My Story Part 1: A Prologue

Graduate school wasn’t the first place I got personally familiar with mental illness, but it was the place I realized it was something I had to carefully manage in order to lead an enjoyable, satisfying life. Which is a great epiphany to have in a place where managing your life makes vector calculus look comparatively easy.

Damned if I can tell you in any detail how I arrived here, but for a very long time I’ve wanted to be a scientist (To add a bit of context, I was raised in a home grown American “new religious movement” with a somewhat dim view of higher education). Apparently things get more interesting the older they are? Indiana Jones made me want to be an archaeologist. Jurassic Park inspired a paleontology kick. Geology was the cool thing for a while. A middle school fascination with the history of humans exploring space was the springboard that brought me to physics. Old cultures, old life, the Earth, then the universe. There was a joke that I’d graduate from college with a degree in theology.

I graduated with a degree in physics with a very healthy interest in religious studies and gender studies that will only be revealed by a copy of my transcript as I was way too lazy to declare any minors. Still, I was unprepared for graduate school both academically and in terms of emotional maturity. This is actually pretty normal. I suspect no one goes through graduate school without encountering Impostor Syndrome. Crippling self doubt seems to be considered an essential part of the education process.

A lot happened my first couple years. I got separated from my table top gaming friends and, consequentially, an activity that was very important to me. A romantic relationship that was helping me hold it all together ended. I had a lot of sleepless nights and a lot of days where all I could do was sleep. I had my life’s second terrible experience with a therapist that resulted in the feeling that the last bits of hope were draining out of me. I had a major depressive episode followed by a major manic episode less than a month later.

There was a lot of time where it took every last bit of effort I could muster just to keep up the appearance of being able to function like a human being, including the last two weeks leading up to my qualifying exam–two days one must spend demonstrating use of all the skills learned over the past five years. You’d think that passing it would have given me some confidence in my competence, but it didn’t. Because depression lies.

Since then, I’ve met my wife and gotten married. We live together with a fat orange cat and small dog with a big underbite. I’ve found a set of medications that help give me a foundation to build on. I have a family and supportive friends. Every now and then I even play board games, although not multiple times a week like I may want to. I’ve learned how exercise, sleep, and a daily routine can help me feel better and stay feeling better. And, ultimately, I do feel better.

Well, stressed out, constantly worried about the future, and unconvinced of my abilities. Which is what a grad student means when they say “Pretty good.” Joking aside, though, I feel pretty fulfilled socially and intellectually. If there’s anything missing, it’s a need to do something for people who may not otherwise be heard. I want to be the best ally I can be, but I’d like to talk in a space that I can own and be personal with. Which brings us here.

I’ve got a few posts in the pipe and at least those will all see the light of day. And I would love to continue to make this a thing, but talking about mental health isn’t easy or comfortable. So if this is a conversation that you want to have or a story you want to hear, please let me know. I’m going to need to hear that someone out there finds my ideas intriguing and wants to subscribe to my newsletter to really, properly see this through.


About apfergus

A coffee sipping, bike riding, (newly) ballroom dancing, cardigan sweater enthusiast, and astrophysics grad student looking at the highest energy cosmic rays.
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