Brains Lie, But So Do People

[CN: mental illness, gaslighting, abuse]

For those of us with mood disorders to manage, learning and understanding the fact that brains often lie was a revelation. Suddenly we had an explanation–and not a BS, pseudoscientific explanation–for why we think and feel things that don’t make sense and that make life unbearable. We learned that feeling like everyone hates you isn’t actually a feeling; it’s a thought, and the thought isn’t based in reality. We learned that we have a much easier time remembering the bad than the good, which leaves us with the skewed impression that everything is awful and must always continue to be awful.

And so we adopted a new language. We talk about jerkbrains and depression!brains and all sorts of other brains, and we teach ourselves to constantly question and second-guess the negative things we tell ourselves.

For the most part, this is how mood disorder recovery happens. Once you develop the awareness that many of your depressive or anxious thoughts are not based in reality, you are able to develop coping skills to stop these thoughts or minimize their impact. This is CBT, in a nutshell. CBT is not a panacea–some people, especially those whose disorders started early in their life (or seem like they’ve been going on forever) don’t find this sufficient to actually stop the thoughts. But recovery can’t happen until you internalize the fact that brains lie.

Here’s where I worry, though. When I start hearing this:

“My friends are always making jokes at my expense and it makes me feel hurt. But that’s just my depression, I know they don’t really mean it.”

“I know I should be ok with my partner wanting us to be poly. It’s just my anxiety, it’s not a rational thing.”

“It’s not that I don’t want to have sex with him, it’s just that I don’t really have a sex drive because of my medication. So I do it anyway because I mean, I don’t mind.”

Sometimes we overcompensate. We get so used to these tropes–depression makes you feel like people hate you, anxiety makes you freak out that your partner’s going to leave you when there’s no evidence, medication makes you lose your sex drive–that we assume those causations. If you’re diagnosed with depression and your friends are making mean jokes and you feel hurt, it’s because of your depression. If you’re taking medication and you don’t want to have sex, of course it’s the medication.

Obviously these things are all true in many cases. It could very well be that all evidence suggests your friends love you and assume you’re be okay with some good-natured teasing. It could very well be that all the evidence suggests that your partner is committed to you, poly or not, and that your anxiety contradicts your other beliefs about the relationship and your preferences. (For instance, polyamory often makes me very anxious, but I’ve decided that it’s nevertheless what’s best for me and so that’s what I’m doing.)

But sometimes, your “friends” are being callous assholes and don’t care that their jokes hurt you. Sometimes, your partner is pressuring you to try polyamory even though it just doesn’t work for you, and everything about this is (rightfully) freaking you out. Sometimes, meds or no, you’re just not attracted to someone and haven’t internalized the fact that you don’t owe them sex. Sometimes the reason you don’t want to have sex with someone is because they’re giving off a ton of red flags and you should pay attention to them.

This gets even worse when close people, well-meaning or not, start pulling out these sorts of phrases in order to “help” you: “Oh, that’s just Depressed Miri talking.” “That’s your jerkbrain.” “This isn’t who you really are, it’s just your illness.” “Did you take your meds today?”

The message? “That’s not based in reality.”

Don’t get me wrong. When used by a kind, perceptive, absolutely not abusive person, these responses can be incredibly powerful and helpful. Sometimes we really do need that reality check: a partner who helps you draw the connection between skipping meds and feeling bad; a friend who patiently reminds you that sometimes depression feeds you lies.

When used by someone who wants to control you, though, they become very dangerous.

Upset that your partner keeps canceling your plans to see their other partner? That’s your depression, of course they still love you, it’s only natural that they’d want to see their new partner a lot. Scared to have sex without a condom? That’s just your anxiety, they already told you they’ve been tested, so what’s the problem? Annoyed that your friend keeps cutting you off in conversation? You know that irritation is a depression symptom.

I’ve written before that attempting to treat your depression or anxiety by invalidating your feelings can lead to a sort of self-gaslighting; even more harmful, I think, is when others do it to you. I have to admit that I start to get a queasy feeling when I see someone trying to manage their partner’s mental illness for/with them. As I said, sometimes this can be a great and healthy situation, but never forget that in a relationship between a person with a mental illness and a neurotypical person, the latter holds privilege. With privilege comes power, and with power comes responsibility.

The problem here, obviously, is not with CBT or the term “jerkbrain” or even the idea that thoughts/feelings can be irrational; the problem is abusive people learning this terminology and taking advantage of it. To a lesser extent, too, the problem is with ourselves over-applying these concepts to situations that are legitimately unhealthy, unsafe, or just straight-up unpleasant.

I don’t have a solution to this, but I do have some suggestions if you worry that you might be in this situation:

1. If you have a therapist, ask them to work with you on (re)learning how to trust your gut when appropriate. Most of us have a spidey sense when it comes to abusive people and dangerous situations; the problem is that our culture often trains us to ignore that sense. “But he’s such a nice guy, give him a chance!” “But it’s not your friends’ job to make sure none of their jokes ever offend you!” and so on. For many people, especially marginalized people, a crucial task is to remember what that sense feels like and to feel comfortable using it.

2. When an interpersonal situation is making you depressed or anxious, ask for a reality check from more than one person, and make sure that none of those people is directly involved in the situation. If you’re sad because your partner hasn’t been spending as much time with you as you’d like, that’s obviously an important conversation to have with your partner at some point, but the reality check part has to come from someone else, because your partner probably has a vested interest in keeping things as they are. (Not necessarily a bad thing! Maybe your partner has already patiently explained to you many times that they love you and wish they could see you more, but this year they need to focus on completing and defending their dissertation. Or maybe your partner is neglectful and stringing you along in this relationship that they’re only in for the sex and not being clear with you about what they actually want.)

It helps to find people that you can trust to be kind and honest. In many social circles I’ve been in in the past, there was a tendency to support your friend no matter what, and “support” meant agreeing with them about all interpersonal matters. If I’m upset at my partner, my friend agrees with me that they’re a jerk who doesn’t deserve me. If another friend is angry at me for missing their birthday party, my friend agrees with me that they’re obviously overreacting and being so immature. That’s not helpful for these purposes. You need someone who will say, “That sounds really rough for you and I’m sorry, but the fact that your partner has been busy lately doesn’t mean they hate you and don’t care if you live or die.”

3. Remember that feelings don’t have to be rational to be acted on. While it’s good to treat feelings with some amount of skepticism when you have a mental illness, that doesn’t mean you have to just ignore those feelings unless you can prove to yourself that they’re rational. There are many interpersonal situations that trigger my depression or anxiety for reasons I’ve determined aren’t rational, but I still avoid those situations because, honestly, life’s too damn short to feel like crap all the time, and I can’t will myself out of my depression and anxiety.

For example, here’s a meme I come across often:

Yes, rationally I know that sarcasm doesn’t mean you hate me, that that’s a perfectly valid way of expressing yourself and interacting with people, that for many people that’s part of their family culture/subculture, etc. etc.

But this interpersonal style interacts really badly with my depression. It makes me feel insecure and small. It is disempowering. It makes my brain go in circles about What Does This Person Really Think Of Me Do They Hate Me Or Not Did I Do Something Wrong.

(A part of me wonders if the reason people do this isn’t so much because they enjoy feeling relaxed enough to just be their snarky, sarcastic selves, but because they enjoy making people feel the way I just described. I’m not sure.)

So I decided at some point that I just wasn’t going to put up with it. When someone treats me this way, I remove them from my mental list of people I trust or want to get closer to. I minimize my interactions with that person. I prepare myself to set specific boundaries with them if that becomes necessary, but it usually doesn’t because distance does the trick.

