So if you haven’t figured it out from the last couple of posts that I haven’t had the best week, well here it is. It’s been a shit week. And since I said last week that I’d talk about grad school and depression, I figure there’s no time like the present to have that important, albeit sad, conversation.
TW: This super long post will talk about depression, suicide, and contain lots of curse words. If any of these topics is triggering or upsetting to you, please skip this post and stop by tomorrow when we are back to our usual debauchery.
Sooooooo depression. Yeah.
It’s no secret that going to grad school can amplify or even cause anxiety, depression, and/or other mental health issues. If you don’t believe me, just Google it. Seriously, people have gone to grad school to talk about how grad school messes up your brain. How fucked is that?!?
Maybe it’s due to the innate character of people to have the desire to go to grad school, mental health issues are going to happen to us whether or not we get higher education. On the other hand, maybe the culture and high-stress atmosphere that come with ANY grad school experience (Master’s, PhD, MD, any field) are to blame.
I’m not going to talk about what everyone else goes through because ya’ll can read and I don’t want to speak for others. So, I’ll talk about my struggle with depression and how I cope with it while in grad school.
I started going to therapy soon after I started grad school in August 2012. Why? Well I was completely alone in a new city, had no friends nearby, had just gone through a pretty rough breakup, was way overloaded with taking 4 classes and having a full time TA and full time RA, and had no idea how to handle the transition from undergrad to grad studies. Any one of those things is enough to throw some people into depression and I still have no idea how I functioned for a full month like that before getting help. Pretty sure 99% of surviving it was the pure habit of getting out of bed, feeding myself, etc.
I decided to go to therapy after one night and
2/3 of the way through a bottle of wine perusing the internet for depression advice. I came across The Bloggess and Hyperbole and a Half, both of which are fantastic blogs and talk about depression and such. (totes check them out for a laugh) Since I’d been suicidal, I got put on what I like to call their ‘watch’ list, aka I was immediately escorted to a therapist and they get super worried about me if I miss an appointment and will have me meet with any other available therapist if mine happens to be out. The first year or so of therapy was spent talking about the damage my previous relationship had done. It took a lot of work. And I didn’t make much progress.
The lack of progress was mainly due to the whole school/research overload thing. My grades fell and I got my first C in my life. To some people that’s nothing to freak out over, to a perfectionist in grad school it was crushing.
So what was it actually like?
Well. Imma quote Allie Brosh here and say;
“The beginning of my depression had been nothing but feelings, so the emotional deadening that followed was a welcome relief. I had always wanted to not give a fuck about anything. I viewed feelings as a weakness — annoying obstacles on my quest for total power over myself. And I finally didn’t have to feel them anymore.
But my experiences slowly flattened and blended together until it became obvious that there’s a huge difference between not giving a fuck and not being able to give a fuck. Cognitively, you might know that different things are happening to you, but they don’t feel very different”
There’s no way I can phrase that better. I’ve always valued the ability to remain calm under pressure and to be relatively unaffected by pesky emotions. So at first, not feeling anything was awesome. I could do anything without consequence! I was finally the kick-ass engineering, running, superwoman robot I had always dreamed of becoming! What I did not notice, however, was that although nothing bad affected me, nothing good affected me either. I stopped wanting to run, work out, cook, sing, hang out, read, study, everything. Everything I enjoyed stopped being enjoyable. I had the capability of going through the motions, but had nothing to put into them.
So, because I’m a type A, perfectionist type of person. I forced myself to do them. How? Well, I signed up for races and put money down on it. Now, I had to run or else I’d die in the marathon. (Yes, this is an exaggeration, but it’s how I had to think). There is a downside to this method. You start to resent what you used to enjoy. Sometimes my parents and childhood friends ask why I don’t sing anymore, well, I don’t want to resent it by forcing myself to do it. Depressing thought right? Now you start to get it.
I’m an engineer. That means I see life as a challenge or puzzle and there is a series of logical steps I can follow to get through any problem. No friends in a new city? Join a running club. Etc. So that is how I approached my depression for about 2.5 years. Guess what. There were some times when I got it right and was happier (changing labs) but overall, I was still emotionless and didn’t enjoy anything. So imagine my frustration when, after 2.5 years of logical problem solving to my depression, I WAS STILL DEPRESSED. AND I was drinking a lot as a coping mechanism.
To summarize, I suffered from severe depression and grad school for 2.5 years while trying a variety of coping mechanisms. Putting money down on a race or competition was the best thing, because it gave me a deadline and it cost money and sometimes endorphins. Increasing alcohol consumption…..not my best idea but whatever. Giving myself a damn break every now and then. Grad school is completely crazy and it will wear you down. It will make your depression worse. You’ll make it even worse by forcing yourself to work harder. Don’t do it and give yourself a break. I tried group therapy for a while, it was a female grad student group, and it was great but I was too depressed and anxious to get much benefit from it. Realizing that I was a worthwhile human being and owed it to myself to get into a better lab environment helped a lot, but not completely.
This past November was when everything really sunk in. Life was never going to get better. Nothing would make it better. I thought of every possible road my future self could possibly go down and each one depressed me (family with kids?!?, successful career?!?, quitting grad school and becoming a barista?!?). I never thought about ‘killing’ myself. I just wanted everything to stop. Just. Fucking. Stop. No obligations, relationships, commitments, activities. Nothing. I didn’t want people to care about me so that I could stop existing and not feel guilty about it. There was a point when the semester got super crazy, where I almost purposefully drove into a tree. Not to ‘kill’ myself really (although I wouldn’t have minded that side effect) but to hurt myself enough to where I’d end up incapacitated in a hospital and not have to fulfill any obligations for, like, a month or so.
After telling my therapist about all that, we decided that I DEFINITELY needed medication. So I’ve been on Prozac for about 3 months now. I can actually feel things now (although I can’t cry…the fuck is up with that?). It’s not an instant cure-all. There are still
weeks days when depression takes over. It actually takes a lot of work and the meds don’t magically make you happy again. They make it easier to reach a state of happiness. I can function. I can go to work and actually get things done. I still can’t plan ahead anymore (planning out a week of groceries like I used to?! HAH!) and I still don’t have the levels of energy I used to. But I can do my job. Running isn’t a chore. Taking a shower isn’t an insurmountable task. The little things. I can do those. And that makes it a little bit easier to do the bigger things.
I’m going to stop here and take a break from this wordy post. See ya tomorrow!
Have you suffered from depression? (if so, you totally have people who love you and are here for you) What did you do to cope?
2 thoughts on “Blank Space”
What helps me is meds and a good psychiatrist who actually puts some thought into which medication is most appropriate. (Antidepressants have a tendency to either put me to sleep all the time or prevent me from sleeping, so finding one that strikes the right balance is tricky.) I think therapy would help, too, but I’ve had trouble finding a good therapist.
It sounds like you’re making progress, and that’s awesome. Small steps add up to big things eventually.
I really admire your courage to share this and want to thank you for sharing.
I could relate to almost everything you described here so well 😦