Episode 27: Mental Health, Hope, and Healing with Dr. Cynthia Spada
Cynthia Spada is a Sessional Lecturer in the English and ATWP Departments at the University of Victoria and also teaches literature and writing at Royal Roads University. She holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of The Floating World, a novel, and The Demimonde in Japanese Literature, an academic monograph, and she has published short pieces of creative writing in various genres. She is currently working on a historical novel based on her family’s experiences in the Polish resistance and a collection of creative nonfiction essays that explore the intersection of environmental and medical humanities and the mysterious processes of healing. For the latter, she draws on her own history of mental illness and lupus.
"Health is not one-size-fits-all."
Dr. Cynthia Spada
Waving, Not Drowning
Rebecca Gagan: Hi everyone. I’m Rebecca Gagan, and this is Waving, Not Drowning, a UVic Bounce podcast. Today’s episode is being recorded on the unceded and unsurrendered territories of the Wsáneć and Lekwungen peoples.
In today’s episode of Waving, Not Drowning, I talk with Dr. Cynthia Spada. Cynthia is a Sessional Lecturer in the Department of English and ATWP at the University of Victoria. And she also teaches literature and writing at Royal Roads University. She holds a PhD in comparative literature from the University of California Berkeley. Cynthia is the author of The Floating World, a novel, and The Demimonde in Japanese Literature, an academic monograph. She has also published short pieces of creative writing in various genres. She is currently working on a historical novel based on her family’s experiences in the Polish resistance and a collection of creative non-fiction essays that explore the intersection of environmental and medical humanities and the mysterious processes of healing. For the latter, Cynthia draws on her own history of mental illness and lupus. In our conversation, Cynthia shares her mental health journey. She talks about living with an eating disorder, being diagnosed as a young adult with borderline personality disorder, and how, for her, she’s really come to understand that the process of healing is absolutely not a kind of one-size-fits-all.
In fact, she hesitates to even call it healing and prefers actually to use the word ‘remission’ when she talks about no longer having symptoms of a particular mental health issue. Through the course of our conversation, we talk about the implications of institutions using– and the medical profession, as well, really applying monolithic models of thinking and talking about health, and in particular, about mental health and wellness. Cynthia talks about her experience of being a graduate student at Berkeley and her decision to pursue the PhD at a time when she was really grappling with her mental health. And we talk about some of those challenges around– and pressures to push through, even though perhaps you’re really needing time. Cynthia, so compassionately, reminds us that there isn’t one way to heal; there isn’t one way to live with mental health challenges. She emphasizes that what worked for her, and what has been working and has felt supportive for her, isn’t necessarily what will work for others and to really focus on the individual and not on collapsing the individual experience into a kind of monolithic understanding of wellness. In the midst of great pain and suffering and difficulty, it can feel really tough to believe that things actually will get better, but as Cynthia shares, she feels really happy with her life now; she is thriving. And in this episode, she looks back and reflects on her time as a young adult and the challenges that she had, and admits that she, too, would have had a hard time, really, feeling that things would get better, but that she is happy now and she is thriving, and she believes very much in the power of hope and in the power of remission. I’m Rebecca Gagan, here today with Dr. Cynthia Spada, and this is Waving, Not Drowning.
Cynthia Spada: Hi, Rebecca.
Rebecca Gagan: It’s such a pleasure to have you here today. How have you been doing?
Cynthia Spada: Well, first of all, thank you for having me. It’s just nice to get a chance to talk to you and to everyone listening. I’ve been doing really well. It’s been kind of strange because we’re in this terrible situation around the globe, but for the past year or so, things have been really good for me. My situation is a little bit different than many people in that I have systemic lupus, which is an autoimmune disorder. And what basically happens with it is that my immune system is like this sleeping dragon that I’m trying not to awaken, so in order to do that, I have to take really good care of myself, eat well, sleep well, exercise the usual, but I also have to avoid getting sick at all costs.
