Going back was the best of times, going back was the worst of times

Perhaps because the novelty—by which I mean an alcohol-accentuated tincture of horror and awe—has worn off, I’m not coming away from my fifth reunion with the same crazed list of stories as I had after, say, my Freshman year. There were no drunken alumni saving me from arrest at the hands of Mohawk-profiling P-safe officers; no rambling stories from Bill Fortenbaugh ’58 about the hookers we could expect at his 70th birthday party; no thieving of giant inflatable monkeys from the 35th (I’m still unclear about how that one happened).

Still, I think I “did” reunions pretty well. I went through the P-Rade with the band no less than three times and felt like I played my heart out despite dancing too energetically to read the music for songs I had never played before. I ran into my thesis adviser in a heavily inebriated state on Poe Field. I managed a temporary coup d’etat and convinced the percussion section to start “Children of Sanchez” for the umpteenth time. I swam in the fountain, got a 4:00 a.m. “Eggplant Parm without the Parm” from Hoagie Haven, and stayed up for a reunions sunrise (a first!). And my antics in the band office led one undergraduate officer—perhaps not realizing how much I would treasure the comment—to say that I really was the “hot mess” of band lore.

I list stories and antics and happenings because I always hope that, by adding them up, they will sum to three days of consistent and straightforward happiness. And, for most people, it seems like they do: my facebook feed has been dominated for days with comments about the “best damn place of all” and the sheer joy of revisiting our alma mater. I imagine there’s a certain amount of posturing in that, but I more-or-less believe the sentiments are genuine. I wish I shared them, though.

Somewhere between the moments of blasting away on trumpet and catching up with my best friend on the deck of Terrace, there were what seemed like interminable periods of wandering around alone at the 5th, avoiding eye contact and fearing conversation. I hadn’t initially expected to spend the entire weekend with the band—not even most band alums do that—but then I realized that the alternative was walking around campus by myself, not sure if I did or didn’t want anyone to see me. It’s not that I’m not incredibly fortunate to have great friends from my class: only that interacting with them, with the attendant sense of “losing” them again as soon as the weekend was over, was hard for me to bear.

Depression is, in so many ways, all about struggling with your past. For some, it’s past trauma. For me, it’s an idealized sense of past happiness that I alternate between desperately want to relive—not in the “telling stories with old friends” sense, more the “build a time machine” sense—and wipe from my mind. When I walk around Princeton, I’m not sad because I see the room where I used to cut myself, the health center where I had to inter myself Freshman year, or the street where my roommate had to pull me away from oncoming traffic. No: I’m sad because I’m constantly thinking about the sense of wonder and meaning and community that I had there and yet never really managed to appreciate and which, at Berkeley, seems so impossibly out of reach.

Being me, I told myself this was my last reunion. Not in the sense that it’ll actually be my last, but the last where I feel like I can actually have conversations with undergraduates, play with the band, or dance drunkenly until 4 a.m. It also feels like my last because I’ve chosen to make coming back a logistical absurdity, whether I’m in France or California or England or anywhere else. I feel jealous of the people who can maintain a connection to Princeton after they graduate, and I frequently fantasize about coming back for a road trip or two each football season, but I’ve realized that I burn my bridges with the past every two years because I probably couldn’t get by any other way.

For me, at least, there’s wisdom that comes from the experience, and not just angst, which makes writing about it on my 27th birthday seem less pathetic and more edifying. When I first started to recover, I followed a pretty rigidly Benthamite pleasure-maximizing strategy, avoiding anything that might make me feel bad. Now that I know that I can break down a bit without falling of the deep end, though, I am realizing that depression can be part of the normal flow of experience—that it’s okay to go back and laugh and dance like an idiot and play trumpet and bask in the warmth of good friends and, yes, cry a little bit.

