I recently felt inspired by a video from about a year ago, in which one of my greatest heroes, Michael Phelps, talked about his struggles with depression and anxiety. It was interesting that someone whom the world considers to be immensely successful and seemingly having his life together is an actual human being who experiences similar issues to many other people.
He was always an overachiever who had extremely high expectations of himself, and because of being an athlete, “wasn’t supposed to show weakness.” He also didn’t stop to reflect, instead just kept going from one thing to another for most of his life, until very recently. He didn’t show who he was as a person, and was always putting on a front that everything was okay. He was really good at stuffing things away and never talking about them and never dealing with them, which can lead to exploding at any given moment. He only saw himself as a swimmer, and not a human being. Many times he wasn’t really his authentic self.
Now, he admitted that “It’s ok to not be ok,” a phrase adopted all over the world following this remarks. He indicated that, for the first time in his life, he felt lost, had no self-confidence, no self-love, and was well aware that, once he opened up, the world would see who he really is. He talked about things that bothered him for his entire life, and knew that he needed to find a path to get stronger and learn to ask for help when needed.
He now has the right tools to get through things when he feels depressed or anxious. He talks about a time when he “didn’t want to be alive,” and that was a wake-up call to change. That period tore him down and built him back up, but it only happened once he started asking for help. As he put it, he learned to communicate at age 30. Therapy made him go through things that he never talked about before, and that took a lot of weight off. Before this, all he used to do was “eat, sleep and swim,” and he is now learning how to life live and give himself the best chance in life.
He stated that he is just a human being who was passionate about his career and didn’t give up. Now, he is eager to learn about his emotions and the reasons for them, and to show the world who he really is. Therapy helped him not feel judged, and taught him to respond instead of react. In order to succeed, he had to become vulnerable and go out of his comfort zone and communicate for the first time. He indicated that people don’t really know him, and asked the question of “how well do we really know ourselves”? This is true especially today, with the increasing usage of social media, where “we put up what we want to put up,” and show only what we want people to see.
So why am I detailing this interview so much? It is very relevant to my life, and I want to emphasize that it is typical for many individuals, myself included, who grew up around science and were always overachievers, to undergo many of these same emotions when life knocks them down. This is true for scientists in general, and in particular for women in science who often have additional barriers to overcome. Under the pressure of the academic system, we also forget that scientists are human beings.
For me, it is very true that, for the last 30 years, all I did was “eat, sleep, and science.” I grew up around science, attended scientific meetings from a very early age, majored in Biology in college, pursued a PhD in Biochemistry, Cell and Developmental Biology, and did a postdoc, before finally deciding to pause and reflect on my life and whether it was going in the right direction. And that was many years after my first exposure to science.
About a year ago, I experienced a rather drastic life transition, which set me back quite a bit, and made me realize a lot of things about myself. It made me question who I really was, and who I wanted to be. It broke me down to a level that I didn’t know was possible. But it’s also building me back up now into a person who is stronger and more authentic than ever.
All these years, I, too, had put on a front that everything was okay, I was doing fine, I was heading the right way, and didn’t need anything. Having grown up in a family of highly educated people, getting a PhD was pretty normal, and expected. I also thought that being successful meant never showing any weakness.
Once my policy career took off more, it seemed like I was just heading from one thing to the next, which was amazing and exhausting all at the same time. Having always put work at the center of my world, I identified with it so much that it was eating up all my time and resources, and it was all I wanted to do. There were no boundaries, and no breaks until I reached the finish line. In retrospect, this lifestyle masked a lot of the issues I was dealing with internally, and they just kept building up.
I never once stopped to reflect on my life. In a professional sense, I had always done well, and I imagine that will continue. But I am learning now that work doesn’t always define you, and that you can be defined by whatever you want. It turns out, now that I was faced with a true life challenge for the first time in over 30 years, I didn’t know how to properly deal with it because it’s not something you learn in a textbook- if it were, I would have aced it by now.