When I was diagnosed with it about at the end of 2016, what happened was that I’d had strange symptoms for a couple of years. I didn’t know what they were. I assumed that I had joint pain. I thought I was just getting osteoarthritis. And then about a few months– three or four months before my diagnosis, I caught a summer cold and my– what must’ve happened was my immune system kicked in to fight that, and then whatever was going on, the lupus I already had become this kind of perfect storm, and I ended up extremely ill in my first and only flare; I was in the hospital for a month. That’s when I got diagnosed, and so from that experience– and from everything my doctors tell me, I know that getting sick with anything, even the flu, it can be really dangerous, so that for me, the chance to work from home and to be protected, not just against COVID-19, but against the flu or cold, anything like that, and to still be able to do the teaching that I love, I just amazing, and it’s not something that when I was in grad school 15 years ago, that I ever imagined was even a possibility; I mean, this whole idea of online learning, so it’s not to say it hasn’t been challenging, It certainly has.
And the transition to Brightspace kept me on my toes, but I was just so relieved when that day– that they announced, last year in March, that we’re going online because I– even though I was worried at that point, I was still going to my classes. I was like, I’m not going to give up. I think education is a really kind of sacred thing, but when we did go online, it just was such a relief. And I felt really privileged to be able to continue with my work, unlike so many people. So, for me, it’s actually been weird at times. I’ve had to give myself permission to feel relief or to feel okay about it. I have a good support network at home, and it’s just my husband and my cat and me, but I just love spending the day with them. And my mother-in-law is in Victoria; she’s a great– just, I love her, and we do see her, cause we can’t leave her on her own. So, you know, I have this mini-bubble. If I had been living alone, that would have been really disastrous. I really need some kind of, you know, emotional support, but I think that combination I was also really lucky about that, that I have a supportive spouse, I have a supportive mother-in-law, but I don’t– I’m not having to take care of children at home while I’m working, which I mean, I’m sure it’s wonderful to have the children, but that I know that makes working from home a lot harder, so you can tell me that.
So I just– I’m very aware that I’m in this kind of privileged situation, and just like two or three weeks after we went into lockdown, we put in an offer on a condo in Victoria that was accepted, so we moved into a place with more space, so I have– we have a second bedroom where I have my little office, so again, it’s just having all that, you know, everything just kind of worked out for me to be able to be okay during this period. And it is true that my blood work, everything, I get that monitored regularly, my blood work, my urinalysis, everything looks, you know, I’m healthier than I’ve been, certainly since my lupus diagnosis and probably, possibly healthier than in my adult life I would suspect because I just– I take care of myself better, so all the other stuff looks great. If you didn’t look at one corner of my blood work, you’d think I was perfectly healthy, so yeah, that’s the weird thing; working at home during the pandemic has been healthier for me, so that’s kind of a strange thing.
Rebecca Gagan: I think, Cynthia, you really get at something that probably a lot of students and some faculty, too, are feeling around this kind of guilt as you describe it; that as much as there have been so many very real challenges for so many real people. I think there’s a way in which you can acknowledge that while, as you’ve said, also acknowledging that the changes that came out of necessity, right? The changes to how we work how we live have had benefits for many people, including yourself. And that, I get that, too, in terms of thinking about the ways in which– for example, my son is on the autism spectrum, and he is 9, and we’ve had lots of challenges around trying to access services and things like that, but we’ve also had some real positives, in that we’ve had more time to support him. We’ve had– you know, there have been other gifts, I’ll call them– that this change in our busy lives, which doesn’t mean we’re not still busy, but that there have been some things that have come of it, especially in terms of supporting him that have been positive and sometimes, like you, I feel almost lucky that we had an opportunity– this kind of space that opened up for us to support him in certain ways, but there are– and just as you’re saying, okay, so the working at home meant you weren’t exposing yourself to not only COVID but to all of these other kinds of possible viruses, infections, things like that creates this complicated kind of constellations of feelings– constellation of feelings for you, right? It’s like you acknowledge your privilege and you can continue your job, but yet, there is this sense, as you say, that you’ve been healthier than– that it has increased your health, I would say, in a certain way as you’ve described it, so it feels very strange to say, that, “okay, like how, how did that happen?” and I think there’s probably a lot of students– I know there are– who feel that as much as there are challenges to online learning, they want it over and done with, there are some students who have been thriving because they can go back and re-watch lectures, or they can engage differently through chat because if they are anxious about that, they don’t have to show their face and put up their hand– they can do it through chat. So, for learning, there’ve been a lot of students who’ve maybe as much as students have had their mental health impacted, some have found that they’ve been thriving.