At no point do I have to convince myself that, yes, all the available evidence suggests that this person hates me or is a cruel, bad person. I’m sure they don’t hate me. I’m sure they are a decent human being. For my purposes, though, it doesn’t really matter.

You are allowed to act in ways that minimize negative emotions even if those emotions are mostly being caused by mental illness.


If you enjoyed this post, please consider supporting me on Patreon!

Physical Space, Mental Accessibility

This is a short post in which I’m going to make a request: if you organize events, run meetings, teach classes, or do anything else that requires getting a bunch of people to sit in the same room together, please give some thought to making sure that people have ample physical space.

I recently finished graduate school, which is a relief for many reasons, one of which is the fact that I will (probably) never have to sit in a classroom again. I found most classrooms really stressful because I never had enough personal space. Often there’d be only six inches (or less) between me and the people next to me, and we’d be accidentally elbowing each other and reading each other’s notes for two hours straight. Getting up to step out and use the restroom or get a drink of water turned into a disastrous mess of trying to wriggle out of my seat without touching anyone or disturbing the class (so, basically impossible). If I needed to make some notes about something personal (reminders, to-do’s, rants), I could count on at least two people seeing it without even meaning to. If somebody next to me was coughing and sneezing, I could count on it getting all over me, even if they were trying to be mindful of that.

Similar issues frequently come up at work meetings, conferences, and anywhere else I have to sit in a room full of people. I end up spending meetings and events that are meant to be educational, productive, and/or fun scrunched up with my knees pressed together and my elbows jammed into my sides, ignoring my need to use a restroom or get a drink of water, hunched over my notebook so that people don’t read my notes over my shoulder, and panicking like hell.

I’m sure some people don’t mind it, but by now I’ve had enough conversations with people about this to know that I’m far from the only one who finds it really anxiety-provoking to not be able to have a personal bubble at all. And that’s not even getting into the issue of mobility aids and people who use them. As uncomfortable as I must be in spaces like these, someone who uses a wheelchair or has difficulty sitting down/standing up must be even more uncomfortable.

I know that sometimes giving everyone sufficient space is impossible. I know that people have different norms about what’s “sufficient space,” and a lot of this is culturally specific. I know that it’s a trade-off between personal space and audience size. Yes, I know.

But often it feels like no thought is given to this at all, that people who organize or lead these events (even social work professors or professionals who ought to know) don’t even realize that having to sit very very close to other people can be really anxiety-provoking to some people, and that anxious people aren’t necessarily the most effective students, audience members, or meeting attendees.

There are some things you can do to make this better if you organize spaces like these:

  • Consider a maximum attendance limit, if you don’t have one.
  • Think about how you’ve arranged the seating. So often I hear “LET’S ALL SIT IN A BIG CIRCLE SO THAT WE CAN ALL SEE EACH OTHERS’ BEAUTIFUL SMILING FACES” and I feel that drop in my stomach. Yes, it’s nice to sit in a big circle so that we can all see each others’ beautiful smiling faces, but some spaces/audience sizes cannot accommodate this comfortably. Consider arranging the chairs in rows instead.
  • Do not, do not, do not pressure people that you see have chosen to sit in the back, off to the side, or somewhere else that’s not close to other attendees. I’m so sick of hearing “BUT DON’T YOU WANT TO SIT UP HERE WITH EVERYONE,” which is not something to which I can reasonably say “no.” Assume that people have a legitimate reason for choosing to sit wherever they choose to sit.
  • If there are lots of rows of chairs, make sure to include aisles so that people sitting towards the middle of the room still have a way to get up and step out if they need to.

I’m sure this can never be fixed entirely and I’m not asking for a perfect world in which there’s always at least two feet between me and other people, but this would be a nice start. Accessibility has both physical and mental components–can people physically access the space, and also, can they actually feel mentally okay enough in that space to do what they’re supposed to do there? Both of these are important.

Feminist Bloggers Cannot Be Your Therapists

[Content note: mentions of sexual assault and suicide]

I’ve been thinking more about Scott Aaronson. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about what he struggled with during adolescence, and about the (in my opinion, misguided) notion that feminism could have possibly been of any help to him.

The battle cry I’ve heard from men since Aaronson’s now-infamous Comment 171 was published is that feminist writers and activists need to be more mindful of situations like Aaronson’s when we choose our language and strategies. There seems to be a collective yearning for acknowledgement that the usual feminist rhetoric is not only unhelpful for people in the teenage Aaronson’s frame of mind, but actively harmful to them. There is one piece of this that I fully agree with, that I will get to later. But for the most part, I continue to feel a sort of frustration and exhaustion, and I think I’ve finally figured out why.

I wrote in my previous post on the subject that I feel that we (women) are being given all these male traumas and struggles and feelings to soothe and fix, as we always are. But now I understand why exactly I feel like we’re such an inadequate receptacle for these things.

Let’s look at some of the most salient parts of Comment 171:

I spent my formative years—basically, from the age of 12 until my mid-20s—feeling not “entitled,” not “privileged,” but terrified. I was terrified that one of my female classmates would somehow find out that I sexually desired her, and that the instant she did, I would be scorned, laughed at, called a creep and a weirdo, maybe even expelled from school or sent to prison. And furthermore, that the people who did these things to me would somehow be morally right to do them—even if I couldn’t understand how.

You can call that my personal psychological problem if you want, but it was strongly reinforced by everything I picked up from my environment: to take one example, the sexual-assault prevention workshops we had to attend regularly as undergrads, with their endless lists of all the forms of human interaction that “might be” sexual harassment or assault, and their refusal, ever, to specify anything that definitely wouldn’t be sexual harassment or assault. I left each of those workshops with enough fresh paranoia and self-hatred to last me through another year.

[…] Of course, I was smart enough to realize that maybe this was silly, maybe I was overanalyzing things. So I scoured the feminist literature for any statement to the effect that my fearswere as silly as I hoped they were. But I didn’t find any. On the contrary: I found reams of text about how even the most ordinary male/female interactions are filled with “microaggressions,” and how even the most “enlightened” males—especially the most “enlightened” males, in fact—are filled with hidden entitlement and privilege and a propensity to sexual violence that could burst forth at any moment.

Because of my fears—my fears of being “outed” as a nerdy heterosexual male, and therefore as a potential creep or sex criminal—I had constant suicidal thoughts. As Bertrand Russell wrote of his own adolescence: “I was put off from suicide only by the desire to learn more mathematics.”

At one point, I actually begged a psychiatrist to prescribe drugs that would chemically castrate me (I had researched which ones), because a life of mathematical asceticism was the only future that I could imagine for myself. The psychiatrist refused to prescribe them, but he also couldn’t suggest any alternative: my case genuinely stumped him. As well it might—for in some sense, there was nothing “wrong” with me.

[…]And no, I’m not even suggesting to equate the ~15 years of crippling, life-destroying anxiety I went through with the trauma of a sexual assault victim. The two are incomparable; they’re horrible in different ways. But let me draw your attention to one difference: the number of academics who study problems like the one I had is approximately zero. There are no task forces devoted to it, no campus rallies in support of the sufferers, no therapists or activists to tell you that you’re not alone or it isn’t your fault. There are only therapists and activists to deliver the opposite message: that you are alone and it is your privileged, entitled, male fault.

It’s worth reading the entire thing, and reading it carefully. (Aaronson’s defenders are correct that some people have been making accusations of Aaronson that are directly refuted by things that he said in the very same comment. Let’s not do that.)

