Some caveats to begin with:
Everyone experiences depression differently, and to different degrees. I’m describing my (abbreviated) personal journey through my depression. This will not be the same for everyone, and is not The Answer™, just one answer. But I hope it will be useful to someone going through depression, or a friend or loved one who wants to know how depression may feel.
The issue comes with normalisation - thinking that it’s ok to always feel stressed during your PhD - and then just living with the stress.
Don’t get me wrong - in small doses, stress is a great motivator. A problem arises when those feelings of stress persist even when there isn’t, for example, a looming deadline. And then it can lead to depression, limiting your ability to deal with any upcoming deadline at all.
There were days where I just couldn’t get out of bed. I wished that the day would remain on ‘pause’ until I decided I was ready to get up and face the world. Even though my PhD was progressing nicely, I still felt stressed and sad.
I couldn't concentrate on reading a paper for more than 2 minutes before my vision blurred for no apparent reason. I couldn't write a sentence without having three other trains of thought (relevant or not) interrupting it. I’d also find myself walking to or from my office and feel the sudden urge to sprint down the corridor. But I had no energy to do anything of the like.
But I figured that I mustn’t really have depression, because what do I have to be depressed about? Perhaps I had just spontaneously become scatterbrained.
Over a period of a few months, things got worse. My morning sleep-ins became longer, I sniped at my partner, I still felt sad and always felt like crying. Even my favourite computer and console games felt boring.
I figured that yes, maybe now I do have depression. But only a little bit. Just a light case.
My doctor nodded when I described this scenario, and said, “Are you going to stop doing your PhD?” I said no, the PhD program was fine, I was just stressed and depressed for no apparent reason.
“So”, she replied, “Why don't you medicate yourself while you continue the PhD, and when you’re finished, if you want to, you can slowly come off the medication?”
And there was the seemingly obvious answer. If the cause of my depression was the PhD, I needed to take some antidepressants to continue the program. If it wasn’t the PhD, but the beginning of clinical depression, then I would have refused medication for the entire PhD program for no reason.
Here was a new option: finish the PhD program WHILST AT THE SAME TIME feeling better about myself and the world in general.
Image from KnowYourMeme.com.
This is the way I personally feel about antidepressants (besides complicated issues of overprescription): if the medical community has spent millions of dollars and decades of research into helping people with depression, why not take advantage of their hard work? Why suffer in a time where you have options to feel better?
I know that not all cases of depression can be easily fixed with medication. In my case, it did work. Some people need to try different types of medication, or find that the medication only takes some of the depression away.
But if you are on the road to some kind of recovery, please don’t feel guilty about the time you’ve lost. You were unable to work during that time, just like with many other illnesses. But when you feel better, capitalise on it. Use this time to talk to your supervisors, get a clear idea of your tasks, and create plans to get work done.
This doesn’t mean you should work yourself into the ground to make up for 'lost time'. It means you should work efficiently and at your normal pace, to keep that good feeling going for as long as possible. Also explore whether you can extend your PhD program deadlines, or go part-time for a little bit (if you are able) for more time to get back on your feet.
Now, I’m off to read about fossil preservation in deltas and estuaries, and tonight will play video games I’ve actually been looking forward to!
A huge thank you to my Twitter friends for reaching out and showing support. You guys rock!