Cynthia Spada: Yeah, I absolutely agree. I really think I hear from a wider spectrum of students in each course when it’s online, especially through discussion forums, but even during Zoom classes because of the chat options, it really seems to work for a lot of students, and I think, in general, something that has always troubled me and challenged me was that a lot of people talk about health and wellbeing as this kind of monolithic entity, as if it’s preconditioned by the same things for everyone, and that if your external circumstances are X, then you’re going to feel Y. I, even– this may sound unbelievable, but I even had a psychiatrist tell me in my twenties when I was just devastated by mental health issues that it started in childhood, and then by that point, we’re just resulting in major treatment-resistant depression and borderline personality disorder, and very serious suicide attempts that I had psychiatrists say to me, “you shouldn’t be so depressed because you have a lot going for you.” And it’s like, did you go to med school!?
And then, of course, the result of that is just– it does not make you feel any better. It makes me feel so much worse, so like I’m ungrateful on top of everything else and that there’s no help here, and so that’s always been a pet peeve of mine. And so, I think as much as we acknowledge that for many people, the lockdown in general and online learning in particular for many students, in particular, has been extremely challenging for their mental health. There’s a lot of evidence of that, even all we acknowledge that I think we have to be careful with saying things like we all have to return to face-to-face learning for our wellbeing. It’s assuming your wellbeing is the exact same as mine, and it leaves out, as you’re saying, a significant number of people for whom this has maybe less uncertain pressures. Like you said, students who maybe have some anxiety, whether it’s social inside or other anxiety, maybe students who have chronic health issues, physical or mental disabilities, students who are just overwhelmed with going to school, working, caretaking, commuting. I’ve had students who commute from up island, and now they can fit their learning around other things, so I just– I think it’s always tempting to develop this dominant narrative, to understand everything like online learning is hard for everyone.
I would say there are challenges within it for everyone, just like there are challenges within face-to-face learning, but I think it’s important to acknowledge not everyone had the same reaction so that if you did enjoy it if you did benefit from it, that’s perfectly fine. Like I did. And also, it reminds us that people were struggling. With mental health issues a lot before the pandemic. We all know that I think anyone teaching knows those, and as in most places I’ve lived– my husband and I have lived in four different countries in the past ten years, and it seems like there’s always a shortage of mental health resources, no matter where you live. That was going on before the pandemic, and it will go on after, too.
Rebecca Gagan: I mean, what you’ve pointed out is that when we talk about, as you say, these narratives that institutions, whether that’s the university or other institutions construct around health, that it collapses the kind of individuality of students’ experience, and that there’s this way in which we will watch out for your health and safeguard your health and wellbeing, but it’s this, as you say, monolithic sense of what that is. And I think one of the things we’re trying to do with this podcast and UVic Bounce is really to highlight individual experience, but also, really, try to show that if that those kinds of narratives don’t work, and that there are many stories of around mental health and wellness, and that we need to think really carefully as we formulate policy and guidelines; that it isn’t a one size fits all. And that, because that kind of policy overlooks so many student experiences. And the other thing that I’m taking from what you’re saying, and it’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about as well, and I think you are, too, Cynthia, which is that okay, so when the pandemic is over, when we return to what everybody’s calling, I have it in air quotes, like normal life, one of the things you’ve suggested, I think, is the importance of thinking about, okay, knowing that some of these changes have actually been positive. How can I keep those and that I have a choice, right? That I understand UVic doesn’t have everything online and that for UVic students, it may be challenging as we return to, you know, face-to-face, to keep up online, but to advocate for some of those things that have increased accessibility and as teachers, of course, I think we’re advocating for that as well. But that where there is any room for students– or for– faculty to be able to keep some of what was nourishing and helpful and healthy in this way of learning, you know, how to keep that, and that it doesn’t mean that because there’s a directive. Okay, we’re all back face-to-face; it doesn’t mean you have to throw everything out that was actually working for you. And I hear that, in what you’re saying, Cynthia.
