


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