The Circular Logic of Internet Misogynists

Yesterday–the same day, incidentally, that I discovered that I’ve inspired my first pathetic little hate club–a blogger I respect announced that she’s taking a hiatus from blogging after enduring constant abuse and harassment for daring to be a woman with opinions on the internet.

Jen McCreight wrote:

I wake up every morning to abusive comments, tweets, and emails about how I’m a slut, prude, ugly, fat, feminazi, retard, bitch, and cunt (just to name a few). If I block people who are twisting my words or sending verbal abuse, I receive an even larger wave of nonsensical hate about how I’m a slut, prude, feminazi, retard, bitch, cunt who hates freedom of speech (because the Constitution forces me to listen to people on Twitter). This morning I had to delete dozens of comments of people imitating my identity making graphic, lewd, degrading sexual comments about my personal life. In the past, multiple people have threatened to contact my employer with “evidence” that I’m a bad scientist (because I’m a feminist) to try to destroy my job.

[...]I don’t want to let them win, but I’m human. The stress is getting to me. I’ve dealt with chronic depression since elementary school, and receiving a daily flood of hatred triggers it. I’ve been miserable….I spend most of my precious free time angry, on the verge of tears, or sobbing as I have to moderate comments or read what new terrible things people have said about me. And the only solution I see is to unplug.

 

In case you don’t follow Jen’s blog and aren’t familiar with what’s been going on, here’s an example, and here’s a post she wrote about it once. I don’t really have the words for how awful and unconscionable this is, so I’ll just quote JT Eberhard: “the people who have harassed her into quitting are inhuman shitbags.  As the atheism movement gets bigger, the tiny percentage of just rotten folks will continue to be comprised of more and more people who would sooner destroy a person than an idea. Those people don’t deserve this community.”

But what I really wanted to talk about was these misogynists’ reactions to Jen’s decision to quit blogging (for the time being). Sure, some of them made the typical “good riddance” comments, but others actually blamed her for being “unable to take the heat” and claimed that the only reason she quit was to get sympathy.

The interesting thing is, these people purposefully harassed Jen–you know, to make her feel like shit–and then blamed her for being too “weak” to take the harassment without quitting.

This sort of circular logic completely baffles me.

(It’s not the first time I’ve seen this convoluted reasoning in a community that prides itself on its supposed ability reason clearly. An idiot once saw fit to inform Greta Christina that he had lost all respect for her after she released a naked photo of herself for a good causea photo that he masturbates to. Somebody explain this.)

What many of these misogynists seem to be saying is that the fact that Jen quit retroactively justifies their treatment of her. Because she wasn’t able to “deal” with their harassment, the harassment was justified. Ridiculous.

Also, it disgusts me how clueless these people seem to be about mental illness. People who stop doing something because that thing is giving them a mental illness are not being “weak.” They aren’t “letting the trolls win.” They aren’t “flouncing.” They aren’t “looking for sympathy.” They’re taking care of their own health.

And that comes first, even if their mental illness was caused by something that seems like no big deal to healthy folks. For instance, if dating makes you depressed, you’re completely justified in staying away from dating for a while. If your job is making you depressed, you’re completely justified in finding a new job. But what happened to Jen, by the way, is not something that should seem like “no big deal” to any halfway-decent person.

I likewise take issue with people who refer to what Jen went through as “trolling.” There’s a difference between trolling and harassment. When I make a blog post and someone comments “lol your an idiot, go fuck yourself and stop writing,” that’s trolling. When someone continually harasses someone on various internet channels (email, Twitter, the target’s blog), recruits more people to help with that, writes their own blog posts trashing the target, impersonates them in a derogatory way, that’s not trolling anymore. That is harassment.

Trolling is usually mindless and casual, something done by an immature, inconsequential person who’s bored and wants to mess with someone. Harassment is calculated, targeted, and done with a purpose. Trolling is annoying and stupid; harassment is harmful and can be scarring.

Trolling is something we all run the risk of when we put our work out there on the internet. Serious political posts get trolled; silly YouTube videos get trolled. Delete the comments and move on.

