Disrupting Depression’s Negative Feedback Loop

[Content note: depression]

Recently I went through a spot of depression. I’m not sure if I’d call it “An Episode Of Clinical Depression” or not; when you have a personality that already meets several of the diagnostic criteria for depression and you’ve had it since your earliest memories, it can be hard to tell what is or isn’t “An Episode Of Clinical Depression.” So, I don’t really care what I call it.

The whole thing seemed to draw on a few of the recurring themes in my life: I Cannot Date Like A Normal Person; Everything Good In My Life Is Over; I Will Never Have A Real Career Or Any Money; and, my personal favorite, There Is Nothing Redeeming About Me Except My Writing Ability. (Make a note of these; they’ll be on the exam.)

Of course, objectively, everything was going pretty well for me this winter. I have great friends in NYC that I see once a week or more. School stuff was going fine. I love New York. I have a no-longer-very-new partner that I like very much and whose only significant drawback is having the misfortune of not living in New York. (Alas, not everyone can be so lucky as me.) The fact that I managed, in light of all this, to be entirely convinced of my own failure in every conceivable department (while I remained confident of my writing skills, I berated myself endlessly for underutilizing them) was the first sign to me that something was once again significantly off in my brain.

Depression is really nothing but a huge negative feedback loop. The worse I felt, the more I became convinced that I have nothing of value to offer other people as a friend, partner, or anything else. I found that I could barely stand messaging with friends online (something that’s normally my lifeline) because I felt like I had nothing to say. People would ask how my life is or what’s up or how I’m doing or whatever and I had no way to answer that question. My life is bad. Nothing is up. I’m doing shitty. And you?

My various attempts to talk about the depression itself (only when people asked, of course) generally got nowhere. Either they would be like “That really sucks, I’m sorry :(” and the conversation would end there (as it should–I don’t want to force anyone to listen to this) or they would attempt to fix me and that would fail and there would be frustration all around. A few people would listen patiently and then say very little and I had the distinct sense of over-stepping, and so I tried not to ever do it again.

To make matters even worse, I couldn’t stand hearing about their lives, either. Hearing about someone going on a date or otherwise doing romance-/sex-related things became a literal depressive trigger. One time I ended up going back and forth between crying and just being miserable for the rest of the day because someone told me that someone else we know went on a date. Not because I begrudged them their happiness at all, but just because I was entirely convinced that I would never go on a date again because for whatever reason I can’t handle going on dates. (Long story. In sum: introversion.) I also hated hearing about job-related success because I was (and remain) convinced that I will never in my entire life have a job I like OR a job that gives me enough money. I’m not even talking both, mind. Either/or. But that’s also a long story.

So, since I couldn’t talk about my own life and I could only listen to other people talk about their lives as long as they weren’t happier with those lives than me, that left me with…not a lot of conversation topics. (My other mode is RAGE ABOUT SOCIAL JUSTICE!, but I’m only okay with doing that when someone specifically starts a conversation with RAGE ABOUT SOCIAL JUSTICE! Otherwise I assume nobody gives a fuck.) And thus I ended up largely avoiding conversations. And that only made me more and more convinced that I’m broken and wrong and cannot interact with other people like a normal fucking human being, which only exacerbated the depression, which only made me more and more convinced–and so on. There was even a point when I hit rock-bottom and made a list of ways in which I’m a total worthless failure compared to one of my friends and I came up with 21 reasons. That is a lot of ways to fail. And I could’ve probably kept going.

Sometimes there is no rhyme and reason to any of this. I remain hopeful that someday researchers will understand exactly how and why it happens and how to stop it, but for now, the depressive feedback loop continues ad nauseum–until it’s suddenly interrupted. What it takes to interrupt it is something that varies from person to person. For some it’s drugs or therapy (drugs worked that way for me once a long time ago), for some it’s getting out of a situation that’s become intolerable, for some it’s finding a way to make a situation tolerable, for others it’s totally random.

For me, it was reconnection. Everything suddenly flipped around on a random day when a friend saw a sad tweet of mine and offered to listen if I wanted to talk. Knowing this friend is struggling with depression too, I told them a little bit about it and they responded kindly and helpfully, neither trying to fix me nor leaving it at “sorry, that sucks.” We didn’t talk for long, but it was enough to disrupt the depressive feedback loop. (It was also enough to make me realize that one of my major mistakes this entire winter has been attempting to discuss depression with people who do not have it. Of course that’s not going to go anywhere. They can’t possibly have any idea what the fuck I’m prattling on about.)

