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Dec 31 2011

Storytelling

(Or: Massive Annual New Year’s Eve Note, Vol. 5)

[TMI Warning]

Many psychologists believe that it’s not what happens to us that matters, it’s the stories we tell ourselves about what happens.

Some people unfortunately interpret this to mean that we ought to “look on the bright side of life” and “find the silver lining” and all that crap.

I don’t really see things that way. Never have. Life sucks a lot of the time, and anyone who tells you otherwise is either stupid, in denial, or trying to sell you something.

But I have learned, over the past year, how powerful personal storytelling can be. This was the year I took a lot of pain and turned it into a force of energy.

~~~

A year ago, I thought I was done with this whole depression thing forever. That didn’t turn out to be the case. It came back almost as soon as the new year started, worse than ever before, seemingly undefeatable.

This has been a painful year. People hurt me this year. They lied, broke my heart, used me, and took my friendship for granted.

I was alone a lot, more alone than ever before. In fact, I spent most of the summer alone in New York. It was a fantastic experience, but a lonely one nonetheless.

It was hard, a lot of the time, not to think about all the ways depression limits me. If I didn’t have it, everything about my life would be different. I’d be outgoing, I’d go to parties, I could stay up late and take harder classes. I wouldn’t be so tired all the time, I wouldn’t have such a hard time talking to people, and, of course, I wouldn’t be so sad.

But sometime over the course of this year, I stopped thinking about all the things I couldn’t do because of depression, and started thinking instead about all the things I could.

For instance, I would never have started NU Listens, my peer-listening organization, if I hadn’t been depressed. I wouldn’t have the skills that allow me to help people. I wouldn’t write so much, or so well. I wouldn’t be able to fully appreciate my family and the other people I have in my life. I probably wouldn’t know what my calling is.

Some people, knowing that, would assume that I’m “thankful” for the experience of being depressed, or that I consider it “part of God’s plan” for me, or that it was “all for the best.”

Well, sorry to burst your bubble, but no. I don’t think any God would put a person through this, and that’s one of the reasons I don’t believe in God. I’m not thankful and I don’t think it was for the best. I want my adolescence back. I want the first two years of college back.

In our culture, preoccupied as it is with constantly finding the silver lining to everything from rejection to failure to broken hearts, I think it’s bold of me to say that I’m not thankful for what happened. I know I’m expected to offer up some grand lesson to be learned from all this, but I’m sorry to say that there just isn’t one. Sometimes shit happens. It definitely happened to me.

Knowing that, I’ve given up trying to find some sort of grand meaning in my experiences with depression. I sure as hell don’t accept the Judeo-Christian notion that I somehow deserved it, and although it has had some positive consequences, I’d say it did more harm than good. By far.

So how to go on? Well, that’s a complicated question for someone who prefers to see things in complicated ways. The story I’ve decided to tell about my own life isn’t necessarily happy, but it’s empowering for me. It’s about working within my limitations to achieve great things.

After all, the truth is that I’m probably not going to ever fully recover. I live at the mercy of something I can’t fully control, and my entire being–from feelings and moods to thoughts, beliefs, and actions–is tempered by it. Some days it leaves me alone, and some days it barely lets me get out of bed.

It means I have to be on my best behavior all the time. Nine hours of sleep, fruits and veggies, not too much carbs or meat, brisk walking every day, at least. Schoolwork has to be done before 9 PM or so, or else I can’t concentrate on it. I get overwhelmed by information easily, hence all the organization–categorized to-do lists and a calendar, a notebook that I carry everywhere, everything in filing folders in a box under my desk. In class I have to write by hand because it keeps me more alert. Otherwise, I start dozing off after sitting still for five minutes, no matter how much sleep I’ve been getting, because that’s how my body is.

I have to always stay busy, because as soon as I have a moment to myself, my mind starts conjuring up nasty thoughts. You’re such a bitch. Go kill yourself. The reason I take five/six classes, work two jobs, and run two student groups isn’t for my resume. It’s for my health.

~~~

So those are my limitations. Sometimes they seem pretty extreme. Sometimes they seem like a blessing compared to what some people are given.

