Written by Angela Simms
So this is a blog about my experience with anxiety with my project/fieldwork in Indonesia. For those who have done work in Indonesia, conservation is hard. When it comes to the environment, basic conservation concepts are lagging or lacking from the education system (even at tertiary level), which is quite evident within the community. I have A LOT of admiration for those trying to save species such as orangutans. But this blog isn’t about my experience with conservation in Indonesia itself, rather about how my mental health declined quite drastically as a result of the unkindness of a person I was working with (just in case you were wondering, they are a “Westerner”, the Indonesians were all quite lovely).
I want to start out by saying, I freaking love reptiles. When I was presented with the opportunity to conduct research on a critically endangered, super cool freshwater turtle in a herpetofauna mecca, Sulawesi, I was over the moon. My supervisor put me in contact with a person (who will remain as person/funder through this blog), who was looking for someone to conduct a radio telemetry study on the Sulawesi forest turtle. It sounded perfect. An ecological study that was funded as well. I was so excited and of course got in contact with the person straight away with my interest and to see if this could be a PhD project I pursue. They were based overseas, so contact was through email, Skype and Facebook messenger. I set myself up at a university with two more amazing supervisors (although it was in another state, so contact was pretty limited for a period of time). And we were set and then waiting for scholarship rounds to open at the end of the year.
I maintained regular contact with the funder throughout the ~6ish months (maybe more) to help on the project where I could before starting my course. I would help write up/proof read grants and with setting up permits for myself. For the most part it was fine on my end, but my partner could see things turning for the worse as my relationship with this person progressed, although I was for too insistent and stubborn that everything was okay. I was set to go on my first trip to Sulawesi before the uni semester commenced. The night before I flew out, the 2018 earthquake, tsunami along with liquidfication hit Palu, the major city I was meant to be flying into. I was in shock. I never prepared for a natural disaster (I live in Melbourne, it’s pretty safe here). I was actually meant to leave a week beforehand, but because my permits were delayed, we delayed my flights by a week. I would have been at a hotel that got destroyed by the tsunami if it wasn’t for that permit delay. This is when I started to notice my anxiety. Despite this, the funder still insisted I fly to Jakarta for the week to sort out permits. There was also an immense amount of pressure from the funder to still fly to Sulawesi despite what had just happened; thousands of people had lost their lives, and so many more were displaced. I later saw the sheer destruction it had on the city, and hearing the stories I was always holding back tears. It was devastating. Thankfully, all Indonesian academics and my supervisors said a firm no to me going anytime soon.
Over the next few months before the follow up trip, I began having bad anxiety and what I now recognise as panic attacks. The funder’s personality in these months were stronger than ever. I was warned about the person’s personality from sources on my trip to Jakarta, and I saw the stress they projected; I forwarded on the sources messages to my supervisors, but we were all still positive the project would be fine and the funder would calm down. So the trip the funder had been pushing for so badly finally came round, although on quite short notice to get paper work sorted through the uni (and honestly, it was still early days from the disaster). What was a real red flag should’ve been me crying the night before because my partner and the funder had different ideas (funder wanted me to bring a tent over to sleep in somebody’s yard, despite having said there is accommodation, and my partner and even dad said hell no. I’m glad they stepped in for my safety – as later on the second trip I find out a neighbour/friend had been murdered with a machete to the head one night – as my research assistant put it, this is a scary village). I was still optimistic that the funder was better in real life than over messenger.
It got worse… I felt more anxious than ever being around this person, it was so bizarre, never had this happened to me. There was a lot of things I didn’t agree on with the way this person was running the project, such as the lack of respect and professionalism this sort of project needs with local counterparts and actual experts (not just the expert they saw in themselves), however, there was a lack of openness for discussions to a point where I just stayed silent to avoid a volatile and over-emotional response from the person. After the five days with them and they had left to go back to their country; where on the final night I was in bed trying to not cry as we shared a room (I tried to stand up for myself/supervisors after a comment they had made) – I then got woken up abruptly at 4am before their flight to be told to “make sure you take photos”, not to say good bye or good luck for the next two months – I find that part funny now at least. Later that morning will be the first time I cried in front of a supervisor over the phone (completely embarrassed thinking how unprofessional it was to do so, and thoughts running through my head – “am I being crazy/irrational?”. I did not intend to cry at all. I was just calling to check in), he handled the situation with such grace and we were still optimistic about the project.
