Well, it has been 2.5 years since I have posted on this blog. My homepage explains it all by saying maybe I’ll update in my second year (it is now my third since graduating), or after tenure, we’ll see how it goes. It is not for a lack of blogging ideas, nor my regular reading has stopped since 2015, but I have been preoccupied with some major life changes.
In fact, that is the topic of this first blog post since my post-PhD graduation hiatus. As I mentioned, there has been a lot of life transition since that time. Presently, those transitions are manifesting in bouts of anxiety that were not a regular part of my life prior. In fact, I am typically fairly laid back, positive, and upbeat about life. But that has been different over the last 9 months. This post adds to the litany of writing about mental health and anxiety in academia: here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, or the other more than 20 million hits on an “anxiety and academia” Google search.
So why add to all of this? Will I say anything new? Probably not. I am under no illusion that a lot of people read this blog, though my site traffic suggests that people wander into different posts over time. So, perhaps this is just for me. Or, perhaps, other early career researchers (ECR) who are experiencing the upheavals associated with establishing their career will wonder on here and find some solidarity. I know hearing others’ stories has helped me to figure out my own anxiety issues. So here goes.
Like I said, I have always been pretty laid back. I’m not a perfectionist. In fact, I’m pretty good at figuring out what I need to do to move forward with my goals, but don’t worry about making sure every detail is perfectly lined up. I’m fine with rolling with the punches. That said, major milestones – like comps – do stress me out. At these times a deeper fear of failing manifests (pretty sure at this point that this is my core fear), but it subsides after the event passes. I also have a tendency to catastrophize at those times.
Much began to change as I arrived at the end of my Ph.D. program. First, the process of obtaining my first position was complicated and difficult for our family. There was a lot of transition, with my wife and I moving from relatively equal career positions to my taking the career lead and her taking a greater role at home with our new baby. In addition to the major role change, we moved to coastal New Jersey for my first academic position. It was not our first choice of places to live and was vastly different than Happy Valley. Isolated, learning a new place, with no existing local relationships and a new baby, the first year was a struggle.
I started having anxiety issues in the fall of my second year. By that time we were building better relationships at a great church and I was becoming more connected at work. That was great, but I also started the every-other-year contract renewal process. The catastrophizing came back. While I was fairly confident that I was doing what I needed in terms of teaching, research, and service to progress through tenure, the fear still came back. And now it brought with it physical symptoms. For those who may not know, the physical effects of anxiety are frighteningly similar to early signs of heart disease or an imminent heart attack. It just so happens that my Dad had his first heart attack around 31 or 32 and died of his fourth by the time he was 44 (I was 13). So, when the physical symptoms started, I immediately went to a cardiologist. After blood work, an ultrasound, and stress test, I was assured that nothing was wrong with my heart. But anxiety is not rational.
By February of 2017, I received support for a second two-year contract at Stockton. My wife and I were feeling a lot more grounded in New Jersey and were even looking at houses there, in the event that I did not make a job move within the next year. Incredibly to us, and after chatting with a friend at work that Penn State Harrisburg would be a great place for both my wife and I, a job ad popped up for a position in public policy and administration at PSU Harrisburg. This was perfect. I truly enjoyed my colleagues and the pace of work at Stockton, but moving to the Harrisburg area would shorten the drive to Becca’s parents and put us 30 minutes away from my widowed mom. She would be much closer to her only grandchild and we would be able to help her more as she grew older.
Four days after submitting my application, I received the call that my mom had completed suicide. It was the start of what I now characterize as the hardest year of my life. Though, the difficulty continues beyond the year mark. Beyond the emotional toll, I am her only child and thus sole executor of the resulting estate. While planning her funeral, I also had to start all of the related legal mess. We eventually returned to New Jersey and I went back to teaching and writing, plus spending some time most days working on estate paperwork. According to my wife, I didn’t seem that fazed. During the funeral week I received a request for a phone interview at Harrisburg, then during spring break (when we were back in Lancaster to start the process of cleaning out my childhood home) I received a request for an on-campus interview. Four days before what would have been my mom’s 61st birthday, I received the job offer. We were off to Middletown and my mom was gone.
The semester ended, and so did my normal evenness. Driving to Lancaster to clean out the house on weekends, and for a week in May, and then preparing to pack up our life in New Jersey and move back to PA took a toll. Right after moving we had a massive yard sale to get rid of the remaining things at my mom’s house. Cleaning out that house was a huge task. Then, it went on the market in August and was sold in three days. I was happy to have a young couple move into the house, but it was another loss.
Meanwhile, we became pregnant with our second child not long after mom’s funeral. The fall brought a new job, with new colleagues, and a new organizational culture, as well as a baby that was not growing as fast as the doctors would like. Noah came healthy, but early and small. He is a joy, but also a sadness as my mom missed out on being a nana of two.
During it all, the anxiety attacks started. They generally came in the lead up to events, like selling the house or bringing Noah home. In addition to fearing a heart attack, the attacks brought (and still bring) sleepless nights. My wife will tell you, I am not great on short sleep. In fact, as others have written, all of the physical, mental, and emotional repercussions of anxiety tend to create a feedback loop that makes things worse. The entire month of February 2018 (the anniversary of my mom’s suicide), and even much of March, brought near constant anxiety. In fact, the last few days been relatively bad in the midst of some pretty good days. I cannot tell you why, I am still figuring out what is causing this.
So why do I share all of this? Well, it makes me feel better. But if it was just that, I would type this out and never post it (like the journal that I recently started) or just share it with my counselor. No, I post it because I know there are a lot of other early career academics that face the anxieties of feeling unmoored by moving from position to position early in their career and the uncertainties of a tough job market and even the early years of tenure track positions. And I am totally aware of the privilege I have of leaving a tenure-track position for another one. In some sense this is all easier for me than for others. There are many out there that live contingent labor lives in academia and I can only imagine that the psychological impacts are even greater. But regardless of whether an ECR is moving into a tenure-track position or from job to job, this period of life for many is one of multifaceted transition, not just career.
The inherent mental health-challenging features of academia receive a lot of attention. But many of my friends who are also working to establish themselves are likewise starting families, moving from place to place, building new relationships, and experiencing losses. I write this because I am in the midst of working through everything. I see a counselor regularly to help me do that. Though mental health challenges can also increase professional challenges for ECRs. Anxiety and depression, among other mental health issues, affect our ability to do our work and build relationships in our departments. I am normally fairly affable and positive, but have found myself more withdrawn. Not to mention conferences are difficult places for those struggling with social anxiety. General anxiety and the after effects of panic attacks are demotivating and distracting. I could go on.
Unfortunately, I don’t have an advice list of how to do this well. In fact, I could probably do better at a list of things not to do. But this is the beginning of reflection and an invitation for others to engage and perhaps share their own stories. There are lots of invitations out there, but maybe this is more meaningful to you for some reason than what you have already read. Men, in particular, still have a hard time talking about this stuff, but we must. For ourselves and for our families and friends. It is encouraging to see more scholars step up and share their stories.