Harassment is not something we all run the risk of. Harassment is targeted at people who are being “uppity,” who don’t “know their place.” A feminist on the internet–and especially a feminist in the atheist blogosphere–is one such person.

I don’t care how strongly you disagree with someone’s ideas–harassment is unacceptable no matter what. There is no justification. The fact that your target developed a serious mental illness and had to quit is certainly not a justification. The fact that you disagree with their vision for atheism is not a justification, either. If you think harassment is an appropriate response to ideas you disagree with, then guess what–you’re a terrible excuse for a human being.

I rarely make statements as categorical as that one, so you know I really mean it when I do.

[Guest Post] Runway Rising: Perks and Challenges of a Socially Conscious Fashion Company

Hey everyone! In this guest post, my friend Danielle writes about fashion, mental health, and running a socially conscious business.

To all fans and readers of Brute Reason,

I am Danielle Kerani, CEO/Founder of the knit fashion company AK Kerani and a fellow student at Northwestern with Miriam.

When Miriam first asked me to write a guest blog for Brute Reason, I was both flattered and excited. I have become a huge fan of this blog, mainly because of the bravery it takes to so openly confront anxiety and depression. Having struggled myself with these issues, I know how much of an internal battle it can be. For many months you can be stuck in a cycle of believing you are better only to let yourself down. And this cycle continues until you grow strong enough to realize that your depression is not only a pest that sticks to you. It is your twisted lover that you hate but from which you cannot part. And when you realize that you, not your depression, are the one keeping yourself from a healthy life, only then can you cast the ring into the fire.

Miriam requested that I talk about the seeming paradox of running a socially conscious fashion business. I created AK Kerani last summer in honor of my uncle, Atindra Kumar, who had passed away in June. Since then it has grown from a simple online platform to a vibrant small business selling high quality handmade products to promote knitting as a therapeutic activity for those struggling with anxiety and depression.

At this time, I knew just as well as I do now that the media, fashion-related media being one of the worst, is very conducive to anxiety. Fashion ads don’t merely attempt to persuade us into buying pretty and trendy clothes and accessories. They often seem to be rooted in a deeper manipulation, telling us that our worth lies not in our inherent value as people, but in our ability to represent society’s standard of sexuality. Seeing the adulation that models in ads appear to receive, we get thrown into loops of self-centered anxiety. If adopting the identities of these figureheads is the key to our happiness, why not starve our bodies and souls to be like them? Having partaken in all of these mindsets, I was able to see how all encompassing the media has become, such that nobody in the world, no matter what career path or lifestyle they choose to pursue, is completely immune to its influence.

I hope that AK Kerani can represent a different kind of world – one in which fashion is a means of individual expression and inspires us to love the world and its gifts. We don’t need to hate the world like helpless martyrs when we have a large part to play in whether this cycle stops or continues. I believe that one day, fashion can represent many pathways of real diversity, beauty and sexuality as opposed to one pathway of twisted, photo-shopped lust.

The main challenge of running AK Kerani is to figure out what place our company holds in the entertainment industry, the fashion industry and in society. Are we mainly in business to sell high quality fashion products? Or is our main goal to promote our socially conscious mission? Is there a way that these two elements of our business can intertwine perfectly? Or will one always come out on top? Ultimately, I often find myself struggling with one complex issue: How does AK Kerani battle the trends of the current fashion media without somewhat playing into the current industry enough to gain influence? If we don’t create traditionally appealing visuals to interest potential consumers, how will we ever be able to shout out our mission to a large crowd of ears?

We want to believe that the fashion industry can be a tool for social change. We want those who hear our mission to understand that hurting, starving and demeaning ourselves are not the only ways with which we can fight our anxieties. In hopes of counteracting these common reactions, AK Kerani will set up programs in hospitals and mental health institutions to give those struggling with anxiety not only an employment opportunity through knitting for us, but also a refreshing outlet for feelings they thought they could never control.

