So this blog was a longgggg time in the making! There’s so much that’s happened this year, so much I’m not exactly sure how to talk about, or even if I want to talk about it. The mood hit me to write, and I couldn’t do anything else before I got this out of me so here I am. I’m going to write this first, because it somewhat needs to be said. It explains a lot about my absence, it explains a lot about my current fears, and my current progress. Tomorrow, with this mind dump out of my skull, I can talk about what this year has taught me, the person it’s made me, and the wonderful things for which I’m grateful. But for now, let’s talk a bit about the year that I almost lost.
This entry won’t be fun, but it does feel necessary.
A Little Bit About Depression
One of the things I’ve learned about depression is that it affects your memory to varying degrees. That being said, it takes me a lot to remember what this year was at all. I do know that this was the time that my depression became full-on clinical major depressive disorder. Talking to people about my depression is a little strange, because a big assumption about it is that it’s just sadness, but it isn’t. It doesn’t have to be triggered by an intense traumatic event either. It’s a bit more nuanced. I’ll elaborate really quickly.
Depression is at once a feeling that most everybody can relate to, it’s the rut, the mud you get stuck in (“é a lama, é a lama”). Most everybody has experienced a time where they were down on their luck, but most people can get out of it. Depression as a disorder occurs when it becomes a persistent feeling of emptiness, called anhedonia, where the things you love just aren’t doing it for you anymore, and nothing you do seems to help. You’ve logic-ed yourself into this, your brain gets so used to thinking in certain patterns of self-loathing (this is my personal problem, this is something I can overcome, if only I did this things would be different), that you lose the ability to actually get out of it alone. Therapy, meds, and other methods are necessary at a certain point to help get your brain out of these patterns.
Certain things can bring this out of you. For me, my perfectionist personality, the priority I place on accomplishments and productivity, being in an intensely competitive environment like a PhD program, and being a first-generation college student navigating a world that I constantly feel underprepared for are some of the things in this cocktail that brought me to this point. The more I learn about myself and my depression, the more I become convinced that I’ve always had depression, and it ebbs and flows with my life. When my first therapist told me that people don’t tend to cry themselves to sleep, my brain literally couldn’t understand it! “So you’re telling me people just lay down to go to sleep… and then they do?”
In my second-to-last semester, there I was, struggling to care at all about anything, lacking all motivation for independent study. I started to feel helpless and stuck. I was crying walking my dog in the morning, dreading the day ahead; crying on the highway on the way to campus, dreading putting on a brave face at work; crying in the bathroom, escaping my desk to let out my frustration; crying at my desk, reading up on depression and the startling drop-out rates of PhDs; crying eating lunch, struggling to actually enjoy my meal – you get the picture. Crying fits are a telltale symptom of depression, and they’re not exactly driven by sadness, but rather emptiness. The frustration of not being able to feel.
I decided to take a leave of absence from classes, accepting the first incomplete grades in my academic career, and just tried to manage working. Every day, I’d run into someone who would ask me about how classes were coming, and I got used to lying about it. “Classes are great! Almost finished! Yeah I’m working on my project right now.” Right about then, Coronavirus hit the States hard, and I was sent home to work via Zoom and Webex. This… didn’t actually help much! Being home just gave me a lot of time to mope and feel sorry for myself, staying in bed until my dog asked me to take her outside, then going right back to bed to cry and mope.
Spring… what happened in Spring? Ohhh no, yeah, this is when I started drinking a lot. So yeah, there was that. I have a strange relationship with alcohol. I drink socially more than most people I know, but it was socially, with others. I can enjoy going to a bar and just tasting different beers. I like happy hours and bogo margaritas with tacos. Once Coronavirus hit, I was home drinking alone more and more and more.
So, in case you didn’t know, alcohol is a depressant. Remember that conversation from health class? Some things are stimulants and others are depressants. If you’ve been paying attention, you’d know that I’ve been diagnosed with depression, along with possibly a third of all PhD students in the country, so an over-reliance on alcohol is only going to make that worse. Keep that in mind, ’cause I sure didn’t!
Summer is wonderful and warm and I start reading books like Atomic Habits. I start building routines and adding hobbies like paint-by-numbers and I even start drawing more often. This is part of my constant attempt to schedule myself out of depression. These little reclamations of self-care encourage me enough to return to my research on Black students who study, live, and work abroad to finish my classes. I’m able to turn in my final research papers before the next semester, earning As in both. I know grades matter less at this point in my career, but you gotta understand, I earned those grades. I cried reading the emails officiating my grade changes from INCOMPLETE to RESOLVED. It felt like I was climbing out of something.
I had been doing okay at this point, managing my depression as best as I could, but I was returning to classes. I was okay, but I was still very much depressed. I didn’t care about anything at this point, and when it comes to being a PhD student, you have to really care about what you’re doing ’cause you’ll be doing it for a looooong time. I start to worry about finishing this semester, worry about dropping out (literally the thought of dropping out sends me into a spiral), and worry about being unable to complete anything in my life. I get an email from my professor asking me if I was okay and I find myself physically unable to respond to it. I see it, after a few hours I’m brave enough to read it, and when I try to respond to the simple question, “Are you okay?” I write a long response, delete it, write it again, cry, delete it.