Regardless, I’m not going to define myself through them anymore.

Instead, I’m going to define myself through the unique gifts that I have, and that I’ve become aware of because of my experience with depression.

When I’m helping someone, my self disappears–and with it, so do all of my fears, insecurities, and dysfunctions. I feel like I’m entering the other person’s being. It’s almost a spiritual experience.

Of course, my ideas about others aren’t always correct, but I start down a path of understanding. I start to see why the love the people they love, why the fear the things they fear, why they do things I would never do, why they believe things that I don’t believe.

I’m not looking for any accolades or sense of moral superiority when I say that my calling is to help people feel better. In a way, I’m just as selfish as anyone else. Some people are happy when they make money, or when they do experiments, or when they play sports; I’m happy when I make others happy.

It’s pretty much that simple.

~~~

It’s been a year since I “came out” as having a mental disorder. Since then, my relationships have only grown stronger and my sense of being valued and respected has only increased. Sometimes people do imply–usually via anonymous comments on my blog, as they know better than to say it to my face–that I’m making people “uncomfortable.” My response to this is always the same: they’ll get over their discomfort. I won’t get over my depression.

The truth is that–and I’m terribly sorry about this–I really don’t give a fuck about your comfort. I just don’t. It’s not my job to make anyone comfortable. I don’t really care about fitting in or being cool or normal. I must be missing that gene, or whatever.

If I sound completely different right now than I did just a few paragraphs before, I wouldn’t blame you for being confused. My life’s work will be to help people find happiness, but never at the expense of my own ability to live and express myself as I see fit. My understanding of psychology is that if you’re so concerned with how I live that you’re made “uncomfortable” by my depression, it’s you who needs to change, not me.

I don’t think most people realize the extent of my lack of fuck-giving because, unlike many other young malcontents, I don’t wear it on my body. My clothes are normal. I talk like a more-or-less average educated person. I don’t have any tattoos or extra piercings and don’t plan on getting any, and my hair is dyed, but only slightly. It’s styled in a mostly average way. I don’t choose to “rebel” by doing lots of drugs or people, and I don’t smoke, drink, or listen to unusual music.

But internally, I feel like an alien in this world. There’s a thick glass wall between me and everyone else. There’s a terrible creature that has its tentacles wrapped around my brain, and every time it squeezes, I want to rip my head off.

That’s what depression is.

~~~

That’s not to say this year has been all bad. It certainly hasn’t. I made many friends this year–not just any friends, but best friends. I started working on two different research projects at school. I found a way to connect with the Jewish community at Northwestern. I made Dean’s List this past quarter, started my own peer listening group, got accepted as a columnist for the Daily Northwestern next quarter, drastically increased my blog’s readership, tried therapy for the first time, successfully navigated my first quarter in my own apartment, went on quite a few dates, learned how to make my own jewelry, was accepted to a quarter-long Jewish education program, and befriended a few professors.

I went to New York three times, growing more and more certain with each time that this is where I want to live someday. I watched my older brother get married and found out that I’ll be an aunt in a couple of weeks. I met distant family members I hadn’t even known about before. I decided to wean myself off antidepressants when the new year starts.

