Depression and Anxiety Threatened to Kill My Career. So I Came Clean About It.
In the fall of 2016, I landed a part-time job teaching writing to pre-med majors at Texas A&M University. In 2017, this turned into a dream, full-time position, and it seemed like my life was finally falling into place. Just a semester later, though, at the start of 2018, I experienced the worst panic attacks of my life.
I was holding things together at work, mostly, but a few times each week I closed my office door, turned off the lights, and crawled under my desk to bawl. I constantly suffered near-paralyzing fear, and it was affecting my students. I debated what it would mean to tell my class. Would students no longer respect me as an instructor?
I finally decided to share what I was going through, but, in nearly 20 years of teaching, I’d never been more terrified to be in front of students.
I don’t remember exactly what I said at the end of class that day, but I tried to describe the situation straightforwardly.
“Some of you, no doubt, have noticed that the class isn’t going smoothly. Readings haven’t been posted on time. Due dates for assignments have sometimes been confusing. I haven’t been getting feedback to you as quickly as I’d like. I pride myself on being on top of things, so I feel you deserve an explanation.”
The explanation was this: for months, pressure had been building on me from so many different directions that it was almost inevitable that something would give.
Ever since I was a kid I had dreamed of getting a doctorate. I finally accomplished that goal, earning my PhD in biology in 2016. While immensely gratifying, that dream had come with a cost. I’d taken out as much in student loans as many people borrow to buy a house. I had no idea how much my payments might be, and as the date for repayment drew nearer, I couldn’t bear to find out.
Meanwhile, I was just starting to come out of the closet. By the end of 2017, most of my closest friends knew the secret I’d been hiding – even from myself – for 48 years. But many in my family didn’t, and I was desperately afraid of their rejection.
Since adolescence, cycles of anxiety and depression had been part of life, and they were predictable in their progression. If I just waited them out, they eventually dissipated.
While they were miserable in the moment, I’d come to look forward to a kind of rejuvenation I always felt at their end. However long they lasted, once the fog of depression lifted, I would be bursting with new ideas, filled with creative energy and a renewed sense of purpose.
This time, though, there was no end in sight, no resurrection, no rebirth. Death was becoming attractive. I knew I desperately needed help, and I knew it had to be now.
Even though I have health insurance, the demand for mental health services far exceeds supply and, it turns out, the start of the new year is an especially terrible time to seek psychological care. Counselors are busy catching up with clients and post-holiday paperwork. Voice messages never get returned. “First available” was often two months or more away, hardly helpful when I couldn’t see a future beyond two weeks. The choice between suicide and cold calling therapists may seem obvious, but I just didn’t have the strength to be turned away again.
My students were the slender thread that stayed my hands from doing myself harm. What would happen to them if I killed myself? How would my sudden death disrupt their graduation plans? As for my colleagues, they were already stretched thin teaching their own classes. I couldn’t burden them with more.
“As hard as I’ve tried not to let my personal life interfere with my professional obligations, as all of you know, sometimes life just becomes too large to compartmentalize.”
Before reaching the point where I felt compelled to confess, I had caught a lucky break. A clinic called to let me know that a counselor had an unexpected opening. I just needed to hold on for another week for my first appointment.
The morning of my first session, I was terrified. In fact, I almost ran out of the clinic before I was finally called back to a cozy office.
The counselor introduced herself and started explaining her background and doctor-patient confidentiality while I scratched at a red spot on my thumb, already rubbed raw from a nervous tic I’ve had since I was a kid. I had no idea where to begin, but fortunately I didn’t need to. The counselor had prepared questions and answering them proved comforting – even though it meant divulging things I’d never shared with anyone before. We scheduled weekly sessions, something to hold on to.
I saw signs of improvement over the next couple of weeks – small, silly things to anyone not living in my head. Checking the mail is hardly herculean, but I had avoided my mailbox for two months fearing the bills inside.
Just as things were looking up again, tragedy struck. My dad and stepmom had come to visit me the last weekend in January, an extremely rare treat. We’d had a good time as I showed them my apartment, my new office, and some of my favorite restaurants. They were worried – I’d let slip on social media that I was having panic attacks – but I deftly deflected any conversations that touched on my mental health.
We parted ways in the early afternoon. As they started the 200-mile drive back to Dallas, I hiked in the woods. About an hour later, still on the road, they tried to call me and I knew something must be wrong, especially since my mother, who was living in Nebraska, tried to call shortly afterward.
I found a clearing in the forest with phone service and called my mom. It turned out that my 45-year-old sister, Molly, was in a coma in a Montana hospital, and no one really knew what was happening.