Two of my supervisors came over to Sulawesi to help set the project up a few days later and my goodness, did they help my mental state. It wasn’t until they saw the Facebook messages from the funder on the trip and turned to me and said “Ang, this is harassment” did I finally recognise where the anxiety and panic attacks stemmed from; not feeling I was doing good enough, based on this one person’s (very strong) opinion. From then on, my supervisors stepped in and began to shield me from this person, they’d even avoid using her name around me (to make myself laugh, it reminds me of Harry Potters’, he who must not be named – Voldemort). I recognise now and would describe this person as over-reactive, overemotional in a professional sense, with a lack of respect towards people and quite frankly a self-proclaimed biologist/expert who was rather ego driven (with no formal study or training); an arrogant and strong personality, which made it way too easy to belittle me and tear down my self-confidence. Despite my supervisors stepping in, unfortunately, the next two months weren’t easy as there were a few more challenges…
I had a lot of battles in my head due to the funder, but my experience on this trip gets worse with a hospital experience – another experience that shook me up was watching a 45 year old man (who was my guide) go into a complete meltdown at 6:30am when his wife passed out from the pain of appendicitis – he thought she had died. Trying to get her into a recovery position and check her pulse alone was impossible as he continued to violently shake her – a First Aid course does not teach you how to calm down a hysterical person, I couldn’t calm him down. Nobody had any phone reception for me to call the university’s emergency line and we were 4 hours away from the nearest hospital (and had no car). It was a nightmare – and the actions that followed for the next 4 days, which I put down to lack of education were easily some of the most frustrating moments of my life – the lack of common sense was mind blowing and literally life threatening. But that experience was easier to process and get over than the harassment I had experienced from the funder.
I have only skimmed the surface, but I completed the fieldwork. The best way I could describe the fieldwork was – every day I felt like I was trapped in a nightmare with what was running through my head, where sleep was an escape (I had a lot of dreams about being back home). I came back feeling quite broken, my confidence shaken, I felt immensely guilty as my supervisors had to step in like that (and having used their own funds to come visit me in Sulawesi, I didn’t want to disappoint them), I kept thinking of what I could’ve done to have avoided that whole experience with the funder, wishing I could turn back time. With the help of a psychologist, my incredible partner, friends and family and three absolute superstars of supervisors, I am coming to terms with those feelings. I get so nervous so easily and have cried at the most simple questions – like my supervisors asking me “how are you doing?”; I’m even crying now just writing this blog; I’ve had moments were I could feel my heart thumping against my chest so hard and abnormally, and I’ve had a really hard time identifying triggers before I panic or cry (also to note: my “normal”, is a LOT more chilled out and chirpier than this, this project has completely transformed a part of me). But that’s okay, I am working through it. I am now on my second surveying trip for 6 weeks and although the feelings from the past are creeping in with memories being resurrected, it’s good, I’m facing an experience that has hurt and scared the hell out of me and turning it into something better.
I am grateful to have learnt a great deal from this experience and what I can do in the future to prevent it tearing me down again. As one of my supervisors put it, my soft/sensitive personality is a quality he likes about me, and I don’t need to change that. It has also taught me how vulnerable we are in these learning positions, and I was incredibly lucky to have such progressive, nurturing supervisors (I know that isn’t always the case).
Bullying and harassment has no place in conservation and science, and if you ever face the minority that belittle you, make you feel inadequate or anxious in this field (it can sometimes be incredibly hard to recognise as I’ve found out), I’m not saying you need to necessarily stand up to the bully (I’ve seen the funder be called out for their behaviour, they’re not going to change and I accept that some people won’t), but instead surround yourself with positive reinforcement, there is so much extra support out there (including this Lonely Conservationist page!). In my personal experience, it was quite easy to be open with my supervisors about my mental health and what I felt most anxious about, also speaking to my partner and friends about upsetting events helped me get through a lot of the emotional feelings I had. I have a mental health plan from my doctor, which has enabled me to get free psychologist appointments as well (as for many conservationists, money is often an issue. Also finding a good psych for myself… that’s a whole other story, but do not give up!). Do what you need to do to bring your confidence back up to kick some goals in conservation. Personally, I think you sometimes need to be knocked down to come back a hell of a lot stronger.
Stay kind conservationists.
**Also to note, I have decided to not continue this project specifically as a PhD, it will stay as a Masters, however this has not deterred me from a life of science, research and ecology what so ever! And I am currently exploring other projects to take on, and I am incredibly excited for the future!
For more of Angela, check out @angs_wild.life on Instagram!