Academicing with depression

D and Me

I’m going to blog some thoughts on being an academic with mild depression – I have no framing if that constitutes a big revelation or a ‘whateva’ moment, but thought I’d write it anyway. I say mild, I know it’s not a competition, and I know people who have really severe, debilitating illness far worse than mine. While I don’t suffer from bipolar or to anywhere near the same degree as Carrie Fisher, I can relate to her statement that “Imagine having a mood system that functions essentially like weather—independently of whatever’s going on in your life.” While a bout can be caused by some (often trivial) trigger, it is soon not about that trigger, but rather an all pervasive degradation of mood, energy, focus. Luckily for me this period is rarely longer than a day or so, not prolonged, but could be deep when it came, and increasingly frequent.

Mine has always come and gone, I had been a pretty depressed teenager (but back then it was diagnosed as “being a miserable shit”), and while I’m of a melancholic disposition (I have the Joy Division & Smiths albums as evidence), I had mostly been ok through most of my adult life. In quick succession though I experienced divorce, combined with predictable mid-life crisis, living through Brexit crisis and then OU crisis, which led to a serious slump. I figured this was a reasonable, almost inevitable reaction.

But it persisted after the cause had faded and with increasing frequency and depth. I’m no expert but Yuval Noah Harari’s analogy in Sapiens resonated with me – we all have an internal air conditioning system (based on serotonin levels). For some people it ranges from 7 to 10, while others are set lower, say 4 to 6. This was what it felt like for me, if my normal range was, say, 5 to 8, it had now been recalibrated to 3 to 6. Then a couple of years ago it culminated when I found myself crying in Amsterdam Schiphol airport for no reason (although on reflection that may in fact be a perfectly reasonable reaction to Schiphol), and decided I should do something about it. I went onto some low dosage Seratonin Reuptake Inhibitors. I appreciate that antidepressants are a contentious issue, but they worked for me. It felt like times when I might have previously gone into a spiral, my mood dipped down, bumped along the surface of that pit and then carried on.

But they made me kinda lethargic too, so I came off them at the start of this year. I felt my internal air conditioning levels had been reset. By the way, coming off them gives some trippy brain zaps for about a week. And mostly that’s been good, but I had a dip a few weeks ago, as if to just remind me “hey, I’m still here.”

Not so famous five

I believe that it’s different for everyone, and a lot will depend on individual circumstances, so this is no ‘how to’ guide. I deliberately haven’t made myself an expert in depression, so it’s just some tales from a sample of N=1. Here then are five thoughts on being an academic with this occasional problem.

I found that some of the bad stuff is also good – for example, the much talked about work-life balance, with people working at weekends being a contributory factor. That was true, I really needed to force myself to switch off. However, I have a pretty strong Protestant Work Ethic thing going on, so I feel guilty if I haven’t done the work I should do, particularly if that is a result of having a slow day due to depression. So sometimes, fitting in 3 hours on a Saturday morning clearing some tasks was a real benefit and alleviated rather than contributed to slump. It also made ‘having a slow day’ more bearable as I knew I could catch up, so I could afford to indulge it for a day often.

Now, let’s talk dogs, I had always loved dogs, but I didn’t appreciate how much of a boon they were. Seriously, dogs should be available on the NHS. The unconditional love is a much needed boost, but also, as a home worker, having a dog means I have to get out every day. With Teilo, my current dog, this is about 5 miles a day. The amount of times I have been heading for a slump, taken him out in the forest (often listening to a good audiobook) and by the time I come back, it has all shifted. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that my previous dog, Bruno, saved my life. But a dog is a commitment, so I would ask indulgence from work colleagues when I sometimes have to arrange things around my dog (I don’t like going away for more than a week for instance). I can see them thinking sometimes “it’s not a child, it’s only a dog for Chrissakes”. But it isn’t, he is doing so much more work than that, he’s putting in the hours.