Cynthia Spada: Yes. Especially because we’re in kind of a transitional point, just I think as human beings, and where our health is so contingent on environmental health in all kinds of ways. There’s a rise in just eco-anxiety, with people responding in feeling depression and anxiety because of environmental change, there are likely to continue to be more infectious diseases, especially zoonic diseases because we live so close to animals. I think we have to increasingly talk about individual health and environmental health as intertwined. I’m writing a collection of essays about this and then slowly publishing a few, and so it’s something that’s on my mind. It’s– I will say, it’s funny because all of these issues, even talking about my own health. I write about it very openly in these creative non-fiction essays, but it’s a different thing when you’re speaking out loud with your voice; it’s always kind of challenging, so I really appreciate your patience and your encouragement, but yeah, I think we’re going to have to just talk about health, very open, very consistently and realize it’s not– it’s not going back to normal. We have to go forward, and again, we have to think about these things much more seriously, which people are doing and talking now more about social determinants of health and what– it’s not just about your genetics. It’s about where you live. It’s about your income. It’s about racial disparities. It’s about gender. It’s all kinds of things. It’s this constellation, so we’re getting there, but it’s still–it’s a huge reorientation, and we need the resources, we still need stigma to diminish, and I think that’s for me, too. When I write about these things, I’m wearing my kind of writer persona. When I’m talking about it with you, it’s my teacher persona, and I feel like I’m supposed to be– I still have that sense that I’m supposed to have this kind of shield, or not be sharing that part of me, but I don’t think that works anymore because I’ve found, I think, that we need to tell our students that we do understand, and like you’re doing with this podcast that, even if you have just truly terrible experiences with health, it is possible to get through them and to find your way out to the other side and to live a happy life. So, yeah.
Rebecca Gagan: And that is a beautiful segue, Cynthia, into sharing a bit more of your own story, about being a student and undergraduate or graduate, or both since we, as you’ve said so perfectly, just that this podcast is really about working to de-stigmatize the challenges, the difficulties, mental health issues, so the students do feel more comfortable reaching out for help, sharing their own stories, and that we are really trying to change the conversation. And I like how you’ve suggested that the moment we’re in now is a kind of transition period. It’s also an opportunity, I think, for us to start to change the way we share our stories and that we actually really start doing it, but I also really appreciate that you’ve signalled that it can feel very vulnerable to do that and that it’s because in academia, at the university, and I’ve said this before on this podcast, we tend to not talk about those things, and that especially as faculty members, and so it can feel, yeah, still hard. It’s still hard to do that, so I really appreciate you being here and being so I’m open to sharing some of your story with us, and, of course, you can share as much or as little as you feel comfortable doing.
Cynthia Spada: Yeah. Sure, and I will. I did want to say one thing before I forgot about this idea of the transitional moment, and I just really– I think it’s an important concept to stay off despair when I’m saying like we’re not– instead of going back to the new normal, we still have all of these problems, but last year in February, that’s when Royal Roads asked me to design two literature courses, and they were– it was exciting because this is their first two literature courses that they’ve ever had. And one of them is literature of the Anthropocene, and I didn’t know– I hadn’t read a ton of that kind of environmental humanities literature, but I fell in love with it. And that’s what kind of– I had been working on a memoir for a couple of years about health with my literary agent, kind of giving me input, and it just never– it was never quite chilling cause it wasn’t quite a memoir, it wasn’t quite non-fiction, and she recommended an essay collection. I didn’t know where to go with it. It wasn’t until I got that– the Anthropocene, kind of– that perspective that I saw my own health in a different way, and in a much more positive way, because yes, we’re in; things are pretty terrifying, in terms of the planet, but it’s not, for me, the question is where do we go from here? These are all the tensions that we have of these kinds of environmental and all these kind of economic and technological things that are colliding, but what do we do with this? And that perspective really reinvigorated how I thought, so I’m hoping that I just don’t want anything that I’m saying to sound really dire because I don’t think it is. I think this is such an amazing moment for all of us. And I think that the pandemic has given us a crash course and maybe how to reorient our perspective, but yeah, in terms of my story, I really, I really struggled. When I was younger, I was hospitalized for the first time in a psychiatric unit when I was 11, actually, for anorexia.
I was very sick with that. And to make it worse, this was the eighties; they did not have the enlightened kind of ideas about treating mental illness that we have now. I think there are actually still a lot of problems surrounding treatment of people with mental illness, even now, but my doctors told me things like I was bad. I was being manipulative. I was– this was my fault, this kind of thing so that just obviously made everything worse, and it started this kind of lifelong distrust of the medical authorities that really only changed when I got diagnosed with lupus because I’ve had great doctors. I got sick in Japan, and that was a really interesting experience because my rheumatologist, he didn’t speak English, and my Japanese is pretty good, but like medical vocabulary is a whole new, it really– it was such a challenge, but we communicated; it forced me to really improve, you know we got along well.