Here’s what I thought. If someone came to me and said that he earnestly believes that he will be “expelled from school or sent to prison” if a woman finds out that he finds her attractive, and that he has “constant suicidal thoughts,” and that his daily existence is characterized by “crippling, life-destroying anxiety,” I would not recommend that he read Andrea Dworkin or attend a sexual assault prevention workshop. I would recommend, gently and tactfully, that he go see a therapist.

I would do that because these are very serious issues. They are serious enough that, when a client tells me that they have “constant suicidal thoughts,” there is an entire protocol I’m required to follow in order to ensure that they are safe and receive appropriate care if they accept it.

I will not speculate about what mental illness Aaronson could have theoretically been diagnosed with in his adolescence; I oppose such speculation and it’s actually irrelevant. I don’t need to diagnose him to say that he had serious issues and could have really benefited from treatment. (However, I may reference some diagnoses in what follows, not to suggest that Aaronson had them but to show how mental illness can interact with other life circumstances.)

Maybe Aaronson didn’t think to seek therapy as an adolescent, because therapy and mental illness are still quite stigmatized and would have been even more so when he was younger. Maybe nobody close to him noticed or cared what was going on, and therefore did not encourage him to seek therapy. Maybe the psychiatrist he asked to prescribe castration drugs did not pause to consider that a teenager seeking castration is a red flag, and that maybe he should refer him to a colleague who practices therapy. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

But why aren’t we talking about it now? Why are people blaming feminism–the feminism of the 1970s or 80s, no less–for failing to cure what appeared to be a serious psychological issue? Why are people claiming that the solution now is simply for feminist writers and activists to be more compassionate and considerate towards male nerds like Aaronson, as though any compassion or consideration could have magically fixed such a deeply layered set of deeply irrational beliefs?

This troubles me. If I ever start claiming that, for instance, I’m a terrible person and deserve to literally die because I’m queer, or that I cannot be in the same room with a man without literally having a panic attack, I sincerely hope that people advise me to seek mental healthcare, not to read feminist literature.

Lots of helpful things can harm a small subset of people because of that subset’s individual traits. For instance, there are a lot of PSAs about washing your hands to prevent the spread of disease and things like that. But some people have OCD and wash their hands compulsively, to the point that they’re hurting themselves physically and having trouble accomplishing daily life tasks because they have to wash their hands so much. I can imagine these PSAs being extraordinarily unhelpful to them.

We also often hear about the importance of donating to charity. Most people could probably donate more to charity if they wanted to. However, some people compulsively donate so much to charity that they harm themselves or their families. I can imagine this being exacerbated by someone telling them how important it is to donate to charity. Perhaps they feel they are never good enough.

I can see how feminist literature might have functioned in a similar way for Aaronson. The truth is that most men are about as far away from his mindset as you can get. Some are even the opposite extreme. Most men spend very little time thinking about how their behavior impacts women. Most men need to spend more time thinking about it. But how could he have known that these feminist books were not for him? If they were to put on the cover, “If you’re a great guy who does not hurt women, you don’t need to read this,” well, no man would ever read it. They all think they’re great guys who do not hurt women, even though some of them rape women.

Neurodiversity is an axis of privilege/oppression. People who suffer from mental illness or whose brains are set up differently from what is considered the “norm” (such as people with autism) lack privilege along this axis. They have difficulties because our society is not made to accommodate them. However, if these people are white, or male, or straight, or cisgender, or so on, they still benefit from the privileges afforded to people in those categories.

For instance, despite all his other fears and anxieties, Aaronson did not have to live in constant fear of being sexually assaulted, because he is male. He did not have to live with a significant risk of being harassed or brutalized by the police, because he is white. He did not have to deal with having people constantly refuse to identify him as the gender he identifies as, because he is cisgender. He did not have to struggle to physically access places he needs or wants to go, because he is able-bodied. Of course, he still faces some risk (in some cases fairly negligible) of all of these things, because having privilege doesn’t shield you from everything.

However, as a person who was (apparently) neuroatypical, Aaronson did have to live with “crippling, life-destroying anxiety.” He did not appear to have access (even if it’s just because he didn’t know to ask for it) to mental healthcare that could have helped him. He was forced to spend years feeling horrible. If he told people how they felt, they may have blamed him for it, because victim-blaming is a key component of our society’s oppression of neuroatypical people. Had he lacked some of the other privileges that he had, such as race and class, he may not have been able to access the apparently-useless psychiatrist that he did access.

Aaronson claims that he did not have “male privilege” because he did not feel that he had it. I’ve addressed arguments like these before. He presumably did not feel privileged because on one very salient and relevant axis, he certainly was not.

But otherwise, having or not having privilege isn’t actually dependent at all on how you feel. You have it or not. Men on the street hurl sexual obscenities at you or they do not. Cops stop you and slam you to the ground for no reason or they do not. You are allowed to marry someone of the gender(s) you’re attracted to or you are not.

Aaronson might be interested (or not) to know that many feminists are busy fighting to ensure access to mental healthcare for everyone, and an end to the stigma that prevents people from seeking help. But maybe that’s irrelevant now.

As I mentioned earlier, I am taking one piece of Aaronson’s (and the many others who have echoed him) criticism to heart. Namely, feminist materials need to be better at specifying what to do rather than just what not to do. Now is a good time for a reminder that I offer a workshop on this exactly, with a light-hearted tone and lots of audience participation and definitely no yelling at men that they are horrible awful creeps no matter what they do. I am far from the only person who offers such materials, but it would be cool if there were more. That said, anyone claiming that feminism does not offer this at all has quite clearly not done their research. Andrea Dworkin and some random shitty college sexual harassment training are not the only resources feminism has to offer.

(Some things that I have read along these lines [“these lines” meaning, roughly, “affirmative resources that help men and others conduct their sexual/romantic lives ethically without shaming them]: Charlie Glickman, Doctor Nerdlove, Yes Means Yes (the book and the associated blog by Thomas Macaulay Millar), Pervocracy, Franklin Veaux. If you don’t like any of these, create your own!)

But even then, your average casual feminist blogger or columnist cannot take responsibility for fixing the problems of someone who apparently sincerely believes that speaking to a woman will get him sent to prison. Or someone who is literally unable to talk to a woman because they have so much social anxiety. These are issues for professionals to deal with. Professionals can affirm. They are there to hold your feelings and make you feel comfortable and supported. They can teach social skills. They can help you examine maladaptive and irrational thoughts. They can help you learn how to cope with anxiety. That is what therapists are for. They are imperfect, but they are trained for this. I worry about placing this responsibility on every feminist with a blog.

Aaronson claims in his comment that “there are only therapists and activists to deliver the opposite message: that you are alone and it is your privileged, entitled, male fault.” I’m not sure if this comes from experience or is purely the creation of his mind with the biases that it had at the time. If Aaronson went to see a therapist and that therapist shamed him, then that therapist is wrong and does not deserve the title. (I’m not trying to do a No True Therapist fallacy here; I’m just pointing out that shaming people is against our ethics and if you cannot not shame people then you should not be a therapist.)

If Aaronson did not see a therapist, perhaps because he was afraid that they would shame him, then that’s unfortunate. And I don’t blame him. But I still think that we should be encouraging people with such pronounced irrational beliefs to seek therapy, not feminist literature.

No wonder I was so frustrated when I wrote that earlier post. I felt like feminist writers are being asked to do the job of a mental healthcare professional.