There is nothing wrong with looking appealing and celebrating the gifts that we all have been given. Pretty eyes, luscious hair and sculpted legs were never the problem. The problem is the significance that we ascribe to them. The problem is that we have been conditioned to believe that these attributes mean happiness, success and even love. And often, we force ourselves to relinquish all of these things in favor of pursuing the unattainable goal of a skewed perfection.

Though I have become way healthier at handling my own struggles with self image, disordered eating and overall anxiety, I have often wondered if the media’s damage is too pervasive to allow those of us who grew up with it to be completely healed. At times I am tempted to give up. If I am guilty of the same struggles my company condemns, how can I truly lead it to victory? And then I realize that humanity is not about being perfectly healed. It’s about struggling through adversity so that the light shines even brighter than it would have had you never fallen. We will always find ways to struggle, hate and doubt. An improved media, no matter how reformed and supportive, would not change that. But nor do we want it to. Because what we are striving for is reality – for the media to see us truly as we are and proudly represent it. And this can happen at anytime in any place as long as we learn to uphold different values – ones that seek to encourage instead of discourage.

Knitting, writing, and spastically experimenting with social media for AK Kerani have all taught me that success and health lie on an ambiguous continuum. To work out the kinks of a broken society and media, we must rebuild the confidence that we have lost piece by piece under its influence. And though we might think in grandiose terms picturing a new world, this world can only be achieved if we all commit to a slow and repetitive, but rewarding process of healing, row by row–one stitch at a time.

AK Kerani models (photo credit: Priscilla Liu)

Danielle Kerani is a native New Yorker who only just recently started appreciating the all-black stereotype: both in clothing and coffee.  Danielle is a junior journalism major at Northwestern University and is the Founder/CEO of the knit fashion company AK Kerani. In her free time, Danielle is a singer/songwriter, a blogger, a distance runner and a huge fan of exploring cool places with her boyfriend Jang, taking walks with her mom, and having crazy adventures with her super quirky friends. 

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the B's

College students seem to love this poster, perhaps because it reminds us to calm the fuck down. Did you know it was originally created by the British government during WWII to keep citizens calm in the event of an invasion? How’s that for perspective.

A few weeks ago, our final grades for spring quarter were posted online. This usually happens on the Monday evening after the end of the quarter, and you see people posting Facebook statuses about their grades all night.

I used to be one of the people who’d sit there refreshing Caesar or at least checking my Facebook newsfeed so that I would know my grades the second they were handed down from above like a court decision. When you work for something for ten weeks, you want to know the results immediately.

But this time, I didn’t check my grades right away. In fact, I still haven’t checked them. And I’m not going to until the next time I need to update my resume.

It’s not that they were going to be extra crappy this quarter or anything. It’s not that I need good grades any less than I did before. Nothing changed, except that, one day not long before the quarter ended, I realized that grades had started to rule my life.

This is a long story, and one that will be familiar to anyone who’s attended a school like Northwestern. This story involves panic attacks, hours on the phone with one’s parents, Red Bull, and contrite emails to professors. It involves checking the average GPAs at all the top grad schools and choosing classes based on how likely you are to get an A in them. At times, it involves sacrificing education–true education–for a false feeling of accomplishment.

There are many episodes in this series. There was the time I sat in the snow winter quarter of freshman year and bawled before going back into Tech, finding the computer lab, and dropping a class for the first time. There was the time I told my mom I was going to just become a housewife after graduation (a housewife without a husband?). There was the time I seriously considered just moving to Israel and joining the army. There were the times–yes, unfortunately, that’s plural–when I did something self-destructive.

All that, because of a number.

One of the most insidiously dangerous things about the culture at Northwestern (indeed, probably at most elite schools, but I can only speak for this one) is how driving yourself crazy over grades and schoolwork becomes normalized. If a normal, average, non-Northwestern person saw me a few weeks ago–when I was freaking out and crying because I might do poorly on my Hebrew final which might give me a B in the class which might lower my GPA substantially enough which might prevent me from getting into graduate school which might prevent me from having something to do after I graduate–that person’s reaction would probably be horror and pity.

