“We exploit the intellectual demands of our job to smother our negative thoughts that so easily bubble up from the recesses of our mind.”
In this last instalment of this series on “Emotions in Academia,” I focus on my own arch nemesis: fear, or anxiety. A little bit of fear is a good thing because fear keeps us safe and helps us avoid life’s dangers. We are supposed to fear certain things: snakes, heights, sharks, and sharp objects. In fact, we even seem to enjoy fear administered in small, controllable doses. That’s why we watch scary movies and go on rollercoasters. But when fear crosses that threshold into full blown anxiety or panic, life becomes a living nightmare.
I suspect that academics are prone to anxiety, although I don’t know if anxious people become academics or if academia makes people anxious. It’s probably a bit of both, I would guess. For my part, I was anxiety-stricken before entering academia. But did academia make it worse? You bet.
I became a hypochondriac back when I was a Master’s student. It all started one night when I had a little too much to drink. I went to bed with a strange “tingling” sensation in my feet that came in “waves” every two or three seconds. When I awoke in the morning, it was still there. I fell ill immediately. Besides the paraesthesia, I had other symptoms, too: vertigo, nausea, insomnia, and something like—how can I describe it?—fractured thinking (this latter one is hard to describe). I was seriously ill for about four months, leading up to the start of my PhD. The doctors later said I had an “unspecified virus,” which, in today’s context, really makes me think I had something very much like COVID-19, minus the respiratory symptoms.
The tingling in my feet never stopped over those four months. It never even let up. It was there, ever present, every. single. day. It wasn’t painful, but it drove me mad, literally mad. I felt like the main character in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” but instead of hyperawareness of a beating heart beneath the floorboards, I could not divert my attention from the persistent waves of paraesthesia in my feet. Even today, when I am stressed out or short on sleep, I can still feel the tingling return from time to time. I’m told that nerve damage takes a long time to repair.
This “unspecified virus” set off an unbreakable pattern of catastrophic thinking in my mind that continues to this day. At first, I constantly scanned my body, looking for anomalies. “Was that lump a sign of cancer?” “Did I just see a tinge of blood in my urine?” “Should my heart really be running at 120 beats per minute after climbing the stairs?” These questions continued throughout my PhD program and eventually morphed into what I can only describe as mental health anxiety during my first lectureship. I began to constantly scan my thoughts, once again looking for anomalies. “I just laughed at a joke: is this bipolar disorder?” “I thought I heard someone’s voice just now: is this schizophrenia?” “I just had an image in my mind of me doing something bad: am I a psychopath?” Spoiler alert: the answers to these questions are no, no, and no.
Eventually, a few years into the tenure track, I was formally diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, a condition that, I confess, I have battled for 20 years now. If you want to know what OCD is like, watch this. I think it is about the closest approximation I can find to the way my mind works. OCD is mostly treatable, but ultimately uncurable. I have been on medication, done a lot of cognitive behavioral therapy, and relied heavily on my family to see me through the bad times, of which there have been many.
And yet, here I am, a full professor with a decent publication record. How did I achieve that? There have been times when I was unable to work, but the thing about academic labor (especially writing), is that it “crowds out” all other thoughts, including the most distressing ones. If I’m doing nothing, I can easily be consumed by my anxiety, but if I am writing, I can, well, distract myself from myself. So I naturally spent a lot of time writing.
If I had to guess, I’d say there are a lot of academics out there with mental illnesses that are undiagnosed. We exploit the intellectual demands of our job to smother negative thoughts that so easily bubble up from the recesses of our mind. If you feel this might be you, please talk to your doctor. You may be coping now, but someday the pain might become unbearable. Trust me. You’re better off tackling these issues now before they spiral out of control. You can tame the beast, just like I did and continue to do every day of my life.
Professor Andrew R. Timming
This article is published under a Creative Commons 4.0 License.