That day I started talking to more people. People I hadn’t talked to much for a few weeks or months, or that I’d been talking to a little bit not very authentically. I let myself believe that I am the sort of person who actually talks to people long enough to become that person again. And the more I felt like a competent and sociable person who has positive traits, the less I got insecure and anxious when people talked about their own accomplishments, and the more I was able to show genuine happiness for them, and the more I felt like a competent and sociable person who has positive traits.

And that evening, I found out that two of my closest friends are moving to New York this summer. These are the kind of friends that I feel comfortable asking to hang out when I’m feeling down, the kind of friends I’d invite to my shitty little apartment, the kind of friends I don’t need a “reason” to go see. The kind of friends that my other local friends will eventually become, but not yet.

Already the huge city felt less lonely.

Later that night I took a hot shower because why not. I could hear my phone pinging with messages from my friends. The bathroom window was open because the city was finally unfurling from its long frozen sleep, and the steam from the shower was billowing out the window into the darkening sky. I’ve often felt a strange nostalgia and comfort standing at this spot, and that night I finally realized why: my grandma’s apartment in Israel is the only other one I’ve spent lots of time in that has a bathroom window, and for a moment I felt like I could almost be back in my first home again.

The second I realized that, I suddenly knew that everything would be okay again.

To be sure, I knew that there would still be awful nights after this one and that it would probably take a long time to be as happy and hopeful as I was during my senior year of college. But every time in the past that I’ve gotten that unmistakeable “it’ll be okay” feeling, it was the beginning of a long but steady trek up and out of the ditch I’d found myself in.

I recently saw the movie Frozen (yes, just recently). A lot of things resonated with me in that movie, but in particular I liked the theme of connection. In the movie, Elsa tries to hide her magical talent (and, by extension, her entire self) from everyone around her, even the little sister she loves, in order to keep them safe from the magic and to keep it a secret. That to me sounded a lot like a metaphor for depression, whether or not it was intended to be one. I also go to certain lengths to keep people from seeing how miserable I sometimes am*, and I also do this in order to “protect” them from worrying about me, from the frustration of being unable to help, and from whatever mild or severe drop in mood they may experience upon exposure to me. Like Elsa, I ultimately fail at this.

Elsa discovers in the end (spoiler alert) that the only way to prevent her gift from consuming her and everyone around her is through connection with others, through being close to people she loves and experiencing the positive emotions that brings. Likewise for me, there is no relief from depression without connection. Locking myself away in a tower makes for a good fairytale, but not so much for a recovery.

But that’s where my story diverts from the Frozen metaphor. There is no turning my depression into a wonderful force for good that makes a big happy ice skating rink for all the villagers and a cute snowman who talks and a beautiful ice palace. I have always resisted the societal imperative to turn all adversity into a “blessing in disguise.” While I certainly learned useful things from the experience of being depressed, that doesn’t mean that depression itself has positives, at least not for me. If you’d like to view yours that way, you are of course welcome to.

For all the fuss I make about how I can’t do this or that or I totally fail at this or that (I have basically decided that I am never going on a “date” again and I have also given up on trying to find a summer internship because they’re all unpaid and I’m fucking tired of paying for public transit and for lunch every day without being paid for my goddamn work), I’m actually improving in all sorts of ways. My writing’s never been better. I’ve started writing for the Daily Dot, which demands a level of confidence I did not previously have. I’ve been starting more conversations with people online, which I don’t usually do (especially not while depressed).

And, for the first time ever, I’ve written a blog post that’s purely about myself and my life and I don’t even have the slightest urge to put a big disclaimer at the top about how this is a personal post and you probably shouldn’t read it.

That’s right, I actually don’t give a fuck if you read this post and think it’s a waste of your time. Too bad, I guess. :)

Now that I’ve gone all meta, I’ll just say this: this is not an advice post. Please don’t leave me angry comments about how suggesting that you talk to your friends more isn’t going to help. If you’re going through something that may or may not be “An Episode Of Clinical Depression,” please do whatever makes the most sense to you or seek advice from a qualified professional. But what I do think that anyone can glean from this story is that sometimes you have to find a way to disrupt the negative feedback loop somehow. The challenge is figuring out what will disrupt it for you specifically.