I have a great rheumatologist here, so I have a much better view now, but that was one of the reasons I avoided going to the doctor when I was– I knew something was wrong for those two years before I ended up in my lupus flare, but like nothing– I would do anything to avoid going to a doctor, basically was my thing. Anyways, so yeah, I was lucky enough, unlike a lot of young women and even men or people of various genders in that I did get over the anorexia. I have quite a, I think– I have a pretty stable kind of body image, pretty healthy, but things just got worse and worse for me in my teenage years in terms of depression. In my twenties, just again, a number of suicide attempts, of hospitalizations against my will, and some pretty unhealthy self-medicating for several years. And yeah, it was always such an antagonistic relationship for me with my doctors. I had a number of different psychiatrists; the one I worked with for the longest, she, I think she did try to help me, but even there I– one day, I’ve been doing reading, and I was like, how come I’ve never been– you’ve never diagnosed me with borderline personality disorder?
I met all the criteria. It was just– you know, cause you can look these things up. It was very clear. And she said, “I won’t write that down on your chart because that’s such a stigmatized disorder.” Yeah. And she really was trying to protect me. She said, “women with the disorder, I’m afraid if you’re hospitalized and if someone else sees it, that they’ll treat you a certain way,” and I was actually– I was terrified of it. Of being labelled with it. It was one of those things I felt so much shame about it, and which, of course, is absurd. It took me years to kind of deal with what I– to process that shame, and it’s actually a setting for me because I just sold an essay to a literary magazine about borderline personality disorder and kind of deconstructing that shame, and it is something I’m really proud of, and it did kind help me to work through it and to talk about it, and to get that out there because there’s a lot of anger in it.
If you create a disorder, if a discipline, if a field, creates a disorder, puts it in The DSM and then uses it against people, that’s problematic, and I’m not saying every mental health professional does, but clearly, this was something that she felt was such a problem, and I’ve read some pretty like crazy things written about it. Like there was an article in Psychology today from just a few years back, where someone was commenting– that writer was saying that trauma in childhood, which I definitely had, really increases your chance for borderline personality disorder and lupus, as well, actually. It’s specifically that abuse that increases it. But then the writer went on to say, “but it’s also possible that the abuse results from adults having to deal with a difficult child.”
Rebecca Gagan: What?!
Cynthia Spada: I know! These things get published. These get out there. They’re so careless. And I know, Psychology Today, it’s not like that–
Rebecca Gagan: But a lot of people use that resource. A lot of people read that.
Cynthia Spada: It’s not a peer-reviewed kind of thing, but it’s– like you said, it has a wide traction, and so that’s reading things like that. I was like, “okay, I have to talk about these things. I have to write about them because this is not a healthy situation for anyone. How can anyone heal in this– again, this environment where people are talking about your disease in this way?” So yeah, it was a really dark time for me.
Rebecca Gagan: Were you studying at this time? Like, were you at school at this time?
Cynthia Spada: Yeah. Back to all the school stuff. Yeah. One thing, I think for me, I have to work. I have to work. For me, keeping myself busy, studying through writing it’s a prerequisite for my health because I’ve always– ever since I was a child, I had an obsessive-compulsive disorder– runs in my family– mental health issues in general, but so I can have a problem with uncontrollable thoughts, especially negative thoughts, about myself or painful memories. I have to keep busy, so yeah. I went to college right out of high school. I did take two years off after college before I started grad school at Berkeley. I was working, but when I applied to grad school, I went right into a– it was a PhD program in the US.
Sometimes you can apply directly for the PhD program. I think it’s different in Canada. You know, I was 24, and I was really not doing well. I didn’t even have the vocabulary, though, to really understand it. That I just, that nothing was stable for me, and it was just– every day was a struggle, but no one was really talking about it in my family like I would take time off, try to deal with this. It was like, you just go, go, go. So, I applied for this program, and I got through it. Sometimes when I–it’s amazing to me that I did. Yeah, the comparative literature program at Berkeley it’s seven years normative time, but the average student takes ten years to do it, so it’s a commitment, but I actually, I got through it in eight. And the reason it took me eight– I did it in seven years, but I took a year off because I sold a novel, and I was revising that, and publishing that and stuff.
