Lessons I Learned From Depression

[Content note: depression]

People struggling with mental illness (or any sort of illness, or anything crappy, really) are constantly exhorted by well-meaning people to find the “silver lining” in their experience. This often takes the form of tropes about “learning who your real friends are” or “learning how to fully appreciate life” or “understanding what’s really important in life” and on and on.

For a long time I resisted the entire notion of finding “lessons” or “learning opportunities” in my decade-long struggle with depression. (Yes, decade-long. Yes, I’m 22.) Part of this was because the people who demanded that I do so were just so damn annoying, frankly. No, I will not spin you a convenient story about What Depression Has Taught Me to make you feel better when you see my tears or my scars.

But mostly I resisted because I felt that admitting that I’ve learned things from this experience requires intentionally forgetting the fact that most of it had no meaning. There is no meaning to losing half of your life to something you can’t even see or prove to people or sometimes even describe in words. There is no meaning to having most of the memories of your life discolored, blurred, and tainted by a misery and terror that had no name. This is not the stuff of inspirational memoirs or films. While some people suffer for political causes or for their children or in order to produce a great work of art, I suffered for absolutely no reason at all.

But, of course, I did learn some things. Maybe I would’ve learned them even if I’d had a more normative emotional experience, but right now it really seems like I learned them as a result of being so miserable a lot of the time. And while I reserve a very special fury for those who implore us to create meaning out of meaningless suffering and produce “lessons” and “silver linings” and “bright sides” carefully repackaged for their consumption, I think these are lessons that are worthwhile to share.

I am not my GPA, weight, debt, scars.Lesson 1: Not everything your brain tells you is accurate.

Most people, I think, go through life without giving much thought to whether or not their perceptions are providing them with the most accurate possible picture of reality. But sometimes our brains are pretty crappy at this. Of course, I would’ve learned that without the help of depression, because I study psychology. So I’ve known for a while about stuff like the fundamental attribution error, the halo effect, anchoring, confirmation bias, the Dunning-Kruger effect, the false-consensus effect, the just-world hypothesis, in-group favoritism, the hot-hand fallacy, the Lake Wobegon effect, status quo bias, and all sorts of other biases, fallacies, and errors.

But what really brought it home was depression. While the cognitive errors I’ve listed are generally adaptive and keep people happier, depression was the opposite. Instead of telling me that people like me despite evidence to the contrary, my cognitive distortions told me that everyone hates me despite evidence to the contrary. Rather than telling me that I’m above-average in most things, they told me that I’m below-average in most things. On any given day I would invariably feel like the stupidest, ugliest, least likable, most worthless person alive. True story.

At some point it occurred to me that I would never recover if I didn’t learn how to treat what my brain said with a healthy amount of skepticism. So I started to. (Perhaps not coincidentally, this was the time in my life when my political views evolved the most, because I also started challenging my knee-jerk reactions to various issues in our society.) Of course, this is a lesson that is not limited to folks with mental illnesses, because everyone’s brain does this to them at some point. For many people, including some of those who proudly label themselves “skeptics,” thinking critically about what happens inside one’s brain does not come nearly as easily as thinking critically about what happens out there in the world.

So, for me, this meant a lot of time spent repeating to myself, “Yes, I feel like Best Friend hates my guts, but that’s just a feeling and it’s not necessarily true” and “Yes, not getting that internship makes me feel like I’m a complete failure who will never amount to anything in her chosen field, but that’s just my brain lying to me again” and “Yes, Partner wants to see their friends rather than me tonight, but this doesn’t mean that Partner doesn’t care about me and doesn’t want to keep seeing me anymore.”

Pause, rewind, repeat, and there you have my recovery.

Lesson 2: Your feelings are valid.

Does this seem like a contradiction to the previous lesson? It’s not. Unfortunately, when confronted with the apparently irrational emotions of others, many people immediately jump to the conclusion that those emotions are WRONG. (These people should never try to be therapists.)

However, just because someone’s emotions do not seem like a “rational” response to what they’re going through, that doesn’t mean there’s no reason for them. That reason can be whichever complicated and still-misunderstood brain processes cause depression. It can be that those are the emotions they saw expressed in their families growing up, and learned to mimic at an early age. It can be that last time this sort of thing happened, it ended terribly and now they’re freaking out over this seemingly minor thing because it could end that badly again. It can be that what’s currently happening to them is reminding them of something else entirely.

Or it could be for any number of other reasons that you do not know, and that the person having the “irrational” feelings might not know either. So why assume?

It’s important to remember, too, that there tends to be a pattern to the emotions we decide are “irrational” and “inappropriate” in others. Anger from a woman or a person of color is perceived differently than anger from a white man. Sadness from a woman is perceived differently than sadness from a man. Archetypes like the Angry Black Man and the Hysterical Woman are sometimes so deeply ingrained that we don’t even notice ourselves applying them.

But all emotions are valid. Some are less adaptive than others, some we want to change, some can contribute to unacceptable behavior if we don’t address them, yes. But they’re all valid, and telling others (or ourselves) that some emotions are not okay to have doesn’t help in changing them.

Lesson 3: Sometimes you have to keep your mental health in mind when making decisions.

This is the one I’ve resisted the most. I had to quit studying journalism because it was giving me panic attacks, and I chose not to pursue a PhD in part because I didn’t think I could handle it emotionally (well, and because the thought of it just bored me). When it comes to my personal life, my mental health is a big part of the reason I gave up monogamy, although I’m now glad I did for many other reasons. It’s also part of the reason I never studied abroad, gave up many other opportunities, and chose to move to NYC.

When I first started to realize that mental health is a factor that I need to consider when making decisions about my academic, professional, and personal life, I felt abandoned and betrayed by my own brain. I understood intuitively that sometimes you can’t do things because they require physical traits or abilities that you lack or because you don’t have the cognitive skills or because you just lack access to those opportunities. But to have all those things and still give something up just because my brain doesn’t like it? That seemed ridiculous.

In fact, that way of thinking is just an extension of the stigma of mental illness. Just as we think that mental illness isn’t really “real,” we think that mental health isn’t really important. It’s reasonable, we think, to choose not to live in Florida because you can’t deal with the weather or to choose not to go running because it’s too hard on your knees or to choose not to be a physicist because you can’t do math worth a shit, but not getting a PhD because grad school would make your depression relapse? Not being a journalist because interviewing people gives you panic attacks? Not studying abroad because being away from people you love makes you suicidal? What the hell is up with that. Just deal with it.