Immersion in a self-enclosed, separate world was also hugely significant for me. In my case it was sports, and specifically, ice-hockey. I had an interest before then, but I really indulged it as antidote – getting a season ticket, travelling to away games, going on holidays based around it. I could make a case for why ice hockey in particular is the ideal choice, but in reality it doesn’t matter what it is – painting, music, ultra-running, volunteering – it just needs to have two components: to be entirely absorbing so you are focused solely on that enterprise; to be independent, hermetically sealed, so it stands separate from everything else. Sport is ideal at meeting these requirements – it is of course entirely trivial and pointless in the grand scheme of things, but yet if you are into it, then it is your sole focus for that duration and it allows for endless discussion, debate, and conjecture. It is also free from any connection to work or regular concerns – the people we have made friends with at hockey really don’t care about the venture capital ambitions of MOOC companies. And that’s fab.

Social media is another of those good/bad dualities. It’s been an enormous benefit to sometimes just pass an evening chatting to people online, and to have such a thoughtful, interesting network of people to make you see the best of life. But at the same time, you can start your day and have seen 50 things that make you outraged before breakfast, to which you are mentally composing responses and sustained imaginary arguments. That is a tough vale to climb out from for the rest of the day. So I have started to use with care, and sometimes mute people who are only angry, even if they are justifiably so, and I agree with them.

I’ve mentioned the drugs, and that is always a personal choice, but what going to the doctor (who was super understanding, thank you NHS GP), signified was a recognition to be proactive. Being British, male and of a certain age is a triple whammy of emotional repression, so doing something rather than ‘just getting on with it’, was a big deal. I felt better immediately after taking the first pill, and that isn’t really how they work biologically, so I know it was a psychological effect. Simply acknowledging that something could be done was in itself a cure, I’m not sure it mattered really what that thing was. Similarly, I informed a couple of line managers (who again were very supportive), and that act in itself was therapeutic. I never had to claim time off from depression (see the benefits of flexible working above, which I acknowledge is a huge privilege and many people don’t have the kind of work that allows that), but it was comforting to know that if I did, it wasn’t coming from nowhere.

All this offers no big insight I’m afraid, but for me that combination of making flexible work adapt to my advantage, having a dog, immersion into a separate world, judicious use of social media and the positive action of getting medication was an effective, if not foolproof, combatant. Mainly the dog though.

PS – I appreciate and understand that people can be sensitive about this, so just to clarify, don’t take the breezy tone of this piece to be an indication that either a) it isn’t a shitfest when it hits or b) I don’t take it seriously. It’s just how I choose to write about it.

40 Comments

  1. As a British, male, ex academic of a certain age who has been diagnosed with depression for nearly 20 years; thank you for writing this post.

    I still take the SSRIs but have found that CBT is helpful. More recently our, dog like cat (she even fetches) has been super helpful.

    I still work in the increasingly dysfunctional university sector after 30 years but I’m finding now that I can cope with the craziness more than ever.

    I’d love to not have to take the SSRIs but I’m not there yet. Maybe when we get another pet. A dog this time.

    1. Hi Mark! Thanks for commenting, us repressed British males have got to stick together. I will allow Buttercup into the honorary dogs association 🙂
      I’m not sure I am off SSRIs, giving it a go for now, but very nearly went back on them recently. Probably best to stick with what works. I haven’t had CBT, massive waiting list in Wales, and the SSRIs did the trick for me, but maybe I’ll take a look at it now. Take care.

  2. Hi Martin,
    Thanks for writing this post. You tell a very familiar story, and I appreciate your openness. Having been on the receiving end of a few burnout episodes, I appreciate your story and your tips. I used SSRI’s for a period too, but don’t currently need them. Walking the dog IS an integral part of my recovery (and stabilisation) too, and so is a fairly regular sleep rhythm.
    I am also very lucky to be working in the Netherlands, where the support of my employer and the company doctor is very positive, and allows for a slow recovery at your own pace.
    Thanks again for sharing,
    Best wishes,
    Steven

    1. Hi Steven – many thanks for the comment. I think what this post is unearthing is just how much mental health work dogs are doing :). Take care and glad to hear you are recovering.

    1. Thanks Alan – I’m worried now that people keeping saying brave, like in Yes Minister “that’s a brave choice” 🙂 Maybe it means I haven’t appreciated the implications. Hope you are well.