So yeah, I’m doing all this stuff. I had my first marriage, like all this stuff on top of the…
Rebecca Gagan: I’m just still processing, Cynthia, that you were doing this very challenging PhD program, and you sold a novel at the same time, and you were married, so when you say you look back on how you did it, do you mean that, when you look back like you just see that now, is that you were just, as you say, like pushing through, that that sort of what you felt you had to do and that you were compelled to do that?
Cynthia Spada: I think this is a really good question. And I, in terms of what I would recommend to students, I’ve thought about it. Was this the right thing for me? Or should I have taken more time? I, again– I think this has to– I think it has to be a personal answer. There’s no one-size-fits-all. For me, I remember going into a new psychiatrist telling him all this stuff I was doing. He was like, “are you sure you don’t suffer from bipolar disorder?” because that’s where you tend to have these manic states. But I didn’t know. I would have serious depression that I would just feel paralyzed, but I had to kind of keep my mind active. I do think that for me, I needed that because I did take– after I finished my PhD, I did take a couple of years off, where I wasn’t doing much. And I wasn’t doing much creative writing. That’s the thing that really involves my mind, and that was disastrous for me. That’s when I really started self-medicating with drugs and things for a while. I’ve been clean for ten years, but it was bad.
So, I think for me, I really need that anchor, but I also think I definitely needed, if not more, time for self-care, just like a framework to understand what even self-care was. I don’t think I really understood that — kind of, or even it was like– even going to therapy; it was just like something I did. I don’t think I expected it to really help. Again, that’s because of my own negative experiences, I think. And I think for some people, with the right process, it can really help. So, I want to make that clear. I think a lot of it is what, you know, you bring into it; It was a really tricky situation so, for me, one of the things that helped eventually was just breaking away from all that; breaking away from, you know, all the kind of the doctors and the kind of psychotropic medications–again, which can be a lifesaver, and I actually do take a small dose of antidepressants again, now, but I just had so much– there was just this crazy cocktail. So, taking a break from that to actually figure out what self-care meant to me, and then at that point, I did need a huge chunk of time to figure out what I wanted to do and what gave me joy. And it was going back to writing, and to teaching, and just kind of– and also taking a break from things like social media, or just taking a break from anything where I felt like I had to perform for people and pretend that I was okay. I honestly, that was one of the greatest that was probably the most exhausting thing to try to kind of, you know– I mean, it was pretty obvious if you knew me deeply that I was a mess, but trying to put on this kind of facade for some people, you know?
Rebecca Gagan: That you were okay. That it was, as you say, performing that for everybody. I think, Cynthia, you’ve hit on something that is so important, and so I think crucial for students to hear, which is that when you were going through your PhD, the term “self-care” I mean, it’s fairly recent, right? And when you say, I didn’t really know what that meant, and it wasn’t a term that was sort of used the way it is these days, especially during the pandemic, but now we use it, and I still think that there is so much uncertainty or misunderstanding around what that term means and it’s used in the same way, I think that you flagged terms like health and wellbeing, right? So, it’s using this sort of monolithic way.
It’s like, well, self-care is the same for everybody, and just do that. You’ll be okay as long as you do some self-care, but what you said, which is so powerful, I think, is that you had to figure out what self-care meant for you. So, you, and it sounds like it’s always been the case that self-care has been creative work, and it was also, as you said, taking a step back from any situation where you had to perform something that didn’t feel true to you, to who you were– so social media, so those things. So, I just noticed that those are not things like okay, going for a walk, having a bath, these things, which are– that those are right for some people, but I think we use the term as if everybody knows what that is and that it’s one thing for everybody. And so, you know, this is something I’m still learning too. Well, what is nourishing for me, right? What is self-care for me? And it can change, right? So, some days it might mean one thing and another day it might mean another thing, but it’s absolutely not one thing. And it’s not, again, a one-size-fits-all.
