May 4, 2018
it’s ok that it’s not ok
Posted in: Miscellaneous
Content Note: This post contains mentions of death, depression, and anxiety.
In Infinite Jest, which I’ve been reading with a group of MIT students this fall, the characters talk about two types of depression. One is “anhedonia”, or the inability to feel anything, unable to feel happiness or pleasure. It is described as a type of numbness, a numb feeling where a person loses the ability to even understand what happiness is, or how to go about acquiring it.
The other type of depression is psychotic or clinical depression (at least in the ‘90s, when “anhedonia” was probably not considered “enough” to be clinical) in which a person feels actively bad all the time. They feel awful, no matter what they do--just standing, or sitting, or doing work. They don’t simply feel unable to feel happiness; they are in acute anguish in all the small tasks of daily life.
The more I read this description, which is provided by the narrator via a depressed character, Kate Gompert, in the book, the more I realized that, initially, I thought I only knew “anhedonia”, too. But then Kate describes (in her head) a psychotically depressed patient she met who had never actually tried suicide, but has willed for unconsciousness for a very long time. His condition is brought on by one day slipping on a patch of 3-in-1 oil that he used for model trains, hitting his head, and for twenty years after he was never the same. He dreams of attaining the simple anhedonia state; of being able to merely not feel happiness rather than actively feel awful. Kate self-medicates to reach that state, by imbibing marijuana or drinking, which leads her to the halfway house for addicts featured in Infinite Jest, although she doesn’t seem to be truly addicted like the other characters in the book there, rather spurred toward substances by her condition.
I realized that, though fortunately I don’t feel this consistently and it is not the “norm” of my life, I actually identified more with Kate’s psychotic depression than I did with “anhedonia”. I have felt that way at times, like there is a horror trying to claw its way out of your stomach, and there’s nothing you can do about it, and how can you possibly go on. I think, in contrast to Kate, my self-medication is people, and work. When I’m working on things I enjoy, it goes away. When I’m meeting with people, even random strangers just chatting, it goes away. But in bad periods, every moment outside of enjoyable work or meetings with people, is a moment of suffering.
But unlike Kate Gompert, I typically only feel this way because it’s triggered by an event.
Before spring break, one of my smallest cousins died. She was around ten years old. Her name was Ruth, and she was the cutest, most bright-eyed and excitable little girl. My father told me all at once over the phone, and I don’t know if he realized how badly this would hit me. Maybe I didn’t realize either. I had slept next to this little girl, in our farm in Kafa. I had played with her and she had run around our house, and I had scolded the older boys for letting her do work that was clearly too much for her small frame. I still can’t think about her without crying a little, which I’m doing now in Hayden library and hoping no one notices, hiding my face with this laptop.
Ruth had a brain tumour, which I had known about since my most recent trip to Ethiopia. She once had some issue where she couldn’t hear anything, and my aunt was worried and took her to the hospital, where they diagnosed her with this tumour. It also began to affect her sight, I’m told, as the illness progressed.
She had a very hard life before coming to live with my grandmother, her great-grandmother. Her father is part of what we call Anamo, the traditional religion in Kafa. Without getting too detailed, this tradition allows polygamy, and her father, my actual cousin (in that he is the son of my father’s second-oldest sister, which makes Ruth some familial term I’m not clear about so I just use “cousin”), is more or less excommunicated from our family, which has been staunchly Catholic for several generations. I don’t know the details of what happened there, but I know the way Ruth came to be at my grandmother’s house was because her mother somehow fell out of favor in that other family, ran away and left the two of them there (Ruth and Asede) and just left.
Ruth had brain surgery a few months ago, but it was either performed badly (my father’s theory) or simply did not work. Ruth was ok for a while, and then her condition continued to get worse. My aunt called me a few days after my father and said Ruth was crying on some of the worst days, she didn’t understand why she couldn’t see anything. Her sight was going. She passed away, finally, in our house on a hill in Kafa.
