Storytelling

(Or: Massive Annual New Year’s Eve Note, Vol. 5)

[TMI Warning]

Many psychologists believe that it’s not what happens to us that matters, it’s the stories we tell ourselves about what happens.

Some people unfortunately interpret this to mean that we ought to “look on the bright side of life” and “find the silver lining” and all that crap.

I don’t really see things that way. Never have. Life sucks a lot of the time, and anyone who tells you otherwise is either stupid, in denial, or trying to sell you something.

But I have learned, over the past year, how powerful personal storytelling can be. This was the year I took a lot of pain and turned it into a force of energy.

~~~

A year ago, I thought I was done with this whole depression thing forever. That didn’t turn out to be the case. It came back almost as soon as the new year started, worse than ever before, seemingly undefeatable.

This has been a painful year. People hurt me this year. They lied, broke my heart, used me, and took my friendship for granted.

I was alone a lot, more alone than ever before. In fact, I spent most of the summer alone in New York. It was a fantastic experience, but a lonely one nonetheless.

It was hard, a lot of the time, not to think about all the ways depression limits me. If I didn’t have it, everything about my life would be different. I’d be outgoing, I’d go to parties, I could stay up late and take harder classes. I wouldn’t be so tired all the time, I wouldn’t have such a hard time talking to people, and, of course, I wouldn’t be so sad.

But sometime over the course of this year, I stopped thinking about all the things I couldn’t do because of depression, and started thinking instead about all the things I could.

For instance, I would never have started NU Listens, my peer-listening organization, if I hadn’t been depressed. I wouldn’t have the skills that allow me to help people. I wouldn’t write so much, or so well. I wouldn’t be able to fully appreciate my family and the other people I have in my life. I probably wouldn’t know what my calling is.

Some people, knowing that, would assume that I’m “thankful” for the experience of being depressed, or that I consider it “part of God’s plan” for me, or that it was “all for the best.”

Well, sorry to burst your bubble, but no. I don’t think any God would put a person through this, and that’s one of the reasons I don’t believe in God. I’m not thankful and I don’t think it was for the best. I want my adolescence back. I want the first two years of college back.

In our culture, preoccupied as it is with constantly finding the silver lining to everything from rejection to failure to broken hearts, I think it’s bold of me to say that I’m not thankful for what happened. I know I’m expected to offer up some grand lesson to be learned from all this, but I’m sorry to say that there just isn’t one. Sometimes shit happens. It definitely happened to me.

Knowing that, I’ve given up trying to find some sort of grand meaning in my experiences with depression. I sure as hell don’t accept the Judeo-Christian notion that I somehow deserved it, and although it has had some positive consequences, I’d say it did more harm than good. By far.

So how to go on? Well, that’s a complicated question for someone who prefers to see things in complicated ways. The story I’ve decided to tell about my own life isn’t necessarily happy, but it’s empowering for me. It’s about working within my limitations to achieve great things.

After all, the truth is that I’m probably not going to ever fully recover. I live at the mercy of something I can’t fully control, and my entire being–from feelings and moods to thoughts, beliefs, and actions–is tempered by it. Some days it leaves me alone, and some days it barely lets me get out of bed.

It means I have to be on my best behavior all the time. Nine hours of sleep, fruits and veggies, not too much carbs or meat, brisk walking every day, at least. Schoolwork has to be done before 9 PM or so, or else I can’t concentrate on it. I get overwhelmed by information easily, hence all the organization–categorized to-do lists and a calendar, a notebook that I carry everywhere, everything in filing folders in a box under my desk. In class I have to write by hand because it keeps me more alert. Otherwise, I start dozing off after sitting still for five minutes, no matter how much sleep I’ve been getting, because that’s how my body is.

I have to always stay busy, because as soon as I have a moment to myself, my mind starts conjuring up nasty thoughts. You’re such a bitch. Go kill yourself. The reason I take five/six classes, work two jobs, and run two student groups isn’t for my resume. It’s for my health.

~~~

So those are my limitations. Sometimes they seem pretty extreme. Sometimes they seem like a blessing compared to what some people are given.

Regardless, I’m not going to define myself through them anymore.

Instead, I’m going to define myself through the unique gifts that I have, and that I’ve become aware of because of my experience with depression.

