Belated raging »« Blag Hag Grab Bag 8/11/2013

The euphoria of an okay day

A couple of weeks ago I opened up about my severe depression. Unfortunately, depression is not new to me. It’s hit me from time to time since I was about ten years old. Sometimes it has obvious triggers, but sometimes it seems to strike at random. Sometimes it may only last for a week or two, but sometimes it can drag on for almost a year.

Unfortunately, this current depression was one of the long ones.

The triggers were obvious: Months of sustained internet harassment from misogynistic assholes. Worrying about my boyfriend’s impending graduation and the possibility of him moving away. Feeling lost and alone as I desperately tried to figure out my experiments in graduate school. My mother’s cancer diagnosis. And this final one seems silly, but I read an introductory philosophy book during this time and it was absolutely crushing. I had become convinced that life was meaningless, morality was a farce, and my future was utterly hopeless and devoid of any dreams or aspirations. I spent much of my time pondering how fucked and pointless existence was, crying to myself, or writing emo poetry about how my body is just a bag of chemicals. I’ll spare you said poetry.

Then, a couple of good things happened.

On one of my low days, I reached out to a friend. He looked up a therapist for me through the Secular Therapist Project, and I mustered enough motivation to write that therapist an email. For the first time in almost a year, I had a moment of clarity where I realized my brain was lying to me and I could try to do something about it. Taking a step to take care of myself lifted the black cloud an inch.

I opened up to my boyfriend about my concerns about him having to move away when he graduated. I don’t know why I didn’t mention it sooner – depression convinces you that no one cares and there’s no solution to your problems, so it wasn’t a rational decision. But once I talked to him we realized we were both on the same page and committed to make something work, because we love each other so much. He is my rock and I feel so lucky to have him, and I knew he felt the same. The cloud lifted another inch.

Soon after this, my experiments in lab started to work. My months of planning and more months of troubleshooting finally paid off. I grinned ear to ear. That’s when I realized that I hadn’t had a single moment of positive feedback at work since I passed my general exam in June of 2012. I had gone a whole year without success and had convinced myself that was due to personal failings, not an ambitious project. I was excited about my research again. The cloud lifted another inch.

I wrote about my depression here. I had missed blogging so much, and getting back into the swing of things reminded me how much I had missed it. Writing has always been my creative outlet and a source of support. Realizing I could still do that despite my devoted haters was a relief. The cloud lifted another inch.

But then the best thing of all happened. I got the news that my mother’s cancer marker levels were finally in the normal range. A near death experience from a bilateral pulmonary embolism and stage 4 ovarian cancer were now behind her. Months before I thought she had no future, but now we could all see the light at the end of the tunnel.

When I woke up the next day, the cloud was gone.

For the first time in nearly a year, I felt “okay.” I wasn’t obsessing over everything I said and did, horrified about what others would think of me. I wasn’t cycling thoughts through my head about how the world was hopeless and unfixable and my life had nothing to look forward to. I wasn’t thinking how I hated my job and I was an idiot who must have only gotten into grad school to fill some diversity quota. I wasn’t feeling doomed about my mom’s health or my inability to be there with her. I wasn’t having fleeting fantasies about jumping in front of the bus to relieve the pain, even though I knew I would never want to actually do that.

I was just going about my day like normal.

I road the bus and looked at the pretty trees outside. I read some interesting articles on the internet. I worked on some more experiments, excited to see my results. I walked to lunch and felt the warm sunlight against my skin. I ordered a bowl of pho at my favorite Vietnamese restaurant and smelled the wonderful aroma. And as I lifted the spoon to my mouth, I wanted to cry tears of joy. I hadn’t wanted to eat anything for weeks and food had tasted like nothing. This tasted like absolute heaven. It felt like the best meal I had ever had in my entire life, even though I had had it dozens of times before.

When you’ve been depressed so long, an “okay” day felt euphoric.

The anhedonia that comes with depression – the loss of interest in anything that once gave you joy – is partially so horrible because you don’t realize it’s happening until is stops. When it stopped that day, it took all of my energy to not sob joyfully into my bowl of pho. When I went home I ended up doing dishes and scrubbing the floor because the ability to muster up enough motivation to do finally do simple chores made me feel like I had just won a Nobel. After nearly a year at the absolute bottom, going about business as usual was ecstasy.

I’ve had a couple weeks of okay days so far. I know for me it’s a matter of when, not if, my depression will come back. The black cloud will surely come down again. But while it has lifted, I’m going to enjoy every okay day as if it’s the best day of my life. Because it sure feels like it.

Comments

  1. Walton says

    As a fellow sufferer from mental illness, who is likewise currently feeling okay after a spate of sudden good news, I found this beautifully-written and moving.

  2. Dave Mabus says

    groups.google.com/forum/#!topic/alt.prophecies.nostradamus/Czf7l8637ow

    for the lying MENTAL CASES at FTB….