What I went through this winter was pretty mild compared to other depressive things I’ve gone through, so it makes sense that the solution to it was also pretty easy and simple. Letting my friends back in felt like opening the curtains and letting the sunlight back into my room after a long, dark winter.

~~~

*By the way, the fact that I write publicly about depression is not at all incompatible with the fact that I hide the worst of it. I do pretty much everything described in this perfect article about how to be a “good depressive citizen.” In fact, I’ve probably done it in this post. But I tried to circumvent that a little by letting you see a little bit if how I actually felt.

Edit: So I got curious and read the Wikipedia entry about “The Snow Queen,” the fairytale that Frozen is loosely based on. It sounds like an even better metaphor for depression than the movie:

An evil troll (“called the devil“)[2] makes a magic mirror that distorts the appearance of everything it reflects. It fails to reflect the good and beautiful aspects of people and things, while magnifying their bad and ugly aspects. The devil teaches a “devil school.” He and his pupils take the mirror throughout the world and delight in distorting everyone and everything; the mirror makes the loveliest landscapes look like “boiled spinach.” They try to carry the mirror into Heaven with the idea of making fools of the angels and God, but the higher they lift it, the more the mirror grins and shakes with delight, and it slips from their grasp and falls back to earth, shattering into millions of pieces. These splinters — some no larger than a grain of sand — are blown around and get into people’s hearts and eyes, freezing their hearts like blocks of ice and making their eyes like the troll-mirror itself, seeing only the bad and ugly in people and things.

It’s Okay Not To Disagree With Your Friends About Politics

I’ve seen a lot of articles and discussions lately on the theme of “why you should have friends who disagree with you [about politics].” Given how uncritically this view is often presented, I want to complicate it a little. My point isn’t that you shouldn’t have friends who disagree with you about politics, or that having friends who disagree with you about politics is bador that there no benefits to be had from having friends who disagree with you about politics, or that you should never expose yourself to views with which you disagree.

My point is just this:

  • Having politically divergent friends is not necessarily superior to not having politically divergent friends;
  • Having politically divergent friends does not necessarily make you superior to those who do not have politically divergent friends;
  • There are legitimate reasons why someone might choose not to have politically divergent friends;
  • There are other ways to reap the benefits of having politically divergent friends.

The reason I’m trying to make these points so carefully is because anytime I attempt to discuss this without several metric fucktons of nuance, folks immediately take my points to their most extreme possible conclusion and start being all like “OH SO YOU THINK THERE’S NO REASON TO EVEN ENGAGE WITH VIEWS WITH WHICH YOU DISAGREE AND IT’S BETTER TO JUST STAY IN YOUR OWN LITTLE BUBBLE HUH blah blah groupthink blah circle jerk blah blah echo chamber.”

*sigh* No.

When a position gets strawmanned so vigorously every time it’s brought up, I know it’s time to give it a proper defense.

In the interest of being fair, I understand where this is coming from. It is true that people tend to avoid evidence that goes against their beliefs and seek out evidence that confirms their beliefs. It is true that people sometimes stereotype and pigeonhole those that disagree with them rather than actually listening to them to see how they justify their own views. It is true that some people think you’d have to be “crazy” or “evil” or “stupid” (meaningless words, by the way, all of them) to hold some belief they disagree with. It is true that it is “easier” not to engage with views you disagree with than to engage with them.

I just don’t think that ameliorating this requires being “friends” with people you strongly disagree with (in my case, conservatives, libertarians, and so on).

First of all, perhaps we are disagreeing on the definition of “friend.” To me, a friend is a person with whom I share parts of myself that I would not share with a coworker, a classmate, a person I just met at a party, a stranger on the subway, a professor, or even a family member. My relationships with my friends aren’t purely dispassionate exchanges of ideas; they involve emotional intimacy and disclosure.

Someone with whom I’m friends on Facebook may also be my friend, but they may only be a “Facebook friend” if they are not someone with whom I’m interested or comfortable sharing very personal things. (I get pretty personal on my Facebook, but my definition of “personal” differs from most people’s.)

There is no need to be “friends” with someone (by my definition) to discuss politics with them and learn from their differing perspective. I can get that from a class discussion or from reading a blog post or newspaper editorial or from having them in my family or from getting into a conversation at a party or any number of ways that do not involve me making myself emotionally vulnerable to people who are probably going to hurt me. I engage with diverging views all the time. I just don’t need to do it while hanging out with friends or checking my Facebook.