A few relevant points that I did not have time to expand on here, but may in the future:

  • Part of the reason that a lot of what Aaronson read/watched was so shaming towards men was probably because it was shaming towards sex and sexuality in general. Especially those college sexual harassment trainings, some of which are woefully retrograde. It’s important to remember that stigma/shaming around sex is something that is so entrenched in our culture that it’s bound to show up all over the place, even, yes, in feminist literature.
  • Aaronson claims that all the feminist literature he read confirmed his belief that straight men are awful and violent. While this may be so–I haven’t read Dworkin and don’t intend to–I have also personally watched men respond to materials that were not at all whatsoever shaming of men by claiming that they were being shamed by those materials. This seems to be a very common bias. They expect to be shamed by feminist materials, so they feel shamed by them.
  • I have seen dreadfully few discussions about how everyone–especially non-/anti-feminist men and women–perpetuate toxic ideals about masculinity. It’s usually not feminist teenage girls slamming shy nerdy boys into lockers and publicly humiliating them, is it? We should talk more about that. Unfortunately, most men dislike talking about toxic masculinity, because they think that “masculinity” is synonymous with “men,” and perhaps also because they have bought extensively into this ideal and appreciate the privileges it affords them.
  • There needs to be a space where we can say, “Wow, that is really awful, I’m sorry you felt that way and had to live with that, but I need to point out that your interpretation of things was inaccurate.” Because right now, it’s looking to me like anyone who includes the latter part of that sentence is accused of hating men or lacking compassion. If I read a Richard Dawkins book, came away with the idea that Dawkins believes that all religious people should be put to death, and therefore started to fear for the lives of my religious relatives, I would want someone to try to explain to me that I had misinterpreted the book. It would not be compassionate at all to allow me to continue believing that Dawkins was calling for my relatives’ deaths. It is not compassionate to allow Aaronson to believe that feminists want him to never, ever so much as kiss a girl. (A moot point now, but it wouldn’t have been earlier.)
  • It is also entirely possible that all the feminist literature that Aaronson read was woefully inadequate. (I disagree, and wish he had picked up bell hooks, but let’s grant it.) Feminism is, like every other field of study, constantly advancing and finding new ways to analyze and advocate. The feminist literature of the past decade or so focuses a lot more on helping men than the feminist literature of the 1970s and 80s. But feminist activism still consists mostly of women, and when men join in, they often try to speak to us about our own issues than to other men about men’s issues. And women, naturally, will focus first on issues we primarily face, some of which are life-threatening. Men, please, don’t stand around and lament the fact that feminists are not addressing your problems. Familiarize yourself with feminist principles and join in.

Depression Is Not Sadness (Again)

[Content note: mental illness, depression, anxiety, suicide]

When I think about the frequent charge that therapists and psychiatrists and those who work with them are trying to “medicalize” “normal” emotions like sadness and fear, I think that people don’t really understand how emotions like sadness and fear can be distinguished from mental illnesses like depression and anxiety.

I’ve tried to explain this to many people multiple times, in person and through writing, and so have many other people with mental illnesses as well as professionals in the field. Yet people continue to conflate emotions and illnesses, or rather to assume that mental healthcare advocates are conflating them. It’s often difficult to continue engaging patiently with this claim.

Even those who are knowledgeable about illness and disability make this error. In an otherwise-fantastic blog post about the medical model of disabilityValéria M. Souza uncritically cites this very inaccurate view of antidepressants:

In The End of Normal: Identity in a Biocultural Era, Lennard Davis affirms: “A drug would be a prosthesis if it restored or imitated some primary state that appears to be natural and useful” (64). Davis makes this statement in the context of his argument that SSRIs are not “chemical prostheses” for depression, since happiness is not a “primary state” of being and since there is compelling evidence to suggest that SSRIs do not actually work (Davis 55-60).

I’ll address the SSRIs-not-working thing first since I have less to say about that and it’s not as relevant to this post. The reality seems to be more that SSRIs work well for some people but not at all for many other people and we haven’t really figured out why they work for some people but not others, or more specifically, which types of people they work for and which they don’t. And on a personal note, I’m a little tired of being told that SSRIs “don’t work” when they’re part of the reason I didn’t try to off myself four years ago. There is compelling evidence to suggest they do not actually work and there is compelling evidence to suggest that they do actually work, so I’m comfortable saying that the jury’s still out on this one.

More to the point: antidepressants are not meant to cause “happiness” because depression, the illness they are meant to treat, is not defined by a lack of “happiness.” Depression involves a constellation of physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms that make happiness very difficult or even impossible. These symptoms have a number of other deleterious effects which vary for different people. There are many ways depression can ultimately “look,” such as being unable to get out of bed, being unable to hold down a job, bursting into tears several times a day over tiny inconveniences or in response to nothing at all, losing your sex drive, being unable to sleep, having to sleep over 12 hours a day, having severe memory loss, losing the ability to enjoy any previously enjoyable activity, experiencing complete emotional numbness, obsessing over death and suicide, physically hurting yourself, or attempting suicide.

Maybe being “happy,” whatever that even means, isn’t a “primary state,” but I would argue that being able to live a relatively normal life in which you can go to school or have a job, have relationships with people, and not want to kill yourself is a “primary state.”

Being treated for (and, hopefully, recovering from) depression does not give you extra things that other people don’t have, such as constant happiness and optimism. It gives you what everyone else has had all along, which is a reasonable and age-appropriate amount of control over your emotional state and the ability to create your own happiness if you want to and make the effort.

By the way, you can definitely be miserable and unhappy without having a diagnosable mental illness, but it’s rare to find a person whose unhappiness is truly caused entirely by their own voluntary actions. Depression can also develop as a result of voluntary actions; for instance, if you have a number of career options available to you but you choose an extremely stressful and mind-numbing (but perhaps lucrative?) option, you might end up becoming depressed because of it. At that point, your best bet might be to find a way to make a career change, but it’s likely that you’ll also need therapy to help undo the maladaptive mental habits that the situation has created. (Medication might help too, but in a case like this I’d personally recommend therapy first.)

I think a better way to explain the difference has been that, at least in my experience of mental illness versus mental health, there are things that mentally healthy people can do to significantly increase their level of happiness, whereas people who are going through a bout of mental illness can rarely make a huge difference just by stopping and smelling the roses or making more time to play with their kids or enrolling in a cooking class or whatever. They can maybe make a small difference, but it’s unlikely to reduce the mental illness symptoms themselves. I used to get so frustrated at things like The Happiness Project and other initiatives of that sort, until I finally realized that they weren’t aimed at me because happiness would literally not even be a possibility for me until I treated my damn mental illness.

(That said, things like that can be very useful for someone whose mental illness is in remission or otherwise low-grade. Right now, I’m not fully symptomatic for depression but I’m aware that it can probably come back at any time, so I do a lot of things to keep my mental health strong to try to avoid it coming back.)

It’s difficult to tease out all the complicated interactions between mental illness, mental health, and happiness, and of course it varies for different people. In my experience–which includes my personal experience, my interactions with friends and partners, and my studies and clinical experience, here it is in a nutshell: untreated/unmanaged mental illness makes happiness virtually impossible to achieve. Treating or managing your mental illness, whether through medication, talk therapy, or personal lifehacking, helps make happiness possible to achieve. But the work of achieving it is still yours to do. No drug or therapist can just give you happiness.

And most people with mental illnesses realize this. I haven’t met anyone who was just like “I wanna go to the psychiatrist and get a pill and just be happy always forever.” Most of us just want to stop crying all the time, or stop having panic attacks whenever we need to interact with new people, or stop having intrusive and scary thoughts of killing ourselves, or stop lying awake for hours each night because we can’t stop imagining all the bad things that could happen to us.

“Happiness” is the cherry on the sundae of mental health. You need to put the ice cream and the syrup and the whipped cream in the cup first.