But a fellow student at Northwestern would just nod their head and smile and perhaps suggest that I get drunk this weekend to forget all about it.

While it’s great to have people who understand what we’re going through, I think it’s hazardous to our mental health that we have such an echo chamber of academic anxiety. Because any informed adult will tell us that this is all ridiculous. You’re not going to be screwed for life just because you failed one class at some point in college. You’re not going to be turned down from every job just because you only got a C in calculus. It just won’t happen. These are lies we sell to ourselves when we’re (understandably) worried and uncertain about the future.

I wish I had a crystal ball that could tell me exactly how it’s all going to work out–whether I’ll go to grad school right after college, which one I’ll go to, which degree I’ll get, where I’ll live, who I will be.

But I don’t. And in the meantime, I want to live my life.

It’s entirely possible that right there in my Caesar account, unbeknownst to me, is a grade so horrendous that I actually will get rejected from grad school. So I’ll go get a job until I can get into grad school. And if I can’t get a real job, I’ll go volunteer and work part-time until I can get a real job. It’ll work out, even if I might have to live paycheck-to-paycheck for a while.

Of course, it’s impossible to aspire to go to grad school and yet completely not care about your grades. I need to care about them and keep them as high as I can, and I think it’s natural to worry occasionally that they’re not good enough.

But this constant catastrophizing of every single exam, paper, and assignment?

That needs to go. I can’t live like that.

More to the point, living in a state of anxiety probably doesn’t do wonders for my academic performance anyway.

Regardless of my grades, everything will be okay and life will eventually work out.

Update: And because I can’t write a post without including something political and sociological, read this.

Goodbye Lexapro

[TMI Warning]

Today marks the end of an era of my life.

Today I took my last dose of antidepressants, and tomorrow, for the first time in a year and a half, I will get up in the morning and (purposefully) not take that pill again.

I went on Lexapro as a last resort in July 2010. I won’t go into all those details here since I’ve written about it before, but I’ll say that, at the time, I had no other choice. When a body has been critically injured, it enters a coma. I was in the mental version of that.

Lexapro did a lot of things to me, some expected, some not so much. I stopped crying every day and wanting to kill myself, at least for a while. I also became, according to my friends, more lively, more social, and visibly happier.

But then, there was the other stuff. Lexapro broke up the one meaningful romantic relationship I’ve had in my life. (Was it destined to break up anyway? Now I’ll never know.) It altered my values and beliefs for some time and turned me into the sort of person I would’ve hated a few months before. Now I’m back to my normal self, thankfully.

It was also a cruel helper at times. If I missed just a day of it, I’d be a wreck by nightfall. If I missed two days, the withdrawal symptoms kicked in, and they were horrible. I’d be dizzy, nauseous, barely able to walk, completely unable to explain to people why I was suddenly sick when I’d been fine just that morning. (“Sorry, I’m going through drug withdrawal” isn’t really an effective explanation for most people.) The worst symptom of antidepressant withdrawal has no official name, but depressives refer to it as “brain zaps.” They’re momentary sensations of being shocked or stunned in the head and they happen every few minutes or so, or even more often.

Theoretically, of course, there’s no need to ever miss a day of a prescribed medication, but when you factor in insurance issues, CVS’s constant fuckups, weird sleeping schedules, and other crap, it happens pretty often. I remember one awful time when I forgot to bring my medication back to school from break with me and I had to get my parents to ship it. Those were an unpleasant few days. Another time, my psychiatrist refused to renew my prescription unless I came in to see her, but I’d already be back at school by the time she had her first available appointment slot, and there was no way I could skip classes to drive six hours home to Ohio. She wouldn’t budge.

I’m not going to go into a whole condemnation of psychiatry or the pharmaceutical industry because they gave me back my life. However, I will say this: there is so, so much work to be done.

My psychiatrist prescribed me Lexapro after a nurse practitioner talked to me for ten minutes, and she for about five. She said that “academic stress” was causing my depression and that antidepressants would help me deal with it. She must’ve missed the part where I said that my depression started when I was 12 years old. She also apparently missed the glaring cognitive distortions and emotional issues I was having, and had been having for years and years. She oversimplified my problems and thus prescribed a simple remedy.

