Personal blog of Dr Alex Mendelsohn

Author: Alex Mendelsohn (Page 3 of 5)

I had a severe reaction to an antidepressant which, overnight, turned me from someone who had no anxiety symptoms whatsoever, to someone who had all of them. I then spent 8 months learning psychological methods (a lot of which I came up with myself) to 'reanimate my Frankenstein brain'. I then returned to my physics PhD where I finished the last 3 years of my PhD in 20 minute intervals, meditating in between to keep myself functional. After I finished, I collapsed from exhaustion, due to the slow progression of my physiological illness. I spent a harrowing couple of years in an indescribable hell, before we eventually got to medications that finally started to work. I am still recovering, but the closest to remission since that awful night in November 2015.

Why I am using a pen name (for now)

Alex has had negative experiences with clinicians in the past and has struggled to find a psychiatrist they trust. After finding a psychiatrist and a combination of medications that have helped ease their symptoms, they plan to share their experiences through various platforms. However, they wish to remain anonymous for now as they criticize aspects of psychiatry, psychotherapy, and neuroscience and do not want their current psychiatrist to discontinue their service. Once their symptoms have improved and they feel safe enough, they plan to reveal their true identity while keeping the pen name Alex Mendelsohn. They hope to use their unique perspective to help others and prevent similar negative experiences from happening to others.

In the past, I have been refused treatments that eventually worked, and had interactions with past clinicians that unintentionally drove me towards suicide, rather than away from it.

It took me a very long time to find a psychiatrist I trust. Once I did, we landed on a combination of medications that have progressively eased my symptoms over the last couple of years. I take one of these medications off-label (this means that the medication is licensed for another condition, not the one I am taking it for). My current psychiatrist is the first I have met willing to prescribe this medication.

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Why not use bodycams for experimental work?

The blog post discusses Alex’s experience as an experimental physicist and the difficulties he faced in keeping track of important events during experiments. He suggests that using bodycams, similar to those used by police officers, could be a solution to this problem. Alex explains that the use of bodycams would provide a wide field of view and record all the problems that arise during an experiment. This would make communication between the experimenter and the supervisor more efficient and improve the replicability of experiments. Additionally, Alex argues that using bodycams would make experiments more rigorous, as it would be easier to catch mistakes and improve methodology. Alex concludes by pointing to NileRed’s YouTube channel as an example of how video recordings can be used to counter positive publication bias.

I wasn’t exactly a natural at experimental work. My undergraduate lab marks were, erm, not brilliant. A poor memory mixed with a lack of practical intuition, a good experimental physicist, does not make. So, it is a tad ironic that I decided to do a PhD in electron microscopy – a mostly experimental field.

I liked planning experiments and analysing their results. I just didn’t very much like doing them. Sessions on the electron microscope always felt clunky. I had to frequently stop doing the experiment to note down significant events in my lab book and I was not the best at deciding which ones were worthy. Actually, I was terrible at deciphering happenstance from important experimental happenings.

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This photographer has out Dunhelmselves (sorry, couldn’t help it!)

I recently received an email from my mum with the subject heading “Dunhelm invisibility cloak”. The only words in the body were “Enjoy!” followed by three hyperlinks to Dunhelm’s website (a furniture store).

The first link was to a “Darcie the Deer” printed throw blanket. At first glance, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. I mean, the colour was not really to my liking, but other than that it seemed like a regular, relatively inexpensive, blanket. My joy levels had not exactly skyrocketed.

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The secrets to anxiety are inside my head – all someone needs to do is look

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.

Alex shares his personal experience with anxiety, which they believe was initiated by taking the antidepressant Sertraline. He discovered several case studies that also describe the development of anxiety symptoms in patients shortly after taking Sertraline. However, Alex’s anxiety symptoms persisted and worsened after cessation of the medication, unlike the patients in the case studies. Alex believes that their experience could be a special case that could help uncover the biochemical causes of anxiety disorders. Alex advocates for a more complex approach to understanding the causes of anxiety disorders that takes into account both nature and nurture.

“How did I miss this?” I say to myself. I had just found a case study by Catalano et al. [1] 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.

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The story of how my Physics World article came to be

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

Alex wrote a manuscript about their experiences with mental illness that they shared with a psychiatric researcher, but received no response. Undeterred, they cold-emailed psychiatric researchers and scientific magazines but only received rejections. Eventually, the editor of Physics World magazine reached out and expressed interest in publishing the manuscript. Despite being surprised and skeptical at first, Alex’s article was eventually published after six months. Alex thanks the editor for being courageous enough to publish something not typically seen in a physics magazine and wonders if there are more people out there willing to act and care about mental health issues.

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.

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My work routine

Alex discusses how they struggled with overworking and stress while doing their PhD work. They explain how they started meditating between 25-minute work sessions, which helped them to focus better and catch mistakes. He also talks about how they switched from task-oriented scheduling to theme-oriented scheduling, which allowed for more flexibility. They used a large whiteboard and created a crude week layout, which included headings like “Before Work,” “Morning,” “Afternoon,” and “Evening,” and a column for each day of the week. Alex assigned themes like “PhD Work,” “Personal,” “Gym,” “Admin,” and “Cleaning,” and then assigned associated tasks to each theme. This approach allowed them to structure their day, while also providing flexibility to move things around as needed.

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.

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Imposter syndrome – part 2

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

Alex writes about his experiences with mental health and how talking about it has led to fruitful conversations with others. During one such conversation, he realized that seeing imposter syndrome from the PhD supervisor’s point of view may help those who are afraid to ask for help. Alex explains that the fear of being kicked off the PhD is a primary symptom of imposter syndrome and that seeing the situation from the supervisor’s perspective can counteract this fear. He notes that a PhD student is at the beginning of their career, while the supervisor is likely closer to retirement, and choosing a PhD student is a major commitment. Alex emphasizes that a supervisor invests in a PhD student and it is within their interest to help with any problems or feelings the student has. He encourages students who feel like they are struggling to reach out to their supervisor and colleagues and that imposter syndrome does not have to last any longer than they decide. Alex concludes by saying that his PhD experience taught him that it is rather overrated and that he was no different the day after his viva than the day before.

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.

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Imposter syndrome – part 1

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

This blog post discusses imposter syndrome, the feeling of inadequacy despite having achieved success. Alex suggests that understanding and knowledge are two different concepts and that a researcher’s job is to extend their understanding to gain new knowledge. He argues that while it is normal for new researchers to feel like imposters when they are surrounded by people with more knowledge than them, they should focus on their ability to draw new lines of understanding. Alex believes that vivas test understanding, not knowledge, and that one’s ability to derive new understandings from previously known concepts is what defines a good researcher.

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.”

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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.

Misconceptions about mental illness

Alex discusses some misconceptions about mental illness that exist in society. He notes that mental illnesses are complex and individual experiences of mental illness vary greatly. Environmental and genetic factors can play varying roles in the development of mental illnesses in different people. Alex also emphasizes that mental illnesses cause both emotional and physical pain, and depression is not just a loss of emotion, but rather the twisting of emotions. He also points out that anxiety is not just worry, but it can be a debilitating condition that takes away an individual’s control.

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.

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