I decide not to answer and go to buy a bottle of wine. Then another. And another. After a really dark and long night in which I drink three bottles of wine in one sitting, the next morning I wake up hungover and ask my therapist for an emergency session and to take my biweekly sessions to weekly.
She diagnoses me with major depressive disorder, essentially acknowledging that my current situation is chronic with no current end in sight, and refers me to a psychiatrist. Days later, my psychiatrist starts me on Effexor, an anti-depressant; Atarax, an anti-anxiety medication to help me sleep; later adding Ritalin to the mix to help me focus. She tells me to stop drinking coffee because it’s a stimulant and I’m on two or more stimulants now. She also tells me to stop drinking alcohol, because it only makes depression worse.
I miss wine, but I mostly miss the people with whom I drink. The positive memories I have with alcohol are mostly positive memories with friends. The numbing I get from drinking doesn’t help solve my problems. I still miss wine.
I think it’s also important to mention that the decision to take medications wasn’t one I took lightly, and not for all the best reasons. I said before that depression is strange, it tells you lies about yourself, and asks you to make choices that continue its reign over your mind. My thought process was not one that I have for any other ailment. When my psychiatrist asked me about taking medications, I was desperate enough for relief to say yes, but my second thought was, “When can I stop taking these?” I have taken medications daily for decades to manage my allergies, but never asked that because I know without allergy medications I’m miserable, and it has the potential to really get me sick – sick enough to kill me. This is the same thing.
When I told her that I was having difficulty focusing, she suggested trying something else, and my first instinct was to tell her no, “I’ll keep with this,” but when your headache medicine isn’t doing the trick, you try something else all the time. I worried that she was pushing pills on me too soon, or that she was too eager to medicate me, but then I remembered that I had been in therapy for two years and was progressively getting worse. I needed help. Learning to accept that I was depressed was and still is difficult, but I have to do it, or else I’ll never get better. The medications are not happy pills, per se, although they do raise the hormone seratonin, commonly associated with happiness. They’re essentially mood stabilizers, bringing my brain activity up to what approximates normal levels for most people, and from there I have to do the work to reteach my brain how to maintain that. All of the hobbies I cast aside when I was depressed, I have to get them back, bit by bit, and reteach my brain how to enjoy things again. How to live life.
Recovery is slow. There are days in which I’m a little bit more than numb. Sometimes I feel excitement for something small or am able to enjoy television without thinking and worrying about something else. I’m frequently distracted, and I often worry if my chronic stress has altered the chemistry of my brain, leaving me with the mind of a gung-ho puppy, unable to focus or deeply consider anything anymore. It’s hard to do the acts that make life better for myself, like cleaning my room, washing the dishes. I’ve started to forget to eat which is NEW, and probably a side-effect of my medications. My psychiatrist and therapist warn me to not regard that as good news, and I try to remember to eat even when I’m not exactly hungry.
Around this time, late Fall, my entire immediate family gets COVID-19. It’s interesting how a virus takes advantage of the small moments that make us human. The little pleasures we get from spending time with one another is when it strikes the hardest. The ramifications of our illnesses are yet to be seen, honestly. I try not to think about it too much, because as you’ve read up until this point, my brain isn’t the best at moving past certain feelings, but I take solace in the fact that I’m not alone in this moment. The suffering in this year has been incalculable, the variety of losses we’ve had to endure as a country, the anxiety, the fears, I don’t know, it’s all so much. Humans are literally not built to handle this much stress, suffering, and pain.
So that brings us back to Winter.
This year has been long (one of my friends likes to say, “There was a pandemic, an election, tons of protests, I’m Black, and I’m tired”), and it’s not over yet. I’m not done finals, in fact I’m running late with them. I’m trying not to stress about it, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was frustrated with myself. Trying to understand this year, how much I’ve lost, how much I’ve gained, has been challenging. Constantly putting things into perspective by adding “….in a pandemic” to all my negative self-talk has been sort of helpful. “I cannot believe I haven’t finished this…. in a pandemic.” “It’s ridiculous that I can’t keep my room clean… in a pandemic.” You start to see how absurd some of your concerns are.
I’m slowly getting back to something that feels like control, still trying to schedule myself out of depression. Still trying to finish some books. Still practicing gratitude. On and on.
Writing this was hard! Writing for me is like therapy, and I felt the need to share it ’cause I know for a fact I’m not alone. About 17 million Americans suffer from depression, and it’s a growing problem among PhD students. This is a ticket for two, and if me sharing my story of such a tumultuous year helps someone see themselves in my words and know they’re not alone, that’s really all I could ever hope for.
If you or someone you know is suffering from mental health issues or substance abuse, don’t hesitate to reach out and ask for help. Take advantage all your resources, from community health centers, college mental health services, or SAMHSA’s National Helpline – 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
And with this, I’ll end this entry of the year I almost lost. And I’ll see you tomorrow for the year that I earned.