Invisible struggles – when the mask stays on at work, by Mikael Vejdemo-Johansson

It has taken me a long, long time to recognize my own story as one of resilience and to recognize my own experiences as a struggle. It is still at times difficult for me to fully embrace it. One core reason for this is that we value work very highly – and I rarely struggled as a student, postdoc, or professor. Instead, the energy I expend masking my issues raises my stress level and brings the pent-up emotional storm to bear at home.

I grew up in Stockholm, Sweden, in the 1980s and 1990s – I’m at the very cusp of the “Millennials.” We had computers at home as far back as I can remember, and my parents both worked with computers already in the late 70s and early 80s. It was a household that encouraged academic endeavor and seeded it with a lot of literature – literature that I devoured as soon as I could read.

I always dreamed of working in academia. We have a family story from when I was four and was asked by a man I was talking to what I wanted to be when I grew up. “Researcher,” I lisped as precociously as I possibly could. Since that day, my plan has not changed noticeably – it has merely become more precise year by year.

I was precocious. I was odd. I was a rampant geek. Kindergarten through 9th grade was a period of constant exclusion and bullying at school. Grades 10 through 12 came with some specialization in the schooling, and with that selectivity came relief.

Selectivity as relief is something I have noticed through my years. Even when bullying was particularly bad, my extracurriculars have always provided me with a haven. Scouting, orchestra, theatre and the Young Scientist’s Association all took their turns as a place of refuge and safety. Selecting peer groups for shared interests rather than shared geography has always led to better outcomes for me.

As far back as my family remembers, I have always had problems with my mood, with my emotions going haywire on me. I am still right now digging through the why and how, and I am finding diagnoses and letter combinations along the way that may explain parts of it all. Certainly, there is some sort of PTSD from the years of bullying, but my family has told me stories of mood swings from before Kindergarten.

I am pretty good at masking, though: keeping stable while out among relative strangers and forcing my mood to stabilize. It is something paid for dearly once I let go of the force. As a result, I tend to have more and more severe mood swings at home than in school or at work. My colleagues could have gone for years without knowing that I have any issues whatsoever, because I stay stable and balanced during the day. Instead I will crash at home, reacting with anxiety, tears and sometimes freezing up completely at the slightest of causes.

There are some particularly noticeable crashes I can remember because they caused me to go and seek help. The first time I got started with psychiatrists and psychologists was thanks to my wife. During her first family dinner with my family, she got to witness my meltdowns firsthand as I crashed out, fled the dinner table and hid in my room. She came after me and encouraged me to seek help. A few months later I was seeing a psychiatrist, taking Lamictal for mood stability and seeing a psychologist for therapy.

Another time – earlier than this – during a postdoc in Scotland, my wife was enthusiastically looking forward to my cooking a lamb curry for dinner. I did not want to, but I could not bring myself to tell her that I did not want to cook the curry. Instead, I froze up in the middle of the frozen foods aisles and then broke down. That’s the first time I got restarted on mental health care.

During a research semester in Minneapolis, a car turned in front of me at a crosswalk and the world just … slowed down. I froze up on the sidewalk and stood just still and shaking for several minutes. Once I managed to get myself to move again, I could not push myself beyond an extremely slow pace. Once I got home and inside, I cried so hard the muscles in my face hurt from it. A few days later, I sought out the student health services and saw a psychiatrist for advice on the antidepressants I was taking and a psychologist for a sequence of therapy sessions.

There was a time period when the hacker / security research community faced a sequence of high-profile suicides. Almost all of them were of people who were very close to one of my close friends. Feeling the impact of these deaths, the community stepped up and organized conference panels, support groups, and tried hard to increase visibility and support for mental health issues. I was watching this as it happened and looking over to my academic circles where I could see no visibility, no support, leaving each of us feeling alone and isolated in our struggles. I wanted what the hacker community built for my academic world.

At one point, people were posting texts “coming out” with their own struggles – to put a spotlight on how widespread issues with depression and anxiety were in the community. So, I wrote up a text about my mood stability, I put it on my website, and I tweeted about it. A day later I got an email from one of my colleagues during my postdoc in Scotland. He told me he had depression, and that he had not noticed me struggle at all. I told him about the hacker community and their work – so we founded a group blog for “depressed academics”: http://blog.depressedacademics.org.

Since then, I have been consciously choosing to be open about my mood instability. I write online under my own name about moods, medications, therapy. Sometimes very personally. I tell people early on about my mood disorder – for instance I often weave a mention into my teaching early in my courses. As a result, people open up to me. Students come to me with their own struggles instead of hiding them.

Just because it was not visible in the workplace did not mean I did not struggle. Now, I am making it visible.

Mikael Vejdemo-Johansson, Assistant Professor of Data Science at CUNY College of Staten Island, started out in computational homological algebra before moving into topological data analysis (TDA) a decade ago. After a MSc at Stockholm University and a Dr rer nat at Friedrich-Schiller-University Jena, he went through 8 years of postdocs at Stanford, St Andrews and KTH before settling in New York at CUNY. Beside TDA and running the blog blog.depressedacademics.org, his interests are wide and varied – touching on linguistics, necktie knots, and psychology as well as most recently mathematical art (exhibited at JMM, Bridges, ICERM and the AAAS) and the Illustrating Mathematics research semester.

 

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