Depression Is Not Sadness (Again)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

Can You Be Happy for 100 Days in a Row?

The 100 Happy Days project.

“Can you be happy for 100 days in a row?” the website wants to know, taunting me with its cheery font and yellow color scheme.

No, I can’t.

“You don’t have time for this, right?” the next line asks rhetorically.

I’ll answer anyway. I have time. I, despite my grad program and 3-hour commute, have plenty of time to be happy. What I lack is the capacity.

It goes on:

We live in times when super-busy schedules have become something to boast about. While the speed of life increases, there is less and less time to enjoy the moment that you are in. The ability to appreciate the moment, the environment and yourself in it, is the base for the bridge towards long term happiness of any human being.

But I do enjoy the moment I’m in. I enjoy watching the skyline from the train during my commute. I enjoyed my four-hour trek through Central Park yesterday. I enjoy the moment the shutter snaps. I enjoy the food I put into my body, especially when I’ve cooked it myself. I enjoy the feeling of my muscles straining at the gym, several times a week. I enjoy the early morning sun over the Hudson. I enjoy the relief of jumping into bed with a book or a paper after work. I enjoy the music I listen to for hours a day. I enjoy every minute I spend writing, and I spend many minutes on it every day. I’m enjoying the moment I am in right now, despite the subject that I’m about to discuss.

All of this, and yet.

I can’t be happy for 100 days in a row. I can’t be happy for ten days in a row. I can’t, except for certain very rare instances, be happy for a day.

I can be happy for an hour or a few.

And by “happy,” I don’t mean “entirely free of negative emotions.” That’s a simplistic view of happiness that few people probably subscribe to. By “happy,” I mean that the good definitely outweighs the bad. I mean feeling that your life is, basically, what it should be and that the decisions you’ve made to get to where you are have been generally pretty good. I mean feeling like you’re a good person overall, give or take a few flaws. I mean being able to wake up in the morning and feel glad that another day is starting.

I don’t know what the folks behind the 100 Happy Days project meant by “happiness” exactly, but I’m sure it’s closer to what I just described than to “entirely free of negative emotion.”

Nobody expects to be entirely free of negative emotion, so I hope that strawman is now happily burning out in the field.

I can’t be happy for 100 days in a row because my brain doesn’t work that way. The good feelings don’t “stick.” When they happen, they’re genuine and meaningful, but they wash away like words scratched into the sand. I argue against them without meaning to. That essay was shit. He doesn’t give a fuck about you. Everything about you is ugly. Your parents will die and you won’t even have the money to fly to their funerals. Your siblings barely remember what you look like because you’re never home. Your partners will leave you for real girlfriends, as opposed to the sloppy facsimile of one that you are. Everything good is temporary; everything bad is permanent.

I don’t know what the nice people who made the 100 Days website would say about this, if anything. Maybe they would say that I’m just not making enough of an effort, giving enough time, to the project of Being Happy. Or maybe they would say that they’re sorry, but this is just a fun little experiment that was never meant for People Like Me.

And there it is. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with this idea. It’s a neat idea, for certain people, for whom the biggest obstacle to being happy and satisfied with their lives is failing to stop and smell the roses.

But I can’t tell you how often I come across these things, accidentally or because a friend recommended it, and think, “Oh, right, that’s not for me.” All those self-help books, anything that addresses mood without explicitly trying it to mental health and psychology. (This one especially.) All these little projects. The mere idea of self-care.

While I know many people with mental illnesses get a lot out of self-care, and self-help, and what have you, for me personally, it’s never resonated. I’ll tell my friends that I’m sorry, I can’t go out tonight after all, because I just can’t and I’m sad and I can’t. And they’ll be supportive, they’ll say, “It’s okay, everyone needs some time to recharge and take care of themselves.” And I get frustrated and I want to tell them that NO I’m not going to “recharge” and this isn’t “taking care” of myself this is giving up and it’s NOT going to make me feel better to sit alone in my room looking out the window all night, it’s just that crying in public is inappropriate whereas crying in your room is okay, so that’s what I have to do.

For me, “self-care” and “enjoying the moment” aren’t things I do because they make me happy, since almost nothing makes me happy. They’re things I do because they help me feel like there’s a purpose to my being here. And I need to feel that way to continue to be here, because I’ve been close enough to the edge to know how slippery and ephemeral that belief can be, and what chaos breaks loose without it.

