After a good two and a half years work it sadly looks like Natural Born Dyers might have to be shut down for a period. The reason is not economic, although the start was poor, growth has been good and the trajectory is still upwards. It is unfortunately due to 12 years of mental health problems and associated physical side-effects coming to fruition. While the roots are very much in the past, constant reinforcement and continually having my hopes of way-out dashed have kept it going until its recent flare up leaving me with cycles of depression severe agitation and anxiety, and being unable to eat or drink for the last three and a half days. My partner, Claire reckoned it might be cathartic to write down the history of my illness, its roots and why it is still going so if anyone is interested (sorry it is so long but there is a lot to pack in):
The stimulus for all this is my time as post-doc in a research lab where long (60-70 hrs per week if you lucky) and stress due to zero job security and a highly abusive envirionment both on a personal and institutional level were the norm. I was expected to fulfil not just my own workload but that of others. The justification for this was that I came from a ‘Thick Family’ ie not affluent middle class so it was seen as only right that I had to hand over chunks of my work for others to take credit. I also developed inflammation in my shoulder and prolapsed disc due to working doubled over on cheap plastic stools on low workbenches. Given that the HR manager proudly told a meeting that ‘post-docs would never have any employment rights because there would always be something better to spend the money on’ and that recent changes to the rights of contact employees didn’t apply to us (a response supported by the Research Councils, union and our local Labour MP), it’s no surprise the university initially refused to buy me an adjustable chair (like all the admin staff had) to prevent more damage as I wasn’t worth it. After I called in the HSE they did briefly supply me a chair but took it away after the inspection.
It was during these years that I first developed depression and ended up on anti-depressants. I developed skin irritation, both itching and the sensation of hundreds of insect crawling over my body, and bouts of sudden hair loss which I was told by the NHS I would just have to live with.
As our pay went up with length of service the average post-doc career length was reputed to be only four years but I had developed a technique at the time few others could master so ended up with six and a half. I finished with a crippled back, a substantial quantity of results that my boss had been stalling on publishing, no redundancy pay (as I was a contract worker) and a dulled lack of understanding about what was a normal job. There followed eight months unpaid writing up my data to be published, so I could hopefully get a job abroad away from the UK academic culture, and signing off on a patent, partly based on my work. After delivery of all this I heard……nothing! Eventually I rang and was told by my boss that it benefitted her if other people got credit for my work. No papers meant no other academic jobs so that was the end of my career. She didn’t even refund the cost of my train tickets for trips down to the lab during my unpaid work. Then a year and half later, just to rub it in, I was sent a paper, a large proportion of which was my work but for which I was given no credit.
I finished feeling excluded from society disillusioned and full of hate. But with the support of Claire I tried to rally and get back in employment. Long before I had used up my quota of 2 lots of six physio sessions so I was having to use my savings for Chiropractic to fix my shoulder and back. I needed an income. Unfortunately what I got was continuous job-rejections, I was too qualified, too experienced, didn’t have the exact right qualifications, too old, wasn’t overweight so ‘hadn’t done a proper day’s work in life’ etc. What work I did get was in the science education sector where a similar culture to academia (except minimal wages, that is if you got paid). Despite my willingness to retrain, I was refused help by the job centre or the myriad other job schemes. Except I was offered a basic numeracy and literacy course but that was withdrawn when it was ‘discovered’ via an afternoon’s testing that with my degree and PhD I didn’t actually need it. Also after about 5 years I did get career advice, from one of the many highly government-funded private agencies paid to provide it. After testing I was told that I suited to science and if I went to college and worked hard I could to get to do a degree in it. The fact that I had already done this was irrelevant; I could do it again and fund it with a part-time job. No advice was available on how to get the part time job.
This coupled with the barrage of stories about how job-creation schemes were getting everyone who wanted a job into work led to more feelings of being excluded from society and even more depression and the rise of related physical symptoms. I developed bouts of severe acid reflux and IBS. The response of my GP was drugs. Despite regular requests to have investigations into the cause I was repeatedly fobbed off with ‘take this it will mask the symptoms’. I was on mebeverine for over 5 years even though it barely affected my symptoms. Eventually symptoms became so strong I was put back on antidepressants, this time Citalopram.
The one thing that did help was starting the business which provided a focus and helped reduce the frequency of my down bouts as well as coinciding with great improvements in my skin and bowels.
It had gone on too long for Claire who pressured me to seek more help: National guidelines insist that talking therapies and counselling should be used for depression and anxiety, and for most people that is the case. . Previously I had resisted seeking more help feeling that all I would get from the GP was rejection. This was effectively confirmed when I eventually did seek more help as was offered more repeats of Citalopram and was even told it was Citalopram or nothing as all antidepressants are the same.
Eventually I did get on basic talking therapy starting at the beginning of this year. In my fifth hourly session which was the start of last month I was finally diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from my time as a post-doc.
This should have led to a breakthrough but instead it led to a downwards spiral, driven by the knowledge we could have been at this point years ago if the NHS had offered help rather than plastering me with drugs. The depression led to an unusually strong bout of physical symptoms that I turn increased the depression and led to a vicious circle.
This illness was triggered by conditions where I was told explicitly, by both my employer, and the state that I was excluded from the basic rights enjoyed by other members of society. That was years ago, it should be in the past and gone. Unfortunately in my pursuit of a job and basic health all I have received is reinforcement of the treatment I got in academia that just keeps it going. I realise some people get the breaks, and all the best to them, and life can’t be fair all of the time but for once I would be nice to not have the state putting barriers up to block me getting what it claims are the basics.
Just after I was informed by my boss that she had screwed me Gordon Brown, then UK Chancellor, gave a speech with title that I have took for this blog post. I thought it was bleakly ironic then and still do.
For an official, more rosy, view see here which states that the 2002 regulations did give post-doc researchers a full set up of rights. Since 2003, when I finished, I have bumped into people who are still in the system now and again. Contrary to the official line I am afraid their accounts all suggest that nothing has changed since my time.