(I’m not sure what it says about me that in reality I actually despise maraschino cherries and always ask for them to be left off my sundae. This is an analogy that was definitely intended for the presumably more normal people who will read this.)

If you still think that what we call “depression” is just an attempt to medicalize “sadness,” then you don’t know what one or either of those things are. So I’ll illustrate with an example of an internal monologue I have had when I was sad, and one I have had when I was depressed. The subject is the same, but the emotional response isn’t. See if you can figure out which is which!

I really wish I had a partner. It’s lonely not having anyone to come home to and it feels crappy seeing all my friends with their partners even though I know I should be happy for them. Sometimes I wonder if I’m just not that attractive or likable as a person. It seems like I’m the only person not dating anyone. I hope I meet someone soon, but I don’t know when or how that will happen and I’m not that optimistic about it right now. 

I really wish I had a partner. I feel like a complete worthless failure because literally everyone else I know is seeing someone and I’m not. I’ll probably never find anyone and I’ll just be lonely for the rest of my life and there won’t be anyone to call 911 if something happens to me and they’ll find my body in my apartment days later because nobody gave enough of a fuck to check on me. Not like I blame them. I’m so ugly and stupid that I don’t know why anyone would even want to hang out with me, let alone go out with me. Everyone’s probably pitying me because I don’t have anyone and everyone can tell that it’s because I’m completely pathetic. I feel like I might as well not even exist because what’s the point of going through life alone and unloved?

One of those is a sensical reaction to lacking something in your life that’s important to you (a romantic relationship); the other is over-the-top. The emotional response in the second example is disproportionate; it doesn’t make sense to leap all the way from “I’m sad because I wish I had a partner” to “I’m a worthless failure and will die alone.”

That second monologue contains a number of characteristic cognitive distortions associated with depression, such as all-or-nothing thinking (I have to have a partner or there’s no point in even living), disqualifying the positive (the good aspects of my life are irrelevant; it’s all bad because I’m single), mind-reading (everyone must be pitying me), fortune telling (because I don’t have a partner now, I will never have one), catastrophizing (something bad will happen to me and I’ll die alone in my home because nobody will help), personalization (it’s completely my fault that I don’t have a partner; none of it comes down to chance or being in the wrong environment or anything else), and emotional reasoning (I feel like a failure because I’m single; therefore I definitely am a failure).

While mentally healthy people do make cognitive distortions too, mental health is a spectrum: the more you’re able to refrain from thinking in these harmful ways, the more mentally healthy you’ll (generally) be. If you look at the first monologue, you’ll see some slight distortions, like the fear that you’re unlikeable or unattractive just because you happen to be single, or the perception that you’re the only person not dating when that’s obviously not true. But only in the second example do these irrational thoughts become all-encompassing. And, importantly, only the second example involves thoughts of death and suicidal ideation.

Note also that in the first example, being single is causing sad feelings, whereas in the second example, the emotional responses are not primarily caused by the singleness. Perhaps being single is the immediate trigger of the extreme sadness and negativity, but what’s really causing it is depression. A depressed person who is miserable about being single will not stop being miserable if they stop being single; they will usually be miserable about other things. That’s exactly what happened to me back when I was having that monologue. I’d inevitably get into a relationship and then be miserable because I didn’t think my partner liked me enough, or because I was worried about school, or because I felt like all my friends hated me, or because I hated myself, or just because.

Depression can trick you into thinking that you’re depressed “about” something. You’re probably not. You’re depressed because you have depression, and luckily, you can treat it.

Sadness, on the other hand, is about things. You can be sad because you’re single or because you got a bad grade or because you hate your job. Sadness is a normal, healthy reaction to experiencing things that you don’t like. It’s a useful and important emotion because it tips us off to situations that we should try to change if we can. Sadness can prompt us to take a step back and think about things and how we would like them to be better.

Medicalizing sadness and medicating it away would probably harm individuals and also our society as a whole. It would make things pretty boring. Isn’t it great that antidepressants and therapy are not actually trying to do that? Isn’t it great that we can help people avoid catastrophic, paralyzing, life-ruining sadness and fear like the ones associated with mental illnesses, while helping them get in touch with healthy and situationally appropriate sadness and fear? That we can help them understand their emotions and use them to change themselves, their lives, or the world, without having their lives completely governed by them?

Indeed. Depression is not sadness. Anxiety is not fear. Nobody is actually trying to eradicate sadness and fear.


At Skepchick, Olivia has a great take on this, concluding that:

I do think that it’s important to address our societal phobia of sadness, grief, and pain. But the way to do that is not to throw the mentally ill under the bus by implying they are running from their negative emotions when they seek out treatment. It also doesn’t mean casting shade on the few tools for treatment of mental illness that we actually have evidence are effective. A diagnosis of depression does not say “this person is too sad”. It says “this person can’t function the way they would like to because their emotions are consistently out of control”. There is a world of difference between those two statements.

Trigger Warnings Are Not “Censorship”

In unrelated news, I have a post up at the Daily Dot today about trigger warnings. Excerpt:

Students at various universities have been trying to take trigger warnings offline by requesting them in certain educational materials. Predictably, even professional and reasonable writers and journalists have responded to this by unleashing a hysteria about “censorship,” “dumbing down,” “suppression of discourse,” “hand-holding,” and other terrible things that will happen if we choose to warn students about potentially triggering material before they read it.

First, a clarification: nobody, to my knowledge, has asked that students be exempted from reading material that they find emotionally difficult. If a professor assigns reading and a student chooses not to do it, that student’s grades will probably suffer. Even if they don’t, though, universities function on the presumption that students are adults who must be allowed to make their own decisions about things like time management, amount of effort put into schoolwork, and so on. Trigger warnings on syllabi do not change any of this.

Much of the panic about trigger warnings in classrooms also focuses on the fear that privileged students will avoid material that makes them uncomfortable. So if you put “TW: misogyny, sexual violence” on a syllabus next to an assignment, male students might think, “Ugh, I don’t want to read about that” and avoid it.

But privileged students already avoid material that makes them uncomfortable; that may be one reason you see way too few white students in courses on African-American literature. Trigger warnings might make this slightly easier, but it doesn’t fix the larger, systemic problem of people choosing not to engage with material that challenges their worldview.

Further, avoiding trigger warnings for the sake of tricking privileged students into reading material on racism, sexism, and other unpleasant topics means potentially triggering underprivileged students by refusing to warn them that the upcoming reading assignment concerns traumatic things they may have experienced. People who lack privilege relative to others are constantly being asked to sacrifice their mental health and safety for the sake of educating those others, and this is just a continuation of that unjust pattern.

Read the rest here.


Liked this post? Please consider donating so I can speak at conferences.

How To Make Your Social Spaces More Welcoming To Shy, Socially Anxious, or Introverted People

Social interaction is hard for many people for many different reasons. Plenty has already been written on how these people can change themselves or learn how to better cope with social situations, so I have little interest in rehashing that. What I really want to discuss is how others can set up their social spaces and events in ways that make it easier for these people to participate.

A disclaimer: this post is written from my individual perspective (albeit with a few suggestions from friends). I’m just one person, one person who is an introvert and has struggled with social anxiety and shyness in the past. If you read this post and find it useful, discuss it with other people you know who might disagree with or confirm various parts of it.

It’s also important to note that shyness, introversion, and social anxiety are different things. Shyness is a personality trait that some people grow out of after childhood and others don’t. Introversion is a personality “type” that rarely changes much during a person’s lifetime and can involve a bunch of related traits. Social anxiety is a mental disorder that can be treated in various ways, but not everyone has access to treatment or is able to find one that works. The reason I’m lumping them all together in this post is only because people who have them can all benefit from similar social accommodations–not because they’re the same thing.