So for a long time I did stuff that made me miserable because I was fighting so hard against the notion that mental health is something you need to take care of and cultivate, just as you would with your physical health. But one of the most important things I’ve learned how to do in college is knowing when to say “no” to things that sound fantastic but might break down the levees I’ve built up to keep the depression from flooding in.

Of course, sometimes it still makes me furious. I recently gave up a great opportunity for that reason; I badly wanted to do it but every time I thought about actually doing it, and the sacrifices it would entail, I broke down, sobbing, paralyzed, unable to say yes or no to it. Eventually I finally turned it down, full of resentment at myself and my useless brain, but trying to understand that my reason was a good one and that I deserve permission to make this choice.

Now, naturally, there are those who would tell me to Just Do It! and Get Out Of Your Comfort Zone! and blabbityblahblah, but those people will just have to trust me when I say that I know the potential dangers much better than they do. Mental illness is a whole ‘nother ballgame. When I want to Get Out Of My Comfort Zone! I try getting to know someone new or reading something I disagree with that makes me a bit uncomfortable. When I move to NYC, I can Get Out Of My Comfort Zone! by joining new groups or going to events where I don’t know people and seeing what happens.

That’s getting out of my comfort zone. Ignoring the fact that I have important needs when it comes to my mental health, though, is not “brave” or “spontaneous” or “gutsy.” It’s just irresponsible, just as it would be irresponsible go ride a motorcycle without a helmet or to not wash my hands during flu season.

So give yourself permission to treat your mental health with the care and concern it deserves. Of course, you might be aware that doing something could make your mental health worse and choose to do it anyway for any number of reasons, and that’s completely fine, too.

But so many of us struggle merely to accept the idea that it’s okay not to do things for the sole reason that they might worsen our mental health, and that’s something we have to overcome.

It's okay not to be okay.

LGBT Celebrities Do Not Owe Coming Out To Anyone

Everyone’s got an opinion on Jodie Foster’s speech at the Golden Globes last night. If you haven’t seen it, here’s a video with a transcript.

In the speech, Foster spoke affectionately of her ex-partner, with whom she raised children, and explained that she “already did [her] coming out about a thousand years ago back in the Stone Age” but values her privacy too much to make it a big spectacle.

That’s not a good enough excuse for one writer, though (watch out, it’s apparently Low-Hanging Fruit Day over here at Brute Reason):

I mean, is it 1996? Jodie’s defensive speech, in which she seemed to blame Honey Boo Boo and reality TV for supposedly creating a climate that forced her out of the closet, harkened back to a time when it was a big deal to proclaim your sexual orientation. Hello, it’s 2013! People are getting “gay married” and homos can be out in the military and stuff!

[...]Why am I so angry? Because I’m roughly the same age as Jodie, and yet I had the courage to come out exactly 20 years ago.

I honestly don’t see what is “defensive” about Foster’s speech and where exactly she “blames” current pop culture for “forcing” her out of the closet. She does joke about how celebrities are expected to live very publicly and have their own reality shows and fragrances and whatnot, but the part where she blames this for making her come out seems to be entirely in Baer’s imagination.

Baer goes on and calls Foster’s need for privacy “an excuse” and then offers this bizarre caveat:

A lot of people will criticize this piece and write angry, hateful comments saying that it was up to her when and where to come out, and they’re absolutely right, but that still doesn’t mean she wasn’t a coward, and it doesn’t change the fact that she could have helped millions of people by coming out years ago.

A bunch of things jump out at me:

1. This article seems to be more about the author than about Jodie Foster.

As in, it’s all about Baer and how courageous she was for having come out a long time ago. Even though she doesn’t dedicate that much of the article to talking about her own courage, that’s clearly the main theme–she was courageous and Foster was not.

Baer undoubtedly deserves respect for coming out so early (well, for coming out at all), but that doesn’t mean Foster is a “coward” for not being so public about her sexual orientation. As she explains in her speech, everyone that she wanted to know, knew. That may not be “out enough” for Baer, but it’s still out.

Whenever someone’s done something awesome–come out, for example, or recovered from a mental illness–there’s a certain tension in figuring out how to talk about the people who haven’t succeeded in doing that thing yet without being a total asshole about it. My reasoning is that you don’t know why they haven’t and it’s best not to assume. I suppose Foster could really be a coward, but personally I doubt it. It’s more likely that she had other reasons for not coming out publicly (assuming that the ways in which she has already come out don’t matter, which is what Baer seems to be assuming).

2. Considering Foster’s history, Baer is incredibly dismissive of her stated need for privacy.

Many celebrities guard their privacy carefully, and not all of them have any desire to be in tabloids all the time. But Foster has a unique story in that regard. In the 1980s, a fan of hers named John Hinckley, Jr. became obsessive and started sending her love letters. He then attempted to assassinate then-President Reagan, stating that he was trying to impress Foster. The resulting intrusion of her privacy by the media is something that she’s known to have had a lot of discomfort with.

Given this, one would think that Foster could get away with needing privacy a bit more than the average celebrity, but in rushing to condemn her, Baer misses these nuances.

As Foster said in the speech:

But seriously, if you had been a public figure from the time that you were a toddler, if you’d had to fight for a life that felt real and honest and normal against all odds, then maybe you too might value privacy above all else. Privacy.

3. It’s not Foster’s job to “help millions of people” by coming out.

It’s not anyone’s job, actually. Foster’s job is to make movies. Baer’s job is to write articles about the entertainment industry. All of us should probably try to be decent people and to help others when they need it, but not at the cost of our own well-being. Chastising someone for failing to “help millions of people” just seems odd to me because it presumes that Foster is somehow failing live up to her responsibilities as a person.

It’s undoubtedly true that many people would’ve been happy had Foster come out (or, again, come out more publicly in the way that Baer apparently wanted her to). Perhaps she would’ve been an inspiration for a lot of LGBT kids. But that doesn’t make coming out an imperative. I would probably inspire lots of people if I won a marathon or donated all of my worldly possessions to charity, but that doesn’t make it a moral imperative for me to do so.

