Courageous Conversations is a series of monologues that use real-life personal statements from UEA PhD students to form a narrative. This is the first in a series of four, all of which were originally performed during the Courage Festival in September 2019. The sources for these monologues are all anonymous; in publicising them we hope to draw further attention to the difficulties and troubles faced by postgraduate researchers as they navigate academic spaces.
My supervisor’s behaviour was notorious, that became clear when I started my PhD. Older students warned me about him but I didn’t get it. You see, you don’t understand it until you experience it. At the time I thought he was a perfectionist or something, someone who just really valued good science. I believed if I worked hard enough, he would appreciate it and things would be fine. But it was never fine, I never did anything that warranted praise, I’ve been there now for 3 years and I can only count a few instances where he ever said anything vaguely positive about me or my work.
People have many descriptions of what my supervisor was, they called him “hard to work with” or “scary” or “overly-critical”. What they mean to say is that he is emotionally abusive. It started off with little things: the emails I’d receive after work hours, the surprise meetings, the pep talks. During my second year it escalated. He would barge into the lab unannounced at 6 or 7pm and demand an immediate progress report. I’d be unprepared and caught off guard. I couldn’t tell him what he wanted to hear so he’d get angry and frustrated. He’d talk about how I was going to fail if I didn’t magically produce what he wanted. Every misstep I made, he was there to criticise it, tear it apart and paint a bleak future for me.
After a while I didn’t feel like I had any agency. I felt that my mind was not mine. I could almost feel him trying to get into my head and correct me as if I was a faulty machine. He made me feel like I was broken, worthless and small. After a while I became fearful of doing my experiments, I was second guessing everything I was doing. I couldn’t sleep through the night because I felt like I didn’t deserve to sleep. I’d wake up in the morning in tears, sick to my stomach. Sometimes I’d be too scared to come to work. It was like my body was rebelling, telling me it had had enough.
If I hadn’t come in for a day or two, I’d receive emails from my supervisor chiding me, accusing me of slacking. It would take every inch of will power to come in after that. The longer I’d leave it, the harder I’d be punished. When I’d finally come to the lab, after a period of absence, he’d be there waiting for me, demanding answers and would micromanage my schedule down to every half hour. No time for lunch, no time to think. I told him when I thought a task would take more time than he’d given it, he’d just say he didn’t agree and that was that. Naturally I made errors as it was work I was rushing to complete under the impossible time constraints. I’d send it to him, he’d send it back telling me how useless I was.
One day, and with enormous support from my friends, I decided to talk to him about his behaviour. I told him as clearly and diplomatically as I could that I was having difficulty working under these conditions. But something weird happened in that meeting, it was as if he’d prepared an answer for everything. He’d say that I was falling behind and that this was why he’d been working me so hard. It was to help me, he said. All that criticism, all the anxiety and depression he’d caused me, all the birthdays I’d missed, all the hours I didn’t sleep, all the friends I wasn’t responding to, all the pressure I put on my partner to support me, that was supposed to help me! He made me question my version of events: telling me I’d misunderstood when he yelled at me, that I’d misinterpreted the tone of his emails, that I’d wronged him in some way. Somehow we agreed at the end of the meeting that this was all my fault and I almost believed him. I walked out of that meeting and broke down. I felt hopeless and exhausted. I decided it was easier to carry on under this draconian rule than to fight it.
And people still ask me now: “why you didn’t go to the head of school or the PGR office… why did you allow this to happen?” I allowed it to happen because I learned the hard way that no one would help me. I remember trying to discuss the problem with my secondary supervisor, the person who I was supposed to turn to for help in these circumstances. I remember feeling like she was lying to my face, pretending my primary supervisor isn’t as bad as he is. She’d say “sorry, that you’re having trouble, how do you think you could improve the situation?”. She put the responsibility on me to change the behaviour of my supervisor. Every single person in that school knew what my supervisor was doing, they’d see it happen in front of their very eyes. The amount of times he’d criticise me in front of our lab, the amount of times he’d keep me late after work, the amount of times they’d see my face swollen from the sleeplessness and the exhaustion. No one said anything to him. No one intervened.
I started abusing study drugs. I knew people took them to help revise for exams or complete assignments, I was just taking them to get up in the morning. They didn’t necessarily make me feel happy or productive, just allowed me to feel detached. Allowed me to not feel. They would put me into a strange sort of dissociative state, in those instances I could handle more of the abuse my supervisor would level at me. But the problem was when the effect wore off I’d feel ten times more depressed, ten times more suicidal.
