I am a Depressed Mathematician, by Matthew Pons

I was diagnosed with depression as a graduate student.  My therapist at the time worked with many graduate students and she understood the external stressors that such programs place on individuals.  She was also well aware of the fact that many graduate students abuse drugs and alcohol in an effort to cope.  I thought that I was just like everyone else. I worked hard, I taught my courses, and I went out for drinks frequently.  I lied to her about my alcohol use as I was embarrassed about how much I drank – not a healthy choice.  However, I’m sure she knew I was not being truthful, and she worked with me regardless of my unwillingness to be honest with both her and myself.  Eventually, she helped me see that my feelings of sadness, worthlessness, and thoughts of suicide were part of something that we could work through.

My therapist helped me to see that I had been depressed since I was around 17.  Throughout college, I had very little self-confidence, was terribly intimidated to speak in public spaces, and thoughts of suicide were frequent. I only made a plan once, and, luckily, I was not determined enough to carry it out. However, math was a place where I felt safe. I understood things quickly in my mathematics courses, my professors were encouraging, and I gained a little self-confidence in that arena. Unfortunately, that changed. As a graduate student and pre-tenured faculty member, math was a large contributor to my feelings of worthlessness. My classmates in graduate school seemed far more intelligent than I was, and I compared myself to them too often. When I couldn’t prove the result I was trying to prove, I felt stupid. Then I questioned my self-worth.  Then I drank. This was a frequently occurring cycle.  I abused alcohol quite a bit throughout grad school (though I would be sure to sober up for therapy appointments). And then there were the days when I didn’t even try because I couldn’t face it—or even get out of bed, for that matter.

What I’ve learned is that I’m not worthless, no matter what my brain tells me or how often it tells me. Fighting those kinds of thoughts can be exhausting and can affect sleep patterns and mood, which in turn, affect how I interact with my colleagues and students.  I have discovered that I can combat a thought of worthlessness by accomplishing something, anything: a load of laundry, an email, preparing or giving a lecture, etc.  This seems simple, but it reminds me that I am a functioning human being.  But that is just one piece of the depression puzzle.  To deal with the bigger issues, having a schedule is crucial for me.  My days are planned pretty thoroughly with meetings, class, and office hours.  I don’t allow myself the time to fall into the trap of thoughts waiting for me, and at the end of the day, I can be proud of what I’ve accomplished.  It’s not about ignoring the depression but on focusing on things that counterbalance those thoughts and symptoms. Where it gets tough is when there are big chunks of unscheduled time. As academics, we have huge breaks in our normal schedule.  Winter and summer breaks are a difficult time, and sabbaticals are completely overwhelming.  In these times, I have learned that I need to be organized and have projects, both big and small, that I can focus on. And for days that I can’t move, I have to accept that they exist and try again the next day.

I’ve also realized that mathematics is actually a great tool for someone like me. Instead of focusing on obsession over proving the theorem, I now end a day of research looking back on what I have learned. It’s about finding the positive.  Ok, so I didn’t prove the theorem, but I learned why my method is insufficient.  Or, I learned about a new result that may prove useful in my research.  Or, I went back to the basics and dug into the foundational aspects of the problem, solidifying my overall understanding. Hell, somedays I just work some fun calculus problems. Learning is one of the strongest tools I have. The fact that I live and work in a discipline that has an endless supply of things to learn is a huge blessing. I know that there is more pressure on graduate students and pre-tenured faculty to “prove that theorem,” but this perspective can still be useful. You are not defined by your mathematics. It’s a cliché, but I wish that we were more acculturated to focus on the journey rather than the destination.

The above change in perspective came about as I began to practice yoga.  My practice focuses a lot on gratitude and has helped me to look for places to be grateful in all aspects of my life. With regard to mathematics, what I know now is that I can be grateful for the mathematics that I do know.  I can be grateful for the mathematics that is still eluding me.  And I can be grateful for my colleagues and students who allow me to discuss mathematics with them. It’s ironic, but many of us communicate the above ideas to our students frequently, and yet we cannot internalize these same messages.  As I continue on my journey, my hope is that I will continue to remember what I’m grateful for and trust myself.

Matthew Pons, Co-Editor, is a Professor and Chair of the Mathematics Department at North Central College, where he has been a faculty member since 2007.  He earned his PhD from the University of Virginia in 2007 and his undergraduate degree in 2002 from the University of North Carolina at Asheville. Matthew’s favorite professional activity is teaching and his approach to classroom learning is shaped largely by his faculty mentors as both an undergraduate and graduate student.  They taught with passion and enthusiasm, and they knew how to push a student to excel all the while providing guidance and support.  As an instructor, it is not always easy to watch students struggle with the challenges inherent in the study of mathematics.  But seeing students overcome these challenges is a constant source of inspiration for Matthew, not only in his teaching but also in his own research.

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