Second, people have different goals for their friendships. If one of the main things you get out of friendship is exposure to ideas you disagree with, then it’s easy to strawman people who don’t want to do that as “not wanting to be exposed to ideas they disagree with.” If one of the main things you get out of friendship is emotional support (like me), then it’s easy to feel like we’re being demanded to open ourselves up to rejection and ridicule from conservative “friends” who think we’re going to hell or deserved to get sexually assaulted or should not have full human rights.

Furthermore, to those of us who don’t view friendship primarily as a way to be exposed to ideas we disagree with, it can feel very odd to be told that we “ought” to make friends with people we disagree with in order to “learn from them.” My friend Wes says, “I feel like articles like this view people as plot devices or vehicles for self-reflection. I have friends because I enjoy interacting with them, not because I think that interacting with them is good for me.” While some would argue that friendship is a transaction in any case, I personally feel gross conceptualizing it that way, and even if I didn’t, you still have to agree on what exactly is being transacted. If someone thinks they’re providing me with emotional support and hoping to get the same in return, it would probably be a little hurtful to realize I’m actually treating them as an anthropological experiment so that I can learn How Conservatives Live.

Just as people can have different goals for friendship, they can have different goals for social media. Progressives in particular often get criticized for “shutting down” disagreement on our Facebooks, because we’ve decided that we don’t care to see certain things on our pages. This, again, is taken as evidence that we don’t want to “engage” with dissenting viewpoints.

But I do want to engage with dissenting viewpoints. I’ve simply decided that my Facebook will not be the place where I do that. My Facebook will be a safe space where I go to get support, bounce ideas around with people who can help me develop them, share updates about my day-to-day life, and keep up to date with what my friends are doing. It is not Miri’s Free-For-All Political Argument Arena. That I do not want a barrage of notifications from people yelling at me every time I open Facebook (and nor do I want the panic that inevitably ensues) should not be taken as an indicator of my supposed unwillingness to “consider alternate views.”

Third, not all disagreement is made equal. For instance, I am not interested in engaging with people who ignore empirical reality, whether they do that in the form of denying climate change, insisting that racism is over, or claiming that you can “snap out of” mental illness. There is nothing to be gained from listening to someone call the sky green and the grass blue over and over.

I am also not interested in engaging with people whose sole justifications for their views are religion. You believe abortion is a sin against god. I believe there is no god and no sin. Neither of us is going to convince the other, and I’ve heard this argument a hundred times and will not gain anything from hearing it again.

The above views are things I can just as easily read about online or in books or newspapers. There is no need to waste my own or another person’s time hashing them out in real time.

Other disagreements are productive and interesting to hash out with people. I have argued about human rights organizations, how do donate to charity, affirmative action, whether or not Dan Savage sucks, whether or not polyamory can work, the Israel-Palestine situation, Occupy Wall Street, unpaid internships, why there aren’t more women and minorities in the tech sector, and plenty of other things, either in person or online. Some of the people in some of these debates were conservatives and libertarians, others were liberals or progressive. In any case, diverging views were exchanged and considered.

Fourth, even disagreements about the same issues can read very differently to the same people. For instance, I’m sure progressive dudes can have nice, dispassionate discussions about abortion rights with conservative dudes, because hey, no skin off their backs (and then they can turn around and demand that women do the same, you know, to avoid “groupthink”). Likewise, there’s probably a reason I included affirmative action in that list of things I can debate productively. It doesn’t affect me personally. When someone says they oppose affirmative action, that does not feel like an attack on me personally.

(It’s important to note, here, that just because you don’t mean for your Unbiased Objective Opinion to feel like an attack to someone else doesn’t mean that it doesn’t. Recognizing the disparity between intentions and outcomes is integral to debating sensitively and successfully)

Most people will not be interested in entertaining debates that feel like attacks on who they are, especially on aspects of their identity that they cannot (and, generally, don’t want to) change.

However, I suspect that the challenge isn’t convincing people that it’s okay not to do things that make you feel bad, but convincing them that some things that do not make them feel bad make others feel bad. If any of the people preaching the virtues of having politically divergent friends ever experienced the way I feel when yet another dude sneers at me about false rape accusations or asks me how I can tolerate living in “that neighborhood” with all of “those people,” they would probably stop preaching it.

But some people never experience that feeling either because they don’t experience much marginalization or because their brains just work differently (I have many extremely patient female, LGBTQ, PoC, and/or disabled friends who don’t mind engaging with those who are prejudiced against them). It is sometimes difficult for them to understand that others do experience that feeling (or even what that feeling is) and that that doesn’t make others “worse” than them somehow.