During this last year, I felt overwhelmed, made some bad decisions, had many ups and downs, and experienced some form of depression and anxiety, one followed by the other, and sometimes both in the same day. I had never felt anything like this before, and was not sure how to deal with it. The only thing I knew deep down was that I didn’t want to tell anyone about it for fear of looking weak, and didn’t think it was fair for others to be burdened by my life’s hardships. I just had to deal with it alone. For the first 6 months, I hid it pretty well, until some very perceptive people noticed that something wasn’t right.
Still, I refused to let it all out. I tried to deal with it on my own, thinking that I could take on this very personal and emotional challenge the way I had always dealt with work- just keep going, time will pass, and you will be fine. But it wasn’t like that. I experienced intense emotional exhaustion and stress, coupled with feelings of shame, guilt, and loneliness. For those first 6 months, I was in an auto-pilot “survival mode,” just trying to make it to the next day and keep pushing forward as if everything was fine, instead of taking care of myself during this vulnerable time. I’m not always proud of the ways in which I coped with various situations during this time, and no matter what others say, I will not be able to believe something until I am convinced myself. But this experience taught me that it doesn’t matter how successful you are in a professional sense, this was an entirely different beast to tackle that I was not ready for.
In the process, I forgot who I was, and where I was heading. There was no roadmap and no structure- which was quite difficult to handle. I realized that, in all these 30 years, I had never stopped to ask myself who I really was and to make sure that I was happy with the answer. I also never stopped working and trying to achieve more, and didn’t reflect on whether I was going the right way. It was sort of a perpetual machine that never stopped doing more work.
To an extent, it served me very well professionally, but that many years of living a relatively unhealthy lifestyle with many unresolved emotions took a toll on me now when I was experiencing all these personal setbacks. After about 6 months into the process, one evening I realized that I had gotten so far away from myself that I didn’t recognize who I was anymore. The behaviors which I experienced that night were the lowest of the low. That was a defining moment when I knew that something had to change. I also knew that it wasn’t going to change unless I did something about it and took matters into my own hands.
Once I finally admitted to myself that everything was not OK, I asked for help from a therapist, and from trusted friends who offered to listen. Much like in the story of Michael Phelps, I realized that I was lost, didn’t trust myself, and definitely didn’t love myself. I had let these negative emotions and extreme stress I was under take over my life and my relationships with others. I was looking to others for validation and love instead of myself. I had a lot of built up emotions that had not been dealt with, which ultimately resulted in a few outbursts- which of course I regretted immediately afterwards.
So that all had to change. Therapy gave me the chance to unload everything I could never tell anyone else, and it became interesting in the process to learn more about myself and why I was feeling certain things. This was also the first time I had really opened up to anyone this way. It was an exercise in vulnerability and showing my true self, which I had never been able to successfully do in my life up to that moment. I craved deep human connections, but realized they were not possible without vulnerability. I also slowly realized that people actually liked me for who I really was, I just had to figure that out and show it to them. Easier said than done.
The battle is far from over, but the progress and transformation I have since experienced make me proud of how far I’ve come. They also make me focus inward more, and realize that time spent with yourself is extremely valuable. I am now focused on getting to know myself again, or maybe for the first time ever, and discovering what my real interests and values are, so that I can be myself with others and show the world my true, authentic self, which hopefully will be someone I’m proud of.
I know this will require much self-exploration, but this is the time to truly live life, and realize there is more to it than just work. I will always be passionate about my work, especially these days when I finally know who I am on that front. But at the same time, the process of personal self-discovery has just begun, and it may last a lifetime, but I’m excited to be on this journey now. I’m eager to discover who I really am and to show that to the world, in the most open and vulnerable way possible. Coming from a shy kid who was always afraid to be real, this is a great deal of progress.
I know that every day will continue to be a struggle, but instead of being ashamed of who I am, I will invite others to be a part of this journey with me, should they choose to do so. I will find tools to best deal with this situation. I’m also hoping to use this story to help others who might need it- to realize that this one experience does not define you, but it is a part of you and it doesn’t have to hold you back. In fact, it can be used to fuel your drive to be better and realize who you want to be. As someone who became extremely successful despite these issues, Michael Phelps exemplifies that and he will continue to be somebody I look up to in this new phase of my life.
This post represents my personal views and not the views of my employer, University of California.