It took a while to even begin to sort out what the problem really was, and I’m still not there yet.

Some other things my psychiatrist didn’t tell me: the personality changes. The withdrawal symptoms. The fact that I was more likely than not to have a relapse (which I did). And, of course, the fact that you don’t really recover from depression. You only learn how to avoid it for bursts of time.

That was stuff I shouldn’t have had to learn through experience.

Now I look at that almost-empty bottle and I just can’t look at it with a sense of gratitude. I will never be an enthusiastic advocate of psychiatry, though I will continue fighting for the rights of patients to obtain complete information about medication and to make their own decisions.

I look forward to the end of that daily reminder of what I’ve lost. For the past year and a half, I have started every day by taking Lexapro and remembering that I’m not okay. Now I won’t have that anymore. Now I’ll be able to go half the day, maybe even an entire day, without thinking about that part of myself.

I’m not nearly naive enough to think that this is the end. For all I know, I’ll be back on the medication in a month. I’m almost certain that I’ll be back on it within the next few years.

But for now, at least, I’m done with it.

For now, the only things I’ll be taking in the morning are a multivitamin and a shower.

Normal, just like everybody else.

Depressed on Shabbos

[TMI Warning]

This past weekend, I participated in an overnight retreat with a Jewish education program I’m involved in called the Maimonides Leaders Fellowship. In Jewish parlance, the trip is called a shabbaton as it takes place over the weekly holiday of Shabbat (“Shabbos” is the Ashkenazi variant of the word, in case you’re confused).

On shabbatons, the custom is generally to observe Shabbat in accordance with Jewish law. Although this is commonly interpreted as not doing any “work,” our rabbi pointed out that the actual rule is that you cannot “act” on the physical world. For observant Jews, sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday is a time when writing, using electricity, driving a car, tearing paper, cooking, exchanging money, and tons of other activities are all forbidden.

Anyway, I won’t go too far into the religious significance of Shabbat, since I’m sure you can read about that elsewhere and I’m not really the best authority on it anyway. But from the discussions we had as a group, I gathered this much about Shabbat, which I didn’t know before: it’s not only a time of rest, but of reflection. The idea is that you don’t do much of anything except be with your friends and family, eat good food, and think about how your life is going.

All of this sounds awesome in theory. Everyone could probably use some time to just think.

However, for people who struggle with depression, as I do, there is literally nothing worse than to have to spend a day doing nothing but eating, socializing, and thinking.

In fact, Shabbat is tragically full of the very things that depressives should generally try to avoid. For instance, like most Jewish holidays, it revolves around eating and drinking. The amount of food that it’s customary to consume at a Shabbat lunch or dinner could probably feed a family for a week. While this does theoretically sound awesome, overeating takes a huge toll on my mental state.

A similar issue is the compulsory socializing. Although not all depressives are introverts, many are, and the disorder sort of turns everyone into a bit of a loner. I wish I could spend hours with people and feel good about that, but I just can’t. After an hour or two, I start to sink into a funk and desperately want to escape. Unfortunately for me, Shabbat meals last for hours.

The prohibition on writing hits me hard, too, because writing is the main outlet I have for channeling my emotions in a positive way. It’s one of the few things that helps when I’m very upset. Reading is an okay substitute, but it’s just not the same.

Thinking, however, is the worst. Depressives can’t really “think,” they can only ruminate–which means endless, circular thoughts about why they’re terrible people unworthy of love. If I had to sit down for a while and think about how my life is going, I would probably become very, very miserable, and that’s exactly why I vastly prefer doing things to sitting around and thinking about them.

And indeed, on Saturday night when Shabbat was over, I didn’t feel refreshed and at ease like I was told I would feel. I didn’t feel stressed, either, but then I rarely do. Rather, I felt vaguely overwhelmed, like my mental capacity had been drained. Later that evening, I burst into tears for literally no discernible reason, and that’s not something that happens to me often anymore.