People say, “You should do what makes you happy.” They say, “I’m glad you moved to New York where you could be happier.” They say, “The most important thing is to be happy.”

Well, I have to measure my outcomes in other ways. I don’t care how much money I make (I won’t make much) or how far up on the career ladder I get (I won’t get very high) or how desirable of a person I marry (I might not marry anyone), and I can’t really be happy. What does that leave?

How many interesting and fond memories I collect. How many people I impact positively. How much and how well I write. How much I influence the causes I want to influence. Of course, it’s much harder to get a sense of these things than it is to get a sense of how happy or sad I am at any given moment.

It’s entirely possible that in a few months or years I’ll be taking this post back. Maybe happiness the way I define it is in my future, maybe one day I’ll stop bitterly regretting all the choices I’ve made and scanning communications from my friends and partners for signs of imminent departure. Maybe the view of the skyline, beautiful as it is, won’t be the best part of my day anymore, because there will be something better. Maybe the flowering trees along Broadway will be the nice little extras that push the day from good to great, as long as I remember to stop and smell them.

But if anything, all these years of feeling like my brain is a science experiment gone awry have taught me that happiness isn’t always an accurate or precise measurement of anything. When I’m achieving everything I want to achieve and I’m surrounded by loving friends and family but I still feel miserable, the failure to be happy isn’t a “sign” of anything. For me, mood is mostly decoupled from the things that are actually supposed to create happiness, whether that’s professional success or pretty flowers or whatever.

I can’t be happy for 100 days in a row, but that means nothing other than my brain doesn’t work that way. All things considered, I think I’m doing pretty okay for myself, despite and regardless of and, most importantly, because of the challenges my mind creates for me.

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.

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New Year in New York.

[guest post] The Tradeoff Between Ambition and Happiness

A fellow blogger has provided me with this guest post about the psychology of ambition and happiness. Enjoy!

Imagine there’s a big project at work and you decide to come in on the weekend. The
length of you stay is entirely up to you, but you’ll get paid overtime for each hour.
After six hours you’re starting to feel like you’ve had enough. It’s time to decide
whether to stay another hour.

Both options have their benefits. Leave and you get to go hang out with friends. Stay
and you make more money. You go over the pros and cons in your head, but because
you have complete freedom over how to spend the next hour the choice comes
down to one thing: are you unhappier about leaving or unhappier about staying?
The decision will be made based on whether you feel, or convince yourself to feel,
unhappy and unsatisfied about only working six hours.

The point of this little scenario is that while many of us don’t consciously make
these specific decisions every day, the course of our lives and our happiness is
altered by how we incrementally reach these decisions over many months or years.
Are you going rip yourself apart over still not getting that promotion, or will you be
satisfied that you’ve reached the professional level you dreamed about when you
were a college student? Will you be happy if everything in life is great except for the
fact that you’re single, or will you be so unsatisfied that you have no choice but to
dedicate yourself to finding a significant other?

Happiness is influenced by a number of things that are out of our control – random
events, brain chemistry, immutable mental schemata developed as a young child – but
we can control some piece of our happiness through the stories we tell ourselves.
We can tell ourselves we’re successful and be happy, or we can tell ourselves we’re
not successful enough, and in doing so motivate greater achievement that ultimately
leads to a higher and more-stable level of happiness.

All of this is to say that it seems as though life involves a significant tradeoff between
ambition and happiness. Ambition requires focusing on what you don’t have.
Happiness requires focusing on what you do have. Yet the best way to truly strive
for more is to make yourself unsatisfied and unhappy with your current state. Thus,
in order to achieve more and push yourself to greater long-term happiness, it is
helpful to destroy short- or medium-term happiness.

The big question is what’s the optimal equilibrium between current life satisfaction
(i.e. happiness) and current life dissatisfaction (i.e. ambition)? The answer to this
question is important for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it’s the driver of
many of the big dilemmas people face in their lives. Should you accept what you’ve
accomplished on the grounds that it will keep you happy forever, or should you
convince yourself to feel unsatisfied on the grounds that one day you will wish you
achieved more? Clearly the answer is different for each person at each point in their
lives.