When I’m helping someone, my self disappears–and with it, so do all of my fears, insecurities, and dysfunctions. I feel like I’m entering the other person’s being. It’s almost a spiritual experience.

Of course, my ideas about others aren’t always correct, but I start down a path of understanding. I start to see why the love the people they love, why the fear the things they fear, why they do things I would never do, why they believe things that I don’t believe.

I’m not looking for any accolades or sense of moral superiority when I say that my calling is to help people feel better. In a way, I’m just as selfish as anyone else. Some people are happy when they make money, or when they do experiments, or when they play sports; I’m happy when I make others happy.

It’s pretty much that simple.

~~~

It’s been a year since I “came out” as having a mental disorder. Since then, my relationships have only grown stronger and my sense of being valued and respected has only increased. Sometimes people do imply–usually via anonymous comments on my blog, as they know better than to say it to my face–that I’m making people “uncomfortable.” My response to this is always the same: they’ll get over their discomfort. I won’t get over my depression.

The truth is that–and I’m terribly sorry about this–I really don’t give a fuck about your comfort. I just don’t. It’s not my job to make anyone comfortable. I don’t really care about fitting in or being cool or normal. I must be missing that gene, or whatever.

If I sound completely different right now than I did just a few paragraphs before, I wouldn’t blame you for being confused. My life’s work will be to help people find happiness, but never at the expense of my own ability to live and express myself as I see fit. My understanding of psychology is that if you’re so concerned with how I live that you’re made “uncomfortable” by my depression, it’s you who needs to change, not me.

I don’t think most people realize the extent of my lack of fuck-giving because, unlike many other young malcontents, I don’t wear it on my body. My clothes are normal. I talk like a more-or-less average educated person. I don’t have any tattoos or extra piercings and don’t plan on getting any, and my hair is dyed, but only slightly. It’s styled in a mostly average way. I don’t choose to “rebel” by doing lots of drugs or people, and I don’t smoke, drink, or listen to unusual music.

But internally, I feel like an alien in this world. There’s a thick glass wall between me and everyone else. There’s a terrible creature that has its tentacles wrapped around my brain, and every time it squeezes, I want to rip my head off.

That’s what depression is.

~~~

That’s not to say this year has been all bad. It certainly hasn’t. I made many friends this year–not just any friends, but best friends. I started working on two different research projects at school. I found a way to connect with the Jewish community at Northwestern. I made Dean’s List this past quarter, started my own peer listening group, got accepted as a columnist for the Daily Northwestern next quarter, drastically increased my blog’s readership, tried therapy for the first time, successfully navigated my first quarter in my own apartment, went on quite a few dates, learned how to make my own jewelry, was accepted to a quarter-long Jewish education program, and befriended a few professors.

I went to New York three times, growing more and more certain with each time that this is where I want to live someday. I watched my older brother get married and found out that I’ll be an aunt in a couple of weeks. I met distant family members I hadn’t even known about before. I decided to wean myself off antidepressants when the new year starts.