Unlike certain other religions, Judaism does not want its adherents to suffer or put their health at risk. That’s why, for instance, those who are sick or pregnant are not obligated to fast on the Jewish fast days. That’s why Jews are not only allowed, but obligated to break Shabbat in order to save a life.

However, the entire concept of mental health has only really been around for the past century, whereas the laws of Judaism were written thousands of years ago. I can no more expect Judaism to make allowances for people with clinical depression than I can expect it to, say, condone same-sex marriage.

Religion in general isn’t particularly kind to the mentally ill. When it’s not telling us that we’ve brought this upon ourselves and it’s God’s punishment, it’s telling us that we ought to be able to drag ourselves out of it on our own by praying, repenting, being good wives and husbands, or just sheer willpower. One of my favorite bloggers refers to depression as “spiritually incorrect,” capturing perfectly the way I feel about the intersection between my faith and my mental disorder.

I hope that as I learn more about Judaism, I’ll discover ways to make it work with the person that I am. That person will probably never be able to enjoy a full day of eating and being with people; I’m just not built that way. But I know that Judaism does have much to tell me about living well.

However, I doubt that I will ever be willing to observe Shabbat the “right” way. Spending one-seventh of my life without the ability to do the one thing that always makes me feel good seems like a waste. Ultimately, I don’t believe in God and I don’t believe in an afterlife, so this is the only one I’ve got.

A Holistic Perspective on Bullying

Recently while hanging out at my local Barnes and Noble, I noticed a display near the kids’ section. It was about “No Name-Calling Week,” which happens to be the week of January 23, and had a bunch of books for children about bullying.

At first, I was skeptical, as I usually am about well-meaning but generally misinformed interventions like these. But when I actually checked out the books, I noticed that they weren’t just about bullying. I bought two of them for my little brother, and they were called Stick Up For Yourself and Speak Up and Get Along.

Before you drown in a puddle of gag reflex, let me assure you that I actually read a good amount of both of these books before I bought them, and I’m proud to say that they are absolutely 100% Psych Major/Former Kid/Big Sister-approved.

More specifically, the books basically consisted of kid-friendly cognitive-behavioral therapy. There were chapters about understanding and naming your feelings, expressing yourself effectively, and figuring out what your dreams are. Relatively little of it was actually directly relevant to bullying; the focus seemed to be children’s mental health in general.

As I wrote in a previous post, our culture mostly ignores mental health in children unless they’re already seriously distressed and/or problematic, in which case it attacks the problem furiously, if ineffectively (i.e. ADHD, alcohol/drug use, and delinquency). In that post, I discussed my ten-year-old brother’s skewed worldview and how it’s been shaped by the way he’s treated by other kids, and how his issues probably won’t be taken seriously until/unless they develop into something that’s listed in the DSM.

But these books are brilliant in that they approach the problem of bullying in a holistic way–by illuminating the ways in which kids would be happier and healthier if they were taught more effective and positive ways of thinking and interacting.

I was bullied as a kid. I’m not nearly masochistic enough to start describing exactly how or how much, although I can say that it wasn’t as severe as it was for many other people. I don’t think it affected my life all that much; although I’m sure depression can be a consequence of childhood bullying, I’m pretty sure my genetics and inborn temperament took care of that on their own.

But even from an early age, I was curious about why people act the way they do. Although I’m certainly not always nice, I’ve never felt the urge to ostracize someone, publicly humiliate them, or spread rumors about them. Some people, though, do have that urge. Why?

Of course, parents, teachers, and psychologists have been trying to answer this question for decades now. The common assumption used to be that bullies are awkward, ugly loners who mess with other kids to feel powerful. Nowadays, the explanations have tended towards the sociological side, with Rachel Simmons’ Odd Girl Out hypothesizing that, at least among girls, bullying is caused by a societal stigma against expressing anger openly and is usually done by popular girls with plenty of social capital.