So, first and foremost:

1. Include them.

Sounds so obvious, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, it’s not. Social events of all kinds, whether informal ones like parties or “serious” ones like conferences, are often attended by groups of friends. But they’re also often attended by people who come hoping to make friends and meet like-minded folks. If you’d like to bring new people into the fold of your group, you have to create an environment in which new people feel welcomed and wanted, even if they’re shy, quiet, or anxious around strangers.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve walked up and introduced myself to people–or, worse, been invited somewhere with a group of established friends–who then proceeded to ignore me and keep discussing their own inside jokes and gossip. When I was younger and more socially anxious, reaching out to people was almost impossible because I was terrified of this exact possibility and the awkwardness that ensues when you’re greeted and introduced and then ignored.

Now, as an adult who’s much more likely to be the one with the established friend group than the newbie, I sometimes catching myself doing the same thing and I try to make an effort to include the new person in the conversation instead.

Excluding people from conversation is rude at best and anxiety-provoking at worst, and it’s easy to avoid. If you’d like new people to come to your events and feel welcome there, you have to actually include them.

And on another level, it’s important to actually invite people to your event even if they seem shy or not very social. Give them a lot of information about the event–what will happen there, how many people there will be, who else they know is coming, and so on. As long as your invitation isn’t coercive (see below), they can decide for themselves whether they’re comfortable attending or not.

2. On the other hand, don’t try to force them into social interaction.

Social coercion bothers me, both in my personal life and on a philosophical level. If someone’s perfectly happy sitting off to the side on their own, there’s no reason for you to try to force them to mingle just for the sake of feeling like a successful host. Even if you think it’s “for their own good.”

If you see a person at your event who seems shy or anxious, you could come up to them alone and ask if they’d like to be introduced to others or to participate in whatever’s going on. (For large events like conferences, it can be helpful to have a person whose job it is to do this.) If they say no, that’s it. Say, “Okay, please let me know if you change your mind!” and leave them alone.

Note that some people with social anxiety wouldn’t agree with me on this, because they wouldn’t want to be approached at all. This is one great reason why you should seek other opinions, not just mine!

3. Physically organize your space in a way that allows shy or anxious people to have time alone.

We’re used to having to sneak outside and stand in the cold. We’re used to hiding away in the bathroom as people knock on the door and ask if we’re “okay in there.” (No, but not in the way you mean.)

Why not make that unnecessary?

An event should have quiet areas or rooms where people can go just to be alone and recharge. If that’s not an option, consider having things they can look at or fiddle with when they don’t feel like talking–coffee table books, those little mechanical puzzles, and so on. Introverts, shy people, and people with social anxiety often find that they need to get away from people for a bit after socializing for a while. Unless the venue allows that, this often means that they have to just call it a night and go home.

4. Try to avoid overcrowding as much as possible.

I know that sometimes having a crowded event or party is unavoidable, especially for those of us who are still young and living in tiny cheap apartments. If you can, though, make sure there’s plenty of space for the number of people you’re inviting. Ensure that people can easily get through aisles or to their seats, and that there’s enough seating. An overcrowded event is annoying for everyone, but for people with social anxiety it can be unbearable.

5. Provide activities for people to do instead of just talking.

This kind of goes along with not forcing people into social interaction (see #2 above). See if it’s possible to provide board games or other things that people can do with each other that saves them from the burden of having to come up with conversation topics, which can be really hard to do when you’re shy or anxious, especially if you don’t have any close friends at the event.

Another thing you can do is create opportunities for people to help out that don’t involve a ton of socializing. Ask for volunteers to record talks on video, serve food, etc. Some people who otherwise have trouble being social find it easier when they have something else to do too.

6. Pay attention to the way you have conversations.

Aside from actually including people in the conversation (see #1), there are various things you can do while talking to shy, anxious, or introverted people that will make it easier for them to participate.

First of all, decreasing the emphasis on small talk or avoiding it entirely can really help people who have trouble with conversations. It may seem counterintuitive, since small talk is often what we do when we don’t know what else to say. However, it’s also the type of conversation that many introverts and shy people have the most difficulty with, because you have to follow preestablished social “rules” and find a way to somehow make it interesting that you’re majoring in biology or spent the holidays in Chicago or have a daughter studying at Ohio State.

Instead, ask them something more interesting. Don’t be afraid to venture into “taboo” subjects like politics and religion. Many shy and quiet people will suddenly open up when asked about something they’re passionate about.

When you’re having conversations with people, allow for comfortable silences. Silence is a healthy, normal part of interacting with others. Sometimes people–especially shy or socially anxious people–need time to process what’s been said or to form a cogent response. I once went on a first date and the conversation had gotten pretty deep and interesting, so I paused for a few moments to collect my thoughts. My date immediately went, “Well, that’s an awkward silence!” No, the silence wasn’t awkward. That comment was awkward.

Trying to fill up every single silence makes us feel like we’re inadequate at conversation and makes the anxiety worse.

One last very important thing: please avoid loudly calling attention to people’s verbal slip-ups, mispronunciations, and so on. If you must correct someone, do it quietly and politely. “Oh, I think you might’ve meant genotype, not phenotype,” not “Um, what are you talking about? It’s definitely genotype, duh.” Or “Just FYI, it’s pronounced ‘salmon’!”, not “HAHA did you just call it SAL-mon? What’s wrong with you?” (You may think I’m exaggerating, but as a foreigner who got most of her English vocabulary from reading, my frequent mispronunciations have garnered some incredibly rude responses from friends.)

Changing the way you plan events and interact with people in order to include those who find socializing difficult may seem like a lot of work, but it’s worth it. Some of the most interesting people you’ll meet are very withdrawn at first, but welcome them and they may amaze you.

[Guest Post] Runway Rising: Perks and Challenges of a Socially Conscious Fashion Company

Hey everyone! In this guest post, my friend Danielle writes about fashion, mental health, and running a socially conscious business.

To all fans and readers of Brute Reason,

I am Danielle Kerani, CEO/Founder of the knit fashion company AK Kerani and a fellow student at Northwestern with Miriam.

When Miriam first asked me to write a guest blog for Brute Reason, I was both flattered and excited. I have become a huge fan of this blog, mainly because of the bravery it takes to so openly confront anxiety and depression. Having struggled myself with these issues, I know how much of an internal battle it can be. For many months you can be stuck in a cycle of believing you are better only to let yourself down. And this cycle continues until you grow strong enough to realize that your depression is not only a pest that sticks to you. It is your twisted lover that you hate but from which you cannot part. And when you realize that you, not your depression, are the one keeping yourself from a healthy life, only then can you cast the ring into the fire.

Miriam requested that I talk about the seeming paradox of running a socially conscious fashion business. I created AK Kerani last summer in honor of my uncle, Atindra Kumar, who had passed away in June. Since then it has grown from a simple online platform to a vibrant small business selling high quality handmade products to promote knitting as a therapeutic activity for those struggling with anxiety and depression.

At this time, I knew just as well as I do now that the media, fashion-related media being one of the worst, is very conducive to anxiety. Fashion ads don’t merely attempt to persuade us into buying pretty and trendy clothes and accessories. They often seem to be rooted in a deeper manipulation, telling us that our worth lies not in our inherent value as people, but in our ability to represent society’s standard of sexuality. Seeing the adulation that models in ads appear to receive, we get thrown into loops of self-centered anxiety. If adopting the identities of these figureheads is the key to our happiness, why not starve our bodies and souls to be like them? Having partaken in all of these mindsets, I was able to see how all encompassing the media has become, such that nobody in the world, no matter what career path or lifestyle they choose to pursue, is completely immune to its influence.

