CW: suicidal ideation

If you’ve read earlier blog posts of mine you’ll know that I had to take sick leave from work due to Panic Disorder and depression. I kept my tenured position as associate professor in a great university but was unable to work and underwent therapy and was prescribed various medications (these changed a LOT during the time as my psychiatrist tried to find the most effective combination).

Well finally in May 2022 the limit of my sick leave was reached and I had to make an extremely difficult decision. As anyone working in academia knows, getting tenure isn’t easy and for many it’s impossible. Tenure means you have a job for life (though it no longer means that in perhaps the majority of countries in the West it still means that in Japan and other parts of Asia). So job security until age 65. I’m not even 50 yet.

I looked at what had changed. Certainly my mental health was much better than it was when I first took sick leave, where I was extremely suicidal— continuing working at that point would have literally killed me—but had the environment that pushed me into that state really changed? I wasn’t so sure. Also, in therapy we had finally worked out that underneath the depression, the self-hatred, the panic and the fear was something deeper than symptoms that could be treated quickly (with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and medication, which was the main therapy I was having up to that point). It became clear that I had, or rather I have, Complex-PTSD (CPTSD).

This new diagnosis was in one sense disappointing, as though the previous years of therapy had been wasted (hey, remember, depression makes a lot of things seem gloomy), but in another sense it was empowering. No longer were these frightening sensations and thoughts without cause, or rather they weren’t simply responses to recent triggers, they were responses that had developed in the past during a period of trauma. In my case that was childhood trauma. I’ll probably blog in more detail in future, but for now lets just say that I had repeated traumatic experiences in my childhood. I can’t remember when it began but I do remember specific incidents when I was aged eight years old and after.

CPTSD leaves you in a constant state of vigilance, and with certain triggers, prone to panic, depression etc. These were things that I’d had most of my life since my teenage years. And they are things that had become worse and worse in the workplace until finally life was unbearable.

May 2022, what to do? Do I go back to that environment when I’m still depressed though having far fewer panic attacks than I had been, or do I give up the job for life and for the first time since school be fully out of the academic world? Ultimately I decided to let my psychiatrist make most of the decision. Her view was that I wasn’t ready to return, after all I had still had recent incidents of strong suicidal ideation, I still felt worthless, a burden… basically extremely depressed… I made the decision not to go back to work and instead take early retirement.

So, in the middle of last year, my life changed. Maybe that sounds dramatic as in reality my daily life didn’t change at all—I still spent time trying to recover, doing therapeutic exercises at home, going to the clinic for therapy and to see my psychiatrist—but as I looked at my life to that point it was a shift. A huge one.

I am now unemployed, no longer a ‘scholar’ (though I’ve subsequently discovered that that never really leaves you) and because of the depression, prone to thinking I’d wasted decades of my life.

However, instead of mulling in the pit of despair, let me end by listing some work-related things I’ve done that I’m proud of. An ego-boost, if you will. Fellow Brits will know this is unbelievably difficult, but here goes (I’m leaving out getting a PhD, might write about that in future):

  • Moved to Japan for a post-doc, a country I hadn’t been to other than briefly the year before to meet my partner’s family. Did this without being able to speak the language. Conducted some research despite the chaotic environment. Went on business trips to the US and Europe, even though going to Japan had been the first long haul flight I’d ever taken and traveling generally is anxiety-inducing. Worked on Japanese government-funded projects for government policy. Introduced the ‘Science Cafe’ format of science communication events to the country.
  • Successfully moved to different research groups and managed to do research with engineers and scientists even though I was the only sociologist in the institute. Worked on projects that involved using qualitative research methods to explore use of prototype systems. Negotiated a career that led me to finally getting tenure at one of the top-ranked universities in the country.
  • Published… a few papers that I’m not completely embarrassed about:
    – In the Journal of Contemporary Religion: “Locating contemporary British Paganism as late modern culture
    – At CHI (a top Human-Computer Interaction conference): “Familial Collaborations in a Museum
    – At UBICOMP (a Ubiquitous Computing conference): “Doing Community: Co-construction of Meaning and Use with Interactive Information Kiosks
  • Taught a LOT of students and seen many of them grow and develop. I think introducing students to aspects of sociology has been the thing I’m most proud of. I enjoyed teaching a lot, I’ve been told I’m a good teacher (of course I think people are lying) and I got a couple of ‘Best Teacher’ awards.

So, it wasn’t nearly twenty years in Japan of nothing. But now my life has shifted, or at least is shifting. What’s next? Honestly in terms of work I don’t know, like, at all (I’m open to ideas. I have transferable skills!). I still have mental illness, and now we’re working on the CPTSD directly. So at least that aspect of my life is clear: improving my quality of life in the mental-health realm.

The next phase? Let’s see…