Cynthia Spada: Yeah. I like that. It’s true. It can change from day to day. For me, I do love going for walks, actually. And it’s this great irony for me because I’ve fallen in love with nature again, but now that I have lupus, I have to be really careful. I’m supposed to avoid UV rays. So, when I got outside, I have a big hat, so if you ever see I have a hat, that’s why I have sunscreen. I can only do it in small kind of morsels, but that makes it so precious to me. But yeah, sometimes, it is work for me, and I noticed it’s different. Canada’s very much about this work-life balance. I’m originally from the US, and I don’t hear that there’s such it’s like work. If you don’t work in the US, you’re lazy, and it’s this weird kind of tyrannical thing or– so here, again, sometimes feel like it’s strange that I want to write on the weekends. I do set some boundaries around my teaching work cause I think that allows me to maintain my enthusiasm and my compassion, so not marking on the weekends and things like that, but for me, I need that work, and I also don’t– that whole separation of work and life, I think, is problematic to me. Cause, yeah, like you’re saying for everyone, you have to figure out what works for you, but I think there’s a lot of pressure in your twenties. Like you feel like you can’t take the time to figure that out, and even now, when we’re talking about self-care, I get the sense that students really feel like I have to get out there and I have to earn.
And they’re also getting these narratives about how dire the economic situation is, so I think there’s a lot of pressure to not– to dive into things. I don’t regret, at all, that I got my doctorate. I made so many bad decisions when I was younger, but that was one of the good ones, even though if I had thought about it, and how, how kind of emotionally vulnerable I was, maybe I wouldn’t have done it, but I do think that in terms of the academia, I think we should be more supportive of giving students time off, whether it’s undergraduates or graduate students, graduate students starting later. Graduate students have notoriously bad mental health or really suffer from those problems. And I think part of it is just that the age there that they’re at, the twenties, tend to be such a vulnerable time and there’s so much pressure, but you feel like if you don’t apply then, you know, you’re not going to be viable later on. I just think we have to change these narratives that involve age-ism to some; it’s done, or this idea that you have to sprint to the finish line because I don’t think that’s helpful for most people. It just becomes another pressure.
Rebecca Gagan: Another pressure. Yeah, absolutely. I think I started my PhD when I was 24. And looking back, certainly not in any position or ready to be doing that, and that coincided then with my own diagnosis of anxiety, and at that time, so it coincided with being a graduate student. So, very much so, and I think students often feel, as you’ve talked about, like these pressures to do everything by a certain time, that if they start grad school in their thirties, that’s too old somehow. So, as you say, it’s age-ism. Yeah. And that doesn’t mean– once again, that there isn’t– that we’re not acknowledging all of those pressures that are there for students to get a job, to pay off the financial burdens of a university.
So, there is all of that, but it’s so important to be able to recognize that I think as just another– I don’t want to use the language just another– but it is another narrative, right, as you say, of how your life should go. And that is that there is no time, and I think it’s hard to tease apart, as you say, now, looking back, whether you should or should not have pushed through and done all of those things. And I think you’ve said, you needed to, and it’s hard to prise apart, whether that was because there was that narrative for you around you just keep going and so much stigma around mental health and those, oh, just keep–we hear that still– oh, just push through it. Just keep going. It will pass. And so, it’s, you know, that still exists now, but I think as you say about giving room, and if you are truly doing that work, which it is work of self-care. That means that you are making that space for the other things that you need in your life at that time, so that takes time.
Cynthia Spada: Yeah, no, and I want to be open with people that I understand that kind of race to the finish line mentality and I– but I think that life does– for many people, life does go get better. And even, I didn’t buy my first home till last year when I was 45 and, it’s so… I was behind in that sense, you know, my husband and I don’t have children for various reasons. I mean, I don’t know if that would have been different if that’s the one thing that kind of not settling my– not feeling like my mental health issues were under control enough to even entertain that thought until my forties, that there is something about, yeah, that that is a time-sensitive issue.
I’m not going to lie about that one, but I think all the financial things, you know, it’s not the end of the world. If you start those things like homeownership a little later. I mean, I’m a sessional instructor, too. I had a full-time job teaching in Japan when I got sick, but that was the end of 2016, and Trump had just gotten elected president. That kind of double whammy of that and my lupus diagnosis made my husband and I say, “okay, yeah, we have to go back to Canada and get you citizenship because we’d been married for six years at that point, six- seven years, but we just hadn’t been here long enough to really go through that process. It’s hard to do it from outside the country because you have to prove that you’re moving there, and if you don’t have a job, that’s hard. So, we’re like, okay, we’re going to do it even though I didn’t know if I’d be able to find you a job on the island. It’s not like there are like dozens of universities, and we wanted to also help– you know, be close to my mother-in-law, but it did work out. And I love my– I love working for UVic and Royal Roads, so it– things really do get better, and again, health is not one-size-fits-all. I can’t speak for what anyone else will go through, but things did really change for me radically in terms of my mental health right around 40. And you know, there are still days that are rough for– there is some depression and anxiety, but nothing like before. I just feel real joy, and I definitely– I hate to, I don’t ever want to say that “oh, I got x from going through that” because I think you can get joy without going through all of that, but I do think I got a lot of empathy from going through those experiences, so there was that there. There is some comfort, I guess, in everything you go through; it does change how you see the world.
