Story written by Louise Cordery
I left university having completed a zoology degree, full of hopes and dreams of becoming a successful force in the world of conservation. Primates were (are) my great love, lemurs in particular having studied their behaviour for my undergrad thesis. So imagine my absolute elation at being offered a Research Officer position on a conservation project in the lemur motherland; Madagascar! Whilst every project and organisation has its ups and downs, overall this experience was a positive one and I certainly learnt a lot and met some amazing, like-minded people.
However, I think the crash back to reality and return to the UK affected my mental health more than I was willing to admit, or face at the time. The work abroad was unpaid and so I wasn’t in the best financial position, returning to live with my parents, already feeling like a massive step backwards. The search for a job was depressingly slow as opportunities seemed few and far between and those that came up were unrealistic, asking for 10+ years of experience, a PhD, 250 published papers and the blood of a virgin, yet paid about £10,000 a year. Not to mention I was geographically challenged by aforementioned living with parents and in being painfully poor. I ended up taking a job as a lab technician (a girl’s gotta eat!), all the while ignoring the growing beast of anxiety on my back, watching how well everyone else was seemingly doing. Having a history of depression and eating disorders anyway, the black hole I was allowing myself to sink into grew deeper. I was a failure; I was left behind; I was nothing. And pathetic for letting myself feel that way. So, when I was offered a camp manager position on a research project in Indonesia, I jumped at the chance, suddenly forgetting my mental and financial state (because of course, this work was also unpaid). Off I went, flying thousands of miles across the world, on my own, to manage a research camp with a non-English speaking team.
Needless to say, I was out of my depth, to put it mildly. In my desperation to feel like I was doing something worthwhile, and to show my peers I wasn’t useless, (“Look at me, I’m back in conservation!”), I had never given myself the chance to address the gnawing issues inside my own head. I ended up collapsing in the middle of the jungle, having starved myself for days and basically having the most dramatic white girl mental breakdown. Those poor Indonesians, staring awkwardly at the pitiful creature sobbing on the ground! This incident saw me on a flight straight back home and left me unemployed for 3 months, whilst I ‘sorted myself out’, or attempted to.
Don’t worry, the story does have a semi-happy ending! After much counselling and medication (which I am not ashamed to say I am still taking), I have worked hard to get myself into a research and fundraising position at an animal welfare charity in London. I am honing many transferable skills to eventually move back across to working in my field of passion; conservation.
I think the takeaway message for me from my experiences is that it is OK to take your time on the life journey that is ultimately your own. And certainly OK to take time on yourself before anything else. Don’t feel ashamed or that you have to explain yourself when scientist friends comment “Oh, so you’re not actually in the field anymore?” Whatever you are doing right now is enough. Your passion, enthusiasm and knowledge are the important things to proliferate and pass on to peers and those things don’t come from having a particular job title. You are able to infect generations to come with your unwavering dedication to the planet.
Most importantly, try to enjoy whatever it is that you are doing right now; you are important too and it is all setting you on a path that is your own and will get you to the right destination. You are not alone.
To find Louise on Instagram, follow @louisejc_