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  • Michael Remke

PhDepression


A self portrait during the harvest of my 4 year long field experiment for my PhD Work

Passion

It was a warm spring day. A perfect day for skiing the alpine of Colorado’s backcountry. I had just finished putting pen and paper away after collecting data for the day and was getting ready to ski back to my car. My energy level and enthusiasm for science was at its peak, it was my second field season of undergraduate research in snow ecology. As graduation lurked, I was filled with zest for a career in the natural sciences that was unlike any excitement I had ever felt before.

Fast forward two years. After working a few field technician jobs I had very enthusiastically accepted a PhD position focused in soil ecology. The path that led me to the decision was fairly clear. I loved working outside studying the world around us. I was also excited about science that could help improve land management. The only problem was I had grown tired of not having a job come winter as field season ended. I also enjoyed the grunt labor of field technician jobs in the sciences, but only being a laborer was also causing me to grow tired. I craved to be more involved in the intellectual component of science, something a research opportunity would offer. Furthermore, I wanted to share science with more people. During undergraduate, I was a teaching assistant during the school year and a field researcher during the summer. These tasks combined to manifest an experience in undergraduate that was more comparable to what a student might receive during their masters. Naturally, professors then encouraged me to get my PhD – they thought I would thrive given my undergraduate experience. To their credit, the balance of teaching and research is precisely what my pallet craved.

Using shade cloths to mimic dust on snow in my senior thesis project focused on how dust on snow influences alpine plant communities

Isolation

My professors were not necessarily wrong. The first year of graduate school flew by. I designed three major experiments. I thrived in classes and navigated most of the stress with ease. The strange thing is my success started to create a divide between my family, my friends, and even myself. Raised in a conservative family that is more accustomed to the business world than the culture of academia meant relating to my family became a struggle. Their life experiences did not match mine, nor did they fully understand how to advise me or relate to graduate school. Furthermore, their personal ideals and values challenged the concept of federally supported research grants and created disagreements about religious versus scientific stories. On the other side, most of my peers in graduate school held onto ideals that were directly the inverse of my family creating tension between my friend group and my parents. Not as if these split groups were hanging out, but rather, it created a pull between the two in myself. I had a tremendous amount of respect for both sides of this classic left versus right split. Being stuck in the middle, it became difficult to feel comfortable being vulnerable and genuine to either side – by the end of two years in graduate school I felt isolated in my social life.

Such isolation was of course perpetuated by my research. Though the topic and project was still congruent with my passion, the despair lies in the exhaustion that grew from not sharing it with anyone. Field work most often consisted of me driving across the deserts of Northern Arizona, down dusty dirt roads, alone. My academic committee, of course, always welcomed conversations on my research, likewise among my immediate peers. But specialization forced us all into our own worm holes of literature and philosophical thought that only a handful of author groups across the globe could truly converse about with any degree of depth. Certain parallels of course exist in all disciplines, thus allowing one to distill ideas and thoughts into language that could be more broadly understood outside your field. The most in-depth and vulnerable opportunities to discuss said research became lab meeting style presentations and conferences. I was lucky enough to obtain funding to go to several international conferences at the consequence of having a heightened demand for having a higher impact assertions in my science. These were my moments of connecting with others during graduate school – 20-60 minuets of talk in regards to my hundreds of hours spent alone in the remote reaches of Northern Arizona.

To further isolate oneself, the meaty demands of writing a dissertation consumed most of my free time, and still does. Writing in academia is really reading. Its countless hours spent reading and interpreting scholarly articles. It's hours spent making sense of noisy data in statistical analysis packages, its days spent perfecting ones visualization of said data and then an endless back and forth with committee members and coauthors making edits to publish. It’s exhausting. Those in academia know the process well. Certain personalities thrive on it. Others dwindle as time goes on. Graduate students can get together and laugh over the process and the impossibility of pleasing all the coauthors. The publish or perish philosophy pushes advisers to publish more often, and the quantitive concept of impact factors encourages them to aim to higher grade journals. The result is pressure on students to publish higher impact papers, which means more revisions. And more rejections. Those outside of academia have almost no sense of this process and the statement of “I only have two chapters left to write” seems like a dismal and small task – two papers comparable to what most people who have attended college have done before. The reality couldn’t be further, and the difficulty to get people to understand becomes tangential and isolating even further.

A classic scene in the Verde Valley Region en route to one of my more remote study sites

Jumping

It was a hot day in June. The air was mostly still, but looking down into the Grand Canyon one could almost clearly see the convective currents of hot air rising up from between the rocks. My shirt was white, but stained shades of grey, brown, and nearly black from the soil of my experimental units I had just finished planting. It was a long 80 hour work week getting this experiment set up. I was lucky to have had the help of volunteers from a non-profit to help, but I was still a single leader to a massive project and any challenges we encountered in the field were mine to navigate and find solutions to. This was the 4th or 5th arduous push of labor like this. The worst thing about it – doing field work had caused me to fall behind on all other duties and responsibilities as a graduate student, not to mention normal life items. I was also salaried, making a dismal paycheck every two weeks no matter the effort I put in. Lucky to be paid to go to school, but unlucky in the sense that waiting tables would earn a more significant pay. I was trying to imagine why I was doing all this to myself. The future seemed bleak, academia was destroying me. Rigorous field work, endless statistics, never ended writing. I began to distrust the idea that following your passion would lead to happiness.

