#ShatteringStigmas (2)

I am so very happy and honored to welcome author Julia Ember to the blog today!! Her post resonates with me so, so much. It brought me to tears, frankly, and the message she offers is one that we absolutely need to remember. I defer to her amazing words. 

Julia’s Post


I still remember lying next you in the dark. Your whole body was wrapped around mine. Your legs wove between my thighs and your hands rubbed my back in circles. I was curled in on myself, my fingers covering my face. My body shook and I couldn’t stop the tears.

What’s wrong? You would ask. I still remember the desperation in your voice and the way your warm breath caressed the back of my neck. Just tell me.

I would shake my head, and succumb to that knot of loneliness that gripped me, even though you were right there.

When you have depression, there is often nothing people can do or say to warm that ice inside you. Add OCD into the mix – a little voice that screams that you are not worth it, that the people around you resent you, that everything you fear is the truth – and you become untouchable. Nobody can sneak past your walls. Your heart is guarded.

While I’ve suffered on and off and to varying degrees with depression and anxiety all my life, I wouldn’t have called it ‘major’ depression until the second year of my PhD program in Scotland. The combination of stress, expectations and a topic that no longer interested me, drove me to self-harm and near despondency. I felt alone in my job and too far away from my family. But, I couldn’t fathom quitting. I’d never quit anything in my life. And quitting school seemed far too close to failure.   

After a while, days started blurring together. I no longer really cared about taking care of myself. I gained 40lbs and skirted by in the academic program. The girl I was in love with couldn’t cope anymore. I think she felt like she was pouring her love and affection into an endless vacuum. She broke up with me and I didn’t get out of bed for a week.

But when that week was over, I started realizing that I’d ascribed too much of my self-worth to that relationship. I didn’t have anything else to focus on. I hated my PhD and felt like a failure whenever I sat down to write. To get better, I had to reinvent myself. I tackled the hurdle of quitting my PhD. First, I told my parents about the on-going self-harm. I’d been cutting my legs with sterile needles and letting blood with syringes. I still have the scars; the brands my illness left behind.

With my parents’ support, I placed myself on medical leave from the PhD program and sought out other things to do. At first, I doubted myself constantly. If I didn’t become an academic, what was I good for? I’d been training for it all my life, and to just walk away after putting in so much work seemed next to impossible. I’d literally bled for my degree. I placed myself on medical leave to give myself that escape back into academia, at least for a semester.

But, I never went back. It turns out that failing was actually a success. By allowing myself to ‘fail,’ I opened myself up to new opportunities. I found a job that I liked. I wrote a novel, then another one. I started a new relationship.

I suffered with major depression for almost two years before I made that decision to quit. I wish I could say that it’s vanished. It’s still there, looming like a kind of dark presence at the periphery of my thoughts, but it no longer seeps into everything. I’ve learned that on my bad days, to hold on to the knowledge that some day the light will come back.

But I’ve also learned that you can’t depend on other people to carry the torch for you. No matter how badly they might want to. No matter how hard they will try. There will be people who abandon you when you think you need them the most. Their ability to help you was always going to be limited, even though easy to resent them for not being strong enough to complete an impossible task. It’s up to you to feel their love in the moment, to remind yourself that you have worth and that you’re not alone. There is nothing more intimate than your relationship with yourself, and nothing more devastating than self-hatred.

Tell yourself every day you are worth it all. Until that untouchable part of you finally starts to believe it. It’s the only battle that matters.


About Julia Ember

Julia Ember lives with her wife and their menagerie of pets with literary names in Seattle. She is the author of The Seafarer's Kiss duology, a Norse-myth inspired YA retelling of The Little Mermaid, published by Interlude Press. Her upcoming standalone YA fantasy, Ruinsong, will be published by Macmillan (FSG) in November 2020. She can be found online at julia-ember.com or on twitter as @jules_chronicle.

