Written by Rachael Gross
Content/ trigger warning: suicide, rape, self-harm, depression, anxiety
You know when you’re a kid and you get asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The answer is usually something you’ve seen in books or on TV – a doctor, an astronaut, a lawyer. When you “grow up,” all that changes. Life happens, it becomes more real, and you often end up in something more specialised but probably not where you thought you’d be as a kid. I was different; I was so lucky.
I’ve known since the beginning that I wanted to save the elephants and that I wanted to live and breathe Africa. I couldn’t tell you why, but while most kids were reading fairy-tales and watching cartoons, I refused to read anything except animal reference books or watch anything except documentaries. My idol, Jane Goodall, summarises it well in her documentary “Jane”:
“I was typically a man; I went on adventures. Probably because at the time I wanted to do things which men did, and women didn’t.”
You know, going to Africa, living with animals, that’s all I ever thought about. I wanted to come as close to talking to animals as I could, to be like Doctor Doolittle.
I wanted to move among them without fear, like Tarzan. The huge, gnarled, and ancient trees, the little streams chuckling their way through rocky pathways to the lake. The birds. The insects. Since I was eight or nine years old, I had dreamed of being in Africa, of living in the bush among wild animals.”
My goal was clear but my journey was not smooth. I came from a poor, dysfunctional family. My rural Australian high school experience was gruelling – I hated it. My dad was an alcoholic who drank himself into disability. For most of my life, he lived in a nursing home. He lost his short term memory, so after a couple of years as I grew up, he stopped being able to recognise me. My sister attempted suicide for the first time when I was 11. My brother was both physically and verbally abusive, which has left me with intimacy and trust issues. My mum was and has always been superwoman; she did the best she could with nothing. On top of the trademark insecurities of high school – being weird, chubby, and having both glasses and braces, I was bullied mercilessly and it wasn’t a good time. Despite this, I got into the best university in Australia, and I followed (forged?) my path.
Moving away was an opportunity to start a new life. I flicked my way through biology, earth science, environmental science, and landed on biodiversity conservation. The tests continued. My sister attempted suicide again in 2014, my Dad passed away from lung cancer after a one year battle in 2016, and I was prompted into realising in 2017 that I had been drugged and raped at 17 years old. The silver lining was that I came across an excellent counsellor in 2015, who I’ve seen since.
I ended up doing an honours project about two of my most impassioned topics: elephants and climate change. I couldn’t believe my luck! I lived in South Africa for three months, which is still the highlight of my life so far. Unfortunately, I had a genuinely awful supervisor, and she cost me a lot. When I got back from Africa, I was diagnosed with High Functioning Anxiety – basically a combination of Adult ADHD and Generalised Anxiety Disorder. But the person I was in Africa was the best version of myself that I’ve ever been. I was a strong, bold, respected woman who spent every day out among the elephants – is that not the dream?!
When I somehow finished honours, I was done with academia. My secondary supervisor made it clear to me that he wanted me to do a PhD, but I couldn’t. I’d been at uni for five years; honours nearly killed me. So I took a year off to work in a stable job that I was offered in Science Recruitment and Outreach for the university. I thought I was safe, but unexpectedly, I was thrown into a deep depressive episode. Suicidal thoughts were creeping back; I was sleeping for 10-11 hours a day. I didn’t see my friends or family. I barely left the house and I was self-harming again. I started seeing a psychologist and while she didn’t work particularly well for me, I was diagnosed with depression and put on medication. It took a few months to stabilise, and I’ve put on weight, but I finally feel like I’m coming back to normal.
In the words of Elizabeth Warren – nevertheless, she persisted.
Now I feel like there’s so much more to me that I’m not afraid to back down from any more; feminism, climate change, intersectionality, indigenous issues, mental health – you name it and I’m probably angry and outspoken about it. I’ve learned to never apologise for being a powerful fucking woman.
I’m now doing a PhD. After honours, my second supervisor said to me “do you still love elephants?” and I laughed, “Of course, they’re the only thing that got me through”, “then you need to do a PhD, you’ve got what it takes and more.” Now I study a beautiful intersection between elephants, climate change, and community-based management, and I couldn’t be happier (except for that millennial burnout about the world being on fire).
I know living in Africa is maybe a year or two down the track, but now I get paid to think about elephants every single day. How unbelievably lucky am I to be able to say that? I’m doing better than I ever thought I could be, and one day I’ll be a Doctor of Elephants. To be honest, I adore all animals, but it has always been elephants. Spending time with them changed my life for the better; being in the wilderness changed me for the better, and being in Africa changed everything for the better. It’s my safe and happy place. I’m lucky to have that on a pedestal to strive and work towards always. I’m lucky to have been diagnosed early, and I’m lucky to have accepted it. I know PhDs are riddled with tales of stress and isolation, but I have never once felt isolated. I’m surrounded by the most incredible people and at the end of the day, if I’m stressed – I’m probably stressed about elephants, what a privilege?!
Anxiety still creeps into my life every day. Little things are difficult. I still need a lot of sleep and have become more flaky. I even get anxious about the idea of going back to Africa, even though it’s what I want more than anything. But now I know when those thoughts are anxiety and when the feelings of giving up are depression (or that I need some sleep), and I can usually wait until it passes or step over them towards everything that I’ve earned – a happy life with beautiful people and full to the brim with my elephants. I work in science communication; I inspire people about the world of conservation; I contribute to the conservation of elephants – I don’t know how I got here, but I’m mighty glad I made it.
In summary, a poem by Mark Anthony:
And one day
that she was fierce,
and full of fire,
and that not even
hold herself back
because her passion
than her fears.
While I can’t pinpoint the exact day that I discovered my fire, I know it’ll always be there burning brightly. While my journey to being a conservation biologist has been far from smooth, I believe that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I’ve accepted that it’s ok not to be ok. I’m now proud instead of scared to tell my story. And at the end of the day, every day, it’s all for the elephants.
For more of Rachael, follow @wildlife_rachael on Instagram