[Content note: depression]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I mentioned the C’s on the tests.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was twelve years old.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was under it was terrible.

[storytime] How I Quit the Senior Thesis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But why?

Life is just too fucking short.

It’s too short for this kind of crap.

And so I quit.

[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?

Because I Am An Atheist

A few months ago, blogger Ian Cromwell wrote a post about how atheism has affected his life and titled it “Because I am an atheist.” In the comments section, others left their own “Because I am an atheist” stories. Then my friend Kate wrote her own version, and now I’ve been inspired to write mine.

I’ve only recently started identifying with atheism. I’ve used the terms “humanistic Jew” and “secular humanist” to describe myself for a while, but it’s really just a matter of semantics. The nutshell version is, I don’t believe in any sort of god. I haven’t for a very, very long time, and the belief left me naturally, as though I’d grown out of it.

Fun happy disclaimer thing: This is a personal post. It’s about what atheism means to me. It is not an attack on your religion. Aside from this disclaimer, I’m not going to insult my readers’ intelligence by sticking in “but of course you don’t have to agree” and “of course you can get a similar experience out of religion too” and “I don’t mean to say that atheism is superior” into every paragraph.

So here we go.

Because I am an atheist, I get to develop my own moral code. Many people get their sense of morality from religion. That’s totally okay. But I relish the opportunity to create my own.

My morality is a sort of combination of utilitarianism and the Golden Rule. When I decide how to act, I weigh the pros and cons. Will this help someone else at very little cost to myself? If so, then I’ll do it. Will it help someone else at a great cost to myself? If so, I might do it if the cause is important enough to me. Is this act self-serving, with a potential for hurting the other person? If so, I probably won’t do it, unless I really, really need to.

That’s not to say that I always act ethically or that I never hurt anyone. At least, though, I get to own my actions whether they’re positive or negative. Regardless of the outcome, nobody made me do it. My holy book didn’t tell me to do it. My pastor/rabbi/what-have-you didn’t tell me to do it. I told myself to do it, and if it turned out badly, I can do better next time.

Because I am an atheist, my major life decisions are my own to make. I don’t have to get married. I don’t have to have children. I don’t have to give a percentage of my money to any particular cause or charity unless I choose to. I don’t have to belong to any particular organization.

Now, I do want to get married and have children, and I do want to donate money to certain causes and belong to certain organizations. But I’m allowed to change my mind. It’s not my “duty” to do any of these things, unless I’ve chosen that duty for myself.

Because I am an atheist, I am only accountable to the people I choose to be accountable to. If I screw up, the only people I need to apologize to are the people I’ve affected. The only people whose forgiveness I need is theirs, and my own. I don’t need to confess to a religious authority figure. I don’t need to pray for forgiveness.

Because I am an atheist, I can seek explanations for things in the physical world. For instance, I don’t have to believe that men are the dominant sex because God made it that way as a punishment for Eve’s sin. I can examine the evidence and form the opinion that it’s because males are naturally stronger than females in most species, and human gender roles developed from there. I can also decide that we don’t need these roles anymore, now that our lives aren’t a constant struggle for survival.

In my own life, I can find explanations that are empowering rather than disempowering. For instance, my depression wasn’t some sort of punishment from God; it was an illness caused by an interaction between my genetics and my environment, and I could overcome it. Although it was my responsibility to overcome it by seeking treatment and changing some things about my life, that doesn’t mean it was my fault that it happened. Just like if you slip and fall, it’s not your fault, but you are responsible for picking yourself back up. Not God.

Because I am an atheist, I can choose my own lifestyle. I can eat what I want. I can make my dietary decisions based on what’s healthy or what tastes good or what restaurant my friends want to go to.

I don’t have to stop doing the thing I love most for one day each week. I never have to disconnect from technology unless I choose to–and sometimes I do.

Decisions about sexuality are mine to make. Without religion, there’s little reason to consider any consensual sex act to be “wrong.” There’s only things I want to do and things I don’t want to do.

Because I am an atheist, I can trust science. Of course, there is still such a thing as faulty science, but the trademark of science is that it keeps trying to challenge and improve itself. So while individual theories might be disproven and individual studies might be poorly designed, I can trust the scientific project itself.

I don’t have to worry that new findings will contradict my beliefs. Of course, that’s exactly what they might do–but then I can just change my beliefs. I don’t have a huge, deeply personal stake in explaining things a certain way. Evolution doesn’t bother me. (In fact, it’s pretty cool.)

