Feb 2, 2015
IHTFParadise - A Journey of Depression at MIT
A good friend of mine, Angelina G., wanted to write a guest blog post about her depression experience at MIT, and I truly think that she beautifully describes IHTFP at MIT. I hope this post touches you like it did for me, and that you enjoy the read.
It was a rare beautiful Thursday in the New England fall. I walked out of the Convention Center holding my name badge and a newly earned certificate and dragged my legs back to the bus station. I had earned the certificate by presenting my UROP research at another university’s undergraduate research conference. Unlike the weather, I was not beaming. I felt heavy.
Two days later, I woke up at 3 pm after sleeping for 14 hours. With my eyes wide open, I lay on my bed—a strange feeling emerged. I didn't care for work or research; I didn't care to eat; I didn't care to get off my bed. I looked around my room. Messy for the past month, it was cluttered with piles of dirty laundry, p-sets, paper, scarves, and pencils. The drawers were splayed open and covered with papers that were probably important. The room reeked of the moldy coffee that had been sitting in the coffee filter for the past few days.
After staring at the ceiling for half an hour, I eventually, slowly pulled myself out of bed. Though I had never liked alcohol, after a few hours of contemplation, I got myself completely drunk. I couldn’t stand up properly, so I went back to bed. I lay down. When I woke up again, it was 9 pm, and I realized I hadn’t eaten anything in the past 24 hours. Yet I didn’t feel hungry, nor did I have any desire to eat. I felt sad that I had even woken up. Somehow dreams and knocking myself unconscious from drinking felt better than reality.
Something was wrong.
The next day Lauren messaged me and asked me to go on a walk with her along the Charles River. It was drizzling. Standing in front of the statue of the Alchemist with an umbrella, I waited for her while observing Mass Ave. The street was busy as usual, with MIT students walking between the Student Center and Lobby 7. Lauren appeared, holding a package of chocolate chip cookies. We started walking.
Lauren and I shared the cookies. I confided in her that for the first time in my life, I felt utterly unmotivated. It was as if all of my energy and motivation were suddenly gone. I used to feel guilty sacrificing work time to have long talks with friends. I hadn't done anything for the last few days and I didn't care. In fact, I started asking myself questions that I had never thought about before. Why am I here, at MIT? Why am I majoring in what I am majoring in? Why do I exist? I lost hope. I started to see no reason to live. I stopped seeing the point of going to college and suffering through all the pset deadlines, exams, and countless all-nighters. The worst part of it all—I didn’t even know what had happened to me.
“Maybe you’re depressed,” Lauren said quietly.
She told me about her depression experience—how she crawled out of the cave little by little over the past two years, yet was still in love with the Institute.
“I felt like hot shit in high school, like everyone else here did. But MIT humbled me. It challenged me physically, mentally, and emotionally. It made me more confident. And oddly enough, more spiritual,” she told me.
She convinced me to go to a yoga studio on our way back, so we kept walking to Central Square.
We did yoga. Then we walked back to campus.
Drago, another friend of mine who lived in Lauren’s dorm, offered to walk me back. He had become extremely worried when he heard that I had been only sleeping and drinking, as he “recognized it as a pattern—a pattern for depression.”
“So what’s the trigger?” He asked.
“I don’t know. I just feel guilty.”
“Why are you feeling guilty?”
Well, that was a long story. At the beginning of the semester, I was lucky enough to work on an independent research project with a research scientist. I highly cherished the opportunity as it was the first time I could conduct “real” research, in which I needed to formulate the problem myself, to read lots of papers, and to try out my own ideas. I was so excited by the project that I stayed up from 1 am to 5 am every night to work on it. I couldn’t find any other time for it because all my other waking hours were completely occupied by classwork and other commitments. I didn’t even feel tired by this working pattern with four hours of sleep every day; instead, I was so exhilarated by the research process that I felt more energetic during the day.
Finally, with hard work, we got some initial results. This led to an opportunity to present my findings at the conference. Two weeks before the conference, I met with the professor in my lab and pitched the project and my approach to her. She frowned and critiqued just about everything about my project, from the problem to my approach, to my results. The joy and excitement I had had for the project was suddenly replaced with shame. All the hard work, time, and energy I had poured into the project only highlighted how incompetent I was. It hit me hard.
I had worked extremely hard but failed to meet the expectations of my supervisor. I felt guilty because I made someone disappointed in me. I felt ashamed of my work and the fact that I had presented something that my professor didn’t like, something that’s not “legit,” at the conference. I felt ashamed of myself. I felt ashamed, void of value and purpose. I just hated everything.
Drago and I sat down in my room and talked for the next three hours. He made me talk through every triggering scene of my research drama. I was full of pain and guilt. Depression can be vastly different from person to person, and I still feel grateful to this day that Drago was able to catch my symptoms before they developed further.
The next few weeks were a blur. I remember dressing myself in oversized sweatshirts and sweatpants to go to class. I turned my head away whenever I saw someone I recognized. When I was outside, I wished I could magically disappear or hide. Throughout these weeks, Lauren and Drago talked to me more, supporting me the entire time.
Week by week, things started to turn around. By accepting my research failure as a part of my past and as something I began to treasure as much as all the triumphant times I had ever had, I realized that if everything I had ever possessed (success, money, fame, title, etc.) were stripped away from me, there was still something worth living for: family, friendship, love, and maybe also spirituality. My depression started going away. I was lucky to have received an immense amount of support early on, since it could have gotten substantially harder had I let it persist longer before seeking help. Thankfully, I have completely rebounded.
