Giving Thanks

This is a sappy personal post.

This is not your typical Thanksgiving post, so first of all, you should read this and understand what this day actually commemorates. Hint: it’s not a happy awesome feast with Pilgrims and Native Americans and all that.

However, I still celebrate it in my own way because I think it’s important to have a day set aside for giving thanks. And sure, I could do that any day of the year. But doing it on the same day as everyone else does it feels more meaningful.

It would be nice if someday we started a new tradition of giving thanks on a particular day without associating that day with genocide. However, for now we have this Thanksgiving Day, and I’m going to celebrate it.

First of all, I’m thankful for writing. I’m thankful for having had the privilege to learn how to do it well and to be able to make time for it. Writing has always been one of the few things that can lift me out of my own mind, if only for an hour or so. The urge to write is like a phoenix–it burns like a fire and just keeps resurrecting itself if extinguished.

Writing has always been a key part of my development as a person. I’ve kept journals since I was 11 or so–that’s more than a decade of constantly watching myself grow and reexperiencing my own life. Whenever I’m not sure if I’ve really gotten better at this whole life thing, I can reread my old writing and see that I have.

Writing for an audience is something I’m a bit newer to, but even that I’ve been doing since high school. First it was mostly poetry and fiction; then I switched to personal narratives (like the one that got me into college!) and fiery op-eds.

I’m thankful for the change I’ve already made with my writing. I’m thankful that others have benefitted from it. I’m thankful that this matters.

I’m thankful for the internet. Go ahead and laugh. I know, it’s terrible and keeps us from enjoying “Real Life” and spending time with our families and whatnot. For me, though, that hasn’t really been my experience of it. The Internet has brought most of the other good things in my life to me–friendship, love, knowledge, inspiration.

I’m thankful for feminism, skepticism, and the rest of the ideologies I subscribe to. The reason I’m thankful is because it’s a personal thing. Feminism showed me how to find fulfillment in my relationships and taught me that I don’t have to take shit from anyone. Skepticism taught me not to automatically accept everything my brain tries to tell me, which is very useful when you have depression. Both helped me find a world beyond my own self.

I’m thankful for Chipotle, Red Bull, Diet Coke, Milanos, and Cheez-Its. Because I thought it’d be good to take a moment to appreciate the things that, for the most part, have sustained me this quarter.

And now, here comes the rainbowvomit part. Watch out…

To all the fellow activists I have met–I can’t even begin to explain how important this has been for me. I’ve met people who sued their schools when they were teenagers. I’ve also met people who are in their 30s, 40s, and beyond, and are still fighting for the changes they want to see in the world.

It’s that latter group of people that has particularly impacted me. For most of my adolescence and my college years, adults–by which I generally mean, people more than a decade older than me–were the people I dreaded interacting with. They were the people who rolled their eyes at me, told me to just wait till I’m older and working a shitty job and hating my boss. They said I’d “grow out of it.” They said it’d be different once I have my own kids. They said I’d stop caring. They crushed my dreams to such an extent that there was a period of time when I actually wanted to be a housewife–I thought that that’s how awful the world of work would be.

Now, I get that many young people are too flighty and idealistic and could probably benefit from being gently brought back down to earth once in a while. But as everyone who actually knows me ought to know, I am not such a person. After living with depression for nearly a decade, I have to fight to be optimistic and to see a purpose in life other than just making enough money to get by and popping out some children so that I’m not lonely in my old age.

That’s where meeting older people who still have that passion has really helped. The grown-up activists I know are wiser and more experienced than me, but they still value my ideas. More importantly, they’ve shown me that there is a way to be an adult while still being youthful.

To my partner–it’s weird writing this knowing that you’re going to read it, so I’ll just speak directly to you: thank you. I won’t say that life would be miserable without you, because that would be unhealthy (not to mention false). I was happy before you, and I’ll be happy after you—if there even is an after. I hope there won’t be.