I hope that AK Kerani can represent a different kind of world – one in which fashion is a means of individual expression and inspires us to love the world and its gifts. We don’t need to hate the world like helpless martyrs when we have a large part to play in whether this cycle stops or continues. I believe that one day, fashion can represent many pathways of real diversity, beauty and sexuality as opposed to one pathway of twisted, photo-shopped lust.

The main challenge of running AK Kerani is to figure out what place our company holds in the entertainment industry, the fashion industry and in society. Are we mainly in business to sell high quality fashion products? Or is our main goal to promote our socially conscious mission? Is there a way that these two elements of our business can intertwine perfectly? Or will one always come out on top? Ultimately, I often find myself struggling with one complex issue: How does AK Kerani battle the trends of the current fashion media without somewhat playing into the current industry enough to gain influence? If we don’t create traditionally appealing visuals to interest potential consumers, how will we ever be able to shout out our mission to a large crowd of ears?

We want to believe that the fashion industry can be a tool for social change. We want those who hear our mission to understand that hurting, starving and demeaning ourselves are not the only ways with which we can fight our anxieties. In hopes of counteracting these common reactions, AK Kerani will set up programs in hospitals and mental health institutions to give those struggling with anxiety not only an employment opportunity through knitting for us, but also a refreshing outlet for feelings they thought they could never control.

There is nothing wrong with looking appealing and celebrating the gifts that we all have been given. Pretty eyes, luscious hair and sculpted legs were never the problem. The problem is the significance that we ascribe to them. The problem is that we have been conditioned to believe that these attributes mean happiness, success and even love. And often, we force ourselves to relinquish all of these things in favor of pursuing the unattainable goal of a skewed perfection.

Though I have become way healthier at handling my own struggles with self image, disordered eating and overall anxiety, I have often wondered if the media’s damage is too pervasive to allow those of us who grew up with it to be completely healed. At times I am tempted to give up. If I am guilty of the same struggles my company condemns, how can I truly lead it to victory? And then I realize that humanity is not about being perfectly healed. It’s about struggling through adversity so that the light shines even brighter than it would have had you never fallen. We will always find ways to struggle, hate and doubt. An improved media, no matter how reformed and supportive, would not change that. But nor do we want it to. Because what we are striving for is reality – for the media to see us truly as we are and proudly represent it. And this can happen at anytime in any place as long as we learn to uphold different values – ones that seek to encourage instead of discourage.

Knitting, writing, and spastically experimenting with social media for AK Kerani have all taught me that success and health lie on an ambiguous continuum. To work out the kinks of a broken society and media, we must rebuild the confidence that we have lost piece by piece under its influence. And though we might think in grandiose terms picturing a new world, this world can only be achieved if we all commit to a slow and repetitive, but rewarding process of healing, row by row–one stitch at a time.

AK Kerani models (photo credit: Priscilla Liu)

Danielle Kerani is a native New Yorker who only just recently started appreciating the all-black stereotype: both in clothing and coffee.  Danielle is a junior journalism major at Northwestern University and is the Founder/CEO of the knit fashion company AK Kerani. In her free time, Danielle is a singer/songwriter, a blogger, a distance runner and a huge fan of exploring cool places with her boyfriend Jang, taking walks with her mom, and having crazy adventures with her super quirky friends. 

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the B's

College students seem to love this poster, perhaps because it reminds us to calm the fuck down. Did you know it was originally created by the British government during WWII to keep citizens calm in the event of an invasion? How’s that for perspective.

A few weeks ago, our final grades for spring quarter were posted online. This usually happens on the Monday evening after the end of the quarter, and you see people posting Facebook statuses about their grades all night.

I used to be one of the people who’d sit there refreshing Caesar or at least checking my Facebook newsfeed so that I would know my grades the second they were handed down from above like a court decision. When you work for something for ten weeks, you want to know the results immediately.

But this time, I didn’t check my grades right away. In fact, I still haven’t checked them. And I’m not going to until the next time I need to update my resume.

It’s not that they were going to be extra crappy this quarter or anything. It’s not that I need good grades any less than I did before. Nothing changed, except that, one day not long before the quarter ended, I realized that grades had started to rule my life.

This is a long story, and one that will be familiar to anyone who’s attended a school like Northwestern. This story involves panic attacks, hours on the phone with one’s parents, Red Bull, and contrite emails to professors. It involves checking the average GPAs at all the top grad schools and choosing classes based on how likely you are to get an A in them. At times, it involves sacrificing education–true education–for a false feeling of accomplishment.

There are many episodes in this series. There was the time I sat in the snow winter quarter of freshman year and bawled before going back into Tech, finding the computer lab, and dropping a class for the first time. There was the time I told my mom I was going to just become a housewife after graduation (a housewife without a husband?). There was the time I seriously considered just moving to Israel and joining the army. There were the times–yes, unfortunately, that’s plural–when I did something self-destructive.

All that, because of a number.

One of the most insidiously dangerous things about the culture at Northwestern (indeed, probably at most elite schools, but I can only speak for this one) is how driving yourself crazy over grades and schoolwork becomes normalized. If a normal, average, non-Northwestern person saw me a few weeks ago–when I was freaking out and crying because I might do poorly on my Hebrew final which might give me a B in the class which might lower my GPA substantially enough which might prevent me from getting into graduate school which might prevent me from having something to do after I graduate–that person’s reaction would probably be horror and pity.

But a fellow student at Northwestern would just nod their head and smile and perhaps suggest that I get drunk this weekend to forget all about it.

While it’s great to have people who understand what we’re going through, I think it’s hazardous to our mental health that we have such an echo chamber of academic anxiety. Because any informed adult will tell us that this is all ridiculous. You’re not going to be screwed for life just because you failed one class at some point in college. You’re not going to be turned down from every job just because you only got a C in calculus. It just won’t happen. These are lies we sell to ourselves when we’re (understandably) worried and uncertain about the future.

I wish I had a crystal ball that could tell me exactly how it’s all going to work out–whether I’ll go to grad school right after college, which one I’ll go to, which degree I’ll get, where I’ll live, who I will be.

But I don’t. And in the meantime, I want to live my life.

It’s entirely possible that right there in my Caesar account, unbeknownst to me, is a grade so horrendous that I actually will get rejected from grad school. So I’ll go get a job until I can get into grad school. And if I can’t get a real job, I’ll go volunteer and work part-time until I can get a real job. It’ll work out, even if I might have to live paycheck-to-paycheck for a while.

Of course, it’s impossible to aspire to go to grad school and yet completely not care about your grades. I need to care about them and keep them as high as I can, and I think it’s natural to worry occasionally that they’re not good enough.

But this constant catastrophizing of every single exam, paper, and assignment?

That needs to go. I can’t live like that.

More to the point, living in a state of anxiety probably doesn’t do wonders for my academic performance anyway.

Regardless of my grades, everything will be okay and life will eventually work out.

Update: And because I can’t write a post without including something political and sociological, read this.

Leaving Medill

I knocked on the office door promptly at noon. She opened the door and said, “Can you just wait a few minutes? Our teleconference is running late.” I nodded. The door shut. I waited.

Twenty minutes later, I was sitting at a round table in a large, airy office full of plants. It had two windows, one of which faced my freshman year dorm.

“So, you’re thinking about transferring out of Medill?”

