Mareike’s story

‘I’m fine! I’m fine and I’m here’…, I kept telling this to myself when I left Terminal 2 of Helsinki-Vantaa Airport. A little more than a year prior to my departure, I was diagnosed with a mixed form of personality disorders*, right in the middle of finishing my Master’s degree. I cherish the moment I found out; I’m sure, I wouldn’t be here today if I hadn’t.

From one moment to the other, all the pain, internal fights, obsessive need trying to control and make everything perfect, and rollercoaster ride of emotions, finally made sense.

It was a long way to process all of this. ‘It may get worse, before it gets better, I often heard. What kept me going was the will to reach a point where I don’t just feel better, but to be in harmony with myself. During this journey, I discovered so many things about myself, things I might have never discovered if I hadn’t taken the step to seek for help:

I discovered that perfectionism was one of the drivers that kept me moving forward and made me successful over the years, but with every day that passed it made me suffer even more, because it was counteracting the feeling of not being good enough – nothing more than an illusion.

I discovered that nothing was inherently ‘wrong’ with me; I was missing ‘guidance’ of how to sense, understand, and respond to my thoughts and feelings.

This one-year journey brought me here, to Helsinki, to do my PhD. To do my PhD!

Today marks the 760th day since I arrived in Helsinki. I would lie if I say that everything has been easy since I moved to Finland. Moving abroad can be a challenge for anyone, marked by highs and lows. However, it wasn’t moving abroad that concerned me the most, it was the question whether I’ll be able to guide myself through the challenges of following a career in academia?

Who does not know the idiom ‘publish or perish’? The first time I came across it, must have been either during my Bachelor’s or Master’s – before I was diagnosed. At the time, I asked myself, isn’t it rather likely that you ‘perish’ because of the pressure to publish?

Two things I promised myself before I decided to do my PhD: first, I will work to live but not to live to work; second, if I ever get into the position that my ‘personality profile’ is being used against me that I neither want to see myself in such a work environment, nor would I tolerate it. I know that many of you agree with this statement, but primarily remain silent because of surrender (I often heard, ‘the system is bad and rigid, but it has always been like that’) and consequences that might arise from speaking up (the latter plays a larger role among students and early career scientists).

Surprisingly, I almost never thought about this before I was diagnosed. I was against stigmatisms. However, the more I dived further into the topic, the more I realized that stigmas are on everyone’s mind – subconsciously, not to mean any harm. Without noticing, we are harming ourselves, because we think about how our actions, mistakes or responses might affect our career, or how other people think of us.

What makes me different now, from the person I used to be before my diagnosis? If anything, I am stronger than ever before: Now, I know who I am and who I want to be!

So how to fight stigmas in academia? I decided to break the silence, to use my strongest weapon: my voice!

Thanks to my personality profile, I am a highly sensitive person, which allows me to sense if I can trust somebody or not. Luckily, I felt trust when I spoke up to my supervisor 2 months after starting my PhD. Trust me, I was really nervous at the time. I knew I could trust my supervisor, yet I expected that anything could happen.

Much to my surprise, my supervisor’s reaction was way different than I anticipated – in a positive way: from what you just told me, most of your ‘problems’ don’t sound like problems to me, but more like assets.

Those might have been the most important words I have ever heard, and I think it is essential that each of us should hear such encouraging words more often. Even more important is that we should realize that we are not only ‘right’ the way we are, but that we start to focus on the benefits of our ‘illnesses’ rather than the obstacles.

Today, I don’t smile the pain away anymore, and pretend everything is alright when it’s not. When I say, ‘I’m fine’, I truly mean it, and when I’m not feeling well, I admit it. Being honest to myself is the power that makes me successful, not my perfectionism.

* Personality disorder is the medical term, however, I prefer the less stigmatized term ‘personality profile’.

The background of the story

As a part of the #HelpWorthy campaign we collected students’ stories about seeking help and the challenges associated with it. We published the stories during the campaign period between 12 and 23 April 2021 to show how multifaceted experiences students have had when seeking help. This story was published as the fifth of a total of seven stories. You will find the other stories on the campaign page. Mareike also participated in an Instagram live on 17 April.

With the #HelpWorthy campaign around Students’ Mental Health Day, we wanted to encourage young people and students to share their own experiences. Above all, we want to encourage you to seek help whenever you feel the need.

When you need support, there is help available. The most important thing is not to be left alone with your worries. You will find various bodies, which offer help to students and young people in various challenges in life, by category on our website.

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