  3. Brilliant piece of writing! You articulate it well and are braver than me to talk about it. Am an academic at the OU also being treated for depression. Trying CBT at the moment. It’s something that’s dogged me since my late teens. Feel I should be an advocate now but too ashamed I think.

    1. Hi James! Thanks for the comment. Don’t feel ashamed – I had a version of this post sitting in draft for about a year, not sure what made me decide to publish it. There’s no right way to approach it is my view, I’m generally a private guy, and if you prefer to be private about it, that’s all good. I haven’t tried CBT myself, would be interested to give it a go. Take care.

  4. Thanks so much for this, Martin. Carrie Fisher’s quote you shared resonates deeply in me.

    I appreciate your braveness to be open with something like this that is often hard to be open with.I’m trying to be more transparent and open about mine as well.

    I’ve recently come to terms that I do struggle a lot with depression combined with anxiety to a degree. I’m getting help through typical channels right now (therapy, meds) and it is helping a bit.

    I agree, a dog definitely helps… in my case, also experiencing an unconditional love from a new grandson has been an amazing lift.

    Be well, friend.

    1. Hiya Tom, good to hear from you, thanks for commenting. Glad to hear you are getting some help, and sympathy for the struggles you’re dealing with. I must admit, I’m jealous of having a grandson, I love the photos you share on IG, hope I have one at some time. Hope to catch up with you at OpenEd?

      1. Definitely will be there this year!

        Actually doing a lightning session on this kind of stuff (depression,imposter synd) and how openness-of-self could affect, perhaps adjust mental well-being. Not sure if I’ll get it all conveyed in 5 minutes, but in that case, I could always end with a good ole Canadian ‘sorry’…I’m good at those.

        Look forward to catching up at OpenEd and perhaps, a pub somewhere around there!

        1. Great, see you there. That session sounds excellent, will make it along. I’m sure we can find a pub to compare dog photos at some point 🙂

  5. Truly empathise and thank you for sharing. Also been there and my border collie Jess was my saviour after my first marriage broke up and surviving the aftermath. There are many triggers for depression and as you say a spectrum from mild to severe, but yes it can and does come back to visit. Churchill I believe used to refer to the’black dog’. I struggle with feeling inferior and never quite up to a standard.

    Getting outdoors with my dog(s) is a blessing and gardening is (for me) a great release. I’ve also learned over time that talking about things – ‘getting it off your chest’ – really does help.

  6. What a timely and thoughtful contribution this is, Martin. You have done well to come out gasping for air but still able also to smile at the absurdity of depression. Schiphol? Of course, Schiphol, or any airport, for that matter.
    Depression takes myriad forms, and EVERYONE experiences it, to some degree at some time. Mine was associated with workload, divorce and a general dumb lack of awareness that it was happening to me until my GP stepped in.
    What has helped me? Pills in the short term, but on two acute occasions in my life; regular and meaningful exercise in the open air (NOT in a gym, for me); and having a dog is vital. In my case, it was my son’s dizzy hound, whom I called Archie the Dog. He was so much more than a dog and, when he died 18 months ago, I was bereft. Being a passionate aficionado of Northampton Saints was a significant support mechanism, too, and all the friends and memories linked to the wonderful sport that is rugby (Jim [above] won’t mind me for mentioning him in this context, and I’m sure he will agree).
    You will be stronger for talking about it openly, too, as you have done, and others will be helped.
    Last, but not least: it has also seemed to me most unfair that depression has been quipped as “the Black Dog”. An utterly unjust association, not with blackness per se, perhaps, because depression is dark, but with dogness! I’m sure the ebullient Teilo would agree and bark his affirmation that black dogs are the happiest of creatures.
    P.S. Just an aside: spellchecker wants to change Teilo to Attila …. whatever next?!

    1. Hi Dominic, thanks for the comment, hope life is good in Hanoi. It sounds like we had very similar experiences and cures. Once you start talking about it, then it’s amazing how many people have had similar. I agree about the harsh tarnishing of black dogs, no-one could be less depressive than Teilo 🙂

  7. Thanks being so open and vulnerable about your situation. I’m not surprised that you shared so much about your own experience, as that’s your m.o. here.

