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.

~~~

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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.