For many of us, the most dangerous point in our illness is when it becomes our identity. When we can’t imaging our lives or ourselves without it.

No matter how many times doctors and therapists try to separate us from our illness by telling us that it’s a ‘brain disorder,’ we still feel as if it is this dark but integral part of ourselves without which we’d be but a shell. Or was that just me?

I don’t know when or how that started to change for me, but I know why. I’ve been lucky enough to have a few people in my life who stubbornly refuse to accept my illness as my identity, no matter how fundamentally and irreversibly f***ed up I think I am. They’re the people that see me when I can’t stand to look at myself. I owe the world to those people because now, just every once in a while, I can see myself through their eyes.

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Through the Fog

I didn’t believe my supervisor when he said that the first month(s) of a PhD are like driving through fog. Or rather, I believed that might be true for some people but that if I planned everything just right, I could somehow navigate my way around it.

Now I feel as if I am lost in a dense cloud of uncertainty, insecurity, and anxiety. Every day I spend my days scouring journal articles, hoping to find some clue as to where I am and which direction I should go. But it’s not easy. Each article seems to provide multiple often conflicting directions.

However, I am ever so slightly comforted by the fact that this is entirely normal and that I am probably handling it better than many of my so-called “healthy” colleagues without a mental health condition. I do yoga every day, eat regular meals and snacks, talk with family and friends, and avoid using alcohol to placate my anxiety. So although I feel a little lost right now, I’m okay with that. Eventually I’ll make it through the fog.

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Recovery is a lonely road

He’s spent the last 2 years working with indigenous tribes in South America. She’s spent the last 7 years living in Nigeria doing some sort of humanitarian work. I’ve….umm…spent the last 5 years in and out of intensive therapy until I finally got my shit together?

I’ve almost never felt more out of place than I did today at my scholarship awards reception. It seemed as if everyone there had done something incredible except for me. Actually that’s not true. I have done something incredible. It’s just that I can’t tell anyone about it…

Recovery is a lonely road.

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Student Accommodation

The clock read 3:45am as I rolled out of bed, pulled on my robe, and made my way down 7 flights of stairs with the fire alarm blaring in my ears. No doubt someone had been smoking in the stairwell again.

Though it hardly needs saying, there is nothing glamorous about student living. The carpet is stained, the paint on the walls is chipped, and the hallway always seems to smells vaguely of pot. I suppose that’s what you get when you put hundreds of students, many from whom are away from home for the first time, in close corridors.

But I shouldn’t complain. The place where I live is actually quite nice. There is a large reception area/common room in which you can occasionally find some Krispy Kreme donuts, a decent gym (to counteract the donuts), and a friendly staff.

My studio, though far from being what one would consider ‘homey,’ is nice as well. It comes with a fully-equipped kitchen, desk and chair, couch, wardrobe,bathroom/shower, and double bed. Even though one of the walls is a hideous shade of pink and there is a metal rod sticking out of the bed that I still need to contact maintenance about, I really can’t complain. I’m incredibly lucky to be able to afford a studio of my own in a place like this. While it may not be perfect (because what is?), it’s home.

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The first meeting with my PhD supervisor

The first meeting with a PhD supervisor is always a little scary because you don’t yet know what they expect from you or what you should expect from them. And if you’re anything like me, you’ll spend the day before your meeting Googling “first meeting with PhD supervisor.” Unfortunately there is no comprehensive guide out there to tell you how to approach the first meeting with your supervisor. That’s in part because the format and structure of the meeting varies from supervisor to supervisor.

I was pretty fortunate in that my first meeting was very relaxed. It was more about establishing that vital student-supervisor relationship than laying out a twelve-point plan for the next 3+ years of my life. Although I came with an outline of matters to discuss related to my project (because I wanted to be proactive), my supervisor told me to save that until next week. During this first week, he encouraged me to first focus on learning the process of getting a PhD rather than the content of my specific project (here’s a link to a book he recommended). I left that meeting feeling unexpectedly positive. Now I know that, like any relationship, your relationship with your PhD supervisor has its ups and downs, but at least things are off to a good start.

(If you’re interested in reading others’ experiences of first meetings with their supervisors, here’s a forum that I found helpful:

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PhD: Day #1

It’s the first day of my PhD program I feel like I did on my first day of kindergarten, except for this time I don’t have my mommy’s leg to cling to like a lifesaver. I am on my own. The day started with a visit to the Psychology department. Louise, the secretary, shows me around the building, pointing out where the all-important coffee stash was as well as where my office is. My office, which I share with 2 postdoctoral students and 1 other new PhD student, is located on the 3rd floor. It looks strangely empty…there are 2 temporary desks for me and the other PhD student but the computers have yet to be installed. Since I have no idea what I am supposed to be doing on the first day of my PhD and I won’t be able to meet with my supervisor until tomorrow, I decide to take care of those boring but necessary administrative tasks – such as completing registration and collecting my student ID. Basically that means I’ve been spending a lot of time standing in queues (1 hour for registration and another 30 minutes for student ID collection). Back at home, I am completely shattered. I’m not sure why. Upon reflection, I really didn’t do much today. I guess that change is stressful though…even when it’s good change.

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Maintaining mental health at university

University life can be challenging, even for the most mentally fit person. For those of us with pre-existing mental health conditions, it can be an even bigger challenge. However, there are small things we can do to maintain and even improve our mental health while meeting the demands of university life.

  1. Be aware of what your triggers are and know how to handle them if and when they arise. It may even be helpful to keep a list of ‘tools’ that you can turn to in a triggering situation. I keep one on my phone and my list includes things like mindful breathing, going for a walk, and various cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) exercises. There are also some great apps out there that are designed to help you move through difficult situations. Some of my favourites are DBT Diary Card for general mental health and Recovery Record for eating disorders. However, there are TONS of apps out there so I encourage you do some research and find what works best for you.
  1. Know what you need and don’t be afraid to ask. It’s okay to say ‘I need to step out a minute’ or ask for some personal time. Most supervisors will understand or have dealt with similar situations before, and if they don’t…
  1. Have someone you can talk to. It can be a psychotherapist, family member, close friend, etc. Doesn’t matter so long as you have someone to call upon when things get rough. That’s something everyone needs. In some cases, it may also be helpful to have an advocate at your university…a GP or university counsellor who you can go to if your health starts to decline and affect your work.
  1. Schedule time for self-care. Self-care doesn’t come naturally to all of us so it can be helpful to plan it into your day. For example, I do best when I schedule myself 2-3 mini breaks throughout the day during which I can eat a proper lunch, go for a walk, grab a coffee with friends, or maybe just have some quiet time to myself.
  1. Know when to ask for help. Set up contingencies in advance and make them specific. For example, “if I start having X thoughts, then I will reach out to X person and ask for help” or “if I start engaging in X maladaptive behaviour, then I will go to X support group.” I know first-hand how incredibly difficult it can be to ask for help, but there is no shame in it. Asking for help is probably one of the most courageous yet humble things many of us will ever do.
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