Health, headaches and (six) hundred followers

Yes, yes, I know. This is my first blog post in two months. But, hopefully I’ll be able to make it count. Those of you who follow me on Instagram, @theradicalbotanical will have seen my story asking you if you wanted to see more plant science, or more PhD life posts. Everyone voted 50:50 so I’m going to touch a little on both over two days.

I’ll start with the PhD life part, mostly because it explains my absence. Virtually all of you know I have a list of medical problems as long as my arm, and then my leg. Through blind chance, I inherited a boat-load of messed up genes, and they find new ways to mess me up at every turn.  What I’m not always so forthcoming about, is the way my brain often fails to work too.

One of my conditions is called postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (try saying that with a mouthful of peanut butter, I dare you). As described in this post here, it can do ridiculous things to my body. It, combined with a variety of other less-palatable factors, means I’ve spent my life so anxious that receiving a text message gives me physical chest pain. So does people coughing, doors closing, and the start-up sounds of Mac computers. Funnily enough, there’s only so much every-day-every-thing-anxiety you can take before you completely shut down. Which I managed to do in a very big way. I couldn’t get out of bed, and when I could, I couldn’t get to the lab. If I could get into the lab without being sick on my journey (an open apology to those living at number 50) then there was no way I was going to do practical work. So, I didn’t. For a month. I sat, staring at my RNA sequencing data hoping and praying that the answer to my permanent-anxiety-depression-catatonia was somehow hidden away in transcriptional network causality modelling. (Hint: it’s not. Nothing is hidden in the RNA sequencing data apart from data, who knew?).

a lovely gift from one of my thoughtful & brilliant colleagues

My mental health advisor (who is a saint), was genuinely at her wits end, and so was I. I marched to my GP (who is also a saint) and we discussed my options. We tried fluoxetine (Prozac) for a month. I stopped eating and sleeping and stopped doing any work whatsoever. The work I did try and do, I forgot about, everything I tried to do, I couldn’t. I was locking myself in the disabled loo for half the day to cry until I went home for Christmas on the 15th of December. I did manage to give a small symposium presentation without bursting into (visible) tears, but that was only due to diazepam (thanks, b). The day before I left, my GP switched me to a serotonin and noradrenaline reuptake inhibitor, mirtazapine. Side effects: sleeping for 14h per day, uncontrollably intense dreams, uncontrollable appetite increase (I type, after eating my fourth meal of the day). Why am I dealing with these (expensive) side effects? Because for the first time in my life, I am not anxious.   I have been able to make media for my plants, without chest pain. I spoke in front of my lab group without swallowing my tongue and worrying about sounding stupid. I can look people in the eye. I didn’t take my supervisors critical examination of my annual review personally. I thought in a straight-forward, and goal oriented manner. I have designed my experiments for the next 4 months. I’ve achieved more in 4 days than I did in two months. Now I’m not for one moment claiming I’m somehow magically cured of my life-long multiple mental health issues; that would require a complete re-write of my formative years. But I am feeling positive toward my research, I’m not scared of it, it’s suddenly not this impossible-to-navigate byzantine labyrinth of mysteries shrouded in enigma wrapped in confusion. It’s just answering some questions that I know how to answer.

View this post on Instagram

skwot til u drop (in avo sox)

A post shared by emily may (@emayarmstrong) on

I suffer from depersonalisation and periods of dissociation- taking ridiculous selfies is a pretty fun way to combat this.

Over ½ of PhD students will experience mental health problems during their PhD for the first time in their life.

  • Speak to your supervisor straight away. Don’t put it off (unless they’re an asshole).
  • If your supervisor is an asshole, go to your mental health or counselling service. They may offer drop ins, a fixed period of sessions, or, if your GP supports your claim, offer long term support (like I receive).
  • Even if your supervisor is a lovely angel sent from heaven, still go to your university’s mental health service. They can equip you with the toolkit you need to get through your studies
  • Identify your academic triggers: what’s making you feel bad? Your workload? Colleagues? Your office space? Broken equipment? Try and identify where the issues are arising.
  • Come up with practical solutions. Your workload? Reduce it for a month. Colleagues and office space? Ask to switch offices if possible. Or, try doing dry-work from home until you feel rested. Broken equipment or rubbish protocols? Contact your technician or lab manager, alert them to the negative impact it’s having on your work and why it needs fixed Don’t sit on your suffering.
  • Disclose and confide in a trusted friend who works in a similar environment, they may have their own (much better) advice they can tailor to your exact sitatuion.
  • Please don’t suffer in silence! If you are really struggling, go to your GP, call Samaritans, get in contact with your community mental health services.

So now you’ve endured my excuses for not posting anything in two months. I’d also like to celebrate the fact that right now, there are over 630 of you following my Instagram posts! And 30 of you just in the past 10 days. I am truly humbled by the lovely messages and support I receive through insta every day, you’re all stars.

Check out Nicola’s post on Fresh Science here for more mental health truth


Check out Rebecca’s fantastic tips on coping with anxiety in a PhD here too.

I should have a post on hormones (the plant kind, not the human kind) up over this weekend, keep your eyes peeled!

-E xo

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