    Although I don’t suffer from any (diagnosed) mental health/illness, I know there is such power in others reading, hearing, and understanding your story publicly in academia. Sadly, I support others and lost some who did not think they could share about their own well-being to get the support they needed.

    I think there are far too many who suffer silently or mask their issues around mental illness in academia. So thank you for being so candid and forthcoming about your n=1 case, as I believe it will open the door for others to connect, express, and find community.

    Thanks for sharing this to encourage others to reach out, to show they care about you, and others in our personal learning network. Whether it’s direct love and support we can send to you (hugs xo) or common dog fandom (Jack says “WOOF!” to Teilo). You know we’ve got your back, and are there for a chat, banter, or vinyl swap anytime. Seriously.

    1. Hi Laura (thanks for the heads up in twitter, this comment had gone to spam for some reason). I’m happy to know you, so thank you for your kind words. And hi to Jack 🙂

  8. A lot to recognise. I think with me the difference when I took SSRI’s was I could sleep again. That brought the balance back. Totally agree about dogs as life savers. All the best, Mark

  9. Wow Martin – thanks so much for sharing this. When I shared my blog “Fear is a broken compass” it was my attempt to exorcise the demon of being a silent, competent, hard-working, yes-I-am-not-busy-enough-so-yes-I-can-surely-do-one-more-thing. I am not sure how I got out of there, but in some way I did. My life and work, working life, life-work, work-as-life circumstances have not change, but somehow I got some energy back. Memory of the immensity of the darkness does, however, follow me around like a dog and I try to deal with it – acknowledging it, teaching it to fetch some bone, or chase after a cat. I’ve become Barbara Woodhouse incarnate with my dog. But somehow, as I cope with being past sixty and working harder than ever before, I have a suspicion that the dog is only pretending to increase in obedience, and one day, one day, the dog may overpower me. But for now, let me run to my next meeting. Hugs.

    1. Hi Paul! A lovely comment, thanks and kudos for running with the dog metaphor 🙂 Your honest in blogging this was part of the inspiration to be open myself. And can I just say, you’re looking well for being past sixty 🙂

  10. Thank you so much for sharing this Martin. Yes for dogs and we have seen dogs on campus to reduce stress for students (and staff) here on my campus.Thanks as well for being open on the use of drugs to help as that is always a quandary and often just taboo to discuss. I wish it were not and talking about this helps others.

    Now I must take issue with the posture on hockey my friend: “it is of course entirely trivial and pointless in the grand scheme of things”.

    I jest of course. Hockey and the Edmonton #Oilers is definitely part of my therapy.

    1. Thanks Ken. The drugs thing is odd, I’ve seen people tell others not to take them and get all puritanical about it.
      Of course, there is a possibility that the Oilers make you need therapy also 🙂

  11. Hi Martin,

    This really resonates with me, having struggled with the topsy turvy world that depression throws you into. I somehow managed to survive moving to the other side of the world and making a whole new start, but I had to leave my beautiful dog (and cat) behind. I know that she’s with the most loving family, but not having her with me left such a hole. Thankfully, I’m known around my small German town as somewhat of an animal lover, and am regularly allowed to lavish attention on some of the animals who live here. It’s definitely not the same, but helps get me by 😊

    Thanks for sharing your journey.

    Mel

    1. Hi Mel, many thanks for the comment. I can really appreciate the wrench that must have been leaving your dog, but also why you needed to do it. I’ve looked at jobs in Australia a couple of times and that has been a big factor in the decision. I’m glad you’ve found some animal therapy locally though. Cheers, Martin

  12. Love you, Martin, and love this post. It’s so hard for most people to be open and vulnerable about these issues, and it really helps so many people when you write things like this. About how it feels, how you cope. I can see from the comments people who have experienced something similar… or have had loved ones go through depression and felt helpless to help them through it, and this blogpost helps people across the spectrum. Thank you for doing it. I want to say so much more, but just…thank you… and I am glad you have found ways that help you through it rather than stayed in denial… that in itself is brave. Xo

