Getting My Ph.D. Was a Lifelong Goal. Doing It With Postpartum Depression Wasn't In the Plan.
I’ve always possessed the type of unbridled ambition that pursues perfection—to a breaking point. Drive is, most of the time, a good thing. It fuels achievement, self-improvement, and the confidence that comes from knowing you gave it your all. But my drive—an intense blend of self-competitiveness and workaholism—can be a recipe for burnout. Add a mood disorder I’ve dealt with since I was a pre-teen and these relentless personality traits can be deadly.
For most of my life, academia has been the petri dish for these praised but precarious tendencies of mine to ripen. I have always been enamored by the consumption of knowledge—exams, presentations, and papers all opportunities for me to stay fed by a constant stream of accomplished goals. I’ve spent hours upon hours studying and cultivating my skills and I’ve always exceeded expectations.
The problem is, I don’t know how to stop.
After high school, I started at an ivy league school, Dartmouth College. As fall morphed into winter my first semester of college, I felt my mood decline dangerously. With nowhere to go, I isolated myself in my dorm room: I woke up early to study, went to class, and continued studying into the night. I spiraled. My mood plummeted to the point that I had to take several medical leaves to try to manage my mental health.
I came back to Dartmouth after another term away armed with prescriptions and cognitive behavioral techniques. I lived in a house fondly called “The Love Shack” with a few of my friends. I was feeling optimistic about finding balance as we got ready for a Valentine’s Day party and made punch mixed in a recycling container lined with a plastic bag. The drink was sweet and tart, and startlingly strong. I swigged two cups.
The rest of what happened that night is riddled with holes. I only have flashes, but they are enough. Snorting lines of Adderall in my room with two guys I barely knew. Male voices taunting as I threw my head back to swallow an entire bottle, maybe more than one, of antidepressants. My clothes, Valentine’s Day pajamas, torn and hanging off my body. Someone lighting a cigarette for me in the frigid air. A crowd of people huddled around me. The paramedics taking me away.
While I can’t remember exactly what happened, I do remember the rape kit in the hospital. I do remember those two guys harassing me online because I suggested foul play. I do remember the stress of trying to keep my world together.
I didn’t know what the rest of my life would look like. What I did know is that I wasn’t going back to Dartmouth. My sparkling reputation was tarnished: I became a college drop out with a mental illness. I thought I would never be successful; I would never be in a relationship; I would never have kids. I couldn’t live the life I had wanted to live, the life I had been groomed to pursue. The goals and ambition that had been my lifeblood evaporated.
I couldn’t imagine then that ten years later I’d be in a Ph.D. program at UC Berkeley with a 1-year-old son and a loving husband.
After the incident at Dartmouth, the smog slowly cleared. I fell in love. We travelled the world. I embraced my creativity and pursued my writing. I finished my bachelor’s degree at a different university and then moved South to do a master’s program. I picked myself up and fulfilled new goals.
Achieving success and love, however, doesn’t mean I stopped having depression. That’s not how mental illness works. As I was finishing my master’s degree in Miami, I found out I was pregnant. I held fast to my academic dream of earning a Ph.D. and applied to doctoral programs while battling morning sickness. I was accepted to UC Berkeley and deferred for a year to bond with my new baby.
For the pregnancy, I had to taper off my mood stabilizing medications, but I remained stable, excited, and happy throughout the nine months. Everything went smoothly until the birth. As the hormones poured out of me, my neurotransmitters went into shock. Without my medicine to keep me afloat, the darkness of depression re-emerged and with it the risk of getting catastrophically derailed again.
Each depression evokes the memories of every other depressive episode you’ve had. Your mind recalls the stinging sensations of shame, the memories of lying in bed hoping the sun didn’t rise tomorrow. I could feel the scratchy hospital bracelet on my wrist when I landed in the neurology unit after the antidepressant overdose a decade ago, the terrible screaming in my head when I realized I wouldn’t return to my dream college, the heavy burden of knowing you’ve thrown your entire future away.
Thankfully, my husband took care of both the baby and me as I sunk, my nose descending closer to the water line with each passing hour. When I hit the critical low, I started back on my medicine. As my mood gradually rose, the whispers of the past faded away. My confidence as a new mom grew and I felt myself settling into the routine of my new role. I became the peppy mom I had always wanted to be.
After a year with the baby in Miami, my family and I moved to Berkeley, California so I could start my Ph.D. program. Following the postpartum depression, I knew doing a Ph.D. with a young child would be intense—a goal bigger than any I’d ever pursued. Going into it, I knew it would be a challenge with significant risk. But I live for the challenge.
I’m in my first year of my Ph.D. program and I have at least five more years to go. I’m prepared for a bumpy ride but I’m still raring to go. My workaholism and perfectionism will be traits I’ll have to keep learning to temper. I can’t stay up all night to study anymore because I have a young child that I need to care for. I can’t push myself to the breaking point because my family depends on me. I’m replacing burnout with self-care and self-criticism with kindness. What’s at stake is not just my life but the future of my family. The behaviors I model—not only my ambition but my balance—will affect my family’s wellness in the long run.
I never thought I’d finish my college degree let alone have the chance to pursue a Ph.D., and I never thought I’d fall in love or have a child. The life I’m living now is the opportunity I never thought I’d have. No matter how many obstacles I encounter on my path to my final degree, no matter how many mental health or parenting challenges I have to overcome, I will put one foot in front of another and climb until I’m on the stage with my doctoral diploma in hand. Academia and motherhood have been triggers for my depression, but they also make me feel alive, and it’s that electricity I’ll always chase.
Minhae Shim Roth is a writer and reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow her on Instagram @momphdblog.
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