Content Warning: suicide, suicidal ideation, sexual assault, rape
I almost didn’t make it out of high school alive.
That probably sounds extremely melodramatic, but it’s just a fact.
One evening, in the spring of 2002, after my parents had gone to bed, I took every prescription pill I could find in the house, and swallowed them. Not sure about the process I’d halfway unwittingly started in my body, and worried that, this time, like all the times before, I’d be unsuccessful, I crept downstairs to the kitchen and grabbed a paring knife. I wanted to slit my wrists. It turns out that I couldn’t bring myself to cut very deeply.
At some point, something in my mind shifted. I realized that my parents would wake me up the next morning, see the cuts on my wrists, and force me to go to a psychiatric hospital. I panicked.
After a very long, painful, and terrifying time staring at my parents’ bedroom door, I knocked.
“I think I need stitches,” I said.
This incident followed years of self-harm, anorexia, and risky sexual behavior.
When I was eight, I was sexually assaulted by an older friend. It happened in the middle of the night at a rowdy sleepover. It must have been witnessed by at least one other party attendee, because not long afterwards, I began to be ruthlessly bullied at school by students, and eventually, teachers too.
The first time I remember wanting to die, I had climbed up to the highest point (that I could reach) of the apartment building we lived in, and tried to find the courage to fling myself from it. I was nine years old—not even one full year after my sexual assault.
It only seemed natural, then, that seven years later, I almost succeeded in taking my own life.
In many ways, I was lucky. I got the community support, therapy, and medication I needed to cope better with my trauma, depression, and anxiety.
Despite continuing to struggle with depression, anxiety, and eating disorders, for many years I was more or less stable. I even stopped taking anti-depressants for a long time. I felt like I really knew how to handle my depression; that nothing like that horrific night my sophomore year would ever happen again.
Then, in the spring of the second year in my PhD program, I had a very private emotional breakdown.
My grandfather had passed away the year before, slowly and painfully. My then partner was emotionally abusive, and had raped me more than once (though I was completely unable to articulate it at the time). I was being bullied by a few students in one of my sections of a writing course. To top it all off, my neurologist had changed my meds again. While Keppra, which I take to control my epilepsy, has no nasty physical side effects, it turns out, though I didn’t realize it at the time, that for me, it has the effect of massively increasing my anxiety and depression.
At no point did I think to ask for help. I didn’t want to be a burden on my already heavily burdened network of grad school friends. And I didn’t want to worry my parents or my friends at home. I was afraid of being labelled as a problem or a failure by faculty, so I said nothing. I asked for nothing.
Before long, I felt like a complete failure as a teacher, scholar, romantic partner, and friend. I still went to work. I still went to classes. I still managed smiles and laughter. I don’t think anyone knew anything was wrong.
And then, just before spring break, I’d had enough. After being bullied by students for months while struggling to remain completely neutral and professional in the classroom, I learned that I had not been successful in any of my applications for administrative roles. It seemed like the universe was telling me: “You’ll never cut it. You’re not good enough or smart enough.”
A thought began to control my mind: “It would have been better for everyone if you had just cried yourself to sleep when you were 16.” It would have been better if I had just succeeded.
In the space of a single night where I neither ate nor slept, I came up with a suicide plan. It was elaborate and thorough, and I obsessed over it.
I was going to slowly pull away from all of my friends, break up with my partner, re-home my cat, and donate all of my things to those in need. Then I’d clean out my car, drive to the middle of nowhere, step out of the car, and shoot myself.
Of course, this never happened.
Again, I was saved by access to insurance to cover therapy sessions and anti-depressants, and, most importantly, a supportive community.
Recently, a woman in my field died by suicide in her own office. She was, by all accounts, successful, well-liked, engaged, and engaging. This death is a reminder to all of us of the suffering that so many are experiencing in academia, whether they are students or faculty. Part of my decision to tell my story, gratuitous though some may view it, is to share that, ultimately, the only reason I’m still here, still working, still writing, is access to medical insurance which means I never lose access to my medications, as well as access to therapists when I need them.
It’s important to point out, however, that comprehensive medical coverage is not enough. In my case, every time I’ve been struggling, the first step to actually making use of my insurance is reaching out to and/or being reached out to by friends and family. This community provides ears for listening, voices for encouragement, companions for exercise activities, hands for food prep, and anything else I might need, and vice versa.
We have had to build this, however, and it’s been difficult. No institution I have ever been at has had any official channels for supporting this kind of community care, and it becomes even harder to come by after the PhD, in the ever-so-lonely and stressful years of the early career academic.
I take time now to sleep, and to go to the gym during my work day. I refuse to answer emails on weekends. I eat when I need to. I do my best to only take on work that I care about and have time for. But, like so many others, my current institution provides no real support for this. It asks just as much of me and others, as any other business of late capitalism. It expects me to work far more than 35 hours per week (the current benchmark for full-time work in the U.K., where I live), without any expectation of remuneration for my surplus labor, and no time for real, extended rest. According to the university logic, if I am to be successful, if I am to keep my job, then I must literally become and live my work.
We need to do better at the institutional level and at the departmental level of academia not only in bargaining collectively for access to comprehensive medical insurance coverage, necessary paid time off, and more humane expectations of productivity. But we must do better to check in on people, and, even more importantly, to de-stigmatize mental illness. To refuse to valorize work for work’s sake. We must develop a culture that values space for reflection, relaxation, and rest.
Our very lives are at stake.