I can imagine it, even though I wasn’t there. It would be quiet. The cattle would be grazing. Far away you might be able to hear the rushing of streams and rivers. Maybe days later, during a funeral ceremony, it would get loud with wailing. But in that moment I think it would have been too quiet.
I cry thinking of this small, cheerful girl, herself crying because she can’t see anything. When I had been at our farm, tiny bodies of children would be curled up with mine at night. Ruth’s sister Asede on the one side, and Surafiel inevitably ending up somewhere on the edge, his arm inevitably thrown across my face. I laugh at that, and cry.
Ruth was loud and cheerful. She had a way of calling out my oldest cousin’s nickname, Abush, who has a way with all the small kids and is always their favorite. She would say it more like “Abush-iy!”, and it made us laugh. I have a video of her I took on my phone trying to get her to say “Abush-iy!”, she’s playing with something on the ground. “Who are Fantaye’s children?” I asked, “Who’s Fantaye’s oldest son, eh?” There’s coaxing from the other relatives, and laughter, and she looks up at me, with a trademark smile, shy and toothless. “Abush-iy,” Fantaye’s oldest son.
The bizarreness of this incident is partly what made me say nothing. So many points of it, from the relation with a polygamous family, to a countryside girl having a brain tumour, made me feel like no one I knew could possibly relate to this. I didn’t say any of this to my friends, or my significant other, or even really talk about it with my own father and my aunt. I felt hopeless and terrible. I buried myself in work and activities and meeting other people, because as I said, those are things that kept the monsters in my stomach at bay.
And then, finally, when I decided to say something, I minimized it because how could they understand, or wouldn’t they think it’s sort of one-dimensionally-sad, an African child dying from a treatable illness (of course a brain tumour doesn’t exactly fall into the category of “treatable”, but this is what I do to myself in my head). Wouldn’t they all minimize it somehow, I thought. So I minimized it for them, mentioned it in passing, made it sound like I didn’t know Ruth well or didn’t feel like it was important. I minimized it to myself too; didn’t take time to properly deal with it. I felt like there was nothing I could do, that everything I had ever done was worthless. The seed of worthlessness started to grow and flourish again. I questioned every decision I had ever made. I grasped at strings that seemed like they would provide some sort of help, some sort of distant, different future where things like this would never happen. Would it be better if I were with people who shared more of my background, I thought, who might understand this pain and frustration I have? Would it be better if I moved back home, to Ethiopia? Could I make some sort of change there?
Certainly, being motivated to change things is good. But the human condition is universal, and many Ethiopians themselves do not understand rural life. It was unreasonable to, however indirectly, turn away from the people closest to me because I thought somehow they would be inherently unable to understand, when I never gave them a chance to understand. I don’t know why I have this strong, overly stubborn determination to always be the comforter, yet be very scared and dismissive when it comes to seeking comfort. When I finally talked about it to one of my closest friends, what she shared from her own life was still helpful and comforting to me, even if the details were a little bit different.
This all came to a head, I am shameless to say, on my period, where my sad emotions in particular typically get turbo-charged by hormonal imbalance. And that’s when I had An Episode, for the first time in a long while, and felt in every waking minute horror, and couldn’t ignore it. I prayed to fall asleep, as relief from the Feeling I had, but would wake up suddenly, way too early, from the stress and anxiety. I blamed America; I wanted to leave the country. I blamed most of all myself, for being useless and worthless and unable to do work. I nitpicked at every small thing that happened to me, turned it into a bad omen.
On the inside, I still felt like this wasn’t a “Real Issue” (despite being a clearly serious issue) and that for whatever reason, I didn’t deserve to talk about it or didn’t deserve help. But eventually I scheduled an appointment with MIT Mental Health anyway. I talked about my work and being overwhelmed in a technical class and my thesis. I have never cried at mental health before, or while talking to a stranger, but I cried when I talked about Ruth. I cried when I got to the part of her last days, this ten year old girl. She couldn’t understand why she couldn’t see anything, as she was dying. I broke down; I cried in front of a therapist, while saying that.