Depression keeps me from being truly happy, but I refuse to let it rewrite the story of my life any longer. What I’ve been able to do despite of (and perhaps because of) my limitations makes me glad to be alive. I hope to recover someday, but even if I don’t, my life is going to be worthwhile.

~~~

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.

The College Story

See, I'm not the only one.

I wish I could spin you the story everyone wants to hear.

That story has a whole cast of predictable characters, and many trunks’ worth of familiar props. The friends, the neat dorm rooms, the beer, the photo collages, the inside jokes, the cute frat guys, the walks by the lake, the hot chocolate, the study sessions, the mentoring professors, the sorority mixers, the coffee dates, the giggly all-nighters, the risque one-night-stands and the whispered confessions to friends in class the next day.

Sound familiar? That’s the College Story. You’ve seen it in every glossy brochure, TV show, Seventeen magazine article, and back-to-school commercial.

But that’s not my story. It never will be. Because the kind of person I am doesn’t get to live that story.

Halfway through my college career, it’s time to admit this to myself.

My story? Sure, it has some bright moments in it. Most stories do, and mine hasn’t been that awful. But then there’s all the stuff nobody wants me to talk about–the weather, the loneliness, the way guys at Northwestern treat me (to be precise, like a thing), the rich, preppy students that I’ll never resemble, the hours spent laboring over essays that professors barely even read (and then unceremoniously slap a B on without further explanation), the expectation to be a walking, talking, drinking/fucking/studying machine, the not-so-subtle bragging NU teaches us to perform, the bottles of anti-depressants lined up on my shelf, the many nights I spent considering transferring, asking for a quarter off, dropping out of college, or dropping out of life.

I played with my little sister today. I do that every day when I’m home, but today it was different because I was acutely aware of the fact that I’m leaving again in five days. I hugged her and my heart broke all over again. I hate that I’m not here to see her and my brother grow up. I hate that nobody at Northwestern loves me the way these two do. I hate that my little brother took one of my blankets to sleep with because he misses me while I’m at school. It all feels so wrong to me.

I’ll feel better once I’m actually there, I know that. Despite what it may look like, making the best of things is a skill of mine. Once I’m there, it’ll be easier to make myself forget the loving family I’ve left back in Ohio and to pretend that home isn’t where I’d always rather be. Sometimes I’m even able to get myself to believe that I somehow matter at this huge institution of higher learning and that it, or at the very least, the lives of some of the other people in it, would be noticeably different if I had never existed.

The truth is that I’m paying $200,000 and a lot of my own sanity for a stupid piece of paper saying that I’m qualified to go get a PhD and actually learn something relevant to my life, because all I’ve learned these past two years is how to act smarter, richer, and more well-adjusted than I actually am. Call me an idealist, but I hoped that college would be more than this.

I’m compelled to apologize for this. To apologize for hating college, because it goes against everything our culture dictates that I do. I’m supposed to love it.

Well, I’m sorry. I wish I could tell you that I do.

Why Are Adults So Negative?

[Snark Warning, TMI Warning]

No, really, that’s a legitimate question. Why are people older than me–even by just a few years–so eager to put down all of my hopes and dreams?

Let me give a few nonspecific examples of Things Older People Have Said recently to me:

  • “You know, guys really don’t go for complex women.” (Women like me, that is, in the context of that conversation.)
  • “Oh, trust me, by the time you have a job, you’re not going to care about making a difference. It’ll just be about how you hate your boss and can’t wait to go home by the end of the day.”
  • “You’re never going to be successful if you don’t learn how to be pushy.”
  • “It’s going to be even harder to make friends after college, you know.”
  • “You’re gonna go for a PhD? You do realize how much work that is, right?”
  • “Psychologists don’t make that much money. You should try to get an MD instead.”

Perhaps you Well-Meaning Adults are all under the impression that I have excessively high expectations and need a Dose of Healthy Realism to prevent myself from getting disappointed later on. Perhaps you just don’t realize what weight your words can carry for someone who is younger and looking for someone to help them find their way.

Well, this might be news to you, but I have a mental disorder that basically means that my expectations are already unhealthily low. That’s what depression does. It robs you of all the hope and optimism you used to have. Every bit of genuine excitement that I have for the future is something I’ve worked very, very hard to muster up. And guess what you’re doing. You’re taking it away from me.

People. My disorder does a perfectly fine job of putting me down all on its own. It really doesn’t need any help from you. I don’t need to be reminded of how hard it’s going to be to make friends, get a job, find a partner. Trust me, I’ve been over this in my mind over and over and over again Many, many sleepless nights. I’ve been over it until I’ve cried my head off and wanted to kill myself. Really. I do not need your help.

