Owning My Title

I have a doctorate, but I rarely use the title “Dr.” I’ve had bosses who told me to ‘own that title’ and bosses who said my education level doesn’t matter. I’ve been told to add my title to presentations and told to remove it, mostly when others may be “Dr” as well, and there’s a fear of missing them. I’ve been embarrassed in groups when bosses highlight my degree, and I’ve felt left out when they’ve forgotten.

But you know what? I worked for that title. I started my EdD when I was at a loss for my future. A job was ending. I was a divorced, single mom with an 18-month-old. I was virtually alone in a town that I didn’t choose to inhabit but was tied to because of my ex-husband. I chose to go back to school with no real plan because I knew school was what I was good at, what I could control, what I could succeed in.

Five and a half years later, I successfully defended my dissertation. I’d wept over my studies, pushed them aside when life got too hard, given up family time on the weekend so that I could add those letters to my name. So now, why should I diminish that part of myself?

I could name a lot of reasons: I’m not good enough; I’m an impostor because I got my degree online; I didn’t conducted two years’ of rigorous quantitative research. But you know what I did? I worked hard; I pushed my boundaries when I was afraid. I made a huge financial investment in myself. I proved that I am capable.

So, I’m going to own that “Dr.” It’s part of my identity. I don’t need to make myself smaller to compensate for others’ insecurities about their own academic backgrounds. I am still the same person: deeply empathetic, deeply introverted, deeply ambitious.

But I am a Dr. I will own that sh*t. I will not make myself smaller.

The Surprises of Honey Girl

Honey Girl by Morgan Rogers

A five-star book review – Includes spoilers

I ordered Honey Girl as one of my Book of the Month picks a few months ago, and oh how I wish I’d read it sooner.

This debut novel by Morgan Rogers was such a surprise for me. I thought it would be a sweet romantic comedy like many others, but Honey Girl stands out. It has heart. It tackles serious mental health issues. It is life-affirming.

What I Loved About Honey Girl

The representation in Honey Girl is amazing. Morgan Rogers is a Black Queer author who incorporates diversity into every page of her novel. The protagonist, Grace Porter, is a lesbian born to a strict, military father who is Black and a white mother who travels the world in search of herself. In a drunken frenzy after receiving her PhD in astronomy, Grace marries Yuki Yamamoto, an Asian radio host and waitress, in Las Vegas. That’s where the story begins, but Grace goes on a much more nuanced journey than only trying to get to know her wife. Grace’s friends are just as diverse as she and Yuki are, making this book a refreshing read.

This book is a romance, but it’s also described as a coming-of-age novel. Grace is struggling to find her home in academia. She is determined to be the best, and that means achieving the top position. She has been following the plan laid out by her father, Colonel, for eleven years, with her only rebellion being that she chose astronomy over medicine. Her job interviews sour Grace from the field as interview panels imply that her sexuality and race are “unsuitable” for a researcher. Despite being the favored student by her professor and mentor, Grace is distraught because her dream career has stalled.

This lost feeling really resonated with me. I could relate to Grace because of my own experience after my Master’s program. You work so hard in school and do everything right, but then when you graduate, you lose that student identity. I felt lost for a few years after I got my Master’s and eventually started my doctorate program to get back some of that identity and ultimately prove something to others. That is a disheartening sentence, but it’s the truth. I still question whether I’m living up to my potential and my worth as dictated by those two degrees.

But back to Grace. Her mental health is hurting, and I cheered for her when she came to that revelation. Ms. Rogers described mental illness in the most realistic way I have read in a very long time. From anxiety and depression to a damaged self-esteem to the struggle of finding a proper mental health therapist, Grace’s story felt real in every aspect.

Those are just a few of the reasons I loved this book. I especially loved Grace’s found family of roommates Ximena and Agnes, as well as her coworkers Raj and Meera. Honey Girl is a love story between two lonely creatures who find themselves bound by marriage. It is a beautifully written debut from an author I will be following closely. It is a book that I highly recommend!

Mental Health Awareness Month

May is Mental Health Awareness Month (Week in the UK). My company’s Diversity & Inclusion Steering Committee tried to promote it and mental health support, but I only saw a few posts about it on our Workplace channel. I helped my department launch a campaign for mental health awareness, but I am sad that few people participated. I was the only one to make an individual post in support of the campaign. Now I’m unsettled because maybe my peers assume that I have a mental illness because I showed more support than others, and it feels like I’m standing out too much.