    P.S. and a small joke. Perhaps emotional repression is one of the few areas white males are underprivileged…

    1. Back atcha Maha! Thanks for this.
      PS – and yes, I was kinda joking about the triple whammy of repression, I’m not going to start a campaign on it, but there is that whole “stiff upper lip” thing going on sometimes 🙂

  13. Hello my fellow traveler. Thank for this piece.
    I have trod a similar path for at least 30 years. You capture much of the essence. For me, it has always been as a cloud. Many times absent or only the lightest of high level wisps on a blue sky. But often a heavy grey, laden cloud surrounding me in darkness that keeps me even seeing the wonderful humanity around me.

    I would hardly recommend depression as a form of professional development, but I know that my own experiences of it have made me a much better, more sensitive teacher. my own experience wiht the invisibility (to others) of the pain, darkeness, and suffering of depression has helped me to remember to be gentle with students. I cannot know what burdens they are carrying until they tell me and that depends on me making safe space for that connection.
    Peace, my brother.

    1. Hi Jim, thanks for your thoughts. I do know what you mean about development, or just in making one a better individual I think. It makes me more empathetic than I fear I would be otherwise. Learning a bit of vulnerability is never a bad thing.

  14. Hey Martin, just want to send love and thanks to you. Depression is not a burden I carry, but I have dearest loved ones who struggle — and in thinking about that there’s surely not a human being who isn’t touched by it. Thanks for your honesty, your vivid descriptions (and Martin-humour 🙂 ) and your courage in putting this out there. Sometimes we do/write/say things that can have impact far beyond what we’ll ever know. I’m sure this is one of those – I know you will have positively affected many lives by sharing this. Thanks for all you do and the force of good that you are. And keep sharing those doggo pics — never enough! #Teilosavestheworld 🙂 Hugs.

    1. Hi Catherine, that’s a lovely comment, thank you. As you will know from IG, I don’t think the Teilo pics are going to dry up soon 🙂

  15. Dear Martin – i only know you ivia Twitter and following your OpenEd mooc some time back but just wanted to thank you for writing about this with such lightness of touch but without trivialising the subject. I hope the things that work for you continue to do so.

  16. Martin,

    Let me start by saying bravo for writing this. I personally know how difficult that can be. The level of depression you experience compared to anyone else is not a competition. Any level of depression sucks. I’m just coming out of a several month bout of it (my third in the past 7 years, and definitely the most severe) and finally decided to try medication. I’ve been very fortunate that the medication – along with therapy, meditation, exercise, and a great support network – got me through with few side effects, but I know others who were not that lucky. I appreciate you writing this post mostly because of how many people have come up to me in the past few months and thanked me for being so open about my depression (I’ve been blogging about it on my non-academic blog – http://betterme.ca/) because it made them feel like they can talk about their’s, which is necessary for so many of us to get the support that is needed to get through.

    1. Hi Heather, thank you very much for commenting. Thank you for that blog, been having a look at some of your posts, it’s got a lovely tone to it. I’m sure you find the act of writing it useful in itself, but for others it is often quite small bits of advice that can make a big difference. I’m sorry to hear your last bout was so tough, but glad you’re coming out of it. Maybe get to see you at OpenEd?

  17. MK GPs always say the OU is a prime source of patients with depression (after the Post Office) and wish OU dealt with it at source. University cultures always difficult but OU especially (selflessness, over commitment, moral mission etc etc).
    When I worked there, I eventually had to bring in the Health and Safety Executive to sort out major management stress issues in the Communications Dept as colleagues were falling like flies. OU management had declined to do so. HSE required a six point action plan and this happened. Take good care and try to address major issues head on…..

    1. Hi Simon, I didn’t want to point the finger at the OU, as up until the Horrocks crisis I had always found them very supportive (and my line managers have always been so), and I appreciate the flexibility in my job which allows me to accommodate some of the fluctuations. The point you make about devotion to the mission and selflessness leading to over work is a very good one – I’ve no doubt some managers take advantage of this, but it’s also something we do to ourselves, and the employer needs to help us recognise that. Thanks for sharing this

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