For what it’s worth, I’d be absolutely willing and interested in having conservative friends who want to just hang out and play games and explore New York together and leave my politics alone. I’ve had friends like that at college. But it rarely works because most conservatives who encounter my politics want to debate them, and I’m not interested in doing that with people I consider friends. My close relationships with people whose politics were very different from mine have relied on embracing our similarities and appreciating what we admire in each other, not on endlessly hashing out the same tired political arguments.

It’s easy to make statements like “everyone ought to have friends on the other side of the aisle” when you don’t consider that others might view friendships and political disagreements differently than you do. I want my friendships to be a refuge from the loneliness and cruelty of the rest of the world. That doesn’t make me “weaker” or “less open-minded” than you; it just means that I have different priorities. My priorities are shaped not only by the personality I was born with, but by the experiences I’ve had and the goals I’ve set for myself in my life.

If you enjoy political debates with friends, cool. If you don’t, cool. I want people to be open-minded and consider views they disagree with, but not at the cost of feeling accepted and supported by their friends. I want to challenge the idea that a person’s worth, intellectual capability, open-mindedness, or commitment to skeptical thinking can and should be judged by their willingness to have Dispassionate Debates with their friends about issues near and dear to their hearts.

[blogathon] Top Ten Reasons I Can’t Wait for Women in Secularism 2

The WiS2 conference logo.

This is the second post in my SSA blogathon! Don’t forget to donate! This post comes from a reader’s request.

In less than two weeks, I’ll be off to Washington, DC for the second Women in Secularism conference, to which I get to go primarily thanks to the generosity of an FtB reader who gave out a bunch of grants. Yay!

Check out WiS2′s awesome schedule here.

Here’s why I’m really excited:

10. Cards Against Humanity. It’s not a secular con without it. It’s always the first thing to go into my duffel bag.

9. Washington, DC. I rarely have occasion to travel there, but it’s a beautiful city. Last time I was there it was December, which was slightly unpleasant, but this time it won’t be. Maybe I’ll have a bit of time to just walk around and explore, too.

8. Using my new business cards! I didn’t really give them out at Skeptech because I basically knew everyone there. But I’ll probably find a use for them at WiS2. Check them out, I designed them myself!

7. Seeing Susan Jacoby speak. I laughed out loud numerous times while reading her book The Age of American Unreason recently, and that rarely happens while reading nonfiction. I disagreed with her on some things, primarily relating to technology, but for the most part reading the book made me want to shout “fuck yes” periodically. She’ll be speaking about the history of women in secularism and I’m sure it’ll be similarly awesome.

6. Getting out of Evanston for three days. Every time I do this, I feel refreshed and destressed. There are great things about living at a university campus, and there are not great things about it. I look forward to sleeping in a comfortable bed and without drunk students yelling beneath my window (and now that I’ve said that won’t happen, just watch it happen anyway :P).

5. Friends!  I’ll get to meet a bunch of lovely people with whom I correspond online but have never actually seen in person–Tetyana of Science of Eating Disorders, Ania and Alexander of Scribbles and Rants, and Melody of CFI-DC (who just might be involved in this conference somehow…). I’ll also get to see people I’ve already met: Kate and Andrew, obviously, Sarah Moglia, and tons of other people I’m probably forgetting.

4. Getting to see Stephanie, Greta, Rebecca, and Amanda speak–again. While seeing and meeting new speakers is always exciting, seeing the ones that I already know will be awesome is arguably even better.

3. Blogging! Lots of blogging! I’ll be doing it. I might even liveblog if I can get good enough wifi access. Taking notes/writing about talks is not only helpful for those who end up reading it; it also helps me better remember what I’ve learned, which is often a problem for me since I’m not an auditory learner at all. So sharpening my liveblogging skills will be great.

2. I know I already mentioned Amanda Marcotte, but her talk seems so cool that it warrants its own list item. It’s called “How Feminism Makes Better Skeptics: The Role Rationality Plays in Ending Sexism.” I think this is extremely important because there are so many people who still believe that feminism and skepticism are incompatible. There are also many feminists who take a very anti-skeptical stance to both feminism and other issues, which is why you sometimes see extreme science denialism and adherence to pseudo-religious dogma in the feminist movement. So I’m very curious to see what Amanda has to say about feminism and rationality.

1. Spending a weekend with a bunch of fantastic secular activists. Although I always enjoy the actual talks and panels at conferences, the best part by far is the feeling of being around so many people with whom I can fit in. There’s no other feeling quite like that.

If you’re going to WiS2, let me know and come say hi! :D