 

The Normal One

A few weeks ago, I spilled my coffee at the breakfast table three days in a row. Someone suggested that maybe I was guzzling too much caffeine, and I replied that, no, I’ve been on an unhealthy-grad-student level of coffee consumption for some time. Curious, though, I went off for a few days, but it didn’t change what I had first noticed this winter while wrapping Christmas presents: my fine motor skills are gone. That, and a partial erasure of my short-term memory (as well as the chunk of change I’m paying pharmaceutical companies for the privilege of both) is the bargain-basement price of happiness, for now.

But I’m not the one whose hands are supposed to shake. When I was little, I assumed the normalcy of elements of my relationship with my brother that now, looking back, I realize were distinctly formative. That my friends’ would be my brothers’ friends (and that he would always be the “bad guy” with us); that, when we traveled, I would be entrusted with the plane tickets, despite being four years younger; that my brother would also always be taken out of the “normal” classroom, but for different reasons. Yet, for some reason, I mostly just remember that my brother had really messy handwriting and a shaky grip. It’s weird what kids notice.

My parents let me in gradually. I first remember a matter-of-fact explanation that my brother would not—following the assumed upper-middle-class pattern—go to college. But I was mostly shielded, and I hid myself, locking myself in my room any time there was shouting. It wasn’t until 9th grade, when my brother really fell apart, that I recall hearing the word “bipolar” and only later, with its growing popularity, “autism”. Such strange and inexplicable demons make everyone feel impotent, and I was no exception. The best I was contribute was to sleep outside his door a few times when he was manic, in the hope that he’d wake me up and not my parents.

Oh, and there’s one other thing I thought I could do: achieve. Relentlessly. It’s probably not a coincidence that high school was when I went into arrogant I’m-going-to-be-a-Senator-after-I-go-to-Princeton (I literally put this in the yearbook) overdrive. It wasn’t great timing, since shortly after I became acutely aware of my brother’s limitations, I had an unexpected and novel confrontation with my own. But even as it imposed itself on me, depression was not something I allowed myself. I was the normal one. Or maybe more than that: I was the one who was compensating, the one who was succeeding for two. Having a disabled brother was lumped in with other reminders of my “privilege” that served as good fodder for admissions essays and self-serving save-the-world fervor.

I don’t pretend I will ever understand the challenges my brother faces. I will only say that certain experiences have made me more or less empathetic towards them. I’m afraid I’ve tended towards the latter, which is why my most recent “episode”—our well-worn family parlance for mental illness—was in a way a good thing. Mental illness, I’ve realized, doesn’t fit well into my usual worldview. There’s no zero-sum class war; no structure or power to overthrow; no “privilege” to be negated and redistributed. There’s no one to be angry against except god, and in a sense, the very randomness of it all feels like an argument against him/her anyway.

As I was melting down last summer, a psychiatrist threw out a term I’m so ashamed of I feel the need to unload the burden publically. He said I suffered from “survivor guilt”. But I am no survivor. My brother lives a life full of vitality and meaning and community, things—despite the unfair apportionment of certain skills and capacities between us—that I’ve at times been sorely lacking. There is so much absurdity to placing lives on a continuum, to thinking there’s any measure by which one can ‘make up’ for another, or even that worth can be measured anyway. No one exists to be the subject of a college essay or an inspiration or a reminder of privilege to others or the subject of a hackneyed blog post-conclusion. We just exist. And some of our hands shake.

Happy, At Any Cost

Dates like these are always kind of arbitrary, but it’s been three months. Three months since I was last crumpled up on my parents’ couch, since I cried for no reason at all, since I could speak of “being depressed” in both a present and seemingly eternal tense. Three months, and it already seems so foreign, so distant, and so unfathomable that I sometimes wonder if I really was the same person. Unfortunately, I was, though I really, really wish I weren’t.

I was fifteen when I first realized that I was just sort of automatically sadder than most of the people around me. I told myself it was a good thing. I could focus on changing the world; giving myself to others; martyring myself for the cause, without being distracted by the petty business of actually enjoying life. In a weird way, I think being depressed made me a better person. I turned outwards for the first time in my life; I became more empathetic; having been forced to acknowledge my own imperfections, it became easier to accept those of others.

