Academics in capes: An origin story

(~6 minute read)

A guest blog …

An origin story, according to Wikipedia, “refers to how characters gained their superpowers and/or the circumstances under which they became superheroes or supervillains”. Often these come as a consequence of some challenging circumstance, where the protagonist is confronted with a difficult choice, but one that will fundamentally change their life. It recently occurred to me, what I am about to share, is my origin story. 

Like all heroes I choose to keep my identity a secret in order to protect my friends and family from villainous backlash. However, some may recognise parts, or have even been part of the events I am about to describe, they may be able to piece together the jigsaw and figure out who I am.  That’s ok, the power of choice is then in their hands; but remember what a wise man once said “with great power comes great responsibility”. 

So let’s begin with … a heroic decision.

At the end of 2019 I was done. In all sense of the word. I sat on the floor of my bedroom in tears, looking out at my kids playing in the yard and could only think how much better everyone would be without me. How much better off the world would be if I just wasn’t in it. That was it, laid bare, two options. One that would allow me to escape, be free, not feel the pain anymore. The other much harder. Face the bad guys, pick my metaphorically bloodied body off the floor and keep fighting. That was the moment that I knew things had to change; I made a call to Beyond Blue … I took the heroes choice. 

So how did I end up in this situation? 

A University educated researcher who outwardly appeared to have it all. A career, kids, a stable position (despite more than 15 years on grant-driven contracts) and an academic resume that seemed to be going in the right direction. Well, at its core, it’s quite simple – workplaces can be secretly toxic. Outwardly, “happy workers” can cover up real fear and anxiety, the true villains. As workers, we are driven by the competitive nature of our leaders to continuously perform at the cost of our mental and physical health. The particular event that lead to my undoing; being asked to stop collaborating openly with a fellow researcher. I was not to share data, I was not to have direct communication, all emails were to be sent first for “review”, if I sent anything that wasn’t “reviewed” then it was verbal harassment until I agreed that what was requested was necessary, correct and that I had been in the wrong in breaking this perfectly reasonable request. Every single one of these was against my core values of collaboration, team and openness; it broke me to comply.   

This is the first time I have openly written of this experience, and the dread and fear is still present. I want to be clear: I am not looking to lay blame. Yes, there have been systematic failings across my career; this was just one example. My workplace failed to protect its workers or even acknowledge the problem. However, this isn’t unusual in my sector. I didn’t push reporting the issue when harassment crossed boundaries (this is just one example); I had my children to think about and I needed continuing employment. Any report was going to be obvious as the only research fellow in my group. I could also spend hours highlighting the negative aspects of academia … but that’s not the point. The real point is that my story did not end. 

In fact, if anything, my journey only began once I reached a point where I was forced to confront myself. See, even when all these things are going on in what you (and probably your arch-nemesis) think is secret, you will be surprised how many people notice things. Changes in your demeanour, personality, and outlook; the little things. 

This was highlighted to me a week after my call to Beyond Blue. My partner had suggested I talk to a colleague over coffee. I hadn’t spoken to this person in years. But I did trust them to be honest and they were not associated with my workplace, so felt fairly safe in doing so. Let’s face it, in my situation you start to always look for pathways where conversations return to the villain of the piece. My colleague was the first to say it straight, “I don’t recognise you”. I didn’t even need to go into the details. She knew. It was a huge slap in the face to me that I had moved so far from who I was as a result of fear and constant anxiety, from trying to fit the status quo by leaving behind my core values. It had actually manifested both physically, and mentally. 

“In fact, if anything, my journey only began once I reached a point where I was forced to confront myself.”

The next day I made my first emergency mental health appointment and attempted to take two days of mental health leave. It wasn’t long, or long enough, but given that I returned to the question of “are you better yet?” , I figured it wasn’t going to be understood or accepted if I took longer. I was struggling, I felt alone in a room full of people, and I felt guilty for letting this happen.

Then Melbourne went into lock down.

It sounds extremely insensitive to so many who have suffered through this pandemic, but Covid-19 gave me permission to step away. It was hard … seriously hard. My workplace was demanding that I be in the laboratory, but I needed to be at home, teaching young children how to use computers and survive schooling. My mental health was hanging on by a thread in March 2020 and, to no surprise, I went into depression. 