But I will say that life with you is richer, sweeter, and more colorful. Thank you for the hug at Union Station; thank you for the phone call after that terrible date; thank you for those summer nights when we stayed up talking till 5 AM. Thank you for making me read The Fault in Our Stars (remember, if you don’t say the honest thing, it never becomes true). Thank you for that ridiculous night with the crappy wine. Thank you for making plans for the future. Thank you for worrying while I was in Israel. Thank you for asking me what you can do if the depression comes back. Thank you for making me make the first move. Thank you for refusing to own me and for never expecting me to shrink myself so that you can look taller standing next to me. Thank you for letting me be as independent as I need to be. You are the epitome of that timeless bit of advice: “If you love somebody, set them free.”

Yes, I just quoted a Sting song at you.

Deal with it, sweetheart.

And, finally, to my friends–I just don’t know where I would be without you. You are my proofreaders, my confidantes, my debate partners, my cheerleaders, my support system, my chosen family. Everywhere I go, physically and mentally, you go with me.

Things I learned from my (mostly) new friends: you can say, “Please stop that, it’s hurting me.” Feelings don’t have to make sense. Sometimes you need to be confrontational. There are worse things in the world than being a bit snarky. Just because someone didn’t mean to offend you doesn’t mean you can’t be upset about it. You don’t have to pretend to be okay.

Thank you for that. Thank you also for the Sunday night Google hangouts, the typos, and the hugs. Thank you not only for helping me, but for accepting my help in turn. Thank you for telling the rest of your friends about my blog. Thank you for showing me that going out and drinking and doing Young People Things doesn’t have to be uncomfortable and coercive. Thank you for helping me see that the people who say things like “Calm down” and “It’s not such a big deal” and “Stop complaining” are wrong and I don’t have to listen to them or keep them around in my life. Thank you for talking about me behind my back, because with you, unlike with anyone I’ve known before, I know that it’s going to be positive. And thank you, of course, for all of the <2.

Few of my friends live near me. They’re mostly scattered all over the country. People make fun of those of us who spend a lot of time online, but here’s the thing–not everyone has the privilege of being physically near the people they love. I never really found that at Northwestern. I found it through writing and activism.

And so, in writing if not in person, I thank the people who help keep me strong and passionate.

More On Depression Origins and Parenting

Last week I wrote a piece called “Onset,” in which I described the way I first became clinically depressed about nine years ago. That was the first time I’d ever written about that or told anyone other than a few close friends, so the many positive responses I got were really encouraging. One commenter responded and asked a bunch of questions. My answers turned out to be really lengthy and interesting to write, so I thought I’d share the comment and the response here.

“Miriam, I read this post on Sunday and cannot stop thinking about it. I have never felt depression personally and cannot truly relate, but I have a young daughter and so your experience had a profound impact on me. Thank you so much for sharing.

“Do you think that one can be predisposed to having depression and thus be more vulnerable to the comments of others? Do you think that your mother could have predicted the impact her words would have on you? Could she have done something following that discussion to minimize the impact and alleviate the burden you felt? What do you think parents can do to help a child build his or her self-worth and confidence?

“I really hope you do not mind my asking all these questions. Your insight would be much appreciated.”

And here’s what I said:

Hey there,

Thanks for reading and don’t worry, I don’t mind the questions. I’ll try to answer them one at a time:

Do you think that one can be predisposed to having depression and thus be more vulnerable to the comments of others?

Yes, absolutely. Research in the field is rapidly coming to this conclusion. Depression is partially genetic, and researchers have started identifying certain genes that may be involved. One particular genetic variation, for instance, has no effect in the absence of significant life stressors, but if youdo have them, your risk for depression suddenly shoots up relative to people without the genetic variation who are experiencing comparable stressors. A phenomenon like this is called a gene-environment interaction, and such phenomena are at the forefront of research in the field right now.