4. Baer’s reaction shows an incredible amount of entitlement.

We consider ourselves entitled to a lot from celebrities. They must be Good Role Models. They must always be grateful for their fame, even if they never asked for it and even if it often causes them enormous personal difficulties. (Consider the never-ending excoriation of Kristen Stewart for failing to appear cheerful and grateful enough.) If they’re queer, they must always come out and be willing to serve as advocates for LGBT causes.

You could argue that it’s not healthy or “right” for any queer person to live in the closet (though in my opinion you’d still be wrong). But that’s not what Foster was doing. Given that she had already come out to everyone who matters to her and has lived her life as a gay woman–for instance, by dating another woman and raising children with her–Baer’s presumption that Foster owes us anything more than that is predicated on the fact that she’s a celebrity.

Like many others, Baer assumes that celebrities’ lives exist for her consumption and that celebrities who happen to be queer exist solely to validate her and other LGBT folks. But Foster is a human being. She is a human being who happens to be a famous actress and who also happens to be gay.

5. Baer is shockingly dismissive of the negative consequences that coming out can have for celebrities.

She writes:

Nobody was asking Jodie to be president of the gays. Ellen [Degeneres] is a great example of someone who came out, had no interest in being the poster child and is just living her life honestly and openly. Though she occasionally fights publicly for LGBT causes, being a lesbian doesn’t define her. But here’s the amazing thing that happened to Ellen. At first her big announcement seemed to derail her career. She disappeared for a while and almost gave up on show business because she was “mired in depression.” After some dark days, which a lot of newly out people experience, Ellen ultimately was rewarded for being her true self. Today, because of her talk show, she’s arguably one of the most beloved stars on the planet, adored by millions, gay and straight alike (except for a handful of moms who now refuse to shop at JCPenney, but c’mon, they’re dumb).

First of all, I’m not sure why Baer thinks that Ellen isn’t a “poster child” when such a great deal of media coverage about her has to do with the fact that she’s a lesbian. But second, notice how Baer just skims right over the part where Ellen suffered from depression and nearly quit her career as a result of coming out. As though that doesn’t even matter because she gets to be “her true self” now. As though the bullying from One Million Moms is just a crappy little side effect.

What if that sort of public opprobrium and the depression that can result from it wasn’t something Foster felt capable of dealing with?

Nobody should have to suffer through bullying, depression, and possible career loss for coming out as gay or trans*. I think we can all agree on that here, and many of us advocate in various ways to make coming out easier and safer. But blaming an individual for not being willing to put themselves through this is unconscionable.

I don’t know what private struggles Foster has gone through with regard to her sexuality, and neither does Baer. It’s none of our business. That’s why calling her a coward for not doing what others have done is wrong.

Six Months

Every New Year’s Eve, I write a post about the year that’s about to end. When I was younger, I mostly used these posts to talk about significant things that had happened to me (getting a boyfriend, losing a boyfriend, getting into this or that program or college, and so on), explain what I’d learned from them, and make resolutions for the future.

Looking back over my resolutions from past years is kind of sad for me now. It’s both unsurprising and depressing how many of them concerned random metrics that I’d allowed the world to value me by–GPA, weight, stuff like that.

These were always the resolutions that I was never able to keep.

I don’t do New Year’s resolutions anymore, mostly because my resolution would be the exact same every year: do better, be better.

Over the last few years, the theme of depression has completely taken over these New Year’s Eve posts. In 2010 I wrote about being diagnosed and recovering. That was the first time I wrote about depression publicly, and I’ve continued doing so ever since.

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

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

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

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

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

And then I continue on my way.

Maybe next year.

Today I returned to that exact spot. Not on purpose or anything. I’m in New York for the week and that spot just happens to be located next to my favorite bookstore in the world, the Strand.

And even though it was cold and I’m not in a particularly good mood today, I realized: the “next year” that I’d been dreaming about has come to pass. That year was 2012.

The end of December marks six months since my depression symptoms suddenly abated last summer. Psychologists seem to agree that at the six-month mark, remission officially becomes recovery. I don’t know what this means other than that I get to say that I’ve recovered.

I feel like I should have some Good Insights about how to recover from depression, but I really don’t. Medication helped me deal with the worst of it, but it stopped working after a while. I never managed to find a therapist that helped, but I’ll keep looking.

There were a number of amazing things that happened to me this year, some of which I attribute to my recovery. However, the interesting thing is that they all happened after my symptoms stopped, not before. Stuff like getting involved in the atheist movement, meeting my best friends and my partner, growing my blog and moving to FtB, finally deciding what I’m doing next year (getting a masters in social work), and so on. My life has changed so drastically over the past six months that I sometimes wonder if recovering from depression somehow opened me up to let all of this in. But I don’t know.

People who suffer from depression are constantly being exhorted to Look On The Bright Side and Be Open To Love and all that stuff, but here’s the thing–I was unable to do any of these things until my symptoms had eased up. I would never have been able to be outgoing enough to meet all the awesome people that I’ve met, and although I’ve been a good writer for a while, it got much easier to handle criticism and promote my blog once I didn’t feel depressed anymore. And while I hope my partner would stick with me if I had another depressive episode, the person I was half a year ago probably wasn’t someone he would’ve been interested in. Sad, but true.

I’d bet that the connections I made after I recovered are a large part of the reason I’m still doing so well, though. Without them, maybe I would’ve relapsed quickly. My writing, my friends, my partner, and even all the random acquaintances I’ve made while blogging are like a large safety net, giving me something other than myself and my moods to focus on when I’m not doing very well. My future, which is starting to clear up and coalesce into an actual set of plans, is always on my mind, reminding me that the college life I’ve never liked is finally ending soon.

I wish I could tell you how I got to that place I was at six months ago, ready to connect with the world in a genuine way for the first time in years. Maybe the illness had just had enough. Maybe I started getting enough vitamins or something and some random chemicals in my brain balanced out. I don’t know.

More likely, though, all the stuff I was reading and writing was finally going to my brain. While feminism certainly can’t cure serious depression, it really got to the roots of a lot of the issues I was having that were contributing to my depression. For the first time, I started to understanding that, yes, I can be serious. I can be critical. I can be passionate. Being these things doesn’t keep me from being a kind, loving person that others can actually appreciate, and it doesn’t have to make me an outcast. In certain social circles, of course, it does. But fuck those social circles. Seriously.