But there is a certain baseline level of happiness—a requisite amount of non-misery—that I’ve learned is necessary, even for being self-less. And so, this time, when I realized I was way, way sadder than the people around me, I replaced self-denial with a desperate sort of hedonism. For the last year, I’ve done whatever seemed likely to make me less-unhappy at the time, and figured that the consequences for others—who couldn’t possibly know what I was going through, after all—could be ignored. And so while I firmly believe mild depression made me a better person, I’m gradually realizing that major depression made me a far worse one.

Weirdly enough, when I was at my worst, the feelings of self-loathing and low self-esteem that have been my traveling companions since adolescence disappeared. Depression crowded them out; I felt so shitty that even my brain—trained to explain bad feelings as well-deserved punishment—couldn’t come close to rationalizing them. Stranger still, now that I’m feeling better, all these feelings are back And, paradoxically, precisely those things that seem to have made me better have made me feel even less deserving of the happiness I have.

Maybe it’s a reflection of the particularly pharmaceutical nature of my recovery, but so far, I’ve experienced happiness as an absence: being happy is not being miserable, not being incapacitated, not feeling hopeless all the time, not being terrified of going to bed because you know that you’ll wake up in the morning. And, to some extent, that emptiness has been enough to get back to my life. But if you had told me three months ago how hollow happiness could feel, I never would have believed it.

Anomie Soup

Recently I’ve been spending my days working frantically on my book, voraciously reading texts for my qualifying exams and—this is the best, and most exciting, part—talking animatedly about potential dissertation ideas with my colleagues. You could say that, after a two-year hiatus, I love sociology again. The only problem is that it took me getting away from the best sociology department in the country to remember it.

About those colleagues: they are graduate students in sociology from SciencesPo, Paris. They work on a spectrum of topics and come from a range of countries, but as far as I can tell, they share at least one thing in common: they actually seem to like graduate school. We all work in a big, shared office room, and every hour-and-a-half someone announces a mandatory coffee break. We take a long hour for lunch, and in that time, virtually no one brings up how stressed they are about work, how unhappy they are with their advisors, or their bleak job-market prospects.

I’m sure that if I stay long enough, I’ll find a certain amount of disaffection and dissatisfaction underneath the surface. Still, my interactions have raised a previously unthinkable proposition:: graduate school doesn’t have to be miserable. Sometimes, I think the side-by-side comparison I’m constantly making between these SciencesPo students and my compatriots at Berkeley is unfair, since I viewed Berkeley through the lens of extreme depression and I am now seeing the whole world in a sunnier light. Then again, a few of the grad students here have been to Berkeley, and a few Berkeley students have visited SciencesPo, and in both cases, the universal consensus was that Berkeley students seem really, really unhappy.

I can’t actually say that I would have been happier had I chosen a different school—I was probably due for a depressive episode, anyway. But it’s not exactly like Berkeley is set up for thriving. For one, the department is ruthlessly denigrating of collaboration and co-authorship: we were literally told in our introductory pro-seminar, “Don’t ask a professor to write something with you, they’ll say no” and “Co-authored publications count for nothing on your CV.” It’s not the department’s fault that the faculty-student ratios are so far off, but facing a sign-up sheet on a perpetually closed professor’s door, with dozens of 15 minute blocks booked for weeks into the future, doesn’t exactly give you a sense of being valued as an individual. And it doesn’t exactly make me feel great that my adviser didn’t respond to the e-mail I sent telling her I was extremely depressed and considering leaving school, the one where I said I was leaving school, or the one saying that I was thinking about coming back.

The weirdest thing that has occurred to me with a bit of distance is that Berkeley sociology is so damn un-sociological. If I wrote a dissertation that said that a social movement came from a single leader or that wealth comes from individual aptitude, I’d be laughed out of the department. As sociologists, we know that great things come from groups, not individuals. Except sociology, apparently, which comes from lone, isolated geniuses. It’s funny we read so much Durkheim, since you could argue that our dis-integrated department is designed to produce anomie.