~~~

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On Ending Friendships Over Politics

After the election last week, I saw exactly three reactions to Obama’s victory in my Facebook newsfeed.

The majority were shouts of glee and sighs of relief, whether because Obama was elected or because Romney was not. Count me among those.

A tiny minority were pictures of crying Statues of Liberty, Bible verses, and promises to move to another country. (Which one? I’m guessing not any of the ones with socialized healthcare.)

A slightly larger minority were the ones ruing the “divisiveness” of politics and the “hurtful discourse” and the fact that “friendships end” over the “bitter comment wars” on Facebook. Laments like these are usually uttered by the sort of holier-than-thou moderates whose numbers, for better or worse, seem to be shrinking with each election cycle.

Here’s the thing. True friendships can withstand lots of things, including things more severe and “divisive” than a few debates over Facebook. If your friendship ends because you argued about who has better ideas for fixing our economy or whatever, the problem was probably not the argument. It was probably the friendship.

I’ve gotten into some pretty heated arguments with friends before, about politics and about other stuff. In the end, if I really care about that friend–and usually I do–I try to smooth things over by telling them that I still respect them as a person, and, usually, that I still respect their opinions even though I disagree. I make sure they’re not personally hurt by anything I said. And the friendship goes on.

If instead I find myself reaching for the “unfriend” button, it’s probably because I just didn’t care about that friendship enough. But that said, this happens very rarely.

Furthermore, you might be surprised to know that some of us don’t want friends who think we should be forced to carry a rapist’s baby to term, or that we shouldn’t have the right to marry who we want because “marriage is sacred.” These things aren’t just political anymore. They’re personal.

A person who not only believes these things but actually tells them to me despite how hurtful and alienating they are probably isn’t someone I want to keep as a friend. I’m not interested in being friends with people who consider me a second-class citizen.

On that note, it’s surprising sometimes how personal our political issues have become. I would never end a friendship over a disagreement about, say, economics or foreign policy, but I would absolutely end it over racism, sexism, or homophobia. Now that “-isms” play such a big part in political affiliation, an argument that starts out about the Affordable Care Act can turn into an argument about whether or not women should “just keep their legs closed.” By the way, if you think women should “just keep their legs closed,” you’re no friend of mine.

Finally, I don’t see how ending a friendship over significant political differences is any worse or less legitimate than ending it because you hate each other’s sense of humor or lifestyle, or whatever other reasons people have for ending friendships. If you don’t feel close to someone anymore and don’t want to be their friend, you shouldn’t have to be. You don’t owe friendship to anyone. I get that it sucks if someone you considered a good friend suddenly wants nothing to do with you just because you disagreed with them, but it’s even worse to have to pretend to be someone’s friend for the sake of not being “divisive.”

Stephanie Zvan wrote something very wise about this:

If you’re talking about reconciling relationships, however, ask yourself what you’re doing. Are you gearing up to apologize to someone who you feel was arguing from a good place when you got a bit testy with them? Are you mending family bonds that are important to the kids in the connection? Are you letting back into your life someone who’s spent the last several months telling the world that your rights matter less than theirs? Are you accepting one more apology from someone who gets abusive every time you discuss something you disagree on?

The differences matter. Not everyone is someone who should be in your life if you want a decent life. Sometimes strife is freedom.

 

Truth is, there are a lot of potential friends out there. While it’s important to expose yourself to different perspectives and opinions, there is absolutely no reason you should have to remain friends with someone whose politics you find deplorable.

I’d much rather be “divisive” than have to see bigoted crap all over my Facebook, which I consider my online “home.” Just as I don’t have to have bigots over for dinner, I don’t have to have them in my newsfeed.

[storytime] How I Quit the Senior Thesis

Ever since I was little, I held a belief shared by many gifted kids–gifted kids who grow into overachieving teenagers and then sleepless college students and then budding doctors, lawyers, engineers, researchers, businesspeople, or just those legions of people who wear tailored suits and work in tall office buildings in lower Manhattan and do stuff with money on computers or something.

That belief was this: you must do everything you are capable of. Anything less than that, and you’re “selling yourself short.”

You must participate in every science fair. You must take every honors class. You must play every sport your body can reasonably perform. You must accept every social invitation you are offered. You must matriculate at the most elite college to which you are accepted. You must have as many majors and minors as you can fit into your schedule, and you must have as many leadership positions you can get yourself accepted for.

So last spring I applied and got into the honors program in psychology. This meant that I would spend my senior year designing, carrying out, and writing up my own research study. At the time I was still under the impression that I wanted to pursue a PhD in clinical psychology, so this was obviously something I felt I should do.

I was at least mildly excited about it, at first, or at least made a good imitation of being excited. I don’t remember which it was anymore.

But in any case, things soon deteriorated. I discovered that I would not be able to do the study I originally designed about the stigma of mental illness–a topic I care deeply about–because none of the faculty members who study it were able to advise my project for various reasons. I tried to find a different lab to work in, but literally every single professor whose work I found interesting–and there are quite a few–was either already advising too many other honors students or had a requirement that you needed to have worked in their lab first or whatever.

So I ended up in a lab that deals with something I knew little about and that had very little relevance to my future career–cultural neuroscience. Fascinating stuff, but difficult and unrewarding. I couldn’t understand half the words that came out of my adviser’s mouth. What little willingness I had to go through with the program faded away. But still, I did not quit it.

The reasons I gave myself and others for not quitting are interesting mainly due to their blatant inaccuracy:

  • I felt that the department would be annoyed with me, but that’s silly since I was told I could withdraw at any time, and besides, if I quit that would free up resources for others.
  • I worried that this would somehow hurt my chances for admission into graduate school, which is even sillier because I’m applying to do a masters in social work, where nobody will care about my lack of research experience (particularly not in cultural neuroscience).
  • My parents told me not to, but so they did with journalism, and I quit that anyway and never looked back.
  • And, perhaps most importantly, I thought that quitting would make me a failure, even though that’s just obviously false.