The happiness-ambition tradeoff is also one that society as a whole must grapple
with. It’s probably efficient to stigmatize things like delinquency, ignorance,
and lawlessness, but what if there happens to be a smart upper-middle class kid
whose childhood dream is to become a lowly janitor? If somebody has such great
perspective on life that they are truly happy with becoming an uneducated janitor,
is that something social norms should discourage? Is it wrong for society to try and
rob them of their happiness in order to push them to do something that might have
more social value?

The point of all of this is…well, I’m not quite sure. Hopefully it helped generate some
unique thoughts about what happiness really means and what we can do about it.
And hopefully the next time you’re unhappy about where you are in life, you’ll think
more clearly about the emotions driving your thoughts. Is your level of ambition
really worthwhile given what it’s doing to your happiness? Or alternatively, is
your happiness “legitimate” enough that it’s worth taking your ambition down a
notch?

Perhaps with improved metacognition you’ll even find a way to mitigate the
ambition-happiness tradeoff – to somehow increase motivation by making yourself
unsatisfied with what you have, but do it without robbing yourself of present
happiness.

Eric hails from the D.C. suburbs, though he now spends his days in New York City working to improve/ruin the lives of children by conducting research on the benefits of extending the school day. His blog — Peer-reviewed by My Neurons — is a wondrous hodgepodge of posts that all somehow relate to social science and social policy.

[storytime] An Abridged List of Lies I Was Taught as a Child

  • Money and success will make you happy.
  • Being beautiful is an obligation.
  • Being fat is the worst thing that could happen to you.
  • College will be a magical la-la land where you will finally be happy.
  • Men don’t like strong, opinionated women.
  • Being gay is wrong.
  • Never ask a guy out.
  • Never have sex with someone you’re not dating seriously.
  • Casual sex will make you depressed, and a slut.
  • Intelligent people are better than nonintelligent people.
  • Your parents know best.
  • Family comes before friends.
  • You should be willing to sacrifice anything for your family.
  • Fitting in is important.
  • If you’re upset, you’re probably being too sensitive.
  • Your friends should come from your cultural/ethnic/religious group.
  • If a guy likes you, he will let you know. And if he doesn’t, he’s a wimp anyway.
  • Your career should be as high-powered as possible.
  • Your husband should make as much or more money than you.
  • It’s okay to let men do things for you rather than learning how to do them yourself.
  • Never, ever trust another woman. She will stab you in the back at the first opportunity.
  • If someone doesn’t like you, you should probably ask yourself what you’re doing wrong.
  • If your boyfriend is unhappy, you should try to make him happy.
  • Politics doesn’t matter anyway.
  • Everyone can tell how many men a woman has slept with just by looking at her.
  • Your clothing should always “flatter” your figure.
  • Sex can only be one of two things: Dangerous, or Special and to be saved for The Right Person.
  • Getting ahead is more important than sticking to your principles.
  • You can always just choose to be happy.

I learned these things as a child and a teenager. Now I’m an adult and I finally get to reeducate myself. A decolonization of the mind, so to speak.

Most of these lessons have been proven false by experience and common sense.

What lies were you taught as a child?

The Happiest Day of My Life

My sister-in-law and me, on the happiest day of my life. And maybe of hers, too.

[TMI Warning]

On April 3 of this past year, my older brother got married. I’d known his wife-to-be almost as long as he had–nearly two years–and she was basically part of our family by then. So to me, that day wasn’t just about the joy of one of my family members, but two. Though, actually, it was about the joy of all of us.

I woke up early on the day of my brother’s wedding after spending the night at the hotel with my whole family. My sister-in-law, her sister, their mother, and I all had our hair and makeup done professionally. The photographer posed us with our bouquets and snapped hundreds of shots.

The wedding itself was beautiful. It was an Orthodox Jewish wedding, and everyone received a little booklet explaining the traditions and why things were done the way they were. I found it all fascinating and unforgettable.

During the ceremony, I walked my little sister, the flower girl, down the aisle. I shed some stereotypical tears. I’m pretty sure my mom did too, and we probably weren’t the only ones. A Jewish wedding ceremony isn’t something I can easily describe or explain, so all I can say is that I hope you witness one someday.

