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.

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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.