I’m a bit of a hypocrite, because I will go back to Berkeley. The activist inside of me wants to go back and to try to change it—to join those other students trying to create some sense of community, perhaps, or maybe even start a “mental health” working group, or something. But as far as I can tell, the people at Berkeley who are happy are the ones who take what they need from the department and then invest as little in it as possible. As a really, really fantastic and inspiring and caring professor told me on a skype call recently, “Don’t come back here until you’re really ready to take advantage of it. It’s not a good place.”

Maybe they should mention that on visit weekend.

Motorway Meditations

I still haven’t gotten around to meditating.  In some ways, I feel that the rapidity of my recovery has slightly blunted the urge to try out new health and well-ness practices, beyond the simple fix of adding more medication to my daily regimen.  In the meantime, I’ve rediscovered the wisdom to be gained from a slightly more aberrant activity: hitch-hiking.

In the summer of 2012, I hitched my way across ten different countries in Europe.  The great stories I took away from that trip—the Polish guy with the coffin, the Czech businessman listening to “horror rap”, the German family that took me home—are interspersed with memories of long periods of panic, of annoyance at spending my vacation sleeping in gas station parking lots, of frustration with all the un-filled back seats in cars that went speeding by.  In short, I managed to make hitch-hiking “work” in the sense of getting from A to B, but didn’t appreciate the experience a whole lot.

That’s partly because hitch-hiking has none of the characteristics of the activities I usually devote myself to.  Hitch-hiking does not reward effort or skill.  The thousandth car is no more likely to stop than the first one.  There is no sure-fire strategy for getting a ride.  Smiling broadly might make you seem less threatening to motorists; then again, it could give the impression of a scam artist.  If it’s raining, someone could take pity on you—or they could opt not to stop because they don’t want a sodden person in their car.  Having a sign seems to work sometimes, except when it doesn’t, because people going only part of the way to your destination choose to pass by.

Somehow, though, this time I have found the zen of hitch-hiking.  Hitch-hiking, I’ve realized, really does always work, as some drunken anarchist once (probably) assured me.  It just doesn’t work if you have a plan, or a time-table, or a firm destination.  Yesterday I turned down an early offer from someone who could take me to the edge of the highway from the roundabout at which I was stationed.  I then cursed my poor judgment as I waited in the rain for three hours.  I finally begged a truck driver to bring me to the nearest gas station.  There, I was quickly picked up by an old man who took me to a toll booth, where I met a fellow hitch-hiker who had just gotten a ride from a celebrity chef.  He, in turn, showed me the best spot in the area—from which a high-school history teacher with strong opinions about neo-liberalism took me 200 miles to my destination.  And today I scored six separate rides without a single wait of more than 10 minutes.

I’m a fan of extended metaphors, and I’ve realized that hitch-hiking is an apt one for this year as a whole.  I’ve reached a destination that I’m happy with—contentment and peace—and so it seems silly to question the route I’ve taken to get here.  Sure, I wish I hadn’t had to wait a few months in the rainy roundabout of depression, but then again, if I hadn’t waited, would I have wound up in the same place?

Empathy

Apparently if you want to get a big response to something on social media, write about depression.

I’m not entirely sure why I decided to “go public” about my condition and the cascading failures it has led to, but the response I’ve received has been incredibly touching.  In addition to the public support I’ve received—for which I feel totally unworthy, and utterly grateful anyway—I’ve also gotten quite a few messages, in private, sharing personal experiences with mental illness.  Each one—from the one telling me to join the military to the one discussing a grandmother’s suicide—is sad and beautiful and unique all at once.

Some messages relate experiences that, the authors admit, seem relatively mild next to my own; others leave me reflecting on my good biochemical fortune.  And it’s not just the internal machinations that seem incomparable.  I’ve faced depression without having to simultaneously confront the possibility of indigence, abandonment, or institutionalization.  I have parents who have welcomed me back into their home without a second thought; I have access to medical care with cost as no object; I have enough savings that I can focus on recovery for months.  If there was a single best point in human time and space to go through major depression, I’m standing on it.