It’s true that I have serious mental illnesses. I share about my bipolar disorder, depression and anxiety here and on my social media channel. So if I’m putting my SMIs out in the web universe, why does this bother me? Am I a fraud because I’m nervous sharing any of this with coworkers? Am I contradicting what I stand for?

I think I am all of those things, but here are the excuses I tell myself when I shy away from talking about mental health in the workplace.

People Don’t Understand Mental Illness

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (2020), 13.1 million U.S. adults have SMI diagnoses. While that’s 5.2% of the adult population, it doesn’t mean understanding and recognition is growing at the same rate.

SMIs take many forms. Some people can be high-functioning, hiding their SMIs from others while they control their symptoms with medicine, therapy, and self-care. I don’t believe that you can be “healed” from an SMI. Rather, like a cancer of your brain synapses and chemistry, you can go into remission. That doesn’t mean that you’re healed; it means that you’re not showing symptoms.

Yes, SMIs are being discussed more than ever, but the stigma remains. From misrepresentation in the media to stereotypes about mental health, there are so many assumptions about what SMIs look like:

  • Uncontrolled anger
  • Moping
  • Irrational behavior
  • Victimhood
  • Weakness

Those are just a few of the assumptions that I’ve heard, and I know there are more. The stigma of SMIs is deafening, and it prevents more people from disclosing their diagnoses.

Disclosing Mental Illness at Work

I’ve been in the professional workforce for nearly 17 years now, and one of the things I’ve carried with me from the beginning is that I’m a failure and a liability if I show too much emotion. Emotion equals weakness, and weakness equals stagnation. But what happens when emotions are tied to SMIs that, at times, have been out of control?

When I had a breakdown in August 2020, I was terrified of taking vacation time. We were in the middle of a pandemic, and who takes a vacation from work then? I was hanging onto my job with my fingernails, even while I had multiple panic attacks daily. Despite hearing that my UK counterparts were taking 4-week-long holidays, people in the U.S. didn’t do that. My boss worked 12+ hours a day, so I needed to do the same. But when I couldn’t function anymore, I knew I needed time off.

So, I made the decision to talk to my doctor about taking a mandatory leave. She agreed. I should have taken more than 10 days, but I refused to allow myself more. My boss stopped me from sharing too much information with her because of privacy laws, so I focused on HR and my doctor shared only the most pertinent information.

I felt forced into a corner to take those steps because I wanted to protect my position at the company. The Americans with Disabilities Act prevents firing because of medical leave like mine, and I was afraid of retribution because I was taking time off.

But that’s a bit irrational right? My company was pitching the boilerplate language of self-care, work/life balance, and taking time away. People in other countries were taking PTO and seemed fine with it. But that wasn’t what I knew. After all, wasn’t my boss working tons of hours? Why would I show weakness like that?

I don’t talk about taking that medical leave. I didn’t share why I needed the time. I needed more time, but again, I didn’t want to be weak.

Some things have changed since that time. I have a new boss who actively encourages taking time off. I do the same for my direct reports. The world seems more attuned to mental health in some ways. But, stigma remains. People remain quiet. And I question my actions.

When will we move forward? When will we normalize conversations about SMIs? When will we change the narrative?

Enjoying Black Cake

Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson

A Five-Star Book Review

I went in blind when I started reading Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson, having only seen rave reviews of this debut novel on Bookstagram. I can say now that those reviews were totally on point. This book is beautiful!

I describe Ms. Wilkerson’s writing as magic, and here’s why.

Why You Should Read Black Cake

It has everything. Sometimes I love a book because of the plot and characters. Sometimes I love it for the author’s writing style. Black Cake is one of the rare finds that has both for me to love. Ms. Wilkerson’s writing ability is on par with the best in contemporary fiction. She builds a narrative that is complex but well-defined, that leaves a mystery and then shows you the truth when you least expect it, that uses sentences and paragraphs and chapters to capture your whole heart.

I love a generational story with multiple timelines, but some books try to do too much across those different narratives. Black Cake is not one of those books. Ms. Wilkerson uses short chapters to shift the storylines and bring all characters to life across decades. The pace of these chapters ebb and flow like the sea, which is nearly a character itself in this book that takes you from an unnamed Caribbean island to the Mod years of London to 2018 in Southern California.

