Mental health confessions of an early career scientist

By Ronin Research Scholar Amy Teffer

The original version of this article first appeared on Dr. Teffer’s website

I am an early career scientist. I am also a mother and a wife. And I have chronic anxiety, tension-type and neuropathic migraine headaches, and recurrent major depressive disorders. My depression and anxiety went undiagnosed for decades while I completed my education and my headaches emerged as a result. These disorders are a part of me now and affect every aspect of my life. Yet, I still ask so much of myself. I’m an overachiever and have been rewarded for it. I’ve done well in my science career, currently holding a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship producing cutting edge genomic research in conservation science. I am a mentor and role model, and yet I feel like a failure almost every day. Daily stress triggers headaches that reverberate over several days, ranging between 10 – 15 headache days per month. That means that almost half of my life is spent managing debilitating pain, mental fatigue, and good old-fashioned sadness while I work, parent, or play.

This is my confession. My coming out as a scientist and sufferer of mental illness and chronic pain. I am not writing this to brag about my accomplishments or perseverance, but to finally admit that my professional gains have come at a physical cost. I asked too much of my body and mind. I wanted it all – a career, a family, a house, a social life, a dog – and I have them…at a price. I felt shame and disappointment at my faulty biology for years. I now know that it takes a tremendous amount of strength to advance professionally with mental illness when you are held to the same high standards of the fictional norm. There is absolutely nothing shameful about persevering through stigmatized mental and emotional suffering.

I now know that it takes a tremendous amount of strength to advance professionally with mental illness when you are held to the same high standards of the fictional norm.

I am unlearning the damaging lessons of our capitalist society and working toward acceptance of my whole self as integral to my success. I am taking a kinder approach to professional progress that is by no means easier. I have a long way to go. But I choose to be a role model for something more important than professional status. I will value – in myself and others – the interwoven personal and professional journey that makes up a career.

I ask you: What if your best is what you are doing now? What if you are already everything you need to be? What if you are your own harshest critic? And what does success mean for you? For me, it is the true balance of the personal and the professional, integrated into one peaceful being. Create your own definition, based on your unique physical, mental, and emotional capacities. Please remember that you can succeed without burning out. Listen to your body. Respect your fatigue. And most of all, LOVE YOURSELF.

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I'm a scientist, mom, artist, and other things. I study disease ecology, fisheries biology, ecosystem health, and host-pathogen dynamics. I believe in creating welcoming, equitable spaces that inspire creativity and growth in the sciences. I'm also interested in transforming broken systems to work for us and integrate amongst each other to empower diverse researchers to push the edge of what is possible.

This post is a perspective of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Ronin Institute.

2 Comments

  1. Thank you Amy for sharing your story. I hear you loud and clear. We most definitely need to define what is success for ourselves instead of gauging our progress against others or society’s metrics. At the least we should re-evaluate those societal metrics and definitely not follow them blindly. As you mentioned, and I concur, the keys are ‘integration’ of all that we already are (and want to be) and ‘balance’ of it all. There is one more key aspect which most fundamental of them all, being grateful in and for what we already are. In that there is tremendous power.
    I am grateful to Keith for pointing me to your post, and I am grateful for knowing your story.
    Thank you! Namaste!
    Angelo

  2. Enric Garcia Torrents

    I also feel your pain, Amy. Thank you for sharing, and all my best wishes for a complete recovery and well deserved happiness. I have also suffered to succeed and raise a family, the crazyness is not in you for choosing life, science, love and have a family, is the price we must pay to be able to. It should be encouraged, properly supported at the societal level.

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