As it turns out, what it came down to wasn’t any logical reason, but rather a sense of obligation, an invisible hand shoving me forward into doing things that I have no interest in and that bring me little or no benefit.

It is incredible to me how powerful that force was. I have always stubbornly persevered when it comes to getting the things I want, but apparently not getting things I don’t want is a different story.

Several agonizing weeks went by and then The Weekend happened. The Weekend was this past weekend. I saw an amazing speaker talk about microaggressions. I spent hours with friends. I laid around in bed in the mornings. I had a friend visit–someone I care about deeply and am now proud to call more than just a friend.

And at one point, I was sitting in the living room looking at my two bookshelves, which are full of unread books that are calling my name. (A small sample: When Everything Changed, Microaggressions, Outdated, Delusions of Gender, Sex at Dawn, and Thinking Fast and Slow.) I often wonder when I’ll be able to read them. But this time, for some reason, the question took on a new urgency: Seriously, though, when the fuck am I going to read these amazing books?

And it hit me that for the first time, academics doesn’t have to define me anymore. It doesn’t have to be My Thing. I don’t have to throw myself into the work to forget the fact that I have no real friends and no actual meaning to my life, because suddenly, I do.

I have new friends all over the country who are quickly starting to feel like old friends. I have my writing and this blog, which is growing in popularity and bringing me even more good friends and interesting people to talk to. I have the work that I do with sexual and mental health–I could write a whole post about the projects I’m working on and how much they mean to me. I have a new partner I adore, who supported me through this decision rather than pushing me to do and be everything.

This city, this city I used to hate so much, is growing more beautiful and homey to me every day. We spend our weekends out in its streets and thrift stores and cafes and apartments. As the weather grows colder, my heart grows warmer.

The thing is, I can do and be a whole lot of things. If I really wanted to, I could do this thesis. (I could also get a PhD, which I recently decided not to–a decision that parallels this one in many ways.) In the grand scheme of things, a year is not that long of a time to do something I don’t like and don’t need (assuming, of course, that my mental health would survive the year-long onslaught, which I doubt).

I could toil away at it and add another line to my resume, not because this will help me get into a social work program or accomplish any of my actual goals, but just so I could feel a little bit smarter and more accomplished.

But why?

Life is just too fucking short.

It’s too short for this kind of crap.

And so I quit.

The Friend Zone is a Myth

This week’s Daily Northwestern column.

As Valentine’s Day approaches, many of us are probably thinking the same thing : Dating is hard.

And it is, especially in college. People who look for serious relationships (as opposed to casual dating or hookups) face plenty of challenges, such as jam-packed schedules, breaks away from campus, study abroad semesters, plenty of temptation, and, of course, the constant specter of graduation.

Some might say that friendship is another one of those challenges. The concept of the “friend zone” isn’t a new one. On UrbanDictionary.com, where it was the “Word of the Day” back in October 2011, “friend zone” is defined as “What you attain after you fail to impress a woman you’re attracted to. Usually initiated by the woman saying, ‘You’re such a good friend.’”

Despite the gendered definition that UD provides, I’ve heard both girls and guys claim that their crush rejected their advances because they were “just such a good friend” or because they “didn’t want to ruin the friendship.”

I think the friend zone concept is mostly bunk. First of all, the fact that many relationships do start off with the couple being good friends shows that friendship itself isn’t exactly a cold shower.

Second, the friend zone seems like a convenient (if well-intended) excuse that people use when a friend whom they see as nothing more expresses romantic interest. After all, it’s never pleasant to have to tell a good friend that, for whatever reason, you just don’t see them as boyfriend/girlfriend material. And often people might not know the reason for that lack of connection: Maybe they just didn’t click with the person, or there wasn’t chemistry, or whatever you want to call it.

In such a situation, it makes sense that someone would say something like, “I just don’t see you as more than a friend.” And it makes sense that the person they’re rejecting would conclude that the friendship is the problem.

But it’s not. The problem is the person just doesn’t like them that way.

Of course, some people do choose not to date a friend they have feelings for because they don’t want to jeopardize the friendship. However, such people are probably simply valuing friendship over romance for the moment, and that’s their choice — it doesn’t mean becoming their friend was a bad idea.

Sometimes the friend zone explanation arises when a person puts a lot of energy into being a good friend to someone they’re interested in and gets frustrated when their emotions aren’t reciprocated. Since humans are wired to find patterns, the natural assumption is that the friendship caused their crush not to like them back.

