This is quite possibly going to be the most self-aggrandising article I will ever write. Maybe I have finally descended into pure and utter delusion. But the experimentalist in me strongly believes that what I say in the title is true. I think my life accidentally became the near perfect experiment to discover biochemical causes of anxiety.
“How did I miss this?” I say to myself. I had just found a case study by Catalano et al.  describing the development of panic attacks in two patients shortly after initiation of the antidepressant Sertraline. Importantly, the patients had no personal or family history of any anxiety condition. I had been searching for an article like this since 2015. It was now 2021.
Referring to the article: A physicist’s experience of the mental-health system
and podcast: Start-up simulates quantum photonics devices, a physicist’s experience of the mental-health system
A while ago, my counsellor asked me to write something to give to a psychiatric researcher she knew from her work at a mental health hospital. She felt strongly that the things I was talking about in our sessions needed to be heard.
I obliged. I wrote a sort of manuscript looking thing. At that time I didn’t have the energy to write it in any sort of structure to help the reader. All I could do was splurge what was in my head onto paper. I cleaned it up as much as I could, then sent it off to her.
I realised quite quickly on returning to my PhD that it was immensely difficult to pull myself away from work when I was in the middle of trying to do a task or solve a problem. The “I can’t leave the problem until it is solved” feeling. As time went on, it would feel like I was getting closer to a solution, that I had laser focus, but in reality, I had tunnel vision. As time went on I became more and more stressed meaning my ability to solve the problem worsened. Further, if I went past the 25-minute mark, my stress levels would rise almost exponentially. It would potentially wipe me out for the day, or for a particularly frustrating problem, two. During which I would be limited to very simple tasks which would still feel quite painful to do. Meditating as a break in between 25 minute work sessions seemed to allow me to work for the full day.
Starting a PhD is daunting to say the least. The gap in knowledge between research and undergraduate study is a rather large one. Therefore many students, like myself, have experienced ‘imposter syndrome’ – the feeling that it was a mistake on the academics to choose you for the PhD project but they do not know yet. Here, I suggest perspectives that might help deal with this phenomenon. Part 2 of 2
Opening up about my own experiences of mental health through talks had a surprising side effect. People started to message me about their experiences and problems, some I go on to meet. I have found these conversations fertile ground for new ideas involving mental health. An important one of the many reasons why discussing mental health is beneficial. In one such conversation, an individual came to me about imposter syndrome. During our conversation, I realised that seeing imposter syndrome from the point of view of the PhD supervisor may help those feeling afraid of asking for help.
Starting a PhD is daunting to say the least. The gap in knowledge between research and undergraduate study is a rather large one. Therefore many students, like myself, have experienced ‘imposter syndrome’ – the feeling that it was a mistake on the academics to choose you for the PhD project but they do not know yet. Here, I suggest perspectives that might help deal with this phenomenon. Part 1 of 2
My PhD supervisor and I were standing in the lab preparing a sample for the electron microscope. It is a semi-dull activity, rich in opportunity for conversations about the minutia of life. I mentioned to him I was worried about the viva. I have always struggled with thinking on my feet. When my mind is stressed in such a way it takes the option of shutting down completely, leaving the occupier (i.e. me) to stare blankly at the wall. After some much-needed reassurance and useful advice, he says something which piques my interest. He mentions the viva is a “test of your knowledge”. Curious, I respond “I thought it was a test of my understanding?”. “Well”, he says in a semi-throwaway manner, “what really is the difference between understanding and knowledge.”
Hope is found in a corridor of darkness, feet and hands chained to the ground, only the faintest speck of light far off in the distance.
It is not found at the start of a race or in the bleachers of a stadium.
It is not found in political offices, on posters or a ballot paper.
It is not found in forward-thinking companies, in school halls or lecture theatres.
It is not the search to find a friend or lover.
It is not in a lottery ticket or job position.
It is not following a pop star, motivational speaker or politician.
It is not a yearning or an ambition or a heroic figure.
Hope, is keeping your head turned towards the light, even after it seems to fade from view.
During the editing and proofing process of the Physics World article I wrote, a few misconceptions slipped in. Which is understandable. Before I became mentally ill, I believed many of the misconceptions I have listed below. As I slowly got sicker and sicker, I realised just how wrong most of the common perceptions of mental health conditions are.
A poor understanding of the brain in society leads to films, T.V. shows, articles and other forms of media misrepresenting what mental illness actually is like. Ironically, this misrepresentation can come from the mentally ill themselves. It can be immensely difficult to describe what it is like to have a mental illness because the very nature of the illness affects the organ that we use to describe what it’s like.
Our society is therefore filled with misconceptions galore. Which makes having a mental health condition or illness all that much harder to deal with. Something I hope to rectify very slightly here.
I want to emphasise that the article is based on my experience. The following will likely differ from person to person. Which brings me on to my first misconception.
This is the fourth of a series of blog posts on the context behind my Physics World article: A physicist’s experience of the mental-health system. There is a lot of backstory. So during the editing process, I sent documents to the editor to help explain some of the views I express in the article. I have decided to add them as blog posts.
I didn’t want the fact that I took Venlafaxine between 2016-2019 to be in the PhysicsWorld article.
I left it out for reasons I hope will be made clear in this blog post. It was difficult, perhaps impossible, to include without a lot of background information and the drug did not give me much, if any benefit. I actually think it made my condition worse.
It is true that I believed that I could achieve remission solely through psychotherapeutic methods during the PhD and also true that I actually require medication to treat my illness.
I feel including even a short mention of Venlafaxine would have confused the reader and distract from the points I was trying to make later on. I hope this is made clear in the following story:
This is the third of a series of blog posts on the context behind my Physics World article: A physicist’s experience of the mental-health system. There is a lot of backstory. So during the editing process, I sent documents to the editor to help explain some of the views I express in the article. I have decided to add them as blog posts.
It was during my rTMS treatment that I first encountered the rating scales. And, had I been completely honest, I would have said that I could not answer the questions. That I could not give a rating at all. Especially as every scale asked for an average over the last 2 weeks. I have thought of an analogy that I hope might get across the reason why I felt it was pretty much impossible to give a rating.
Say you have lived in Southern California USA for your entire life. You are used to warm, dry and sunny weather year-round. In the previous two weeks however, the weather has been very unCalifornian. On the first day it was foggy and a bit chilly out, the next few days were pretty warm for this time of year (winter) temps going up to 24 Celsius, with a lot of Sun. On the weekend though it rained persistently. Last week however started extraordinarily with snow, possibly the first time you had seen it in your life. The rest of the week then stayed pretty chilly, five or six degrees Celsius, before returning to warm and cloudy.
This is the original draft of the Physics World article: A physicist’s experience of the mental health system (which then lead to the 24th February podcast)
I sent this draft to the editor around August 2021, when I was quite a lot sicker than I am now. I am proud of what I wrote given I could barely make breakfast at the time. So bear this in mind if some of it doesn’t make sense!
I entered my experimental physics PhD way out of my depth. I, like many others, was taken aback by just how much rigour goes into the experiments. “Did you check this?” my supervisor would say “Or that?” he would continue, as I stood there with a feeling of dread knowing that my answer was going to be an inevitable, “No”. “Well, we will have to redo the experiment then” he would say, knowing full well that by “we” he meant “me”.