My Abusive Graduate Advisor Gave Me an Anxiety Disorder and It’s Taken Years to Recover

I consider myself to be a pretty easy-going person. I mean, I’ve always taken responsibilities seriously. I worked two jobs through college, maintained an excellent GPA, and was able to maintain rich friendships. Some might have called me an over-achiever, but I just thought of myself as a driven person. I managed my expectations of myself. Never chased perfection. Good enough was good enough, and I liked it that way.

Gaining acceptance to my top choice of graduate schools was one of the best days of my life. I was accepted into a doctoral program right out of undergrad, which was my goal. I knew the expectations would be high, and I was ready. My program was in Experimental Psychology, with a concentration in Cognitive Psychology.  It was a researched focused degree, meaning that I would be expected to conduct research and publish my findings in scholarly journals. It would be intense and would push me way out of my comfort zone. But it would be the thing that launched me into the career of my dreams.

To keep an incredibly long and painful story short, my graduate advisor was an abusive man who was never able to maintain a position at any college for more than a few years. He had managed to hide his misdeeds every time he fled from one campus to another, so no one except the people from his past knew what he was capable of. But it took less than a year for me and the other members of his research lab to learn the extent of his abusive ways.

He was a control freak. He also had quite a few narcissistic traits that centered heavily around gaining praise and loyalty from his female graduate students, while humiliating and alienating the male students in the lab. He was kind and warm one moment, and volatile and full of rage the next. I don’t wish to retell the horrors I went through in that lab, so I won’t. All I feel the need to share is that it was bad enough for him to eventually be given an ultimatum: leave the university or be put under investigation by the department and lose your tenure. The threat of humiliation was enough to make him leave.

But in the time between my first day meeting him and that final day before he left, he did a lifetime’s worth of damage to me. I remember it started with me becoming overwhelmed with anxiety every time I put my key in the lock of our lab door to begin the day. I’d take a deep breath, steady my nerves, and walk into the war zone. With time, I began having heart palpitations, too, along with ragged breath and profuse sweating every time I entered the lab.

Gradually, those anxious physiological responses began happening earlier and earlier in my morning routine. The sweating and the racing heart began as I was walking up the stairs to the lab. Then, as I was parking my car in the campus lot. Then, as I was walking out my door to my house. Until finally, one day, those things began the moment I opened my eyes in the morning.

Every day I had to be in that lab with that wretched man was a day of new horrors. And for the first time in my life, I began having panic attacks. This anxiety slowly crept into the areas of my life that had nothing to do with school. I became neurotic, easily startled, and constantly consumed by intrusive thoughts of doom and gloom. It absorbed my every waking moment.

Thankfully, when the day came that I was assigned a new graduate advisor, I was welcomed into a lab where there was compassion, kindness, and respect. I got to survive my final two years of the six-year program in peace and in an atmosphere that brought out the best in me instead of the worst. But I never fully recovered.

I graduated with my PhD, moved away, got married and started a family. I was happy, but guarded. Easily perturbed. It wasn’t until almost a decade later, when my life felt like it was threatening to fall apart, that a therapist finally diagnosed me with severe anxiety disorder.

I was shocked. I had never thought of myself as an anxious person. I thought I was just going through a lot of big life changed and those had unsettled me. Perhaps these feelings I was having were just normal for people in the season of life I was in. To hear the words anxiety disorder was something I just wasn’t prepared for.

My therapist began walking me through the process of trying to identify when the anxiety disorder might have come into being. And, of course, it didn’t take long to identify my graduate advisor as the culprit. All those years ago, and he was still affecting my life.

It has taken me three years of therapy and getting a prescription for anti-anxiety medication to finally get the anxiety under control. If I’m honest, I don’t think I’ll ever be completely rid of it. It’s always there with me, always threatening to rear its ugly head. I think I am permanently changed. This anxiety disorder will probably be with me forever. My job now is just to make sure that I am governing it, instead of letting it govern me.

I think there are a lot of us walking around with this heavy yoke on our shoulders. We rid ourselves of someone who caused us more pain than we could bear, and yet, that person still has a way of making us suffer. It feels shameful to talk about. We feel like we’ve failed. Or like we’re broken. Or that, somehow, we’ve let that person win.

What I need us all to understand is that they didn’t win. That person—that vile, abusive person who treated us indelicately—they could never win. And although our feelings of shame are very real to us, we have nothing to be ashamed of. The only people who should feel ashamed are the ones who allow themselves to be so abusive that they saddle other people with a lifetime of pain.

I’ll never forgive that man for what he did to me, but I do forgive myself. I forgive myself for putting up with it as long as I did—for making excuses for him instead of taking action. I forgive myself for believing him. I forgive myself for internalizing the things he said and did and wearing them like a scarlet letter.

I forgive myself, but I’ll never forget.

Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.

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One thought on “My Abusive Graduate Advisor Gave Me an Anxiety Disorder and It’s Taken Years to Recover

  1. I came to your site from Instagram. Thank you so much for your writing! I can only imagine what you went through. Anxiety is awful, and it’s worse if, like me, you criticize yourself for it because other people might have it worse, and it’s not like you’re in a concentration camp or a war zone–that sort of self-flagellating talk . It’s a negative spiral that keeps me from fully moving past some of the things I’ve been through. The effect one terrible person can have on others without consequence is hard to accept, especially when they keep getting away with it. I’ve had a lifetime of bad experiences at the hands of another, but I am finally breaking the cycle.

    I left a job I loved because of a toxic, capricious boss who didn’t value me or the work I did. It hasn’t even been a year, and I’m still caught off guard by memories of the torment I went through for 2 years. I worked so hard and tried to do my best, only to be devalued, underpaid, and subjected to his temper tantrums, inconsistencies, and sexism. He fomented this same attitude in the other employees (all men) as well. The employee turnover rate was high, as you can imagine, but it never changed anything. I had no recourse for my situation since it was a small business, and he was the owner.

    I console myself somewhat with the thought that the way he treated me (and others) was how he felt about himself deep down. Worthless. Useless. Disposable. And it puts a half-smile on my face, as much as I hate to admit. And then I still berate myself for staying as long as I did. But I just have to breathe, relax my shoulders and remember that while I can’t get those two years back–or this last year of stress– I can recognize people like that a lot sooner and likely prevent it from happening again.

    What do they say about life? It’s hard. Even when it’s easy.

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