Feminism also showed me what I can expect out of my friendships and relationships. I don’t have to put up with the mean-spirited jokes, I don’t have to accept the shrugs and cold shoulders and eye rolls. I don’t have to deal with people who cancel plans at the last minute and treat me like their own personal therapist without ever offering any support in return. I don’t have to pretend to laugh at sexist, racist, and homophobic comments made “ironically.”

And so I stopped. For a while, this meant I had less friends and had to be more picky. This is fine. As it turned out, I left just enough space in my life for a loving, loud, affirming bunch of feminists to walk right in and become my dearest friends.

There are times when you need to compromise. I don’t expect to have the perfect job in the perfect city any time soon, if ever. I will probably always have a bit too little money. If I find a good enough apartment in a good enough neighborhood for a good enough price, I’ll take it. The thrift store clothes will do just fine.

But when it comes to friends and lovers, I will not settle. Ever. Again. When it comes to my writing, I will say what I want.

My happiness now does not come from the academic achievement I used to yearn for. I never did lose that weight. Those resolutions were all bullshit. When I see people getting these things, I sometimes reflexively feel jealous and then I remember:

I have beaten an illness that consumed my mind for nearly a decade, and I beat it without any of that stuff. For six months now I have been happy, sometimes so happy I could cry, without any of it.

The clock will tick on, six months will turn into seven and then eight and then more, and maybe someday I will lose count of how long it has been since I found myself again.

Happy New Year.

20130101-022556.jpg

New Year in New York.

How It Feels To Shed Your Skin

Being a young and mobile person is a bit like having a never-ending case of whiplash.

I don’t have a single identity or home or social circle; I have many, and I’m constantly leaving one for another and feeling like the skin that has been grafted onto my preexisting skin is being ripped off and the resulting wound is replaced with another.

There is my life at school, which is the busiest and most visibly meaningful (but actually probably the emptiest) life of them all. There is who I am with my family in Ohio, and who I am when I visit my intended future home, New York City. I am someone else entirely apart from all these people with my long-distance partner (first one, then another) when one of us is visiting the other.

Leaving each of these is like heartbreak. At that moment it feels like nothing is deeper and truer than who I am in this place, with these people, at this point in time. I tell myself over and over that once I get to my destination I will become that person and it’ll feel normal again, but no amount of telling it makes it feel true. It is always like leaving myself and becoming someone else, someone I don’t want to be. And upon arriving I briefly experience the sickening feeling of having become someone I dreaded becoming just a few short hours before, across a few state lines or perhaps a two-hour flight away. That feeling squeezes me by the throat and then finally slinks away and I grow comfortable and complacent in my new (old?) skin.

Shortly before leaving I often grow aloof and distant from the people I’m with, and this breaks my heart even more. And probably theirs. It pains me, but it seems better than letting myself stay close for those final hours, which would mean letting them see me collapse in tears as I imagine being torn away from them by whichever car, bus, train, or plane is doing it this time.

There is a certain courage that you need to let someone wipe your tears away, and it is a courage I rarely have these days.

The reason I need courage is because there is so much to be afraid of. People misread the particular mix of emotions I feel when I’m leaving and assume that I must be pathologically attached to them or confused about where I “belong” (why the hell do I hate Ohio so much but invariably lose control of myself when leaving it?). The truth is, yes, I get very attached to people. But I don’t think there’s anything pathological about the way in which I get attached. I think the difference between me and people who aren’t depressed is that, sometimes, the way you keep from being depressed is by choosing not to acknowledge the enormous amounts of pain and pleasure that others can give to you, and living as though you are truly independent.

Whose way is better? I can’t say, but I know that I’m incapable of ignoring the bonds between myself and the people I love for the few hours it takes for me to leave. And because I can’t ignore them, having to sever them over and over and then splice them back up and sever them again, every couple of months, feels like the worst thing in the world.

Someone pointed out to me recently that the same theme keeps coming up whenever I tell the story of my life, how I came to be so depressed, and how I eventually (mostly) recovered. That theme is disconnection. My worst misery is when I feel disconnected from people, society, and life itself. It’s when I feel misunderstood by the people close to me or when I feel like an outsider (this happens often to me; if you read my previous post you can see a little snippet of it). Or when I feel like I just don’t understand the people around me and why we can’t seem to agree on anything, or when I feel like I have no traditions to give shape to my life, or when I feel like I’m not “fully” any of the things that I think I am–feminist, atheist, Jew, Russian, Israeli, woman, student, activist.

(In my better moments, I realize that, well, of course I’m not “fully” any of these things. Nobody can possibly fit some hypothetical Aristotelian prototype of any of these things. The very nature of such identities is that the pressure to belong and conform is significant and that we will always wonder if we’re really measuring up to what we’re “supposed” to be.)

On the other hand, the greatest happiness I’ve ever known is feeling connected to people and ideas and places. It’s the feeling I had at Skepticon. It’s reading a brilliant book or article and feeling completely in sync with the author. It’s holding someone I love close. It’s discovering that my partner and I both hate Michael Cera and love Los Campesinos! and agree on virtually every ethical and political issue that we care about.

Given this, it’s not very surprising that I have such difficulty with transitions. Of course, everything is ultimately temporary and change is part of life for everyone, but this much temporariness and this much change is just too much. That whiplashy feeling I get every time I have to switch identities and hop across state lines is a sign that someone like me just isn’t made for this lifestyle.

I have strategies to help me cope with it, of course. I always carry things from one place to another to help me remember who I am when I’m somewhere else. I have stacks of notebooks from other times. I almost never recall old memories.

Mostly, though, I write. Telling you this right now is the only thing that’s helping.

A while ago, I wrote that the happiest day of my life up until that point had been my older brother’s wedding, because I got to spend a whole day focusing entirely on other people and not on myself. My new sister-in-law read it and replied that she felt much like I did when I was younger and that once you grow a bit older and start to settle down, it gets easier. Not necessarily because Change Is Bad, but because people like me are at a stage in our lives where we are basically required to focus on nothing but ourselves. Our education, our needs, our desires, our constant criss-crossing of the country in search of opportunities. Once you’re able to turn that focus outwards at other people, that feeling of disconnect subsides and real, lasting happiness–not the kind you might get from parties or straight As–can take its place.