But this is when two important things happened. 

First, I made a decision. It was a simple one: I was no longer going to apologise for my situation, staying home and helping my children through home learning. I did not choose this, nor did I enjoy it any more than anyone else. So I put my family first. I continued to work from home, and attempted the virtual work life. Was there backlash from my nemesis at this sudden shift in dynamics? Huge amounts; but there was a distance and manipulation is harder to achieve if you can’t corner your prey.

The second thing was an opportunity. An application for a year-long Women in STEM leadership development course was sent my way by a senior department colleague who had advocated for my involvement. The problem was that I needed financial support and there was no way I was going to ask my group head for these funds. But this is the part of the story when real heroes step forward to offer a hand, even when it’s not asked for; not for the credit, but because they recognise the unspoken need.  

It was a huge slap in the face to me that I had moved so far from who I was as a result of fear and constant anxiety, from trying to fit the status quo by leaving behind my core values. It had actually manifested both physically, and mentally. “

I was shocked to learn how much support from others I had. Within my academic unit, the funds appeared from other peoples coffers. An advocate had asked on my behalf, knowing that I wouldn’t do it myself out of fear that my supervisor would take some moves to prevent it. A member of my research office took it upon himself to review, edit and ensure my application was competitive. These acts of collegial support were so unexpected in that there was no strings attached, no “I did this for you so you need to do this for me”. This small group of people had seen something in me that I hadn’t, and were willing to support me at their own expense; true heroes don’t ask to be thanked for doing the right thing.

My application was successful. 

I can’t say I didn’t cry through our first virtual group meeting. I felt like a complete imposter. The list of women participating in this course, many who I knew through reputation, was astounding. And here I was, a broken researcher, barely managing to hold it together for her kids and family. Not feeling very much like a “future leader”. But what transpired over the next few months was a true transformation. 

First was recognition that, though isolated, I was not alone. So many of these women brought with them similar, or even more harrowing, experiences. The fact that this is, and remains, so systemic despite institutions implementing gender specific training represents a continuing failure within the sector. Given we also were a Covid-impacted cohort, this was a wakeup call for what we are already seeing in the data, that combined with existing barriers it was about to become much tougher to be a female researcher in Australia. But in this there was solidarity and hope, with many rising above their tormentors and writing their own origin stories.

So how did I find my superpower?

Well it turns out, I can take a hit. I have taken hits to my values and core beliefs over and over. But what makes me different is that I get back up. I finally realised that, although I had strayed from the path, I don’t need to change myself to hide amongst the villains. Living into my core values and beliefs makes me an extremely powerful leader. However, I can’t take all the credit for finding my superpower. Like all good heroes it’s the sidekicks who are just as essential to making sure the hero succeeds in the face of impending adversity. Family is key, but the other players are just as important, and these two are my secret weapons.

Mental health is often swept under the rug in academia. Coming back from suicidal thoughts and depression is a long road. I am fortunate enough, however, to have found the right support person for my journey. A classic avoider, I didn’t want to face how long this would take, and didn’t feel like I could commit. However, having someone hold you accountable, be on the other end of the line when things go off the rails, allow you to speak safely about your toxic workplace, hold the mirror up to the trauma and allow you to process the situation is a super-power unto itself.

“Living into my core values and beliefs makes me an extremely powerful leader.”

The other. Well, remember that colleague I had coffee with? She suggested I try some career coaching with a friend of hers; another hero move. And I have to say, it’s been amazing. The combination of facing my mental health alongside learning leadership skills has allowed me for the first time in my life to understand where I want to be and how to build that image of myself. 

So where does this story end?

Well it doesn’t. My origin story is only the beginning …

Anon.

Should you wish to connect with the courageous leader who wrote this blog, please reach out via this email: academics.in.capes@gmail.com


On behalf of everyone who reads your story, thank you for your courage in writing it and in sharing it. We know that courage is contagious and that your story will inspire others to courage.

Thank you for trusting me with your story. Know that I am honoured to have read your story and I feel privileged to share it.

I love that this is just the beginning … I can’t wait to read the next chapter.

@CourageChick


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