Identity is at the center of Black Cake. Byron Bennet May think he knows who he is, but his sister Benny is still working to find herself. Their parents, Bert and Eleanor, don’t accept Benny’s decision to quit university or her bisexuality, and she’s walked out of their lives in order to find herself. But neither Byron or Benny truly know their parents, as they learn from their mother’s voice recording after her death. Soon, they see that both their parents aren’t who they think they are and have struggled to form their own identities.

Finally, while the core of her novel is about identity, Ms. Wilkerson takes us on a journey that addresses so many social and emotional issues. From today’s climate of racism in the U.S. to sexuality, from environmental protection to assault, from parent-child relationships to colonialism, this book is full of horrors, insights, and calls to action.

I loved this book so much, and I hope you will read and love it, too.

Love Under One Roof

Under One Roof

By Ali Hazelwood

A forced-proximity love story? Why, of course!

Under One Roof is one of Ali Hazelwood’s STEMinista novellas, and it does not disappoint. I really enjoyed The Love Hypothesis last year, so I looked forward to picking up this short book.

Mara arrives in Washington DC to start her job at the EPA as an environmental engineer and to inhabit her new home that she inherited from her grad school professor, Helena. But when she opens the door, Liam Harding surprises her by claiming that he already lives there. You can guess what happens after a few months of feuding, cautious friendship, and finally finding true love.

What I enjoyed:

  • The STEM aspect. I am all for more women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), and reading Hazelwood’s books puts a great spin on STEM superwomen.
  • Mara and Liam. They’re a cute couple with witty banter and chemistry. While their relationship didn’t feel like a unique romcom, I still rooted for them.
  • The timeline. I liked that Hazelwood took us back in time and built up to present day. The storytelling was a nice touch.

Under One Roof is a cute, easy read, and I would have continued to read more of Mara and Liam. I would love a follow-up!

Anxiety, a Psychiatrist, and a Lost Weekend

I am not sure how many psychiatrists, psychotherapists, and mental health experts I have seen over the years. I’ve lost count of those visits and of the medications I’ve tried. Since we have moved several times in the past six years, I’ve had to seek new help and new prescriptions every time, and that process is so tiring. I’ve seen good shrinks and bad ones, been taken off medicine too quickly and given new meds without warrant. But one of my psychiatrists made the largest impact on my life.

I’d met Dr. Donaldson shortly after I transferred from from one college to another in a different city. Because of my multiple suicide attempts, my dad had been seeking a referral for me for months so that I could see a doctor who had a good reputation and the potential to help his struggling daughter. I did not want to go see Dr. D., insisting to my mom that I was fine and I didn’t need a psychiatrist. She didn’t buy my pleas. “Your dad had to pull a lot of strings to get you this appointment. You’re going.”

And so I did. I arrived at Dr. D’s office and sat in a waiting room that smelled like old magazines and the 1980s. Our first appointment was thorough, but talking to Dr. D. wasn’t like my previous encounters with psychiatrists. He sat behind a giant lawyer’s desk and listened to me. He asked questions in a quiet, grandfather-like voice, and after I answered a few of his queries, I noticed he seemed to be interested in what I was saying, even when I was just talking about my summer, not my mental health symptoms. This doctor wanted to get to know me as a person before he handed over a prescription. What a concept!

He did prescribe me medicine, of course. We played with a few dosages and different meds for a while, but eventually I started taking EffexorXR for my mood, Trazodone to help me fall asleep, and Seroquel to help me stay asleep. It was a good cocktail of my mental health, until it wasn’t.

I saw Dr. D. throughout my final years of undergrad, and then when I started graduate school in a different state, he agreed to help me stay on my meds if I came back to see him whenever I returned home for a break.

