The breaking point
And the slow path to recovery
I got off the escalator and stepped onto the platform. Three minutes until the train, eighteen minutes until I get to MIT, twenty minutes until my meeting. My breath was a bit fast: I’d been walking briskly. Suddenly, my chest tightened, and no more air could get in.
My first reaction wasn’t fear – it was numbness. Then the brain turned on and calmly stated, “This looks like a panic attack”. Of course. I had struggled to drag myself out of the house for that meeting, having forced myself to work non-stop for the past week to meet a deadline. Now there it was – physical evidence that my mind couldn’t cope anymore. I turned around, went up the escalator, walked back to my apartment, and called MIT Mental Health.
The breakdown should have come as no surprise. In the past few months, I had traveled to present at two conferences and one retreat, attended a three-day workshop, and flown to three different states to visit my sister and two friends who had been going through hard times. I gave a department-wide talk and wrote and defended my qualifying exam proposal. I attended two Thanksgiving parties and made food for both. Then, I bought tickets to go home to Russia for winter break and decided to spend the weekend before my flight in New York “because I had a layover there anyways”.
The first warning came in New York. On the day of my flight, I felt nauseous and weak. I tried going out for brunch but couldn’t stay inside a restaurant: as soon as I sat down, the nausea intensified, and all the restaurant sounds rang loudly in my head, utensils’ clatter mixing up with chatter from a half dozen tables nearby. That night, despite having trouble standing in airport lines, I managed to drag myself onto the plane home. I made it home safe and spent most of the winter break recovering from that bizarre experience.
In January, I came back to Boston (no adventures this time) and got swept up by the MIT pace yet again. I decided to write up a paper for a conference and worked hard for three weeks to get it done. In the meantime, another project was awaiting my attention… Two days after the conference deadline, I felt obliged to get back to work, and that’s when the panic attack hit.
The consequences of that episode were quite serious. Luckily, there were no more panic attacks, but I was unable to work for the next 2-3 weeks, developed a fear of public spaces, such as restaurants and supermarkets, and started to feel very uncomfortable whenever I had to spend large chunks of time outside the house. Soon after, the COVID pandemic reached the US, and there was virtually no need to go to public spaces anymore. This was both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, I was able to feel almost normal and regained my ability to work and, importantly, to relax. On the other hand, my anxiety around public spaces was now backed by the objective reality of the pandemic, which made it harder to combat my fear.
I was fortunate to get an appointment with an off-campus therapist just a few days after I called MIT Mental Health. She helped me with some of my early symptoms (such as getting over my work paralysis), but the benefits of her sessions plateaued quite quickly. Nevertheless, I continued to attend them because it was better than doing nothing. Finally, many months later, I gathered enough inner strength to call MIT Mental Health again and tell them I needed something different. I requested an evaluation with an MIT psychiatrist, who prescribed me meds to take “as needed” in high stress situations and connected me with a therapist who specializes in treating anxiety and phobias.
The second therapist was great. “You have trouble going to the supermarket? Alright, try going to the supermarket tomorrow!” His approach is formally known as exposure therapy; it requires briefly facing the situations that make you anxious and gradually increasing the duration of the encounters over time. My first task was to go in and buy one item (option 0 was to go inside and just stand there for a few minutes but I was able to skip it). I started going in and buying one item, then three, then five, then riding one stop on the subway… By the time I needed to go downtown to get my vaccine shot, public transport didn’t seem as daunting as before, and by the time my friend circle was fully vaccinated, I felt comfortable enough to have dinner inside a restaurant.
It’s been almost two years since that episode on the subway. My ability to use public spaces is now almost back to normal. I get groceries by myself, commute to MIT most weekdays, and work in a coffee shop on weekends. Yet, I still get occasional moments of discomfort and nausea when in public. I don’t enjoy traveling as much as I used to. I am less comfortable living away from family. I have a stricter limit for the number of social events I can handle. I hope that these symptoms will keep diminishing over time but suspect that they’re unlikely to go away completely.
On the upside, I am now way better at detecting when I’m close to burnout. When my to-do list seems overwhelming or my calendar schedule looks uncomfortably full, I will rearrange my tasks and cancel some events instead of pushing myself to do it all. I try to sleep 8 hours a night. If I work through a weekend, I give myself a break sometime during the following week. I sometimes miss my former I-can-do-it-all self, but I know that that lifestyle was clearly unsustainable, at least for me. In short, I’m learning to be kinder to myself.
I am glad I knew enough about mental health to recognize my symptoms and (kind of) know how to address them. I knew about MIT Mental Health and the procedure they have for grad students (you call them; they match you with a therapist off campus; you probably won’t get a therapy session immediately but at least there’s a professional on the phone you can talk to). I knew that, thanks to a recent student campaign, MIT grad students get 52 free therapy sessions a year as part of their insurance. I knew multiple people in my community who’d been going to therapy. I knew that some of them had been prescribed medication to help with their symptoms, that the first prescribed medication wasn’t always the right one for that person, but that eventually most of them found something that significantly improved their quality of life (I also knew that not everyone needs to take medication daily, as turned out to be the case for me).
During my time as a Grad Blog editor, I had read many stories about mental health struggles faced by my peers. As someone who has always encouraged frank conversations about mental health, I knew I eventually needed to share my story as well. Well, here I am.
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