    ,,.,…,.,

  3. Pteryxx says

    d’awww, a Mabus spam! It’s like the good ol’ days!

    Seriously Jen, congratulations, and thank you for bringing us along in this beautiful piece. Think I’ll go have some celebratory pho in your honor.

  4. says

    Jen: Good to hear, and thank you for writing this. May you have plenty more okay days.
    _
    Dennis Markuze, you are incredibly lacking in empathy as well as violating the terms of your sentencing agreement. Stop messing up the internet.

  5. ajb47 says

    Great post and congrats. Have a virtual high-five, because I’m old enough to feel a little silly doing a fist-bump. A friend offers me a fist bump, and I pat it with my palm as if high-fiving anyway.

  6. Jackie: The COLOSSAL TOWERING VAGINA! says

    Thank you for writing about this, Jen.
    Congratulations on the fog lifting.

  7. pHred says

    Congratulations – enjoy the sunshine and the wind. It’s amazing how hard it can be to find normal.
    :)

  8. seraphymcrash says

    Fist bumps are amazing, because of the opportunities for silliness…

    The next time someone offers you a fist bump you can grab the sides of their hand and form a tie fighter…
    The next time someone offers you a fist bump you can make a flicking motion under their fist to make a squid…
    The next time someone offers you a fist bump you can make a peace sign and stick it under their fist to make a snail…

    Have fun with it!

  9. F [is for failure to emerge] says

    Hey! That’s awesome, Jen, really and truly. Plus, what Unbeliever said^.

  10. Georgia Sam says

    Been there, done that, glad you’re having a relatively good day. Best wishes for more OK days & some better-than-OK days in the future.

  11. says

    Yeah depression is a bitch, I’m so glad you’re having a lot of good days in a row. We know that black cloud will be back but we also know that it will lift even though it might not feel like it ever will.

  12. Andy Groves says

    So happy to read this from you Jen, and I am sending you all my positive thoughts for more good days to come.

    And by coincidence, one of my students passed his qual/general exam today. I am going to do my damnedest to make sure I keep giving him positive feedback!

  13. filethirteen says

    I suffer from depression but it’s not nearly as bad as it has been. I don’t want to talk about it further, just, best wishes, you’re not alone.

  14. Numenaster says

    Reading about your newly rediscovered hedonia made me feel downright euphoric. Thanks for the secondhand smile!

  15. Silva says

    I love the idea that success in the lab can help ease depression. I think I’ve had a taste of that phenomenon too. And I hope your mother continues to receive good news.

  16. says

    Don’t let this trigger more depression, but that’s graduate school! I had a great advisor, but the positive words were few and far between — it took a long time to realize it wasn’t because I was doing badly, but that he was so damned principled that he really wanted his students to be independent. And then I went of to a post-doc with another fellow who was a good guy, but was tenure track and spent most of his time isolated in his office pounding out grant applications, leaving his students to struggle and flounder (some I’ve been in contact with since found it a terrible, miserable, horrible couple of years).

    This is not a good business for positive feedback. Remember that when you’re a professor!

    Also, my daughter is starting graduate school herself in the fall. I’ve dropped a few hints to warn her.

    But the good news is that you passed your exams, so your high academic overlords have already determined tht you’ve got what it takes to be a Ph.D. Where you’re at now just requires persistence and discipline to make it to the end.

  17. says

    Yeah, I know this is standard for grad school…it was really a “when it rains, it pours” situation. I was handling grad school, I was handling grad school + internet harassment, but grad school + internet harassment + worrying about boyfriend + mom nearly dies….that I couldn’t handle :\

  18. Emma says

    Hey Jen, I’m not a regular commenter here, but I read your blog often (and I read it a lot prior to your absence, too). I have lots of experience with depression too, and it really sucks. For me, meds don’t even do an adequate job of keeping it under wraps, so when it rains, it pours. I really hope that you have a good support system in place, and you are making good headway with your therapist. I know that feeling of being happy just to be normal, because I’ve been there so many times myself. My psychiatrist always used to say, “Adjust your expectations to fit your circumstance. Don’t aim for happiness; happiness is an extreme, and isn’t a realistic goal. Aim to be just okay, aim to feel normal. Aim for average productivity. Walk before you run.” That was always very helpful for me to keep in mind, and I hope that might be of some help to you as well. Best of luck.

  19. CaitieCat says

    Okay days are a blessing from the blue, I’m really glad you’re having a bunch. I did some stuff today that should help get at one of the exacerbators of my depression, which is feeling pretty damned good. :)

  20. alexanderjohannesen says

    Hey! Sad to hear about your woes, but they are more common than most people realize. Mental issues have been stigmatised for as long as there’s been mental issues, and more people have them what they are willing to admit. So thank you, for being open and honest. And thank you, for showing us that mental issues are hardly unique to the weakest of humanity, but also manifest in the strongest and most beautiful people.