You know what, I appreciate that maybe your life didn’t turn out the way you wanted. And that sucks. I’m sorry you have a shit job, I’m sorry  you have an awful time meeting people and dating. If you’d like, feel free to tell me about that. Or go tell a therapist. Or whatever. But your experiences do not give you the right to take my hope away from me. Especially when you’re some measly three or four years older! Jesus Christ! You’re still finding your own way. You’re not dead yet. At least wait till you get your own kids before you start dispensing your Divine Wisdom to someone else.

I’m seriously considering kicking these people out of my life, because as much as I’ve always believed that friendship with people older than me is important and extremely valuable, I can’t have these people making me feel crappy all the time.

Why does this happen? I think we have a cultural stereotype of young adults as exceedingly cocky, optimistic, and entitled. Well, guys, you know what they say about people who assume. First of all, as I’m pretty sure everyone I’m acquainted with knows, I’m not even from this country. Take everything you know about “American Young Adults” and toss it the fuck out, because I grew up with a different cultural background, one in which humbleness and realism are prized qualities.

Second, even supposing I were the most typical American girl you can imagine, you should still quit it with the damn stereotypes already. Everyone has their quirks and idiosyncrasies. Some people come from broken families. Some people grew up poor. Some people have a disability, maybe one you can’t see. Some people read a ton of books when they were kids. Some people grew up being bullied in school. Some people have depression, anxiety, OCD, ADHD, a substance abuse disorder, autism or Asperger’s, or some other condition. Some people are just plain different!

So throw out those silly magazine articles about “Today’s Entitled Bratty Self-righteous Cocky Inept Stupid Young Adults” and see what’s right in front of you. Some of us are just trying to get by. Some of us are just trying to scrounge up every last shred of hope we have and keep on living. Just because I’m young doesn’t mean I think it’s all rainbows and butterflies ahead. I work hard to keep my chin up. Don’t you dare take that away from me.

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.

No More Lonely Nights

[This was originally a Facebook note that I posted right before New Year's Eve. It got a lot of positive attention so I figured I'd repost it.]

[TMI Warning]

Normally at this time of year, I like to write a long note about what I’ve accomplished during the past year, what it all means, what my New Year’s resolutions are, how my love life is progressing, all that type of stuff. New Year’s Eve is an important night for me for many reasons, most of all because it just gives me a great opportunity to reflect on how my life is going.

Ordinarily I make a list. A big long list. Everything will be on there–breakups, revelations, other transitions of various sorts. A lot of stuff has happened to me this year. A lot of it was important to me.

But I’m not going to make a list this year, because this year, there’s really only one thing that I want to write about. It’s the biggest, most important thing. This year, I recovered from depression.

[Read more...]

On Ambition

I used to be what most people would call an ambitious person. That is to say, I knew exactly where I wanted to go in life, and it was a place that everyone respected. I was also willing to do everything necessary to get there–the perfect grades, prestigious college, and on and on.

What my actual ambition was doesn’t matter, because I had several phases that I went through. I remember at one point I wanted to be a psychologist. Then an architect, then a physicist, then a lawyer, then a statistician, then an economist, then a sociologist, and then, finally, a journalist. That was the dream that ultimately led to the breakdown of all the other dreams.

My parents were always very proud of me for being so ambitious, even if what I actually wanted to do was always changing. That, after all, was only natural, and it was clear to everyone that I had what it takes to get to the top of any field I chose. My parents were certain that once I started college, I’d immediately settle down with whatever major happened to be conveniently available to me and begin the process of climbing up the totem pole like a good little girl.

Well, what they forgot to tell me was that it’s pretty damn hard to be ambitious when you no longer know what the hell you want to do with your life. Journalism sucked, sociology might as well have been Political Correctness 101, and I’m terrible at science, so I picked psychology. But then I started having doubts. What if I’d make the most amazing computer programmer in the world? Or photographer, or novelist, or graphic designer, or architect, or engineer?

But all of these paths were closed off to me, because most of them don’t even have departments at my school, and those that do are special programs that one needs to apply for (much like my nemesis, journalism). Furthermore, I could no longer afford to take any more random classes if I wanted to graduate on time (which I must, given the cost of attending college). The uncomfortable truth was that you really can’t be whatever you want to be. If I wanted to study architecture or engineering, I should’ve thought of that earlier. But I didn’t, and besides, there was still no guarantee I’d like any of those, either. I was now, I realized, completely and inexorably stuck. And that’s when I lost my ambition–and my faith in myself.

