I have written elsewhere about suffering from chronic pain and the treatment that I underwent during my doctoral studies. As a result of this, I have had the opportunity to read some inspiring and thought-provoking accounts from other writers, and to benefit from their wisdom. I feel very proud to be in the company of these women, but I am also enjoying having a new lease of life, and would like to take this opportunity to explore a different kind of chronic illness in academia.
During the third year of my undergraduate studies something changed in my brain. I was a very happy student, set to get a 1st class degree, with a lovely boyfriend, excellent mates, a disgusting amount of debt already under my belt, and a vague sense of wanting to do something that meant I was always in seminar rooms. One day I went to bed normal, and the next I was convinced that I would lose conscious control of my faculties and hurt someone I loved. It really was as simple as that.
I have no idea whatsoever why I developed Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Various factors could come into play, people tend to develop mental health conditions in their late-teens to early twenties, academic pressure can be linked to an onset, and I was in a lot of physical pain. I was never too interested about why. My concerns were, first, what the hell is this, and second, how do I make it stop?
I received excellent treatment and support from the Open Door team at the University of York. Towards the end of my studies I heard an MP discuss his own OCD in the House of Commons and I discovered that perhaps my professional life wasn’t over. The next day I applied for a place on a Masters course at RHUL, and was lucky enough to get both funding and a phenomenal supervisor. My luck continued the year after with a successful bid for a PhD studentship with the same supervisor, advisor, and department, who have patiently and privately made adjustments for me during the last five years.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is your worst nightmare replayed over, and over, and over in your head. A nightmare you will never act on. These are thoughts that everyone has, but some people cannot dismiss. At best it’s frustrating, at its worst it will take every bit of joy from your life. It will find the defining feature of you and distort it so comprehensively that you no longer recognise ‘you’. The ‘O’ is intrusive, unwanted, distressing, obsessive thoughts. The ‘C’ is the mental or physical rituals, actions, or compulsions people undergo to get rid of, or neutralise, those thoughts. You cannot be ‘a little bit OCD’, just as you cannot be ‘a little bit depressed’. Deeply religious people will have blasphemous thoughts, ecstatically happy new mothers will suddenly become convinced that they didn’t want their baby in the first place, extremely gentle people will have extremely violent thoughts. I wouldn’t hurt a fly. I once did not sleep for four nights in a row because I thought I would harm someone in my sleep.
My condition gets worse if I am very tired. Fellow PhD students will recognise the particular physical, mental, emotional, and spiritually exhaustion one can feel in their doctoral studies. I do not believe that this needs to be the state of affairs, and I am pleased to have been involved in organising and facilitating workshops on fostering positive mental well-being in the PhD process, and to have attended the 2017 UKGC conference on this subject. This week I submitted my thesis to my external examiners. People expected me to euphoric. In fact, the next day I was crippled with anxiety that I would somehow accidently cause a car crash. I’ve had a good few nights sleep now, and I’m happy to say the euphoria is kicking in.
I regularly advise people to declare any diagnosed mental health conditions to their universities in order to receive the good, and growing, support out there. However, I have never officially registered my condition. For the most part, this is because I now manage my thoughts very well between medication and CBT. Perhaps, also, I just didn’t want OCD to get a look in at my viva. However, to be honest, which I think is what is required here, a part of me still worries about a stigma; I don’t wish to be defined by anything but my research. I wish that it were different but I don’t entirely believe that we are there yet, that I am there yet.
Consider this a starting point.
Elizabeth Bennett is currently completing her doctoral studies at the department of Drama, Theatre, and Dance, Royal Holloway University of London. She tweets as @lizziebennett_