Aside from that, there are other ways to be predisposed to or at risk for depression. Being poor. Being queer. Being female (although this is arguable, because research suggests that men simply underreport/do not recognize their depression). Being a college student. Having other mental illnesses, including substance abuse.

Furthermore, people who don’t learn good coping skills are more likely to respond to stress with depression and anxiety. I was one such person.

If you’d like more information about this and/or links to specific research, let me know!

Do you think that your mother could have predicted the impact her words would have on you?

No, I don’t think so. Although her mind is similar to mine in many ways, in this case, she probably either thought that I wouldn’t take her seriously, or else that her comment would light a fire under my ass, so to speak, and motivate me to do better in school without actually making me extremely anxious and depressed. Furthermore, my mother was also always very anxious about school when she was young, and she seems to think that that’s “just how things are.” As in, it’s unavoidable anyway, we just have to suffer through it, and so on. And that segues right into your next question:

Could she have done something following that discussion to minimize the impact and alleviate the burden you felt?

She could’ve, but I don’t think she knew/thought anything was out of the ordinary. I must’ve looked a lot like her own teenage self, to her. Had I had the communication skills of an adult, I could’ve said something like, “It would be really helpful to me if you don’t talk to me about my grades and trust that I’m doing my best,” or “It really scared me when you said that I’d have to quit the Nutcracker and I think it was unfair of you to say that.” But I was 12. I didn’t learn how to talk this way for another 8 years.

If she realized that something was wrong, she could’ve taken me to see a counselor, reminded me that she will love and value me regardless of my grades, told me that my grades are not the measure of my entire worth as a person, and so on. But given the situation, I’m not sure that she could’ve known to do that.

What do you think parents can do to help a child build his or her self-worth and confidence?

Good question. Lots of things! While it’s important for children to do well in school, school also isn’t all there is. What would’ve happened to me if I’d failed to get straight A’s? I wouldn’t have gone to Northwestern, probably. So I would’ve gone to an awesome liberal arts college or a good state school instead. No big deal. My parents didn’t realize that this was an acceptable path, though, so they really emphasized the damn grades.

Also, research generally shows that the best way to build confidence and self-esteem in kids isn’t to steadfastly insist that they “think positively” and “have good self-esteem” and all the other things that are done by schools and parents now. The best way is to let them do the things they love, get better and better at them, and feel secure in the knowledge that they have things to do that they love and are good at. Another good way is to teach them that their worth lies not in their performance on arbitrary culturally-sanctioned tasks like school and sports, but in their ability to be good people, in their willingness to work hard and try things, in their curiosity and their urge to ask good questions, and so on.

Of course, you have a limited ability to control what messages your children receive from the world outside of your family (although you can help by choosing which neighborhood to live in, which schools to send them to, which after-school activities to encourage them to do, etc.). However, which messages you send them yourself matters a lot. At the dinner table, do you ask them what grades they got on their homework, or what they learned that day? When they tell you about making new friends, do you ask which neighborhood the friends live in and what their parents do for a living, or what it is about them that makes them interesting to hang out with? When you’re shopping for clothes with your daughter, do you tell her to put that dress back because it doesn’t “flatter her figure,” or do you let her choose clothes that she feels comfortable in? When a boyfriend breaks up with her, do you reassure her that she’ll meet someone who likes her as she is, or do you tell her that she should’ve been thinner/happier/better-dressed?

These things matter.

Please take everything I’m saying with a grain of salt. I’m very young (21) and not a parent. However, I’ve been through a lot and I’ve thought these things through a lot. What I’m telling you are the things that I wasn’t taught as a child, and that I’m now trying to teach myself by slowly and painfully rewriting my thought patterns. Had I learned them as a child, when learning is so much easier, I think things would’ve gone very differently.

I hope this helps. Thanks for taking the time to ask and to wonder how you can be a better parent.


[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.

Living With Depression: Trust

I’m going to do a series of posts on what it’s like to live with chronic depression, beyond the DSM symptoms that you always hear about. I want to help people understand.