Book Links:


Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/42365641-ruinsong

The Seafarer’s Kiss

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/32890474-the-seafarer-s-kiss

Amazon Buy: https://www.amazon.com/Seafarers-Kiss-Julia-Ember/dp/1945053208/

Barnes and Nobles: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-seafarers-kiss-julia-ember/1125707903?ean=9781945053207

Find Julia’s Books:



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Do you agree that sometimes you need to quit, need to fail, in order to move forward? I do, though it took Julia’s story to make me think about it this way- and for that, I am so very grateful. 

And a huge, huge thank you to Julia for sharing her story. Leave her tons of love! ♥

Posted August 23, 2016 by Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight in #ShatteringStigmas, Giveaway, Guest Post, Mental Health / 15 Comments

15 responses to “#ShatteringStigmas: An Untouchable Sadness

  1. Oh man. I relate so so hard with this. I had my real bout of depression and anxiety a couple of months into my research graduate program. Nothing was working the way it was supposed to and I felt alone, angry and so fucking sad all the time. I lost friends, hurt family members with my words and basically lost interest in everything that previously interested. When the thoughts of despair and self-harm came, I started talking to a friend online and she helped me and made me realize that my best option was to quit this research program. I did it. And though it honestly crushed me because my whole life I had thought this was what I was meant to do with my life, it was the best decision I could have made. I’m much happier now and ready to start a new program in a new field and I hope this time around, I’m better equipped to handle it all.
    Thanks for sharing your story, Julia. You’ve given me the courage that I can do it.

    • Hi Nick,

      Thanks so much for reading. Research graduate programs are a cesspit of imposter syndrome and depression … and so few people talk about it. I think if you’re genuinely in love with your topic and maintain that love throughout, then they are great. But everyone else just survives them. I’m glad you found the courage to quit and find something that makes you happier!


  2. I can kind of relate to this. I took a leave of absence from grad school for a semester because I felt like I was drowning. It was so much work, and I was exhausted, and I hated everything I was researching and writing. Taking time off gave me a chance to reevaluate. I went back to grad school, and I’m going to graduate in November.

    • I know a lot of people who took a break and then ultimately decided to continue. For me, that just wasn’t the right decision. Exciting that you’re graduating!

  3. I can also relate to this as well! I just JUST started my PhD program (like first day), and I know it’s what I want to do, but I am scared that I won’t like the research or it’ll be too much. I’m hoping that I keep have great days as I have been, and of course always remind myself that it’s okay to quit or take a break. I’m really glad you got the chance to find a new job and become an author (!!).

    • I think if I’d been able to think of my PhD as a job, I would have been more successful and ultimately happier, even if that meant giving it up faster.

      My best advice would be to make sure you work normal hours, take breaks, and if you genuinely start to hate it — just think of it as quitting a job like any other. If I’d been able to, my mental health would not have suffered so much.

  4. I am glad you were able to recognize what you needed to do to get a chance to heal. It is so hard to realize that what you thought was your goal is actually making you miserable–and then add into that the way depression and OCD try to convince you that you’re not good enough anyway and that must feel unbearable.

    Thank you for sharing your story.

  5. I do think that quitting can be used as a stepping-stone. And we are allowed to change our mind about things… my dad used to say ‘only people who don’t really reflect on things never change their mind’, and I agree with that.
    I’m just finishing up my MA – I have to write my MA thesis and then do my defence, and I am just so ready for it to be all over. I’m ‘older’ though, as I first had my four children, and worked in one field, and now, in my forties, I want to change. So I have kind of quit one thing to start something new, too.
    Thank you for sharing your personal experience, Julia. It’s the only way to truly make the stigma around mental health lessen!

    • Thanks for commenting, Lexxie! In some ways, I think doing advanced degrees when you’re older and know exactly how it’s going to apply to your career can be really refreshing and motivating. For me, one of the key problems was that I realised I didn’t want to be an academic, so after that the only ‘reason’ for finishing was my own pride/ avoiding the stigma of failure. I think if I’d had another goal in mind, the struggle may have seemed less dire? I’m not sure.
      But congrats to you on getting through your MA!

    • I think we always want to believe that other people will take care of us, to some degree. Unfortunately it’s not always true, but if you have a strong sense of self, that won’t let you down! <3

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