E36. My STEMnoire Story – This is what depression looks like

The #STEMNOIREstory that I’m telling today is my post PhD hardships. This is what depression looks like. It isn’t all tears and bad hair days. For me its makeup, fake smile, and trying to prove myself to others. Ever notice you’ve never seen any graduation pictures? I told myself I didn’t deserve to celebrate that accomplishment over and over again. So here a piece of my STEMNoire Story. Unfiltered and uncut.

As a chemist, I have been trained in understanding the science of reactions. You put in reactants and you get products. So, it was not shocking that after 4 years of putting energy into getting a PhD that I finally did. I didn’t know I was a superhero until mid-March when I first started sharing my dissertation story to other black women in STEM who had completed theirs as long as 2 decades ago. In sharing, I was embraced and felt normal. That is why communities like @stemnoire are essential because they empower us and give us the fundamental human need for belonging.

While working on my dissertation was at my lowest. I cried every day for over 7 months. I cried every day on the days that led up to me writing my thesis, every day while writing my thesis, every day after completing my thesis. Every day while preparing for my defense, the day that I defend, every day after defending. I cried every day leading up to graduation, the day of graduation, and the days after graduation. My strength had run out. I made some of the worst, made most degrading decisions during this time. I didn’t want to be here anymore. I had decided after all this there was nothing was left. Again, I’m a chemist. I am trained to be a logical thinker and yet I’m sitting here ready for it all to be over before it even started. Until February 17th, 2020, when the small voice that was left in my head of my highest self said THIS SHIT DON’T MAKE NO FUCKING SENSE. Who had I become?

I was 3 months post defense and I was still treating myself like I didn’t deserve anything. I immediately got on Google and figured out where I needed to go to get help *expeditiously* and I did. Over time, I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and PTSD from graduate school. I would wake up in a panic every night because I couldn’t process being done. I didn’t know how to handle stress because clinically I was sick and refused to take action because it made me too uncomfortable. I’m a black woman. It’s not okay to not be okay.

Looking back now, I’m just happy that I wasn’t afraid to make that call. The one that saved my life. I know there are people out there suffering, fighting for something with all the while still feeling incapable of obtaining it. You are beyond capable and you deserve. Listen, if you don’t feel you deserve, find you people who can feed into you until you do. Trust me you are not the only one that has felt this.

In passing, I told a black woman who had graduated with her PhD in a STEM field over a decade ago “Yeah, I had a complete meltdown after defending. I lost my sense of self and the desire to live” and she literally made us pause and we just stared at each other for a few seconds. She then asked to hug me. At this point I’m thinking “Damn Elissia, you did it again with the oversharing thing” but what happened next literally changed my perspective. It was at that moment that my resentment and pain turned to pride and appreciation. She told me she had a complete emotional breakdown after completing too and she had the same feelings. Her only regret? Never stopping and healing that pain before jumping into the next stage in her career.

Now, this is the first time that I’m sharing my story with another person who had completed a PhD in science so I’m thinking we must be the exception. I’ll say this. After four months of finding community in other black women who completed their PhD, we were not the exception, we were maybe the norm. You see when you share your story, you give other people permission to share theirs and we can begin breaking outdated protocols and help to create a new mechanism for success.

We spend years pouring into this degree and not ourselves and wonder why when we are done we feel empty. Well, sis, it’s because you gave all yourself away! I beg all my great sisters working on a PhD to listen to us when we say take care of you! Seek therapy. Take days off. Heal your trauma. Beverly Hutcherson and I were just discussing how this whole PhD process triggers generational traumas left behind by our ancestors that involve pains of working countless hours for in most cases a white boss for small pay or for no money at all. So yes sis, you need therapy just because you exist in this space. Don’t get to the end and not have the energy to even celebrate yourself. Find a community with people who make you feel competent and like you belong. Find community in us @stemnoire if you need it. Although in STEM it is rare that we get the pay nor the acknowledgment that we deserve while here on this earth, the work that we do is important. And that’s my STEMNOIRE story. Will you share yours? I hope that I can encourage you to.

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