The real answer, I think, lies somewhere between these two perspectives. It’s clear that most bullies are socially skilled and aware, at least to a certain extent, or else they wouldn’t be able to exert such influence. (Would you really feel that hurt if some loser came up and called you ugly? I’d laugh.) However, there has to be something missing from these kids’ lives if they turn to making others miserable.

A happy, self-confident person of any age has no need to put others down. I think it’s time that we recognize that even young children can and do have mental health issues–not necessarily ones that need medication or therapy, but ones that deserve attention and respect from their families.

That’s why I bought my brother those books. I hope that they’ll be a good starting point to help him figure out how to start looking at the world in a healthier way and how to talk to us about how he feels. We can’t help kids without listening to them–and resisting the urge to respond with “Just ignore it,” “Just get over it,” and “Just calm down.”

College Freshmen Need a Class on Mental Health

This is the second installment of my weekly column for the Daily Northwestern. Check it out in its original here.

As college students, we’re intimately acquainted with stress. Everyone feels it, often on a daily basis. We juggle classes, jobs, extracurriculars and social lives, and the stress we feel means we’re pushing ourselves to succeed. However, for increasing numbers of students, the stress has become unbearable.

Here are some statistics for you.

According to a study of 200,000 students, only about half of college students say they have “above average” mental health, which is unusual since people tend to overestimate how above average they are. (Google “Lake Wobegon Effect” or “illusory superiority” if you’re curious.) In 1985, it was 64 percent.

According to an Associated Press and mtvU survey, one-third of college students say they use drugs or alcohol to relax. One-fifth say they feel stress all or most of the time.

Feelings of stress only increase as we progress through college. According to the mtvU survey, almost 30 percent of freshmen say they’ve felt so stressed that they didn’t know how to pull out of it. By sophomore year, almost 60 percent of students say so.

Ten percent of college students say they’ve considered suicide just in the past year. For Northwestern, that means 900 undergraduates.

What are we supposed to do with this information? Making college easier obviously isn’t an option. But I don’t think it’s okay for things to be the way they are.

I propose that freshmen be required to take a class about mental health and stress management. Perhaps it could count as a distribution credit for ethics and values or social and behavioral sciences. This class should cover the basics of dealing with stress, sleeping well and knowing when to get help. It should be taught by personable faculty members or by Searle or CAPS staff. It should provide time for discussing students’ difficulties as they experience them, sharing each other’s coping strategies and perhaps some meditation lessons. It could be — dare I say it? — fun.

Why should this class be required? Well, for starters, because most students can’t predict whether or not they’re going to experience debilitating levels of stress someday. And because, when given the choice, people like to pretend they’re perfect and don’t need any help with personal problems like stress management. And because Northwestern requires students to learn about math, art and writing, but not about something that could one day save their lives.

A class like this could have benefits that reach far beyond its syllabus. Since class sections would have to be small to facilitate the right environment, students would make friends and get to know a faculty member. Unlike most academic courses, a class like this would jumpstart discussions about deep, personal topics and forge closer friendships than any other class could. Forming connections with professors is one of the best ways to ensure a good college experience, and it’s often hard for freshmen since they have to take large classes. Sharing rather personal things with each other brings people together, and students would come to realize that, despite what it may look like, they’re not the only ones who feel overwhelmed sometimes.

As we love to remind each other and ourselves, we’re all adults here. Our culture doesn’t emphasize mental health; it emphasizes productivity and perfection, so stress management isn’t something we learn unless we make the effort. As we start college, we’re at one of the most vulnerable points of our lives — freshmen have to adjust to an increased workload, a new physical environment, different social norms, greater financial stress and homesickness. We’re used to thinking of stress as something unavoidable, a necessary evil that we have to live with to do well in college. A class like this may not cure us of stress entirely, but it could make our years at NU happier, healthier and more productive.

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.

Everyone Should Go to Therapy

Recently I wrote a post about why some people might choose psychiatric medication over seeing a therapist. (Fine, so it wasn’t that recent. >.<) I promised a followup post about a belief that I hold concurrently–everyone should see a therapist.