However, as important as it is, being a good friend doesn’t entitle you to someone’s romantic attention. In fact, nothing entitles you to that.

It makes me sad when I see advice columns in women’s magazines exhorting them not to act like good friends to the men they like for fear of getting “friend zoned.” These columns generally advise women not to do anything overly friendly, such as worrying about a guy’s health or listening to him talk about his problems. Caring actions like these might prompt the dreaded “You’re such a good friend” comment.

However, unless you’re looking for the most casual of flings, friendship first makes a lot of sense — it allows you to get to know the person well before getting too invested, it helps them understand your boundaries, and it allows you to make sure that both of you are looking for the same thing from each other.

Especially at our age, people vary a lot in terms of the sorts of sexual and/or romantic relationships they’re looking for. Some just want to hook up, some want to date several people, some want an exclusive partner until distance forces them to separate, and others are looking for something serious and long-term. Getting to know a potential partner as a friend first is a great way to prevent hurting each other when you discover that your goals diverge.

Besides, if it never develops into anything more, having a new friend never hurts anyone.

This Valentine’s Day, ignore the cliched advice and go with your gut. People are either going to like you, or they’re not. But they’re more likely to like you if you treat them well.

On Apathy and Being Cool

[TMI Warning]

I saw this on one of my favorite blogs, Thought Catalog, today. Sara David, the author of this post, uses American Apparel models (and models in general) to make a point about the aesthetics of indifference:

Like, I get it. You want to represent the “cool you” on your blog. The you that’s into pictures of topless, deadpan boys in the forest or a haunted house. But seriously? You don’t look jaded. You look ignorant. The world is shitty enough without your personal, tragic narrative of indifference.

Apathy isn’t something one should be proud of, and it isn’t something one should be striving for. Apathy is death. When I was at the lowest point of my depression, my apathy was all-consuming. Here’s the truth: it was terrifying. And I couldn’t stop thinking, “What if this is it? What if one day, I wake up, and realize that I never felt a thing?”

Playing pretend with your indifference is foolish and dangerous.

I couldn’t agree more. I’m saddened to see that what’s considered fashionable and “cool” is a way of living that, as Sara points out, those of us with depression have to work for years to avoid. How crazy is that? Think about it.

I encounter this on a much less serious level on a daily basis. Showing emotion is unacceptable. My classmates at Northwestern, all of whom are under as much stress as I am, work their asses off to avoid showing it. Because that wouldn’t be cool.

I have so much trouble making friends because I find apathetic, troublefree people boring. I find people who aren’t open about their passions, who don’t let me see their personalities, who act like nothing bothers them, boring.

For instance, here’s what some of my closest friends are like.

My best friend is a biology major. Basically every day he posts articles related to biology and the environment on his Facebook. He’s constantly sending me Wikipedia articles about some interesting species of octopus or squirrel or whatever. He gets so fucking excited about this stuff that I really don’t care much about, but have to admire anyway because of how much he loves it. He is half Japanese, and when the earthquake struck Japan recently, his Facebook page became a constantly-updating news feed of what was going on. He had no problem making it pretty damn clear how much he cared.

The first real friend I made at Northwestern is a tiny, adorable, painfully polite Korean American. And yet, when she’s stressed about something, she’ll come out with something like “MY JOURNALISM PROJECT CAN GO SUCK A DICK.” Anyone else would say, “Yeah, my journalism project is kinda hard, but it’ll work out!” I don’t want to hear that. I want to hear that you want your project to go suck a dick.

Another close friend of mine claims to hate humanity. He is a quintessential misanthrope–tall with unnecessarily long dark hair and glasses, usually unshaven, big Marx fan, always carrying around a copy of the New Yorker to read at dinner rather than talking to people,  and never hesitant to accuse you of behaving like a child or of being an idiot. He says that many people think he’s an asshole, but if that’s true, it’s better than being boring.

My newest friend lives in my suite. She is half Black and half Jewish and hilariously politically incorrect. When my previously-mentioned friend rants about Marx, she has no problem telling him to shut the fuck up. Unlike most people I’ve met here, she actually tells me about her life, even the parts that she’s not so happy with. She’s also one of the few people who tells me freely that she cares.

So these are the people I love. These people are interesting to me. Apathy, on the other hand, is not interesting. It’s fucking boring. It’s a testament to the fact that culture and fashion are so screwed up that being boring is supposedly synonymous with being cool.

I guess I’m the last person who should be giving advice on how to live, but if there’s one thing I know beyond a doubt, it’s that you should love your passions, nurture them, and share them with the world. Bring something new into the lives of the people around you. Don’t be like everyone else. Don’t be boring. Don’t stop caring. If you don’t care, you’re not really living.