And I think I would have a really hard time believing it. I think some people did say things to me like it can get better, but I also felt that when I was really struggling with mental health issues, there wasn’t a lot of talk about healing from mental health. And I know there certainly are some conditions that are quite intractable, but I think it is possible to heal from them, and, I think, again, in terms of helpful narratives, I think we need to just talk about that or maybe use the concept of remission. I mean, technically, something like lupus is a chronic condition, but you can be in remission for long periods. You know, you can live a really happy life. So, I just, I really hope other people who are struggling can find that. And I wish I had like a sure-fire formula, but it’s a very kind of mysterious process, healing.
Rebecca Gagan: But I think that the sure-fire formula is what, Cynthia, you’ve just done in a way, which is to, I think, make yourself so vulnerable, and I so appreciate it in sharing your story and asking listeners to trust you, that it’s hard when you are younger and going through these challenges and maybe feel hopeful or to believe when people say it gets better, but something you’ve said throughout this conversation today, and something for which I’m so grateful for, is that you have talked a lot about hope and about you know, being really– and now, you’ve just connected, I think, hope with healing, right? That if we only focus on– you know, we feel despair about the future, whether that’s around our environment or, you know, despair around an illness, that that does damage. And that we can’t lose sight of the hopeful narratives. So, while we’re challenging narratives, also challenge those that don’t create space for hope and healing. And so, I love how you’ve talked about the term remission, which is a way of thinking about, okay, so yes, you might cope with an eating disorder all of your life, but it can be in remission so that, you know so that it eases in some ways for you for a period of time. But also, Cynthia, as you’ve shared, it doesn’t mean that this is a story where joy only comes at the end of your story, or that like you, that there can be– there will be joy right up alongside the pain, right? That those two things will be together. That also that if you can have that kind of compassion for yourself in the moment as you’re going through it, and also gently remind yourself that. It will get better, and things will be okay, and they will work out. And maybe not as you’d expect it, but never as you expect it. Yeah, and as I say, I think that those are– I was going to ask you, Cynthia, oh what would you say to students in terms of words of support, but I think that you’ve really shared that. I don’t know if there’s anything else that you wanted to leave students with– our listeners with, but I think you’ve beautifully looped back to where you began, really in terms of thinking about the light, right? The hope that is also there in dark times.
Cynthia Spada: Yeah. Yeah. I think I said most of what I want to say. It’s funny cause I want to share my experience as almost a case study; that you really– you can make great strides and healing, but at the same time, I would say, that I think one of the most helpful things in feeling, in self-care, is not to compare yourself to someone else. And again, like we’re saying this whole I have to do– I have to hurry up and do this because that’s what I’m supposed to do, or, I have to make this life choice. I think that can be really devastating for people, and we all– every single one of us feels insecure, a lack of confidence. I’ve certainly never met anyone who didn’t, even the most successful people. I struggled with comparing myself to other people all the time– so that’s definitely one thing I would say, even as I’m sharing my own experiences, that yes, your wellbeing is conditioned by different things, and your life has different requirements. That’s what that will mean, and it will– I guess that’s my final word; my own insights. I don’t know if it’s wisdom, though, but thank you so much for listening, Rebecca and being on the end of just, I know, hearing these things that can be quite– you know, requires a lot of generosity as well.
Rebecca Gagan: It’s been really my pleasure to get to talk with you today, Cynthia. And as I say, I’m just so grateful that you shared your story with us, and I know that your words will fall just so supportively on our listeners. So, thank you so much.
Cynthia Spada: Oh, you’re welcome.
Rebecca Gagan: Bye for now.
Cynthia Spada: Bye-bye.
Rebecca Gagan: You can keep listening to episodes of Waving, Not Drowning on Anchor FM, Spotify, or wherever you stream your podcasts. We’d love it if you would give us a like and a follow on Instagram @uvicbounce. Tune in next week for another great conversation.