If things were desperate before that call, I don’t know what words would describe the weeks that followed. Grief. Anxiety. Pressure. So much pressure. The dutiful son ripped to shreds from conflicting impulses. Mom all-but-asking me to stay away. Dad all-but-begging me to accompany him to see his daughter one last time.
My colleagues were supportive, offering to take over my classes if needed. I knew they were sincere, too, but that only heightened my anxiety. Academic jobs are hard to find and funding for my position wasn’t stable. What would happen if it looked like I was unreliable?
Even if I’d been able to overcome that set of fears, the logistics proved too much for me to cope with in my emotional state. When your sister lies close to death 1,500 miles away, what is the best time to show up at her bedside? Is it five days into her coma, when she won’t know you’re there but there are still hopeful signs she might recover? Is it on day 11, when her eyes finally open, but she’s at best only dimly aware of what’s happening? Or would it be more supportive to save my limited vacation days to help with funeral plans if it came to that?
Worst of all, I didn’t feel it was right to burden my parents with know
ledge of my mental health struggles when they were grieving the impending loss of their daughter.
The facades of health and happiness and professional detachment were collapsing in on me. The only way I could see to relieve the pressure was to let the world see my brokenness. In that moment, how the world reacted hardly seemed to matter. So I explained to my students what was happening.
“The day before Valentine’s Day, my younger sister passed away. About two weeks earlier she fell into a diabetic coma and, despite some false signs of hope, she was never able to recover. For over a month of this semester, I have been dealing with overwhelming uncertainty, worry and grief.
I’ve been suffering from major depression and anxiety. I’ve started counseling, and I’m starting to do better. I just felt you should know. As hard as y’all work for my class, I felt you needed an explanation for why you haven’t been getting my best.”
Whatever the consequences might be, at least I’d been honest.
To my surprise, far from rejecting me, students stayed after class to tell me how sorry they were. They left condolence cards in my mailbox and sent emails to let me know they were praying for my family. They stopped by my office to check on me. Up to that point, I’d been so caught up in my despair that it never occurred to me that I might be worthy of concern and support. Being accepted despite my flaws touched me in ways that are hard to express.
What happened next, though, transformed me. In their condolences, students shared their own experiences with loss, grief, depression and anxiety – far more than I could have guessed for lives so young.
Encouraged by their candor and support, I continued to open up. For instance, when I started antidepressants a few weeks later, I warned students before my lecture that I might be a bit loopy because I was experiencing distracting tingling sensations. I expected students might look at me as though I were crazy. Instead, I saw heads nodding in recognition. Soon, students showed up at office hours to thank me. They had never heard a professor expose that side of themselves. They saw their own struggles reflected in my vulnerability, and they saw something else, too. They saw hope.
Our students struggle far more than we can imagine. We’re often unaware of their difficulties, largely because we only see them for a few hours each week, often in large groups. At the same time, students are crafting walls of feigned invulnerability and confidence in emulation of the masks faculty wear. From freshman year to full tenure, academic life is lived under constant scrutiny. Is it any wonder we fear revealing anything that might be perceived as weakness?
Since opening up about my mental health, students have given me a peek behind their facades, sharing their stories of grief and despair: the unexpected death of a parent, the suicide of a sibling, paralyzing panic, involuntary commitment to psychiatric hospitals, abusive relationships and more.
Importantly, they don’t view me as a counselor. While a few students have asked what to expect if they enter therapy, not one has asked me to help them work through psychological trauma. That’s not my job, nor is it theirs when I describe my own issues – students understand and respect that.
Mostly, I believe they share their stories because they desperately need to be understood by those who are shaping their lives and their careers. Struggling to succeed while grappling with mental health issues is difficult enough. Keeping that struggle secret – especially from those who evaluate your performance – is exhausting. A barely passing grade separated from a student’s lived experience seems like a mediocre effort. But in the context of crippling depression and anxiety, it becomes a monumental tribute to their dedication, drive and ability. When that same student earns an “A”, a letter grade hardly seems adequate to reflect the magnitude of their accomplishments.
Yes, part of our job as professors is to evaluate students’ performance objectively and honestly, and we do our best to prepare them for the “real world”, which can be unforgiving of mental health struggles. But students already know that life is hard. Far more of them have learned this basic lesson more intimately than anyone would like to acknowledge.
Perhaps, then, as teachers we should include in our lessons that it is possible to be successful even when life is hard. Students need to learn from our example, through our own authenticity, that mental illness does not sentence them to failure. Perhaps, above all, they need to learn that all of us deserve a little bit of grace.
Yasha Hartberg is a biologist, professor, and writer based in Texas.
Co-published with The Guardian.