Written by: Jessica Dabrowski
For more of Jessica’s writing, you can visit her personal blog here: https://www.jessicastephanie.me/
Hey there! I’m Jessica Dabrowski, a current 3rd year and PhD candidate in the MIT-WHOI Joint Program, and I have anxiety. I choose to say this in the first sentence of this blog post because it needs to be out there in the open and talked about. Too many PhD students (40%, in fact—6 times higher than the rate in the general population), struggle with anxiety and/or depression. Why don’t we talk about this more openly? Unfortunately, there is stigma against mental health issues, and to be honest, they are not treated with nearly as much compassion as physical injuries. When I’ve panicked or spiraled into sadness, I’ve had people tell me to “Just calm down,” or “Lighten up!” When I broke my ankle, no one asked me to just “walk it off.” Just because something is invisible doesn’t mean that it is less important. In fact, as oceanographers, many of us spend our lives studying seemingly invisible but important things like the chemistry and physics of the ocean. Although mental health is not as outwardly apparent as physical health, it does not mean that it should be ignored, especially because it’s vital to our well-being.
My battle started at a young age, even though I wasn’t aware of it. I share my story not for pity, but to give perspective on the fact that many of us face invisible battles and have stories you don’t know about, since these stories are often difficult to share. In my pre-teen and teenage years, I faced many challenges, including growing up with an alcoholic parent and my best friend passing away due to a skateboarding accident. During high school, my parents started the divorce process, which only aggravated my father’s alcoholism and increased tensions in my family. At 13, the panic attacks started. At the time, neither my family nor I knew the symptoms of anxiety, so they weren’t addressed. We tried a few therapy sessions and I joined Al-Anon for teens (the equivalent of AA, but for loved ones), but I never learned the right coping skills and my anxiety and self-destruction raged on. This was invisible to everyone else because I seemed like I had everything going for me: I was captain of the varsity swim team, top of my class, and still working part-time, but behind the scenes I was putting myself in dysfunctional romantic relationships, undereating, and hating myself. During college, my grandmother, godmother, and father all passed away in a span of 3 years. I denied that I was struggling, taking only enough days off to attend the funerals, and returned to funneling my energy into my classes and research, distracting myself from grief, just like before. My grades were up, so I must have been fine. I jumped right into graduate school, deciding against a gap year since I thought that going for my PhD was the best way to put myself first, not realizing that I continued to let my mental health suffer.
In February of 2018, I heard my wake-up call. Although I was making good progress in my research and classes, I was having weekly panic attacks, experiencing stress-filled days, having sleepless nights, was the heaviest weight I had ever been, and witnessed my familial and romantic relationships fall apart. I felt utterly alone. I unhealthily relied on my partner for stress relief, so when I saw I was bringing him down with me, I knew I needed professional help. I sought out a therapist, that I still see regularly, and am grateful to say that I am the happiest I have ever been. I meet with my therapist more frequently when stressors in my life ramp up, and less often when I’m doing well—but never less often than once every two months. On our first day, she recommended trying meditation. I thought, “How could I have time to pause for 10 minutes a day when I have so much to do?” But that’s exactly what I needed. I wasn’t taking any time for myself, and as you may have heard, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” After the first meditation session, I had immediate relief and could already feel the cracks beginning to heal.
My daily experience is completely different to what it was less than two years ago, mostly because of the habits and skills I have built since then. I like to think of my new mental health habits as my brain’s daily dose of vitamins, energizing it for the rest of the day. Meditation is now one of my favorite parts of my routine. I try to do it at least a few times a week and don’t scold myself for not practicing it every day. Another one of my favorite strategies is writing lists. When I feel my thoughts starting to spiral downward with worry, instead of keeping everything that I’m worried about in my mind, I write them down. I keep paper on my desk, in my purse, and next to my bed. When I don’t have paper, I write it down in the notes section of my phone. Most mornings and evenings, I also journal. I write down what I’m grateful for, acknowledge successes big and small, and acknowledge things I could have done better that day by setting goals and intentions for tomorrow for the week ahead. A major part of my shift in mindset has also come from surrounding myself with positive influences like podcasts, the right types of people (for me) on social media, and reading motivational books. Self-care can mean something different for everyone, and the best way to do it is by doing what works for you. Some days that’s lifting heavy weights in the gym or going for a run, while on other days it’s staying in and feeding the soul with TV shows, soup, and sleep, but every day it’s a little bit of work for a great reward. I’m still working on discovering hobbies that bring me joy and experiencing life mindfully. On a daily basis, I now better manage my stress, have amazing relationships with my loved ones, am more aware of what influences me positively, and feel more joy. I am truly experiencing life with eternal gratitude, and a clear mind instead of fumbling along through the fog, wondering what is on the other side.
P.S. To anyone out there who resonated with this story, or who needs a hand, I’d love to hear from you.