Ruth always seemed so bright in the face of so much. When you have a big family and you live in such a rural place, the death of children, the brightest people, is a statistical reality. They are like fireworks that burn spectacularly and go out suddenly. As much as I know I should have been more honest and open with my loved ones, I do still feel that other people can’t quite understand it the same way. I remember my father talking about it similarly, death that had happened to him. When we first moved from Denver to the suburbs in Colorado, my father did most of the landscaping. I was helping him one day; it was some weekend, with a bright blue and sunny sky. He planted two beautiful yellow flower bushes. “I named them,” he said. The two flowers were named after two of his close friends in childhood, who had died at 12 and 13 from typhoid fever. He looked up at the sky and there was a complicated look on his face, of sadness and disappointment.
I followed his gaze there, up and up and up.
Despite how much this event did affect me, I do feel like I’ve gotten better at handling things. I do feel like going through difficult emotional issues before gave me some tools to at least just let myself be, this time, to know what this is and just live in this state of not being fine, knowing that it will pass. I think this was highlighted well in something I wrote just before I went to MIT mental health, which I’ve copied from my personal tumblr, below:
It took me years to get out of bed today. Or more precisely several hours. I went to bed at maybe midnight and woke up at 7:30 against my will. I tossed and turned to try and get some more sleep back. After giving up, I read articles and messaged people subletting for the summer until 11:30. I finally gathered enough energy to swing my legs over the edge, to tie up the curtains and let in the light.
I am taking today one minute at a time. I showered and washed my hair, thoroughly. I stopped worrying about all the work I was supposed to be doing. I emailed in sick for my only class, stating nothing but the truth: "hello Professor, I woke this morning not feeling well. I hoped it would get better as the morning went on, but I don't think I'll be able to make it to class."
Washing my hair felt good. I took my time, detangling every strand of it with conditioner, shampooing and rinsing it clean, applying more conditioner and leaving it in longer. Water pooled around my feet from the slightly clogged drain. I stepped out of the shower and sighed. Washing felt good.
I went back into my room and cleaned. I dressed. I made my bed. I wiped the surfaces of our small tables and the shelf. I organized my things and hung up clothes. Cleaning felt good, too. I still hadn't done any work.
My mom called and I talked to her for a few minutes. Everything was ready at this point, but I was hesitant to get out of the door. I drank water. I checked the bus schedule. I decided to walk--maybe walking would be good.
I went to a cafe, where I am now. I read some Infinite Jest and ate breakfast. The cleaning made me feel like Joelle. The unbearable feelings made me think of Kate Gompert--though thankfully, I don't feel like this everyday.
At least I know what this is now. I know better than to ignore this feeling, when every little, normal, thoughtless thing is like a major checkpoint to my day. Like normally, my to-do list is “homework, fix current sensor, submit story critiques, blog”...on days like today, it's just “shower, eat breakfast, put on clothes, put on shoes”....
I feel ready to go to office hours now, and ask about my class project. After that I will go to MIT mental health for their walk-in hours. After that I will go talk to my supervisor and cry about our current sensor issues and maybe he will deus-ex-machina my research into working. After that I will email Michael and ask to borrow his current sensor, one I can't remember if I tried or not, and maybe that one will work and solve the problem. After that I will try and do some work. I will try to get a good night's sleep tonight--maybe sleeping earlier will help. I will call my mother.
It will be ok.
I still think about my cousin Ruth, in the back of all these other things. I had so many plans for the small ones. I am too late for my older cousins, but for the small ones--I can sponsor their education like my father does; I can make sure they do well and have healthcare, I can take care of our family. It's hard to think that Ruth passed away before I could do that for her. That maybe even if this all happened later in my life, I still couldn't have helped anything.
It will be ok. It's a slow day today. I'm just going to let it be slow, and not fight the pace of it.
It will be ok.