Depression keeps me from being truly happy, but I refuse to let it rewrite the story of my life any longer. What I’ve been able to do despite of (and perhaps because of) my limitations makes me glad to be alive. I hope to recover someday, but even if I don’t, my life is going to be worthwhile.

~~~

A few days ago. I’m walking near Union Square in Manhattan. The sun has nearly set and the wind is chilling. I hear a man begging for money.

“Can you spare some change?” he’s saying, over and over. The passerby walk past him and he says, “That’s okay. Maybe next year.”

I put a dollar bill in his cup and he says, “God bless you, miss. I really mean that.”

He says happy New Year, and I say happy New Year too.

And then I continue on my way.

Maybe next year.

18 comments

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  1. 1
    Joan Haskins

    Happy New Year, Miriam. You are an inspiration to many people, I am sure of it.

    1. 1.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      Thank you, Joan. Happy new year to you as well.

  2. 2
    John Watson

    I can’t even remember how I found your blog, but finding it and reading your posts has made such a difference… you truly are blessed with the ability to articulate how this demon affects those of us who wrestle with it each day. I find strength and comfort in your words, because they tell me I’m not alone. I look forward to each of your posts. Thank you and Happy New Year!

    1. 2.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      Thank you so much, John! Happy New Year to you as well. :)

  3. 3
    Rachel A. Hanson

    Miriam, I sincerely love reading your posts. I’m glad that there’s someone out there that is like me.

    That said, I do think it’s really bold that you are willing to say that you’re not grateful for your experience as being a person with depression. While I’m not skipping in the streets because of my experiences with depression, I am grateful for the experience. My mom suffered with (untreated) depression for nearly ten years before getting help. As a child ranging from the ages of 6-16 while she battled this illness, I swore to myself that I would never put my kids through that. As an adult who is now struggling with the same thing, I can understand why my mom didn’t get help for so long. I can also understand why it is so important for me to get help if I feel myself slipping. My mom’s experience and how I fit into it makes it easier for me to understand how important it is for my to value myself and to understand that feeling this way is not normal and that it’s okay to ask for assistance.

    1. 3.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      Thanks for sharing. However, I hope you understand that everyone views these things differently, and for me, gratitude just isn’t within the possible range of responses.

  4. 4
    Chenrezi

    This post would make a horrible Hallmark movies.

    I hate Hallmark movies.

    Nice job, is what I’m saying.

    1. 4.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      I think you’ve managed to combine “Hallmark cards” with “Disney movies” there. :)

      In any case, thank you. :D

      1. 4.1.1
        Chenrezi

        You’d think so, but Hallmark movies are actually a thing… though maybe I was thinking of Lifetime movies. Point is, I think that many people are too attached to “feel-good” stories.

  5. 5
    Pish Posh

    Just because you learn something from a bad experience doesn’t mean you have to be grateful for the bad experience. You’re grateful that you can learn from pain, not for the pain. That’s how I interpret your message, and I certainly agree with that. I’m grateful I can help others, see their pain, that I can write, and that I have strong empathic skills, especially with socially awkward people. However depression sucks and every day becomes about surviving the day. It really, really sucks. Thank you for sharing.

    1. 5.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      That’s exactly what I meant. :)

      My point is that, while I’m glad to have these skills, I would’ve been equally (or more) glad to not have had depression.

      1. 5.1.1
        Rachel A. Hanson

        Man, I fail. Pish Posh, this is exactly what I meant! I’m grateful for what I learned. It’s not like I’m running around saying, “Gee, I sure am grateful I have depression.” I really need to work on being more eloquent, haha.

        1. 5.1.1.1
          Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

          No worries! You’re probably much better than most. :)

          1. Rachel A. Hanson

            Haha, thank you :)

  6. 6
    Kinjal

    beautifully put.
    “Knowing that, I’ve given up trying to find some sort of grand meaning in my experiences with depression.” You sound like an existentialist there. :)
    And the ending could be from a pretty short story.
    I’m not sure if we are out of “Happy new year” range already, but wishes from me nonetheless!

    1. 6.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      Thank you, Kinjal! Happy new year to you as well.

  7. 7
    Unquiet

    “It means I have to be on my best behavior all the time…I have to always stay busy, because as soon as I have a moment to myself, my mind starts conjuring up nasty thoughts.”

    This really resonated with me. I’m not quite at a stage where i can do this constantly, but I am getting better at it. I’m definitely coming back to this post in dark moments. Cheers :)

    1. 7.1
      Miri, Professional Fun-Ruiner

      Oh, trust me, I wrote this post ages ago and I still suck at that…it’s a process.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  1. 8
    When I Knew It Was Over | Brute Reason

    [...] when I went to college. I got diagnosed and started taking anti-depressants and it got better. Then it got worse again despite the anti-depressants. Then I said fuck it to the anti-depressants and went off of them. [...]

  2. 9
    Six Months » Brute Reason

    [...] In 2011 I wrote about relapsing and trying to find a way to carry on. At the end of that post, I wrote this: [...]

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