I was raised in what was effectively an anti-science cult of my father’s manufacture. He is a figure of some prominence in the anti-vaccine movement. Of course as with any religion my parents I was indoctrinated into all of this completely for many years. As a devotee I advocated ‘alternative medicine’ and conspiracy theories. In eighth grade I asked my science teacher why he had decided not to teach creationism.
As a family we didn’t see medical doctors, so none were able to notice my early symptoms which began in childhood, and included developmental delays of various sorts. In hindsight many difficulties were rooted in this fact. After clear, serious symptoms began I spent four years pleading to see a doctor, during which I was disallowed from referring to myself with words like “disease” or “sick”. Neither the acupuncturists nor the homeopaths nor the chiropractors helped, despite many false promises, and no usage of hypnotism or crystals or massage or magnets or astrology or pilgrimage or tarot or essential oils or incense or any of the other ‘alternative therapies’ to which I was subjected were of any use.
Early in my senior year of high school I managed to see a doctor who immediately recognized my (really very obvious) endocrinological symptoms. After an MRI I was diagnosed with two intracranial germinomas—brain tumors—and told I might die. Child protective services became involved.
Determined not to delay my schooling, I applied to colleges a couple months later. My school’s college advisers told me I shouldn’t mention my brain injury in my college essay. Ever overly concerned with what should be rather than what is, I ignored their advice. After a flurry of rejections I ended up taking a year off and applying to colleges again. I didn’t make the same mistake.
Once at Penn and on the mandatory student health insurance I was finally able to be a patient of an endocrinologist. On my first visit he prescribed me a safe, cheap, wonderful pharmaceutical which greatly improved my quality of life. Among other things, for the first time in six years I was able to sleep continuously for more than ~2 hours.
I haven’t had any contact with my parents since undergrad.
Both at various points in my life and in modern hindsight, I have found myself confused by the line between which struggles/differences/challenges were seen as shameful and meant to be hidden versus those which are understood and supported. Over all sorts of things—from my longstanding proclivity for keeping my hair long and liking rainbow-colored items and wearing two different socks to being neuroatypical in various ways and having a brain injury to my stature and my self-esteem to not having had parents who encouraged scientfic inquiry and study. Of course I am very glad that that line has advanced quite far in many directions even just in the past decade. And of late I do like to remind myself that—despite everything—mainstream American culture is now more inclusive than it ever has been. Especially among young people.
But, ever overly concerned with what should be, I again find myself compelled to do something against which I have been advised. It has been important to me to help younger scientists navigate the challenging waters of success in physics. From advising and helping younger students as an undergraduate to significant research mentoring efforts as a graduate student to devoting my thesis to pedagogically explaining an important and often-misunderstood topic. In my thesis I also thanked the doctors I saw during my time in graduate school, which was the first time I mentioned the challenges I’ve had with mental illness publicly. In a relatively short period of time thereafter I had multiple physicists thank me for doing so and state it had prompted them to bring their mental illness concerns to a doctor.
Thus emboldened, and with some fleeting moments of self-confidence after having finished my doctorate, I think that being open and public with the variety of challenges I have faced can help push that line outward in multiple further directions. I don’t know many established scientists who identify themselves as neurodivergent or are public about having had a brain injury. Nor many who discuss having been raised as an idealogical extremist, or not having a familial support system through graduate school.
I recognize that what I’m sharing is at this point well outside the mainstream. But I think in many ways the time is ripe for these issues. I think the pandemic is going to necessitate a reevaluation of our cultural atittudes around mental health, as we all deal with the effects of a year’s worth of isolation. And of late there has also been more recognition in educated, elite circles of just how large the anti-academic ideas and similar beliefs I was raised with are in America. Toward the goal of long-term cultural change, it is incredibly important to expose young people in these geographic or cultual arenas to science, and to scientists. The eventual hope being that children in these communities who study science can have an impact on the long-term evolution of cultural beliefs. And I can’t really count as representation unless I’m open about all of these difficulties.