At this point, jumping from the cliffs at the Grand Canyon was a seemingly easy and logical solution. I loved that canyon more than anything and all I could think about was a John Muir quote – “The least I owe these mountains is a body.”

The scary thing about that moment alone on the rim of the Grand Canyon was it was the first real attempt and thought of suicide in a long stretch of life dominated by suicidal ideation. What prevented me from jumping that day is hard to clearly nail down. Other schemes were interrupted by police calls from distressed friends, advisers arriving to my house concerned that I failed to show up to some commitment, or my therapist personally shuttling me to the hospital late at night. The irony in all of it was my passion and career for the sciences actually lended really well to me becoming extremely comfortable alone. The time I had spent alone essentially surmised 100,000+ miles driving to field sites and some uncountable working hours. If we include all the time from my precious field positions I probably have logged a cumulative of nearly 10,000 hours on the clock, totally alone. That yields a little over a year and fails to include "down" time while on the job but not working. Being alone was where I was comfortable, but life is not a hermit activity. Nor was society – indeed, living on the edge of society exacerbated the discomforts of being around people, it would be easier to just chose to be a hermit than to live on the edge of being one. Either way, my isolation combined with the difficulty in feeling accepted by my family, my peers, the academic community, and anyone else had begun to stir my insecurities and brought my damaged mental health to the surface. With suicide as a common thought process, many that were close to me left me because of they themselves not knowing what to do.

My comfort in the Grand Canyon is unreal, the gravity of the open chasm steals my thoughts and comforts me

Nursing my Mind

For most of my life exercising and being outside had been staples in controlling stress and anxiety. You could say that I value endurance and athleticism. During graduate school, my accessibility to these activities became a blessing and a curse. My academic institution was located in a mountain town where such vices were more accessible than virtually anywhere else. As a result, I mountain biked and backpacked a lot. I pushed myself physically to release the tension built in my academic stress. This allowed me to be a better athlete but also distracted me from the core of my isolation, depression, and suicidal ideation. I would never advise myself to have not done these activities, but I do caution that they were not mental health solutions. Indeed, I spent most of my time doing these activities alone. Further digging myself into a grave of being comfortable by myself. In the woods, away from academia it felt like I was choosing to be a hermit, and I loved it. These distractions at least numbed my suffrage enough to allow me to truly nurse my mind with mindfulness and acceptance.

Acceptance is probably the one word that has changed my mental space more than anything. Accepting the difference between my family and I has allowed me to figure out how to reach them better. It allows me to create more empathy for their own views and experiences. It also helps me explain science in a way that is non-aggressive and relatable to their religious doctrine. Acceptance also helps me cope with the high pressure publish or perish mindset of academia. I am able to observe the atmosphere and put myself in a mindset that allows me to be successful, but also helps me keep my own distance without becoming intoxicated by the environment it creates. This level of acceptance provides clarity in my career search as I begin considering the next steps. Acceptance that I know more about my dissertation than anyone else helps me appreciate my level of knowledge for such a specific topic, it also helps me appreciate the level of knowledge possessed by everyone in their own life paths – from other dissertations and theses to peoples area of specialty in their own work outside of the sciences.

Me biking in Tucson, Arizona - in the place where my mind can settle into reading the trail and forget the worry

Identity

Acceptance of the isolative nature of all of these factors helps me be comfortable living on the edge of society with some reclusive hermit-esk traits that I am able to celebrate while also formulating stories that I can share. I know very few people who have spent as much time alone on the Kaibab plateau of the Grand Canyon’s North Rim as I have. I imagine far fewer have spent the time to carefully watch hundreds of plants face the challenges of novel environments for 4 years at a leaf level of intimacy. I guess the difference for me, that I learned through years of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), lessons in mindfulness, and by skimming the surface of acceptance commitment therapy (ACT) is that the energy it takes to wrestle with circumstances and situations is relatively non-productive, but rather, accepting the circumstances and how they make me feel can help me understand things from a different light. Yoga teaches a similar philosophy on acceptance and offers the idea of flow to help channel these ideas into movement. Finding the flow state and accepting the stresses of academia, or any profession, can heighten our ability to understand what we value and where our strengths and weaknesses are. All of my challenges, for example have heightened my desire to improve science communication and create a space for students to know they don’t have to fight the flow of academia to be part of it.

In the end, I guess you can say I am learning to be comfortable as someone who is a little edgy, thanks in part to my time spent alone, but really the struggle has built me into a complex being. My demons are not tamed and I continue to understand them more. At the end of the day - I have a lot to offer with light from unique experiences and difficult times, and I will continue to have more to share as I live my life.

#academics #curiosity #psycology

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Copyright by Michael Remke Photographgy LLC.