This whole experience has transformed me. My priorities have shifted from my own academic and career success to my mental health, family, and friends. My confidence no longer comes from external acknowledgements, but from my inner self. I have learned to be confident in my vulnerabilities. In fact, I feel confident because I am alive—the fact that I can see colors, feel different textures, smell the good and the bad, and feel love, joy, and sadness is simply amazing and worth living for. I am valued in this world, because I am alive.
Depression reveals itself in different forms. I admit I have only experienced depression once, and the severity and duration of my depression was nowhere close to what some of my friends have experienced. Some of them have confined themselves in their rooms or a dorm’s basement for weeks, months, and even years without anyone noticing that they had withdrawn from the world around them. Some have had frequent anxiety attacks, unable to move for hours lying on the floor. Some are still depressed but they force a smile onto their faces when they greet you and tell you they are doing “okay.” Others decide to take on an impossible course load and commitments to make themselves feel that they are not lagging behind. Yet despite of all these different forms, they share one thing in common—they are all facing incredible challenges while trying to keep up with MIT’s fast pace. They are some of the strongest human beings I know.
It bothers me when I hear people say that they have never known anyone who is depressed. In my experience, I have only been able to get to know a person—and to find out that they are depressed—when I have been willing to make time to listen, and to support them as much as I can. Since freshman year, I have known many MIT students who were depressed, some of whom were among my closest friends, not all of whom showed it on the surface.
I could never have carried on and accepted my past if Drago and Lauren hadn’t spent hours and hours taking walks with me, listening to me, and supporting me. I am one of the lucky few who have received an immense amount of support from depression Day 1. People who have depression are also just people - they are not crazy or dangerous. Something unfortunate has happened to them, and they just need to be cared for a little more.
At the beginning of my sophomore year, I decided to join a student organization so that I could help promote campus mental health awareness. Later, my experience with depression made me reflect deeply on what is effective and what is not effective in helping MIT’s student body in mental health issues. The key, as I have observed, is to genuinely care for each other. I have learned that little things, such as checking on friends who are going through a difficult time when I take study breaks, can make a big difference. When I greet someone and ask how their day is, instead of rushing off, I have learned to dedicate at least three minutes to have a real conversation.
Conversations matter. During the time I was depressed, due to the intense nature of school, I felt incapable of reserving space and time to heal over the cause of my depression. It was Lauren and Drago’s conversations with me—plus their wonderful presence in my life—that ultimately granted me the space and time to reflect deeply, to heal, to live through the experience rather than to hide from it and let it eat me up inside. Even though they had both been severely depressed before, and perhaps because of it, they approached me with compassion and the eagerness to listen; they did not brush me off by telling me that dropping a class would solve all of my problems; they kindly suggested that I seek professional help without disenfranchising me with the all so common tagline—“Go see Mental Health! They will fix you!”
Indeed, I lost all hope to live during my depression. Without Lauren and Drago, I would probably have stayed in that mental state for months, or even years. Their warm presence made me see hope—the hope to live—because love, friendship, and the genuine human connections we shared were more than sufficient reasons worth living for. In my case, that was the fundamental source of recovery.
I remember that when I was a freshman, I thought I would never become depressed. Forget freshman year—even right before I had depression, I still thought I would never become depressed. Why would I? I had always been an extremely resilient person. Even at MIT, I excelled academically. Yet, whenever peers referred to me as “one of those people,” I felt distanced. In fact, I felt cut off from the bonds that connected us. The truth is everyone is struggling through the same things together. Each one of us can be vulnerable, but all of us can be strong if we bond as one caring community. My experience with depression has given me a much broader perspective of what depression can be composed of. When I check on friends, instead of giving one-line statements, I have learned the importance of listening.
Personally, I have truly found paradise. The process of understanding my vulnerabilities and pulling myself out of depression has transformed how I think of the world around me, how I interact with others, and how I treat myself. I have become much more confident from inside out; I have learned to take notice of the blue sky, the colorful leaves when the seasons just start to change, and the beautiful human beings around me at MIT. Ironically, I have started to truly enjoy MIT—both the good and the bad—because I now see MIT as an experience full of richness I am fortunate enough to go through as opposed to something that I can use to reach a certain goal in life. I have become more resilient, more empathetic, and more meditative. It has made me see the meaning of living and self care, of living in the moment, of going to the Institute, and of caring for others.
On a day-to-day basis, I have begun to more attentively listen to my inner voice and needs. There were more unexpected events that came after my depression. Instead of hiding from my emotions, I was able to directly identify what was making me uneasy. I dedicated time for myself to sit down and think through events and recover. I call this granting myself reaction time in the midst of psets and upcoming deadlines.
To foster the kind of caring and giving environment we are all proud to be part of, I encourage you, my friend, to walk out of your dorm room now and genuinely ask how the person living next to you is doing. The world needs us. That’s why we are all at MIT going through the ups-and-downs together—to make the world a much, much better place. Together, we can also make this place a paradise.
** Special acknowledgement to all of my friends who have shared with me their invaluable advice, perspectives, and stories while I was writing this post. Many thanks to Lauren and Drago who have cared for me in my lowest times and helped me get my life back on track. Special recognition for my pillow pet giraffe, whose beautiful name I borrowed as my pen name. You all are a wonderful bunch. <3