I hope she’s right. I hope that after I’ve finished all of my degrees and chosen a city to live in, life will stop jerking me around like this every few months. I hope that I can finally build a network of friends and acquaintances that will be more or less stable. I hope that the people I spend time with will have known me for longer than a few months. I hope that my work will feel more meaningful than my schooling.

I hope, because tomorrow I will rip myself out of one skin and shoddily sew myself into another, and the person I am right now, as I write this, will already be just a distant memory.

“Home”

This week I learned that depression and writer’s block together is a scary thing, as writing is my primary way of alleviating depression. Then I realized that the reason I couldn’t write was because I was refusing to write the piece that was trying to come out. When I finally let myself “feel the feels,” this is what resulted.

In the dark and the stillness, the floor of my family’s house creaks and groans.

I have this ritual whenever I come home. Or, as I should probably call it, “home.”

I walk through the whole house and find all the things that are different. Like that game where you look at a picture and then you look at another, nearly identical picture and you have to spot the changes.

One time they had a new machine for juicing citrus fruits. They made fresh juice out of it. Now they make it for me every time.

Another time they had new bookshelves for me to look through. New photos, almost every time, of a little brother and sister who grow up without me now. This time they took apart the kids’ bunk bed. They’re too old for it now; they sleep on their own beds now.

Next time, maybe, they’ll have their own bedrooms.

Things will fall apart and be replaced. New gadgets will appear, charging next to the landline phone. There will be middle school textbooks, high school textbooks, someday. There will be other things, things people need as they grow old, things I can’t think about without literally weeping.

The floor will creak a bit more each time.

Before I left for college, my parents promised me that they’d never clean out my room and turn it into anything else. “This will always be your room, your home,” they said.

They didn’t lie. The only ways they alter my room is to clean it after I leave from my visits, always in a hurry, always leaving behind half my stuff and dragging away other stuff; or when my mom wants to borrow clothes that I left behind. I’ll come home and see her wearing something I’d long forgotten and she says, “Oh, I took this. Hope you don’t mind!” I don’t.

When I come “home” my room is almost the same. Entering it is like reentering the world of my high school self, although I can never really feel or understand that world again. I was so alone. Politically conservative, overly romantic, unable to put a name to the dark moods that often consumed me. The worst was definitely still to come, of course, but I already had a glimpse of what I was in for.

The only source of continuity, really, is writing. Even in high school I was known for that. A very different type of writing, sure, but writing nonetheless. My notebooks and journals fill my old room.

Nearly half a year ago my depression suddenly remitted. Before that, coming home was a treasure. It wasn’t “home” back then; it really was home. I lived for those school breaks. I daydreamed about them in class, at the gym, while I took walks. Nothing felt better than dropping my bags at the bottom of the stairs and taking that first tour of the house, playing the “What’s Different?” game.

After the depression was over, everything changed. Home doesn’t feel like home anymore. It’s merely “home” now.

Now coming “home” feels like being ripped out of my skin and put into another one. Sometimes it triggers a brief depressive episode; the rest of the time it just feels numb. Every object in the house seems to tell me stories about impermanence and decay, even as the house is gleaming and beautiful as ever.

I don’t understand the girl who once lived here. I don’t even want to. But sometimes, what I wouldn’t give to be her for just one more day.

The more this happens the less I want to come “home,” and the more the guilt builds and builds. My mom saw me crying and assumed it was about my finals (as it had been earlier), and I didn’t have the heart to tell her that it’s because I have no home anymore and I don’t belong anywhere and no matter where I go I just can’t come home.

It’s like everything comes at a price. This seems to be the price I pay to be free–mostly–of depression in my day-to-day life. Religious folks might say, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.” I say, sometimes shit happens. Sometimes this is just how brains work.

And, sometimes, people grow up. Some people will always cherish returning to their childhood homes and swimming through those memories. But I, it seems, just can’t do that. I love this house and the people in it so dearly but it’s not home anymore. That breaks my heart.

Now I know that if I ever want to come home again, I can’t go back. I can only go forward.

The Problem With “Teen Angst” and Why You Should Take Teens’ Mental Health Seriously

[Content note: depression and suicide]

There’s a disturbing and pervasive idea out there that the psychological troubles of teenagers are inconsequential and unworthy of attention because they’re just a part of “teen angst” or “growing up” or whatever.

I’m thinking about this now because last night I ran across this Facebook page. It’s called “No Respect For Suicidal Teens,” and please don’t click on it unless you’re prepared for the hateful victim-blaming that it promotes. (If you can, though, you should go and report it.)

First of all, it’s completely false that teens can’t “really” be depressed and suicidal. Although the age of onset for depression and bipolar disorder is most commonly in the late teens and 20s, many people report that their chronic mood disorder began when they were teens. (Count me among them.) Left untreated, mood disorders often get progressively worse, or they remit on their own but then keep recurring.

Painting all teenage mood problems in a single shade of “teen angst” can prevent teens with diagnosable mood disorders from seeking help, because they either second-guess themselves and conclude that what they’re experiencing is “normal” (read: healthy) or they try to get help but are rebuffed by well-meaning adults who tell them that this is just what adolescence is and that they’ll grow out of it.

And then, of course, they find that it doesn’t get better after adolescence, and sometimes they tragically conclude that they must simply not have “grown up” yet. (Again, count me among them.)

Second, mental issues do not need to have reached clinical levels to be unpleasant, troubling, and inconvenient. Any time you’re unhappy with some aspect of your emotions, moods, thoughts, or behaviors, that’s a good enough reason to seek help from a therapist. Seriously. Either the therapist will help you accept aspects of yourself that you’d been bothered by, or they will help you change those aspects. Whether or not those aspects have a fancy name in the DSM isn’t really relevant.

So a teenager whose emotional experience is characterized by “angst” can benefit from seeking help even if they don’t have a “Real Problem.” All problems are real; the fact that they can vary dramatically in scope and magnitude doesn’t make them any more or less so.

And what if every teenager needs help managing their mental health during adolescence? Doesn’t that mean we’re making mountains out of molehills and inventing problems where none exist?

