Struggles with mental health while writing a graduate thesis

By Kenji Soto, MLML Geological Oceanography Lab

My time as a student at Moss Landing have been some of the most enjoyable years of my life.  I have had the opportunity to learn from some wonderful professors, improve on my skills as a scientist, and do field work in places like Baja California and aboard the R/V Atlantis.  While I appreciate the many academic experiences being an MLML student has given me, I am most grateful for the chance to meet you all.  The MLML community is one of the most positive places I have been.  Seriously, if I have talked to you before, I would really like to give you a hug and thank you for making MLML such a positive and supportive place.  I have too many stories to mention here.

However, despite all of the good Moss has given me, there have been low moments too.  None more so then the last few months.  If you have ever thought, “Where is Kenji?”  I haven’t seen that guy in a while, I wonder what he’s doing.”  To answer, if I may loosely quote Harry Potter, “I’ve been in my room, making no noise, and pretending that I don’t exist.”  In all seriousness though, here is my best explanation of how my struggles with anxiety and depression have affected me and my progress on my latest thesis draft.  During this process, my anxiety would turn the smallest of tasks, like responding to an email or addressing an edit, into the largest of obstacles, and eventually lead to moments of low self-esteem and feelings of being overwhelmed and defeated.  The past months between receiving my edited draft and today have been a cycle of isolation, paralysis, procrastination, and fake productivity.

At times I would try and rationalize to myself that what I was doing didn’t make any sense.  I had food, a home, and a job; I was not living in a dangerous part of the world.  What did I have to fear?  Completing my thesis should be relatively easy and I should be thankful for all that I have.  I just had to do it.  But when it came down to it, I still could not face this seemingly monumental task.  When I did sit down to actually work on it, often times I would focus my effort on something only tangentially relevant to my work and convince myself that what I was doing was necessary.  I got really good at lying to myself and that I would fix the major problems of my draft during the next session.  And I believed myself every time.

It became difficult when my depression flowed into other parts of life and avoiding my problems was not always possible.  Sometimes I was afraid to be in public; thoughts like “what if I ran into someone from MLML?” or “do I tell new people that I’m a student at MLML?” would go through my head.  What became especially unbearable was losing the joy and motivation to do activities that I had previously enjoyed.  If you didn’t know, I love playing Ultimate Frisbee.  My depression interfered to the extent where I would be actively playing Frisbee on the field, but I could not find any purpose to what I was doing.  I was just going through the motions of playing with a weighted feeling in my chest and distracted thoughts in mind telling me to stop because what I was doing was pointless.  I could no longer rely on my distractions and my refuges were no longer safe.

So, where was the turning point?  How did I emerge from my “fortress of solitude”?  One part was that it felt good to make actual progress on my thesis and I tried to remember that feeling and use it as a way to keep myself motivated, but it was not always enough.  Another part was that I could not convince myself to throw all my hard work away; I had spent too much time on this project and it was almost done, not completing it JUST DID NOT MAKE ANY SENSE.  And finally, I tried to remember all of you, the wonderful, positive, supportive Moss Landing Marine Laboratory community.  How could I turn my back on everyone that has befriended, reached out, and supported me?

I am still unsure of why I am writing this and sharing my feelings with you all is a bit terrifying.  Maybe I feel like I owe you an explanation?  I do admit, there is a cathartic nature to writing down, sharing, and explaining what I’ve been going through and it does partly feel a bit selfish and if it seems that way, I’m sorry.  But if this helps someone else in any capacity, whether it be feeling less alone, more normal, give strength and/or motivation to, or help in some other way, then, I am glad to be of some help.

All that being said, I am by no means “cured”, but am feeling better.  Am trying to be more honest with myself, act more rationally, and selflessly.  I also wanted to say that I have turned in another draft and will hopefully be sharing my findings with you in the near future.

Hugs and thank you all,