    As someone who’s done some serious ’bouts of philosophy (focusing mostly on epistemology, neuroscience and language) and has passed the median life expectancy line for privileged westerners, I find that we’re just a bag of chemicals remarkably refreshing, lifting more worries off me than constraints were tying me down. Isn’t it just incredible that we *are*, indeed, just bags of chemicals?

    Nothing makes sense in the universe, except evolution. And I don’t mean just the biological kind. Everything comes and goes with the ebb and flow of the universe, and the mere fact that we are here, that I – as a human being, able to read and write and understand so much of my context – is the most amazing and privileged place I could possibly be! The shackles of our culture – filled to the brim with just-so stories, religion and languages only just able to communicate some resemblance of what needs to be said – are a weight on most people’s understanding of the universe. We? Not so much; science digs into the core of everything, never wanting to stop finding out how stuff works. To be doing that is amazing! You are part of a tiny, tiny group of special few who can do that with their lives, all the time, every day! It is the most amazing privilege our specie has been able to come up with.

    Sacks of chemicals? Yes! Awesome! And I mean awesome as in Awe. That we came from almost nothing to a position of complexity and understanding is just … so awe-inspiring. And you and I recognise this, we see the truth of it, we know that sacks of chemicals with a fatty jello brain are getting better and better at sorting the chuff from the goods, able to understand the universe better and better; specks of organic matter evolved from the almost nothingness of the universe to contemplate the universe itself. We’re Sagan’s stardust. We’re conscious despite the emptiness of space, against the truly astounding odds the universe gives something like intelligent life.

    That is what we are. And it is the most amazing, special place we could ever be.

    When I feel down, when dark matter threatens to overflow my mental world, I remind myself of the incredible journey these chemicals have travelled in time to this point where I allow myself to anthropomorphise a little note of appreciation; thank you. Thank you, little chemicals, for evolving into me. Thank you, for letting me be conscious and letting me *feel* the universe, even the bad ones. They are just chemicals. I am just chemicals. So thank you.

  21. brakemanz says

    You are a powerful inspiration Jen. I am the father of three daughters and I dream that they will accomplish as much as you already have.

    Your frailties merely make you human. Never forget that you can fight depression, especially if you plan a strategy for addressing it when it is not a problem.

    The best way I’ve found to avoid anxiety induced depression is to always make a step in the right direction every day. On the days that the step is very very small, I have learned to to relish in the fact that at least I am not stagnate.

    I love your blog, I like the way you think.
    Thank you for keeping in touch with us.

  22. Funny Diva says

    Hey, Jen

    It’s _great_ to see you blogging again.

    Whew…I’ve plumbed those depths myself, and not just as a grad student–in fact, grad school was what finally got my depression diagnosed and started me towards getting help and treatment.

    Anyway, here’s to those “OK” days when you feel like Super Woman! YAY! And try to store away for later that there are a _lot_ of people who will also be here for you when/if the clouds settle again.

    All the Best!

    FunnyDiva

  23. elspeth says

    It’s great to see you blog again! And VERY GOOD to read that today was okay. I agree, okay is very, very, very good!

  24. CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain says

    That’s when I realized that I hadn’t had a single moment of positive feedback at work since I passed my general exam in June of 2012.

    The anhedonia that comes with depression – the loss of interest in anything that once gave you joy – is partially so horrible because you don’t realize it’s happening until is stops.

    Not sure how it relates to anhedonia, or prevention / treatment, but this came to mind.
     
     
    Article: Wikipedia – Hedonic Treadmill

    Less like a treadmill (which always tends towards one direction) and more like a thermostat (a negative feedback system), humans generally maintain a constant level of happiness throughout their lives – despite events that occur in their environment. The focus of positive psychology is to determine how to maintain or raise the hedonic set point.

    Headey (2008) concluded that an internal locus of control [(feeling in control of one’s own life)] along with “positive” personality traits (notably low neuroticism) are the largest significant factors affecting one’s subjective well-being (SWB).

    The author also found that adopting “non-zero sum” goals, that is those which enrich one’s relationships with others and with society as a whole (family-oriented and altruistic goals), increase the level of SWB.

    Conversely, attaching importance to zero-sum life goals: career success, wealth, and social status, will have a small but nevertheless statistically significant negative impact on people’s overall subjective well-being
    (even though the size of a household’s disposable income does have a small, positive impact on SWB).

  25. CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain says

    There was an education-oriented article years ago I should’ve bookmarked about how framing affects responses to failure.
    IIRC it amounted to…
     
    Someone who approaches a task as a test of something innate, may end up demoralized for being a failure, and ultimately give up. (A test of intelligence – not smart enough, etc)
     
    Someone who approaches a task as a potential achievement (unrelated to themselves as a person), may just say “Well, that didn’t work,” and try again.
     
