It’s Fine — Until It’s Not

Marion Leary
5 min readApr 1, 2023


In my 45 years of life, I have never had a year quite like 2022–2023. It has been the most challenging year of my privileged life from start to finish, mentally and physically, personally and professionally.

In January 2022, I was living my best Peloton life and was in fantastic shape and feeling good; by February, I couldn’t walk up the steps without needing to nap for three hours. This went on for nearly six months, accompanied by nausea, headache, fatigue, and brain fog so bad I could barely work and made almost no progress toward my PhD. Finally, in June, I started to feel better. By July, I was back to myself, riding my bike daily, doing yoga, hanging with friends, and finally working on getting PhDone.

Then in August, my wife and I separated. At that time, we had been together for 22 years.

I moved out of our house, which was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I was leaving my kid, my wife, and my home. I cried for months — I still do. I am a pack animal; I need my pack around me. I felt lost and alone all the time — I still do. I would go to sleep lost and alone and wake up lost and alone — sometimes, I still do. It has been terrible.

Anxiety (and, to some extent, depression) is not a new feeling for me; I’ve been dealing with it since my late teens when anxiety attacks would regularly send me to the emergency department (ED). I would wake up in the middle of the night and think I was dying, unable to breathe, with my heart racing and my upper extremities feeling numb and tingly. I couldn’t believe “nothing was wrong” with me. Over the years, I’ve basically dealt with it piecemeal, popping Benadryl like candy (I have many allergies, so it was a win-win), but primarily by compartmentalizing, overworking, and ignoring. I tried an anxiety medication once, but an allergic reaction sent me to the ED in the middle of the night; go figure. Since then, I’ve been reluctant to try other medications.

I have also been in and out of therapy for decades with the quality of therapists ranging from “OMG, am I being punked?” to “you’re a unicorn; I can’t believe you’re real!” I’ve had more than my fair share of the former, and I am happy to report I now have the latter — it only took twenty years or so (I am nothing if not persistent).

Thanks to my unicorn, I have started visualizing my anxiety like the colors of a stop light — green, yellow, red — with green, meaning I have no anxiety unless appropriately needed (say, when one is exposed to their life-threatening allergen on an airplane). Yellow, my anxiety is creeping up but functional. Red is a heightened state of anxiety that is so overwhelming I basically shut down. I live in a perpetual state of yellow, which has allowed me to accomplish most of what I have in my professional life. It’s my superpower — but it can also be my kryptonite. This last year has been the personification of that, living more in the red, and it has taken its toll.

As I’ve been reminded, any one of the stressors I’ve been dealing with would cause a heightened anxiety response in any mere mortal — long covid/autoimmune health issues, marital separation, moving out of my home of 20 years, #PhDlife, increased work responsibilities, life-threatening food allergies…in addition to just everyday familiar and societal responsibilities and stressors.

I know I am not unique; many people struggle with anxiety and have worse mental, physical, and socioeconomic problems than me. I recognize and am grateful to have the means with which to be able to see not one but two different therapists (couples and individual) multiple times per week (and more recently). These sessions are helping me develop strategies to deal with my anxiety outside of doing shots of Prosecco on the regular. The hope is that it will also allow me to do the hard work of introspection, figuring out what causes my heightened state of anxiety.

When our bodies experience what it perceives as a danger, a relatively well-known stress response kicks in — most of us will either fight, flight, or freeze. Just recently, I learned that there is a fourth response: fawn. Fawn is basically the equivalent of the dog sitting in the house on fire, saying everything is fine. I am very good at fawning, much to the detriment of my marriage as well as my physical and mental health.

This fawn response is a learned behavior that runs deep on my maternal side. We are nothing, if not a family of deer—and anxiety runs strong. A family member was so fine two years ago that they nearly died of sepsis because they were fawning so hard.

About 20–30% of adults in the US have anxiety, which honestly seems low to me, though it may just be the company I keep. Thanks to the pandemic, 33% of adults still report anxiety or depression. Students are particularly susceptible, with one study of PhD students in the US finding that 36% experience anxiety and depression. Top that with separating from a long-time partner, which also increases both of these mental health issues, as well as alcohol intake (which I can personally attest to), and it’s no wonder I’m not actively balled up under my weighted blanket as I write this.

But write this, I must. I have worked hard to craft a particular persona on social media and in my professional life — a persona that, until recently, I’ve cared more about than the true me, the full me. I am hesitant to crack this facade — but as my wife reminded me just the other day, talking about mental health issues can be helpful to others as well (which is genuinely a stronger motivator for me than almost anything else). So, in hopes that sharing my mental health struggles helps someone else, I will begin to be more honest with how I portray myself IRL and on social media. I will fawn less and do the work — because even when things look fine, they very well might not be — and that’s ok.



Marion Leary

Science geek. Passionate abt Philly, resuscitation, social media, scicomm, innovation, art, & helping others.