Nope. Nobody thinks it’s weird that virtually every teenager (who can afford it) goes to a dentist and has their wisdom teeth checked and probably removed. Nobody thinks it’s weird that virtually every female-bodied teenager (who can afford it) starts seeing a gynecologist when they become sexually active. Nobody thinks it’s weird that people of all ages regularly get physicals and get their eyesight and hearing checked.

It is expected that everyone will need (and, hopefully, receive) treatment for some sort of physical ailment over the course of their lives. Yet the idea that even a sizable minority of people will need treatment for a mental problem still gets many people ranting about how we ought to just “snap out of it.”

Are some teenagers actually “over-dramatic” (whatever that even means)? Probably. But it’s hard to tell who’s being over-dramatic and who isn’t, which is why that’s a decision best left to a professional. I was constantly accused of being “over-dramatic” when I was a teenager. Not to put too fine a point on it, but everyone changed their minds very quickly once I became so depressed I could barely function and thought about suicide constantly. Perhaps that could’ve been prevented had I gotten help earlier rather than taking everyone’s analysis of my “over-dramatic” personality to heart.

If a teenager mentions or threatens suicide, take them seriously and help them get treatment. If they turn out to have been “over-dramatic,” a therapist can help them figure out why they threaten suicide hyperbolically and find a way to stop. That’s a therapist’s job, not a friend’s, teacher’s, or parent’s.

The belief that the thoughts and feelings of children and teenagers are not to be taken seriously is widespread and dangerous, and goes far beyond just mental health. It is far better to take someone seriously and get them help when they didn’t really need it than to ignore someone’s call for help and attention when they do need it.

Dear Northwestern Administration: Wake Up

I have a letter to the editor of the Daily Northwestern today. If I seem kind of angry, that’s because I am. 

Dear Editor,

Today I learned that Alyssa Weaver, the Weinberg junior who passed away last week, took her own life.

I didn’t know Alyssa. I could’ve, though, because she was going to move into my apartment when she returned from studying abroad. We’d chatted on Facebook a few times. I had no idea how much we had in common.

Because, here’s the thing. Her tragic story was very close to being mine, as well.

I’ve had clinical depression since I was 12 years old. I didn’t know it until the end of my freshman year at Northwestern, by which point it had become so serious that I became reclusive, miserable, exhausted, and preoccupied with the thought of taking my own life.

I went to CAPS. I got my twelve free sessions. My therapist was kind and supportive but never screened me for depression or any other mental illness. After the sessions were over, I was no better, had no idea what to do next, and deteriorated even more.

The only reason I’m here now is because, thankfully, the school year ended right then. I went home to my family, and I am privileged enough to have a loving, supportive family with good insurance that covers mental health. I saw a psychiatrist and started taking antidepressants. I recovered, for the most part, although even now I live in the shadow of the knowledge that depression as chronic as mine usually comes back.

I’ll be blunt. The state of mental health services on this campus is absolutely unacceptable. We have too few staff members at CAPS. We have no orientation program on mental health. There are still faculty members at this school–I will not name names–who refuse to accept mental health-related accommodations provided by Services for Students with Disabilities. Unlike virtually every other top-tier school and even many high schools, we have no peer counseling service, although I have been trying to start one for a year and a half. There just aren’t enough resources.

The only reason we have campus events about mental health at all is because of NU Active Minds, an amazing student group that’s still fairly new. But they should not be doing this work on their own, and there’s only so much they can do.

Dear Northwestern administration: Wake up. Stop building $220 million athletic complexes. Start spending just a bit more of that money on the mental health services your students desperately need.

I have fought tooth and nail to beat my depression and to find a supportive community here at NU. It breaks my heart that some of my fellow students have been unable to win that battle.

How many more Wildcats will we have to lose before the administration starts taking mental health more seriously?

Sincerely,
Miriam Mogilevsky
Weinberg senior
Director of NU Listens

Why Northwestern Needs an Orientation Program on Mental Health

Note: This post is about stuff going on at my school, Northwestern University. But it’s relevant for anyone who cares about mental health and student activism.

[Content note: depression and suicide]

A little over three years ago, I arrived at Northwestern as a freshman completely unprepared for what was about to happen.

I don’t mean the difficult academics, the new social structure, or the challenges of living away from my parents, although those certainly had a learning curve.

What I mean is the intense stress I suddenly had to deal with, the complete lack of a support system, and the shame and stigma of admitting “weakness” or “failure.”

As soon as I got to campus, I went through a series of mandatory orientation programs. There was one on sexual violence, one on drugs and alcohol, one on diversity, and a few others. There was no orientation program about mental health and illness, despite these statistics:

  • Over one year, 30% of college students reported being “so depressed that it was difficult to function.”
  • 18% of students report having “seriously considered attempting suicide.”
  • Over one year, 44% of students reported that academics were “traumatic or very difficult to handle.”

This is serious stuff. And at Northwestern itself, a survey showed that a third of students had sought treatment for mental health, and that NU students report more distress and higher levels of depression than the national average for college students. (Unfortunately, I can’t cite this because I’m not sure if that document is public, but I assure you that I have seen it myself.)

It’s easy to shrug your shoulders and say that college students are adults and should be able to deal on their own without being taught how to recognize the signs of a mental illness and seek help for it. But there are two issues here: 1) the stigma surrounding mental illness and the treatment thereof is still severe, and 2) many of us are taught to assume that this is somehow “normal.”

I fell into that trap my freshman year. Crying because I got B’s was “normal.” Wanting to overdose on pain meds to avoid my journalism homework was “normal.” Spending hours daydreaming about dropping out and going home was “normal.” Having no real friends at school after nearly a year was “normal.” If not statistically normal, at least “expected” or “deserved.”

We, as students, need people to tell us that none of this is “normal” and that living with this is not necessary.

So, Northwestern’s Associated Student Government is doing one of its periodic giving-away-free-money things to anyone who can come up with a good idea for how to use $10,000.

Last time, they offered $5,000, and the winning idea was installing WiFi on the Lakefill, which is a sort of park/pretty area where our campus meets Lake Michigan.

These are the sorts of projects that tend to win these grants. They’re “cool,” appealing to everyone because everyone will benefit from them. They don’t dredge up any uncomfortable issues. They don’t make any meaningful change.