     
    There’s a lot of victim-blaming potential in posting “just think happy thoughts”.

    Depression’s never your fault, but maybe you’ll find something useful above ( or disregard entirely ).

  26. Robert B. says

    I had a really weird moment a few days ago when I realized I was experiencing ordinary sadness. Something bad had happened (an argument with a friend) and I felt crappy about it, but my energy was not completely drained by despair, parts of my life not related to the trouble didn’t seem hopeless or ruined, and I could think and act mostly-normally. I was weirdly delighted to realize that I was Earth Human Sad, rather than depressed.

    I’ve had a “pho moment” too, though for me it was the sight of bell peppers. I was sauteeing them in a pan, and they were just so incredibly orange that I wanted to weep with joy.

    Depression can go jump off a bridge, but the end of depression is amazing. I wish I could feel like that all the time.

  27. Johnny Oizys says

    When you’ve been depressed so long, an “okay” day felt euphoric.

    This. So much. It’s like your senses come alive again.

    I’ve been reading your here on FTB since the beginning and it’s good to see you blogging again. I’m so sorry for all you have been going through, not least the misogynistic assholes who seem to take pleasure in other peoples suffering.

    One thing I’ve found really helps against depression is physical exercise, but of course finding the motivation for that is virtually impossible when you are depressed, and you need to be careful that it doesn’t become just one more thing you blame yourself for not doing.

    …Back to lurking and I wish you the best.

  28. says

    I’m so glad you’re feeling better and things are looking up. Depression is such a weird disease, I love the quote from Ernest Hemingway that Elizabeth Wurtzel uses in Prozac Nation where he talks about her depression coming “slowly, then all at once” and how she got better the same way because it really does feel like that.

    I’m also really glad you’re back to blogging! You’re blog was what got me into the whole “movement atheism” thing and really helped me become secure with myself both as an atheist and a feminist as I went through college, so I’ve really missed your writing!

  29. TGAP Dad says

    Welcome back! I’ve missed your blogging. I wish you complete remission of your illness. (You’ll understand if I don’t pray for you, right?)

  30. kaboobie says

    I’m so glad you’re at the point where you can have and appreciate these okay days. I’ve suffered from depression since my early teens, and graduate school triggered it so badly that I dropped out after only one semester. I admire your persistence and I understand what an effort it takes. Best of luck with everything!

  31. brucecoppola says

    I too have suffered from depression. So many here have expressed what I would say so much better than I can. So just welcome back, and I’m glad things are ‘just OK’ again. And glad to hear about your Mom. And grad school going well. And the BF.

  32. daved says

    For the first time in almost a year, I had a moment of clarity where I realized my brain was lying to me and I could try to do something about it. Taking a step to take care of myself lifted the black cloud an inch.

    This particular point should be in some gigantic font, blinking red. It can be crucial. One problem with depression is its spiraling nature. You get depressed you don’t do as much, you get more depressed because you’re not doing anything.

    Taking action, any action at all, can be incredibly valuable. It almost doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you do something that has a positive result. Do a load of laundry. Clear the papers off the kitchen table. Finish a paragraph, or a section, or a chapter, of something you are writing. The important thing is that it’s concrete, that you can see it. I’ve found it can be amazingly lifting just to see something that I’ve done, and it can inspire me to do something else. It can be the impetus to an upward spiral.

  33. Blondin says

    Funny how euphoria can be infectious. Reading about your okay day has made my day. Thanks, Jen.

  34. Blobulon says

    Yay! You’re back!
    Internet hugs, if wanted. I may not post often, but you are one of my favourites. I’m glad to hear you are feeling better, and that things in your life are turning out positively.

  35. thebookofdave says

    I’m glad you have returned, Jen.

    BTW, thanks to his sock puppets, no single banhammer will keep Mabus down. How about a nice game of Whack-A-Mole?

  36. jaywalker says

    I am so happy that you are finally starting to feel “ok”. I was mis-diagnosed for years as suffering from depression. Even with medication, things just kept getting worse. Finally, just over a year ago, I was correctly diagnosed with bi-piolar II. I’m feeling better than I have in a long time, but still, I have let me blogging slide. You have inspired me (not for the first time), to try to blog some more.

    Thank you Jen! I’m so happy that you are finally feeling a little better.

  37. says

    Thank you for this post. I’m glad that your research is working out and that you’re feeling better.

    Thank you for your blog. You mention you had not received feedback in the lab – this made me realize that one thing I like about your blog is that it feels like positive feedback to me, as I share some of your views while not being involved, or articulate enough to describe them. I hope that you carry on blogging and that your future will be full of happy times! And Vietnamese food!

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