I don’t know how, at 18 years old, I was supposed to just magically know what I want to do for the rest of my life. I certainly didn’t get any room for experimentation. I spent freshman year slaving away in the name of journalism and ended up choosing psychology because it seems to be the only subject I’m good at. But as for architecture and other subjects not even offered at my school, who knows? Maybe in a parallel universe, I could’ve designed a revolutionary green skyscraper or the next crazy-popular Apple gadget, or coded a new Google project or a better version of Windows. Not in this universe, though.

Life without ambition is a new experience for me. These days I couldn’t care less about my future. I don’t really try that hard in my classes, and I avoid internships like the plague. All I want to do is read books and lie by the pool. After all, if I’m going to get trapped into a life I never wanted anyway, why bother working hard for it? Might as well enjoy whatever freedom I have left.

If that seems nihilistic, well, most people hate their jobs. This is nothing unusual. I’ve just realized earlier than most people that all that bullshit they tell you about how any dream is achievable is really just bullshit. It’s really all just a matter of luck. Some people get lucky and happen upon the right calling, and others don’t.

"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.

[Read more...]

The Kindness of Strangers

Another reason I got this blog (other than to give me an outlet to complain about the status of my other blog) is to write about my life a bit more, because it bothers me that I hardly ever write in my journal anymore. And Xanga, obviously, is definitely dead. And Facebook is just too cluttered with stupid quizzes and other junk that I get yelled at for complaining about, because apparently, if I don’t want to know what sex position or color of underwear you are, I am a selfish bitch who doesn’t care about other people.

(Does that make any sense to you? Because it really doesn’t make any sense to me.)

Anyways, the particular event that I most want to write about at this moment is my own personal introduction into the world of stupid drivers, airbags, and kind strangers, which occurred yesterday on a lovely intersection in Kettering, Ohio, as I drove my little brother (seven years old) and my sister (four) home from daycamp.

Namely, somebody decided that it would be a good idea to begin making their left turn directly into the line of motion of my car, after I had already entered the intersection, while the traffic light was still yellow and not red, and without stopping or slowing down significantly as they approached an intersection in which, technically, pretty much everybody but them had the right of way. Including, obviously, me, currently traveling at about 45 miles per hour, about 5 over the speed limit.

As I noticed the presence of a vehicle seemingly oblivious of the fact that it was headed directly into a collision with myself, I slammed on the breaks, already knowing that I was, to put it succinctly, fucked. I collided into the offending vehicle with the upper left side of my car and got spun into a conveniently-located telephone pole, which, had I been going faster, would certainly have shattered my windshield and probably killed (or at least injured substantially) me, since it was right in front of my face. My car slammed into the pole. The airbags exploded. There was smoke and a really, really weird smell in the air. My face started stinging.

Then my car started rolling backward, but luckily I had the presence of mind to put it in park, turn it off, and get both of my siblings out and onto the sidewalk. My sister was crying. I calmed her down. My brother, being a little boy, was excited. I let him marvel at the fire truck and ambulance that quickly arrived. I began calling both of my parents, but they were on their lunch breaks and didn’t have their phones with them.

At this point, my adrenaline-fueled energy began to subside, and I noticed my bleeding toe. Then I realized that I wasn’t sure if the crash was my fault or not. The woman in the other car was getting strapped onto a gurney. That’s when I really started crying.

I was sitting on the sidewalk and freaking out when I felt hands on my shoulders and heard a woman’s voice telling me that it was okay, that she saw what happened and it wasn’t my fault, and that everything would be fine and the police would get there soon. I turned around to see who this angel was. She looked to be nearing the end of her middle age, but had two daughters, both younger than me. The two girls immediately took over watching my siblings, buying them a bottle of water, stroking my sister’s hair, and letting my brother excitedly show off his Nintendo DS to them.

Over the next hour or two (I have no idea at ALL how long it was), the woman stayed with us, talking to the police, keeping me company, and waiting until my dad could get there and take us home. Her daughters helped me get everything out of the crashed car and put it into my dad’s. I kept telling them that if they need to leave, they should go ahead, but all three of them insisted that they’d only been going to the library, so they weren’t in any hurry.

The whole story had a happy ending. Other than my cut toe, there were no injuries among me and my siblings. The woman in the other car had asthma and was being sent to the hospital for that, so she was fine. She got a citation for an illegal left turn. I got praised heavily by the woman who stayed with me and by the police officer for keeping a cool head and getting my siblings out of the car immediately.

My poor car got sent to the shop, but it’ll be fine. Only one corner of it was wrecked, anyway. It could’ve been so much worse for everybody involved.

But, most importantly, I met three people who made a difference in my life and further cemented an already-firm belief of mine that most people have more good in them than bad. It gave me hope.