Over these last years, this PhD had eaten away at every part of my life, at the foundations of my relationships. I split with my partner. 9 years down the drain because I’d became a shadow of myself. What was left was this angry, sad, anxious person. That’s who I’d bring home every evening and who would cry into the early hours of the morning, needing constant reassurance. Of course it was too much for him to deal with. He deserved so much better and I’m blessed that he tried to stick it out for as long as he did. To lose someone important in your life like that at such a crucial point your studies was absolutely devastating. But it made me open my eyes and realise how much this PhD had cost me, how much it’s taking from me, how much it was consuming me. I realised that if I carry on this way, it was going to kill me. That was the first time I tried to seek some sort of medical help.
First, I went into the doctors surgery, completely exhausted, practically hallucinating from the stress. I tried to tell him what was happening. He asked me a few token questions about sleep and stress. Then he asked me, in this cold, clinical tone: “have you felt suicidal?”. How do I respond when someone is asking about the deepest, darkest parts of my mind with such carelessness? I don’t remember how the rest of the conversation went after that, because I felt too invaded. Because when things start to overwhelm me like this, I disassociate. I watch events happening to me as if I’m watching it unfold on TV. It’s easier to detach and watch your hopes being snuffed than to experience it. They didn’t even refer me for counselling, they just gave me some leaflets on sleep and told me to stop taking the study drugs. Considering this was about the fifth time I’d felt let down by the system, it honestly didn’t bother me, I almost expected it. I put those leaflets straight in the bin and popped another pill.
I remember when I finally told my friends about the severity of what happened. I just wish I talked to them sooner about all this, about how bad everything was. They convinced me to seek a therapist independently. It was costly, about £60 per session, but I felt like it was my only option at that point. I’ll tell you what though, that was the turning point for me, that’s what made the difference between me being here and not. My therapist convinced me to take a break from my studies. I never would have considered that before, I thought taking a break was almost an expression of failure.
Finding the interruption to study form was a minefield in itself, the website was just a mess. When I finally found it, it said I needed to wait up to 3 months for approval. 3 months to essentially sign a piece of paper. Can you imagine? I’m struggling to keep my head above water, I can’t wait another 3 months! I needed medical evidence too so I had to go back to the bloody doctor surgery. I was constantly asking myself if this was really worth it. My stipend was running out soon, was I even sure if I could afford to do this? All the while, I’m getting email after email from my supervisor about how much work I’m not doing. But my therapist and my friends were such an enormous source of strength and with that encouragement I found the will to do it. Really, they helped me through that process so much.
So I pushed ahead with this interruption to study, now I still didn’t have a straight answer about the 3 month turn around on this, but I decided that even if they don’t approve the form, it doesn’t matter. Sure I’d suffer a huge set back in my PhD if I took a 3 or 4 month break, but you can’t get a PhD if you’re dead.
Then I had to meet with my supervisory team before submitting the form and crucially I had to downplay my supervisor’s role in all this. So I blamed external factors, family issues, my inability to cope, anything to deflect away from what really happened, I felt almost dirty doing that. And I felt like my supervisor was revelling in how I was talking down about myself. He said that I can’t handle stress, that I’m too sensitive, that I shouldn’t have let it get to this point and that I should have talked to him earlier. I just let it slide, there was no point challenging him. The day after that meeting, I began my interruption. And I didn’t feel any sense of relief, just nothing at that point because there was so much loss I needed to confront.
Now, I’m coming to the end of my interruption—which they finally approved about 2 weeks ago. And things are better, I still don’t feel 100% right but I have started to feel some relief. Many people judge me for taking that time off, but they can go to hell, I’ve done what I have to do to survive, I don’t need to answer to them. Instead of study drugs I now take antidepressants. I’m sleeping better and I’m learning to love myself again and make amends with the people I’ve hurt. I’ve also made a big decision to return to study after my interruption. Maybe it’s just a case of sunken-cost fallacy, but I feel that I’ve fought too hard to throw in the towel now. I feel like I’m letting the system win if I disappear. I know that my supervisor will try and sink his claws into me when I return, it’s inevitable and I know there is nothing to shield me, to protect me.
So here I am, a lone soldier on this front, waiting for the next battle, knowing that no one is going to come to save me. I’m watching my enemies gather momentum on the horizon. I’m raising up arms, wish me luck.