This is why it’s especially significant that a group of Northwestern students has started a campaign to win the $10,000 for a more pressing cause: implementing an orientation program about mental health for freshmen.

A program like this is extremely important and would accomplish a variety of goals.

First of all, it would provide every single freshman with information about basic mental health and how to get help at Northwestern. It’s shocking to me how many people don’t even know what kinds of services our counseling center offers, or the fact the Women’s Center offers 52 free counseling sessions to people of all genders. Some students find this information out for themselves, but when you’re already struggling just to get through the day, it can seem like an insurmountable burden. Add to this the fact that most people don’t really know how to recognize when they (or a friend) needs help, and you’ll see a clear need for an orientation program like this one.

Second, it would show students that mental health is something we care about at Northwestern. Because, to be painfully honest, that was not an impression I got when I came here. Although Northwestern’s Active Minds chapter has really helped change the conversation over the past year or so, mental health is still not something that people really talk about or take seriously. People brag about how little sleep they get. When I talked about having extreme anxiety because of my journalism assignments, people said I’d “get over it.”

Although things are starting to improve, our counseling center is severely understaffed and the staff-to-student ratio is worse here than at most other comparable schools. (Again, can’t cite because I’m not sure if those documents are public.) We have no peer counseling service, although I’ve been trying in vain to start one for a year and a half now. All of these things suggest to me that the leadership of this university cares more about building $220 million athletic complexes and $32 million visitors’ centers than about providing for the well-being of its students–who, by the way, are paying large sums of money and putting themselves under incredible stress for the privilege of attending this university.

And besides that, the academic pressure is intense and the competitive, pre-professional atmosphere at this school doesn’t really foster an environment in which mental health is a Big Deal. An orientation program like this would help set a different tone.

Third, it would provide students with an opportunity to start talking about mental health. That’s not something many of us did before college, really. Although I had taken psychology classes and was dimly aware of the existence of diagnoses like major depression and generalized anxiety, I’d never really gotten to talk about things like that with people before.

And remember that some students come from environments where evidence-based mental healthcare is not really accepted. In my family, we never ever discussed mental health at all, and I have friends here whose parents subscribed to pseudoscientific theories and treatments. Many of us, myself included, did not know a single person who was openly diagnosed and/or in treatment for a mental disorder until we got to college.

An orientation program that includes a substantial discussion component would allow students to actually start a dialogue about mental health before school has even started. Some might choose to reveal personal struggles, and their peers would learn that mental illnesses are really not that rare, and that people who have them are not that different from people who don’t. The potential that this has to dispel stigma and improve lives is immense.

If you are a Northwestern student, I urge you to visit this page to learn how to ask ASG to spend this money on an orientation program about mental health.

If not, please consider advocating for similar programs at your own school or alma mater.

More On Depression Origins and Parenting

Last week I wrote a piece called “Onset,” in which I described the way I first became clinically depressed about nine years ago. That was the first time I’d ever written about that or told anyone other than a few close friends, so the many positive responses I got were really encouraging. One commenter responded and asked a bunch of questions. My answers turned out to be really lengthy and interesting to write, so I thought I’d share the comment and the response here.

“Miriam, I read this post on Sunday and cannot stop thinking about it. I have never felt depression personally and cannot truly relate, but I have a young daughter and so your experience had a profound impact on me. Thank you so much for sharing.

“Do you think that one can be predisposed to having depression and thus be more vulnerable to the comments of others? Do you think that your mother could have predicted the impact her words would have on you? Could she have done something following that discussion to minimize the impact and alleviate the burden you felt? What do you think parents can do to help a child build his or her self-worth and confidence?

“I really hope you do not mind my asking all these questions. Your insight would be much appreciated.”

And here’s what I said:

Hey there,

Thanks for reading and don’t worry, I don’t mind the questions. I’ll try to answer them one at a time:

Do you think that one can be predisposed to having depression and thus be more vulnerable to the comments of others?

Yes, absolutely. Research in the field is rapidly coming to this conclusion. Depression is partially genetic, and researchers have started identifying certain genes that may be involved. One particular genetic variation, for instance, has no effect in the absence of significant life stressors, but if youdo have them, your risk for depression suddenly shoots up relative to people without the genetic variation who are experiencing comparable stressors. A phenomenon like this is called a gene-environment interaction, and such phenomena are at the forefront of research in the field right now.

Aside from that, there are other ways to be predisposed to or at risk for depression. Being poor. Being queer. Being female (although this is arguable, because research suggests that men simply underreport/do not recognize their depression). Being a college student. Having other mental illnesses, including substance abuse.

Furthermore, people who don’t learn good coping skills are more likely to respond to stress with depression and anxiety. I was one such person.

If you’d like more information about this and/or links to specific research, let me know!

Do you think that your mother could have predicted the impact her words would have on you?

No, I don’t think so. Although her mind is similar to mine in many ways, in this case, she probably either thought that I wouldn’t take her seriously, or else that her comment would light a fire under my ass, so to speak, and motivate me to do better in school without actually making me extremely anxious and depressed. Furthermore, my mother was also always very anxious about school when she was young, and she seems to think that that’s “just how things are.” As in, it’s unavoidable anyway, we just have to suffer through it, and so on. And that segues right into your next question:

Could she have done something following that discussion to minimize the impact and alleviate the burden you felt?

She could’ve, but I don’t think she knew/thought anything was out of the ordinary. I must’ve looked a lot like her own teenage self, to her. Had I had the communication skills of an adult, I could’ve said something like, “It would be really helpful to me if you don’t talk to me about my grades and trust that I’m doing my best,” or “It really scared me when you said that I’d have to quit the Nutcracker and I think it was unfair of you to say that.” But I was 12. I didn’t learn how to talk this way for another 8 years.

If she realized that something was wrong, she could’ve taken me to see a counselor, reminded me that she will love and value me regardless of my grades, told me that my grades are not the measure of my entire worth as a person, and so on. But given the situation, I’m not sure that she could’ve known to do that.

What do you think parents can do to help a child build his or her self-worth and confidence?

Good question. Lots of things! While it’s important for children to do well in school, school also isn’t all there is. What would’ve happened to me if I’d failed to get straight A’s? I wouldn’t have gone to Northwestern, probably. So I would’ve gone to an awesome liberal arts college or a good state school instead. No big deal. My parents didn’t realize that this was an acceptable path, though, so they really emphasized the damn grades.