“Definitely transferring.” Her eyebrows go up. “I mean, I’m a junior, and I actually decided quite a while ago, so…”

“Can you tell me a little bit about your decision? I’m not trying to dissuade you.”


I remember all those nights. Clutching my camera or my notepad or both. Trying to find a way–any way–to escape the situation.

The worst time was when I was doing my final project for the last journalism class I ever took. I went to a gathering at my brother’s apartment–an event for young adults of Jewish/Russian descent. I had to interview people–not my brother, obviously. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t make myself talk to anybody. My throat started closing up.

My brother’s apartment was on the sixteenth floor. Would that be high enough?

I ran outside and collapsed on a bench in a park, crying and trying to catch my breath. I felt ridiculous. The Medill School of Journalism had accepted just ten percent of its applicants the year I got in. There were nine other people who had desperately wanted my spot. And now I was bawling like an idiot because I had a terrible fear of talking to strangers.

They told me it gets easier with time, that you have to just make yourself do it. They said you would stop feeling self-conscious after a while. They explained how important it is to my future career that I learn to be pushy.

It never got easier. I always ended up gasping for breath and crying.

I don’t remember how I finished that project, but somehow I did. Not long after I started having weird neurological symptoms and became more or less numb to everything. I spent the summer at home, doing almost nothing. The one thing I accomplished was starting antidepressants to undo what being in Medill had, for whatever reason, done to me.


And today, two years later, I sat in her office and answered her question.

“It just wasn’t my thing,” I said.


Two years have passed, and I’m only now filling out this paperwork, going to this meeting, and making sure that the university knows whether to give me a BS in journalism or a BA in psychology.

Part of reason for the delay was my own laziness and lack of fondness for formalities like this, but another part of it was avoidance.

I hate going into the Medill buildings. Both of them. One is very new, all sleek and shiny, with high ceilings and plush chairs and new technology. The other is its opposite, old and creaky, with a rusty fire escape winding up the back. I once climbed all the way to the top of it and sat there late at night.

They’re both beautiful. I hate them both.

In these buildings I learned how to write a lede and use AP style. I learned how to use Adobe Flash and InDesign, Final Cut Pro, and Audacity. I learned how to shoot video and record audio. I learned how to harass people who didn’t want to answer my questions until they did it anyway.

Mostly, though, I learned what it feels like to fail.

I don’t mean what they call a “Medill F,” which is what happens when you make a factual error in a piece and receive a grade of 50%. That did happen to me, as it did to virtually everyone else.

But that’s not failure. That’s just screwing up. Failure is when your mind conspires against you and keeps you from doing something you desperately want to do.

I wanted to be a journalist, but I couldn’t stop the panic attacks that I got whenever I had to actually be one.


She signed my form and made sure I knew where to take it next.

“And know that we’re always here for you, even though you’re leaving. If you ever have any questions, I’m always happy to help–even you!” She smiled and I had to smile back.

She congratulated me again for my acceptance to the psychology honors program, and I thanked her kindly.

“Good luck, my dear,” she said.

And then, less than five minutes later, it was over. I left the building and I left Medill.


It’s been two years since I took a journalism class. My video camera, voice recorder, and microphone lie abandoned in my closet back home. I still use my tripod for my own photography.

My external hard drive died suddenly over a year ago, and with it died all the articles and projects I did. If there’s a heaven for vain attempts, that’s where they are.

My new chosen profession is similar to journalism in some ways. Both journalists and therapists do a certain amount of investigation and excavation. Both live and work by a code of ethics, and both must keep secrets. Therapists, like journalists, ask questions and listen and take notes.

But that’s basically where the similarities end. Therapists don’t get to attach their names to their successes. I don’t get to point out a person who came to me barely able to get through the day and now lives happily, and say, “This is my work.” They don’t award Pulitzers to therapists. If a therapist’s name is in the newspaper, it’s probably for something bad.

And yet. My freshman year, one of my journalism professors told me a story about something she saw as a young reporter. A horrific plane crash had just happened and many were injured or dead. She was assigned to cover the story and showed up at the local hospital along with all the other reporters. The hospital staff told the reporters that there was a special room for grieving friends and family and that they must not attempt to interview the people inside.

Then someone came out of the room and sat on the floor, next to the door, with her head in her hands. My professor couldn’t bring herself to do it, but another reporter walked right up and said, “So, who’d you lose?”

I retell this story whenever people ask me why I chose psychology over journalism. It illustrates so pointedly the differences between these professions. Journalists do important work, work without which our society couldn’t function. But their allegiance is to “the people,” who “need to know.” The allegiance of a therapist is always, always to her client.


But I won’t pretend that this is a happy choice. I’m glad to have found my calling in life, but when I tell people that I “chose” psychology instead of journalism, as I told you just now, I’m not really telling it like it is.

“Choosing” means picking one thing when you are equally free to do either.

I was never free to be a journalist, because my broken brain wouldn’t let me.

Maybe if I had been, I would still have chosen psychology. Maybe not. Either way, now I’ll never know.

Most of us were raised with the idea that we can be whatever we want to be. Well, maybe that isn’t always true.

Learning How to be Happy

I’m going to go out on a limb and criticize something even more popular than the things I usually criticize–my school’s Happiness Club.

The Happiness Club is a prominent student organization at Northwestern that aims to increase happiness by planning all sorts of activities for the campus, such as kite-flying, free hot chocolate, water balloon fights, “silent” dance parties, and so on. In other words, all fun and exciting activities.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is that it’s not “happiness” that these activities are promoting; it’s momentary joy. Momentary joy is an important component of a happy life, but it’s not even close to all you need.

Let me explain. Most Northwestern students have been fed on a steady diet of stress, sleep deprivation, and SAT prep classes since before we hit puberty. The kinds of effects that such a diet inevitably has–for instance, perfectionism, fatigue, anxiety, and depression–are things that no amount of kite-flying will cure.

To put it bluntly, most people I know here (myself included) are simply not capable of living our lives in a way that’s conducive to long-term happiness and well-being. We suck at prioritizing–academics and extracurriculars come before friends and family, every time. We demand perfect grades from ourselves. We apply to only the most prestigious internships and burst into tears when we inevitably fail to get those positions. We fill our schedules to the point that we have to schedule in shower time. We don’t pause to relax, think, or meditate.

In other words, the skills that we lack–balance, mindfulness, perspective, and a healthy amount of compassion for ourselves–are exactly the things that are not being taught to us here. These are the skills that lay the foundation for a happy and meaningful life.

Of course, there are resources. CAPS (our psychological service) offers workshops, and RAs are encouraged to emphasize the need for balance and stress relief to their residents. But the people we look to and trust the  most–our peers–are often more of a negative influence than a positive one. (For instance, how do you think I feel about my own study  habits when my friend tells me she stayed up till 4 AM studying, slept for two hours, and got up at 6 to keep going?)

That’s where a group like the Happiness Club should, theoretically, come in. In addition to the undoubtedly fun activities that they already plan, why don’t they offer workshops on stress relief, meditation, or yoga? Why don’t they bring in speakers who talk about how one can be both productive and happy in college? Why don’t they encourage greater awareness of things like perfectionism, anxiety, and depression?

We need to start up a campus dialogue about these things, because there isn’t one right now. Occasionally, late at night, one of us will admit to a friend that we’re just not living the right way. But this conversation needs to happen on a larger scale. There is too much misery here. I don’t doubt that many Northwestern students are happy in some sense of the word, but they’re not as happy as they could be, because while all the adults in our lives have taught us how to live a successful life, nobody’s taught us how to live a happy one. Maybe it’s time to teach ourselves.