I’m in a particularly good position to do this now because my depression is technically in remission, which means that I no longer fit the diagnostic criteria for it. I’m fine. I’m even sort of happy. However, the complex effects that nine years of depression has had on my thinking style, beliefs, and personality are still there, as are (probably) whichever genetic and neurological risk factors caused this whole mess to begin with.

However, not having a depressive episode means that my thinking is clearer and it’s easier for me to talk about this calmly.

A caveat–none of this is meant to generalize to everyone with depression. Don’t read this and apply it to your friends and loved ones who have it. Instead, perhaps, use it to start a conversation.

So, trust. In one way or another, it’s the backbone of all human interaction. You have to trust that your friends won’t share your secrets, that your partner won’t cheat on you, that your colleagues will pull their weight on the project, that your babysitter will take good care of your kids, that the clerk will give you the correct amount of change, and so on.

People who haven’t studied much psychology might think that trust is based on a conscious, logical appraisal of the person you’re interacting with. But in fact, trust is based on emotional responses to others, and a lot of the time we’re not even aware of those responses.

Although emotions get a bad rap for being “illogical” and for interfering with people’s lives, they–more so than conscious, “logical” cognition–are what help us make good decisions. Fear, of course, is the best example, since it helps people stay out of trouble. So does disgust.

But positive emotions are important in that way, too. For instance, we don’t really choose our partners based on how much money they make or how attractive they are or how many children they want to have; we choose them based on how they make us feel.

So, mood disorders like depression cause emotions to disconnect from experiences, so to speak. As Andrew Solomon wrote in The Noonday Demon, “Grief is depression in proportion to circumstance; depression is grief out of proportion to circumstance.”

When I was depressed–and, to a much lesser extent, now–feelings happened to me in a completely arbitrary way. The changing leaves made me feel grief. Being unable to talk to my family made me feel shame. Relatively minor inconsiderate actions, which would merely annoy a healthy person, threw me into a rage.

I learned not to trust my feelings. Often people made me uncomfortable and I’d chalk that up to depression, forcing myself to keep them in my life. This led to continued discomfort at best and abuse at worst. Then, infuriated at the situation, I would overcompensate and kick people out of my life who had merely messed up, as everyone sometimes does.

I learned not to trust others. Even the most well-intentioned person could–completely accidentally–send me into a depressive funk with a single teasing comment. Once a guy misjudged his feelings for me and led me on for a few weeks, and I was depressed for a year and a half after that. And I can’t even count the number of people who argued with me a bit too forcefully for me to avoid jumping to the conclusion that they must hate me from the depths of their souls, and so I cut off contact.

I can’t trust people anymore because I know that anyone–even the most kind, considerate, good person–can unintentionally make me cry for hours or hate myself for months.

And not everyone I meet is a good person.

I learned not to trust myself. If my brain lies to me all the time, how can I? Cognitive distortions make it nearly impossible to know when I’m thinking clearly and when I’m not. I used to keep a list of the most common ones in my binder to remind myself, but it didn’t really help.

Without emotions that are more-or-less based on reality, trusting myself and others is nearly impossible. I can’t tell whether a certain situation is bothering me because it’s a bad situation or because I’m freaking out over nothing. I can’t tell if I don’t want to get a PhD because I really don’t want to get one, or because I feel like too much of a failure to even try. I can’t tell if someone is really lying to me, or if I’m just assuming the worst because that’s what you kind of do when you have depression.

Difficulty trusting others is usually considered a character flaw or weakness. For me, though, it’s a symptom of a mental illness. It’s also an adaptation, because I’ve been too trusting in the past and I’d rather be safe than sorry–that is, than risk a relapse because I let the wrong person in.

The important thing to remember is that people who experience depression this way aren’t distrustful because we’re cynical or misanthropic. It’s because without healthy and adaptive emotional responses, it’s nearly impossible to know who to trust. It is also impossible to trust ourselves.