Also, research generally shows that the best way to build confidence and self-esteem in kids isn’t to steadfastly insist that they “think positively” and “have good self-esteem” and all the other things that are done by schools and parents now. The best way is to let them do the things they love, get better and better at them, and feel secure in the knowledge that they have things to do that they love and are good at. Another good way is to teach them that their worth lies not in their performance on arbitrary culturally-sanctioned tasks like school and sports, but in their ability to be good people, in their willingness to work hard and try things, in their curiosity and their urge to ask good questions, and so on.

Of course, you have a limited ability to control what messages your children receive from the world outside of your family (although you can help by choosing which neighborhood to live in, which schools to send them to, which after-school activities to encourage them to do, etc.). However, which messages you send them yourself matters a lot. At the dinner table, do you ask them what grades they got on their homework, or what they learned that day? When they tell you about making new friends, do you ask which neighborhood the friends live in and what their parents do for a living, or what it is about them that makes them interesting to hang out with? When you’re shopping for clothes with your daughter, do you tell her to put that dress back because it doesn’t “flatter her figure,” or do you let her choose clothes that she feels comfortable in? When a boyfriend breaks up with her, do you reassure her that she’ll meet someone who likes her as she is, or do you tell her that she should’ve been thinner/happier/better-dressed?

These things matter.

Please take everything I’m saying with a grain of salt. I’m very young (21) and not a parent. However, I’ve been through a lot and I’ve thought these things through a lot. What I’m telling you are the things that I wasn’t taught as a child, and that I’m now trying to teach myself by slowly and painfully rewriting my thought patterns. Had I learned them as a child, when learning is so much easier, I think things would’ve gone very differently.

I hope this helps. Thanks for taking the time to ask and to wonder how you can be a better parent.

Onset

[Content note: depression]

In a few weeks, I will pass the nine-year anniversary of the onset of my depression.

I could figure out the exact date if I wanted to, because I know it was on Thanksgiving. But I won’t, because I don’t want that date to become frozen in my memory forever.

I don’t think most people can get it down to a single moment like that. In fact, there’s probably quite a bit that’s spurious about my interpretation of things. Really, my depression probably began with my genetics, or with the cognitive distortions that I already had even as a little kid.

But, that said, there was a moment after which everything changed. I’ve never really written or spoken about it until now.

I used to dance ballet. I was pre-professional and often performed with our local professional troupe, as did plenty of other kids and teens. That fall, I was cast in The Nutcracker, in the role of Clara. That’s the main role. It was an honor so momentous for me that all of the successes that followed it paled in comparison. I still remember standing in the center of that stage with over two thousand pairs of eyes all looking right at me. I will never forget. I will never experience a feeling like that again.

That year, I was in seventh grade. School was becoming challenging for the first time, and I was starting to feel the stress that would become like blood in my veins for the next decade. There were honors classes now. There were actual papers to write. They seem so easy now, of course, but at the time I felt a little bit terrified.

I’d gotten a few C’s on tests, which was new for me. I wasn’t too concerned yet. Until that weekend.

Thanksgiving. We were driving up to northwestern Pennsylvania to see family friends. That drive was always beautiful; I sometimes miss it now. The Appalachian Mountains are underrated.

There were only a few weeks left of rehearsal before opening night of The Nutcracker. After Thanksgiving, there would be dress rehearsals and tech week. And then I would take the stage.

So I was in the car, me and my family. My little brother, now old enough to talk to me about science and girls, wasn’t even a toddler then. My little sister didn’t exist yet.

I mentioned the C’s on the tests.

My mom was appalled. She said something like this: “If you get another C on a test, you have to drop out of The Nutcracker.”

She can’t have been serious, now that I look back on it. She just can’t have been. It would’ve ruined my family’s relationship with the ballet company and I’d probably never be allowed to perform again. It was just ludicrous, a punishment inconceivable in severity for me.

But that possibility didn’t even occur to me. I took her at her word. At that moment, everything changed.

I felt that I had lost all sense of control over my life. Something so important was suddenly jeopardized by random numbers in red ink. My homework seemed to laugh at me.

I quite literally lost my mind. Not in the sense of “going crazy” as we think of it, but in the sense that my mind became an alien to me.

The things it did to me that year. I cried and cried and cried. On Sunday nights especially, as I dreaded going back to school. If I got a grade worse than a B at school, I suffered for the rest of the day, through the rest of my classes and then several hours of ballet, until I could come home, tell my mom about it, and be vindicated. She would tell me that it’s okay, I just have to do better next time, and I would nod and leave and probably cry more.

My entire sense of self-worth became contingent upon my parents’ approval, and their approval seemed to me to be contingent on those arbitrary marks on a report card. And although I’ve long moved on from grades as the markers of my worth, I remain shackled to the opinions of others–of my family especially.

It was the longest winter. The music I listened to that winter–mostly classical–still rings in my ears sometimes and reminds me. Everything was colored with those tears, that roiling anxiety in my stomach, the shame of being imperfect.

I was twelve years old.

After that school year, the Thing–I didn’t know what to call it then–mutated and grew. I gradually learned not to stress so much about school, a lesson that serves me well these days. But the Thing grabbed hold of everything in my life, tainted every relationship, sunk its ugly tentacles into every crevice it could find.

In high school the Thing mostly manifested as a preoccupation with the idea that people might not like me. In college, I stopped caring about what people thought and instead became convinced that my life is ultimately meaningless and that it doesn’t matter if I live or die.

The Thing has changed quite a bit since I first met it nearly nine years ago. For one, I call it depression now, as that is what it is. I know its signs and a few strategies that help keep it at bay.

It’s not that everything was good before that Thanksgiving in 2003, and it’s not that everything was terrible afterwards.

But that weekend was a bridge. It was a bridge between nonclinical dysfunction and a worsening, mushrooming psychopathology. It was a bridge between childhood and–if not adulthood, then something other than adolescence.

They say that we lose “innocence” when we have sex for the first time, or when we move out of the house or start paying for our own upkeep. I lost my innocence when I lost my mind.

I had pulled back the corner of the rug and finally seen what had been swept under it.

What was under it was terrible.