Historian with depressive disorder
May 26th, 2023
I recently came across Mary Klann's contribution to the I-Search Papers in the latest issue of The American Historical Review. I'll delve into that topic another time, but for now, I want to focus on one aspect she addresses: frustration.
While pregnant, Klann was conducting research for her doctoral dissertation, which brought about immense physical fatigue. Unfortunately, her initial working hypothesis couldn't be tested, leading to frustration. I don't recall ever reading about frustration in the works of historians before. I am deeply grateful to her.
I first experienced frustration in my own research when I was 22. I was delving into the life of Manuel de Mier y Terán, a Mexican general who tragically took his own life in 1832. I began searching for his papers in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of War, and the Secretary of Government Records at the Archivo General de la Nación. However, I found very few documents in the first two archives and nothing in the Government Records. Thankfully, I later discovered that most of Terán's correspondence resided in the Hospital de Jesús collection, where it had been taken by Lucas Alamán. My faith in being a historian never wavered, particularly after I started working as a fellow at the Instituto Mora shortly after. Mónica Toussaint sent me to transcribe numerous documents from the Personal Papers of Porfirio Díaz, which proved to be a captivating experience reaffirming my vocation. I didn't experience the same frustration in my research again until recently.
In 2016, my father fell victim to the horrific violence in Mexico. From that point on, I began feeling disheartened. Soon after, I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder, which later changed to dysthymia, a persistent depressive disorder.
You can probably imagine how anxiety and frustration have impacted my work as a historian. For years, I focused on studying local and provincial governments in Latin America during the post-colonial period. My hypothesis was that to comprehend the state-building process, it is essential to pay closer attention to local governments rather than national ones. In Argentina, Mexico, Central America, and Colombia, I observed similarities in the policies implemented by regional governments. I also discovered that these measures catalyzed reactions and led to the overthrow of these governments in the 1830s. Whenever I had the opportunity (when I wasn't teaching at the university), I embarked on various journeys from Buenos Aires to Zacatecas. I photographed hundreds of manuscripts and old prints in Guatemala, New Orleans, and numerous cities in Mexico. Later, I realized those trips and photographs were a form of self-deception since I never organized those materials properly. I deleted many of them, sometimes accidentally, other times intentionally. My research project didn't excite me. While I've always fulfilled my obligations at the university, teaching and publishing several papers on the wars of independence, my primary research project sank.
At some point, I found that the governments I was studying had faced the arrival of cholera. I shifted my focus to that topic. Later, the Covid 19 pandemic arrived, which strengthened my commitment to do that research. Now, when I discuss my project with my colleagues, they are enthusiastic about it.
I must confess that I continue researching to prevent myself from falling apart. I have faith that, eventually, enthusiasm will be rekindled.
Burnout is a genuine phenomenon that affects us all and becomes even more challenging for individuals like me with other disorders. No one teaches us about the emotional aspects of the historian's profession. It's not a topic often openly discussed. I am grateful to Mary Klann for prompting me to contemplate these matters.