Ten years ago when I first discovered that not everyone felt as shitty as I did all the time, I thought I had a pretty good sense of what depression was all about.  I associated being depressed with the non-stop urge to hurt myself and with being able to put on a happy face and go about my daily business anyway.  If you weren’t considering offing yourself, you probably weren’t depressed; if you were stuck in bed, you probably weren’t trying hard enough.

Now, my sense that “depression” is a single identifiable thing has gone out the window.  On one hand, I’ve been far more incapacitated than I’ve ever been, but also far too incapacitated to even contemplate suicide.  If there’s one early take-away from all this, it’s the realization of the fruitlessness of comparing my experience to others, because my own experiences with depression are themselves incomparable.

The beauty in all this is that virtually everyone who has written me seems to have already figured this out.  Friends and acquaintances have shared their stories without attempting to put them on the same unilinear continuum between “sane” and “batshit crazy” as my own.  Many people have told me that posting about my difficulties was “brave”, and some have said that they “wish they could do the same”.  Yet for me, “going public” felt like a necessity; for others, it would be a great burden.  But to say that what I did was “courageous” is to suggest that I’m dealing with this better than others—and I’m pretty sure everyone is just surviving as best they can.

I used to think empathy was about understanding what someone else is going through.  Now I think it’s about not having a fucking clue what anyone is going through, and supporting them anyway.

Little Helpers

I am not entirely sure how I first got on anti-depressants.  It was the summer after 10th grade, and I had a summer internship with the Defense Department (yes, really) in Albuquerque.  I was also, for the first time, plumbing the depths of sadness to a degree that surpassed normal adolescent angst.  One day, a FedEx package arrived carrying a bottle of little white pills—Prozac, 10 milligrams.  Somehow my parents had convinced a doctor back home to prescribe them to a patient she had never met.

I can’t remember if I actually asked to go on anti-depressants, but I do remember being full of just the kind of existential questions about them that you would expect from a depressed sixteen year old.  Being happy because of drugs seemed like an exercise in self-delusion, a denial of the fact that I was supposed to be depressed because, as far as I was concerned, my life sucked.  Taking pills seemed like cheating myself of well-deserved misery that belonged to my true self, and after a few weeks, I stopped.

The second time I went on medications, it was somewhat more deliberate but less voluntary.  It was my freshman year of college, and, amidst a complete meltdown, I had checked into the campus health center.  The resident psychiatrist suggested that I go on Lexapro and I acquiesced.  This time I stuck with it—but still secured an assurance that it didn’t have to be on them forever, that it was temporary, and that one day I would stand on my own two feet again.  I still felt like needing to be medicated was a weakness.  Twice, feeling superior and proud of my independence, I tried to go off them.  After a few weeks, I crumpled, and slinked into the doctor’s office and asked for the pills again.

How naïve and how innocent I once was!  Today, my one-time reluctance about medication has been replaced with a desperate faith in it.  The announcement by my psychiatrist in Berkeley that I was out of options that were not “long shots” was what put me into the spiral that brought me home.  How wrong he was, though.  Under new care, I’ve learned about the panoply of choices available to me—and the fact that they are, in fact, choices is part of what makes them so terrifying.  Do I want weight gain or weight loss?  To be dopey or agitated?  The very elective element of psychiatry—by contrast, I’ve never been offered a choice of which anti-biotic to take—is a constant reminder that it’s all guess-work.

I’ve firmly entered the realm of poorly understood interactions effects, of very real side-effects, of weapons-grade drugs in high doses.  It’s a day-by-day nail-biter, waiting for subtle signs of improvement that may or may not ever appear.  I’ve now abandoned questions about the deeper meaning of the serotonin-elevated self.  I’ve resigned myself to the idea that anti-depressants are for ongoing mood maintenance, not a one-time cure for a temporary affliction.  I choose not to contemplate the evils of the pharmaceutical industry; I actively shut out the discussions—common in the lefty circles in which I run—about whether drugs are a subtle way of covering up deeper societal problems.

Jesus, I just want them to work.