The reception was fantastic. I got to see friends and family I hadn’t seen for years, and we danced for hours. I’d worn four-inch heels and my feet were killing me, but I didn’t care, for the most part.

And then it was over, I went home and went to bed, and woke up the next morning to the same life I’d lived before.

I’ve been thinking about that day a lot ever since. Not just because it was a major event in the story of my family, but because it holds a very special significance for me. It was, so far, the happiest day of my life.

On its own, that might not seem so strange. After all, since I’ve never gotten engaged or married myself, I don’t really have a choice but to live vicariously through those who have. Since I love and care about my brother and sister-in-law, it would make sense that their marriage would make me very happy.

But at the same time, it’s not the sort of thing you’d really expect as the happiest day of a young adult’s life. Most would probably say something like their high school graduation day, the day they were accepted to their dream college, the day they won a major competition or award, and so on. Self-directed things.

It was also kind of a weird time for the happiest day of my life to occur. Last winter and spring, I was going through a major depressive episode–I’ve lost count of the number by now, but it was probably my fourth or fifth one. In fact, I spent the night before the wedding and the night after it doing the exact same thing–sobbing on my bed for no immediately discernible reason. I remember it very clearly.

But in between those two nights, something was different. I wasn’t thinking about any of that. I wasn’t thinking about what a failure I am or how I have no friends or how I’m terrible at everything I ever try to do, or any of that other stuff that seemed so obvious to me.

And it wasn’t because I was “thinking happy thoughts” or “just ignoring it” or any of the other things depressives are constantly extolled to do.

It was because all of my attention was focused on someone else and on their happiness. Rather than trying to avoid my own thoughts, I actively directed them somewhere else.

In other words, the happiest day of my life was the day I almost didn’t think about myself at all.

I knew almost the instant the night was over that it had been a very special day for me. For months afterwards I kept replaying it in my mind, desperately trying to figure out how to get that feeling back. My parents told me later that their friends couldn’t stop telling them how amazing I looked–not just because I was dressed and coiffed and made up so well, but because I seemed to glow. I seemed alive, and it might’ve been the only time these people had ever seen me that way. It might’ve been the only time I ever have looked that way. I looked like a young person ought to look.

It was only tonight that I finally figured it out. And it made perfect sense. Because the truth is, I’m never going to love myself. I might not ever even like myself. I’ll probably always wish I were born another person. So for me, happiness will never come by focusing on myself and my own life. It will only ever come during those times when I can forget my own existence, my own self.

To be honest, I’m not sure that I’ll ever have a day as happy as that one again, except perhaps when my other siblings or close friends get married. I’m not sure that I’ll ever find someone who tolerates me enough to marry me, and even if I do, I doubt my own wedding day could make me as happy as someone else’s.

On a normal day, it’s just not possible to pretend that the world doesn’t exist. It exists, and it sucks a lot of the time. On normal days my family isn’t going through one of the happiest things that can happen to a person. On normal days, I don’t have anything this momentously joyous to think about.

But I think I can apply what I’ve learned to these normal days, too. That’s why the best advice I can offer to other people struggling with mood disorders is to “get out of your head.” The hard part is figuring out how to do that–it’s different for everyone–and summoning the strength to actually do it. For me, getting out of my head means getting into someone else’s and living through their eyes instead.

That day changed my life in many ways. It inspired me to learn more about the religious traditions I’ve thus far ignored, it obviously changed my family life pretty drastically, and, for about fourteen hours, it let me live without depression.

For those fourteen hours, I was alive. The black cloud over me was gone. The haze before  my eyes was gone.

I’ll never forget how that felt.

Learning How to be Happy

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

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

So what’s the problem?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Don't Be Afraid to Give Up the Good for the Great"

[Sometimes I like to send myself emails using FutureMe. I get them a year later and instantly remember what it was like to be me a year ago.]

Dear FutureMe,

Yesterday it happened just like in the dream I kept having over the summer.

I was motionless on the sideline, in front of a wall of music that was staring me in the face. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t run out there and be with them, and I couldn’t turn back time and change my decision, and I couldn’t cry and risk everyone seeing.

Three small miracles changed it from the dream version, though. It was daytime and not night, I wasn’t alone, and I didn’t feel the overwhelming sadness.

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