Now, before everyone freaks out, let it be known that I say “everyone” only in the most theoretical of ways. Meaning that, I recognize that as things are today, what I’m proposing isn’t really possible. But in the Happy Fun Miriam Land of the future, where stigma against mental healthcare is gone, insurance coverage is reasonable and available to the majority of people, and research has identified effective therapeutic interventions for most mental problems, everyone should and would be able to go to therapy.

For now, I’ll qualify what I’m saying with this: if you are able to see a therapist, you should, and if you are able to take your children to see a therapist, you should.

Why?

Well, why do we have regular dental and physical checkups? Why do children receive vaccines? Why do we make an appointment with a doctor when we think we’re coming down with something serious?

Hopefully the answers to those questions are self-evident.

Clearly, it is acceptable–and even expected–that people seek two types of healthcare throughout their lives: preventative and palliative. We should see a doctor regularly to make sure that nothing’s going seriously wrong with our bodies, and we should see a doctor when we suspect that something IS going seriously wrong with our bodies.

This much isn’t in dispute. But what about our minds?

For the most part, people wait until things are really, REALLY wrong with their mental state before they go see a psychologist. (And some don’t go even then, but that’s a different story.) For instance, I didn’t see a psychiatrist for my depression until I wanted to kill myself. People with eating disorders typically don’t receive care until they’re dying, or close to it. People with anxiety issues don’t get help until their anxiety is preventing them from having any semblance of a normal life.

Like most physical maladies, mental illnesses don’t just come out of nowhere. They usually develop from years and years of poor coping strategies and maladaptive beliefs. For instance, I remember being as young as 6 and constantly thinking that everyone secretly hates me, nobody wants to be my friend, and everyone’s talking behind my back. Guess what? When I was 18, I still basically believed that. Except by then, my beliefs had become self-fulfilling prophesies, and they had reinforced themselves until it became nearly impossible to get rid of them. Wouldn’t it have been so much easier if a child psychologist had helped me get over them 15 years ago?

My little brother, age 10, thinks he’s ugly. He has adorable curly hair, itty-bitty freckles on his face, and beautiful blue eyes. He’s thin and athletic, but thinks his stomach is fat and sometimes does crunches in his room. He hasn’t really learned how to make friends yet, and he has nobody to teach him. As a result, he thinks nobody will ever want to be his friend, and he chooses to brag and show off for attention rather than try to make other kids want to be his friends.

My brother does not have depression, an eating disorder, or even–believe it or not–a serious case of narcissism. What he also doesn’t have, however, are effective mental tools for interpreting the world and for being happy. And he’s not going to find these tools on his own.

What if, in addition to physical checkups to make sure that kids’ bodies are developing correctly, that they’re learning good hygiene, and that they’re eating well and exercising, we also had regular mental checkups to make sure they’re developing good mental habits?

Clearly, not everybody is going to need constant mental healthcare like I do, and like everyone else with a serious mental illness does. Most people would be totally fine checking in with a trusted family therapist every once in a while. But others, like my brother, would seriously benefit from catching the problem before it mushrooms into the sort of thing that I went through.

Even if people never do develop diagnosable mental illnesses, unhappy children often grow into unhappy adults. Ever had a boss who made your life miserable by demanding constant ass-kissing to protect her fragile ego? Ever dated a guy whose fear of commitment destroyed the relationship? Ever had a bully in high school whose inability to relate to others in a positive way greatly affected your own life?

These people have psychological issues. I’m not saying that in a degrading way at all; many people have issues. But because most people don’t think that they should see a therapist unless they want to off themselves, people like these usually don’t get help.

Although I strongly despise the mindset that people with mental problems should be treated as personal inconveniences, the fact is that people do affect each other emotionally. Imagine if every time someone got a contagious illness, all they could do was just continue going about their daily lives until it passed, infecting everyone they came into close contact with. Luckily, that’s not how it works; most people go see a doctor when they realize they’ve come down with something. What if people did the same for mental problems?

I think that’d be a much more pleasant world to live in.

And I promise I’m not just saying that because I’m going to be a therapist and want money.

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.