I fell into a chest-numbing state of anxiety in October of my first semester. I had tripped trying to walk over to the phone in The English Center, where I worked 10 hours a week as part of my assistantship, and injured my back to the point I could barely walk to classes. Visits to a chiropractor were helping, but I was embarrassed by my klutziness in front of strangers. And, as we’d been in school for just over two months, my professors were amping up the assignments and readings. Plowing through 150 pages of critical theory a night plus writing response papers and helping grade first-year composition papers was a lot. I’d sit at my IKEA desk (thank you, Justyna) in my apartment and chain-smoke while I worked. I never slept in my bed; I fell asleep on the couch watching my DVDs of Friends on a round-the-clock loop. Not good for my back or my REM cycle. Finally, as the anxiety started to pull at my body even more and as I caught myself repeating tapping patterns, turning off light switches in quick succession of fours, and washing my hands until I was certain I wasn’t going to fail my Composition Pedagogy class, I called my psychiatrist. Something was off, and I needed Dr. D.’s help.

Anyway, I called Dr. D. in October of 2003 in a panic because my anxiety was over the top and I was terrified of failing out of graduate school (having yet to earn any grade lower than an A on an assignment; anxiety lies). He was still my doctor because we’d landed on six-month appointments that I could make work during school breaks. As it was a Thursday when I finally gave in to asking for help, he asked, “Can you take a break for a couple days?” I said I thought so. I didn’t have to be on campus that Friday, at least. “Good. Take two Seroquel tonight and try to knock yourself out for the full weekend. You’re exhausted and sleep is the best option for you right now. You’re exhibiting OCD symptoms because of your anxiety. Sleep and reset.”

So, I did. And nearly 72 hours later, I emerged from sleep and mindless TV binging to find that I did feel better. Not perfect by any means, but I could take deep breaths again and wash my hands in a normal fashion once more. Sleep would become one of my go-to ways to combat the anxiety and depression that took hold of me over many times from then on.

I’m not sure if doctors would prescribe three days of sleep with pills now. Several doctors have urged me to rest, but Dr. D. remains the first one to recognize that I need to take a break and to calm myself. For that, I’ll always be grateful.

Finding a proper medical team is not easy. It’s painful. First you have to navigate insurance approvals, waitlists, and paperwork. Then you have to regurgitate your past mental health issues and talk about experiences that can push you back into that deep hole. And trying new meds? It’s a strain of adding new pills at different doses to the already complex cocktail of antidepressants, anti-anxiety meds, and sleeping pills, maintaining a homeostasis to ensure that everything is working together, that a new med is helping, and that side effects are minimal. It’s exhausting. But worth it if you can find a doctor like Dr. D.

Childhood Experiences and the Influence on My Body

It is well-established that experiences in childhood can impact your life as an adult. While literature on the subject continues to grow, a recent study encapsulates this phenomenon for me:

Childhood experiences affect family health in adulthood in the expected direction. Even in the presence of early adversity, positive experiences in childhood can provide a foundation for creating better family health in adulthood.

Daines, C.L., Hansen, D., Novilla, M.L.B. et al. Effects of positive and negative childhood experiences on adult family health. BMC Public Health 21, 651 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-021-10732-w

Let me illustrate this with a story about how a few simple interactions have influenced my shame about my body throughout the years.

As I’ve established, I have had a weight problem since I was 6 or 7. One day, I declared to my mom that I wanted to lose weight and therefore would eat nothing that day or the next. She said, “That’s not a reasonable way to lose weight.” I couldn’t do it anyway, I was little and liked food.

Every year during my childhood, my parents would take me to an asthma and allergy clinic to get a physical and check any new symptoms. I hated this annual appointment with a fevered passion. Yes, the allergy tests – those dreaded scratch tests – hurt like hell, but what hurt more was the doctor’s inevitable statement that “Jessica would do better if she lost some weight.”

I knew that statement was coming every year. I was on the high end of the recommended weight for my height, never really over and beyond that, but the doctor didn’t like my weight for medical reasons, he said. In the summers of my pre-teen and teenage years during the few weeks before this annual appointment, I’d try to lose weight, having the scale reading from the year before imprinted in my mind. But crash diets didn’t work for me and I liked food too much. My only triumphant year was in high school when I weighed one pound less than the year before. But it wasn’t enough for the doctor.

So, my history with food and weight loss and disordered eating didn’t just begin in 2000 when I started purging as a 19-year-old at a family dinner in a steakhouse. And it certainly didn’t end after I returned home from getting treatment for bulimia. I slowed my purging, cutting down until I absolutely needed to do so – to expunge all the weight and heaviness from my body. But, my weight is a constant theme in my life, covered in a thick sauce of anxiety and depression.