And I'm still coming out: Making my mark as a depressed, non-binary PhD Student
My name is TL Jordan (they/them) and I am a PhD student studying Immunology. I am also a trans non-binary queer who is dedicated to fighting for science communication, accessibility, and advocacy. Being a few months out from starting my second year as a PhD student, I found this a very good time to reflect on my time in academia so far. It’s been rough, to say the least.
Graduate school was a large immediate trigger for resurfacing my depression and anxiety which I had been able to manage for a few years in undergrad. I had no real support system at my new school, and all of my friends whom I had been relying on lived many miles away. I felt very alone, imposter syndrome was rampant, and I woke up every day feeling sick to my stomach with anxiety. Every day that I woke up, it was harder and harder to find a reason to get out of bed, stay in school, and on some days... finding a reason as to why I was alive at all.
Thankfully, I was able to muster up the strength to go seek help and I began taking medication and going to therapy, which has made the lows a little less low and has made the stress and doubt of graduate school become much more manageable.
Apparently, I felt that managing mental illness wasn’t difficult enough and I came out publicly in October of 2017 after a few years of contemplation about my gender identity. I decided to come out at my graduate school as well. The first person I told was my PI, who was immediately supportive and wanted to know what she could do to help navigate coming out to the school as a whole, and how she could be a good ally. My PI continues to be one of the biggest supports in graduate school as I navigate queer identity and advocacy. For that I am thankful, but that was not how the rest of the school handled my coming out.
I quickly learned that I was very alone and had no one to talk to about my identity struggles. There are very few queer students here, most of them identifying as gay. As far as I know, I’m the only non-binary graduate student, and maybe even the only non-binary researcher at my institution as of now.
The isolation was immediately devastating and started to break down some of the coping mechanisms I had built for my mental health. It was hard to tell the difference between depression telling me I was alone, and being alone. My pronouns were mostly ignored, most spaces were highly gendered, and even some of our policies were so gendered that I technically didn’t qualify for many student benefits because of my non-binary identity (unless I misgendered myself). I started to feel like maybe I didn’t belong in graduate school, or in academia.
I have found more and more that academia likes to hide mental illness. We don’t talk about it. We don’t seek help. We see struggle as a sign of weakness, but the struggle is just a sign of the human condition and we can’t all be strong every day. Because of this, I have taken to being loud and almost proud about my fight with my mental health. Every day is a victory, and every bit of progress is a joy.
Of course, some days are better than others, but overall, I know that being vocal about my journey has a large benefit to others who may be dealing with depression during their PhD, during undergrad, or maybe even as a professor trying to gain tenure. The more vocal we are about our struggles, the more honest we are in our failures, the more vulnerable we are to the people looking up to us, the more that we can begin to chip away at the toxic culture STEM has created surrounding mental health.
The combination of coming out in a less than supportive environment, while also learning how to keep my depression and anxiety at bay has made grad school somewhat difficult. But, that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible. I have an incredibly supportive mentor and lab who check in on me and make sure that I am doing well, and let me breathe when I am having flare ups. I have a therapist who works with me to create action plans in managing all aspects of my life, and helps me develop lifelong skill sets geared toward mindfulness and self-compassion.
I have a strong network of friends who believe in me, and remind me that I am incredibly loved every day. I am capable of existing and succeeding despite my depression and anxiety. I am greater than my mental illnesses. I am loved and I am incredibly capable. I am a successful graduate student and I am proud of what I have accomplished, and what I will continue to achieve.
I hope that through sharing the truth in my struggle, someone might find that they are less alone, or that they don’t have to be as perfect and mechanical as academia may suggest. Mental illness is needlessly stigmatized, and we need to recognize that these are real things that anyone may have to manage in their lifetime. It doesn’t matter how young or old, it doesn’t matter if you are a student or a professor. Mental illness doesn’t care who you are, which is why it is so important to hear stories and understand that academia is full of people struggling and persevering through their own mental health-related struggles. We are not defined by our mental illnesses. We are not lesser scientists for struggling.
My name is TL Jordan, and I am a trans non-binary queer who struggles with depression and anxiety on a regular basis. But I am not alone. And neither are you.