Because I am an atheist, I can question things. Since there’s no god to make the world the way it is, there’s no reason it has to be this way. Judaism, which is the faith I was sort of secularly raised in, does emphasize asking questions and learning, and I appreciate that about it as opposed to, say, Catholicism. However, in the end, you do need to believe in God. Full stop. Or else you’re a “humanistic Jew,” like me. You can question and seek “proof” for God’s existence (and many Jewish philosophers have offered up compelling and interesting rationales for this), but at the end of the day, you say your evening prayers and you go to bed knowing that someone’s watching over you.

Nobody’s watching over me. I’m watching over myself. And that’s fine by me.

When I Knew It Was Over

When I was a little kid, my favorite dreams were the ones in which I got something new–a toy I’d been wanting, some really cool gadget. (Kids are acquisitive that way.) I would wake up grasping for my new possession and feeling a tremendous sense of injustice at the fact that I couldn’t keep it after the dream was over.

Right now, I’m still dreaming the dream, hoping I never wake up and lose what I’ve just gotten.

My depression kind of has its own saga. I’ve had it since I was 12. It got much worse when I went to college. I got diagnosed and started taking anti-depressants and it got better. Then it got worse again despite the anti-depressants. Then I said fuck it to the anti-depressants and went off of them. There were a few good days in there in spite of that, to be sure, but it was always there.

That is, until a few days ago.

It’s well-known that depression can spontaneously remit sometimes, but I wasn’t expecting it to happen to me. Just a few short weeks ago I was strongly considering going back on anti-depressants and dreading the long, lonely summer ahead. I’d had many bad episodes recently, too many.

But then they started decreasing in frequency. I didn’t even notice what had happened until, ironically, an evening when I was sad. I had put on some sad music and was sitting around lamenting the uselessness of one of my romantic endeavors. There’s no chance in hell it’ll go anywhere, but I really like the person in question, and this sucks.

And then it suddenly hit me–I was sad like normal people are sad. I wasn’t crying, I wasn’t wondering why I’m such a failure in life and why everybody hates me and why I’m so ugly and useless. I wasn’t planning a lifetime alone and lonely. I wasn’t going down the list of every single person I’ve spoken to recently, analyzing our last conversation, and scanning it for clues showing that they actually secretly hate me.

I was just sitting around, kind of blue, listening to sad music, regretting the fact that this Thing isn’t going to work out, but hoping that someone else will come along soon. Like a normal person. A healthy person.

And that’s when I knew it was over.

The weekend after that–this past weekend–felt entirely new to me. All the colors were brighter, my senses were sharper. Little hurts rolled right off of my skin like water. I woke up in the morning looking forward to the day, whereas for the past year and a half, I’ve woken up every day thinking, “Fuck, another day.”

I could be happy sometimes when I was depressed, but only if I had a concrete, immediate reason. Now I don’t need one. I can be happy just because, sometimes. I can be happy just because I’m alive.

There are a few reasons why this might’ve happened now. Summer started and the academic stress went away. The weather is good. I can be outside now, go to the beach, take walks, explore the city, have a life outside of my tiny room. My friends freed up, too, and suddenly I started having plans with them all the time. It became possible to text someone in a moment when I was feeling down and have plans an hour later.

Besides that, I fell for someone for the first time in ages. Although that person is completely unavailable to me in more ways than one, it was a reminder that there really are people out there with whom I can feel a connection, despite my cynicism about these things. Nothing’s going to happen here, but I’ve already learned more from one unrequited crush than I have from the past year and a half of dating.

The final thing is that I started writing again. By which I mean, really writing–writing fiction–and not just these blog posts and the various other expository pieces that I do. I restarted a novel that I thought up two years ago but then stopped writing because I thought I wasn’t mature enough to write it. It’s a lofty project; its themes include grief, depression, suicide, marital discord, friendship, betrayal, love, and figuring out what the hell to do with your life. It doesn’t seem like an uplifting thing to write, but it is, and writing it once again has made all the difference.

For the first time in a while, I can be at ease alone. Whereas before I hated myself so much that I dreaded being left alone with myself for more than an hour or two, now my mind is a welcome presence. It writes stories for me, it promises me a bright and happy future. It points out birds and clouds and other things I used to ignore. It steers me towards my cheerful playlists, not my brooding ones.

I’m writing this now not just to share it with others, but because, as with coveted toys of my childhood dreams, I’m trying desperately to hold onto this feeling before the dream ends. Because it will. It always does. And when it does, I’ll no longer be able to understand how I could’ve ever written this.

And I’ll reread it and try to understand. I’ll remember to see my friends and to write more and to stay open to the possibility that someone will come along and change my entire life.

I’ll read this and remember.

So goodbye, depression. Until next time.