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The Long Road to Happiness by Selam G. '18

Stuff no one likes to talk about...

I’ve been meaning to write this blog post for a while, maybe since sophomore fall, and not really had the courage to do it or the time to think about what I wanted to say. When I was a freshman, I wrote two posts about the difficulty of adjusting to MIT called How to Fail. Since then, I’ve stayed more or less quiet about the other academic struggles I’ve faced–sometimes just because there wasn’t time to write about them.

I think being happy or sad is sort of like being full or hungry. When I’m really full, sometimes I think I won’t ever eat again for three days (which is obviously not true) and I just don’t even really remember what it feels like to be hungry. When I’m ravenously hungry, I feel like I could eat everything (also not true) and I just can’t even think back to the feeling of fullness. Now that I’m (fortunately!) doing a lot better, I remember only the vague impressions of being horribly, horribly sad. For this blog post, I had to refer a lot to the private tumblr blog I kept where I vented those feelings, to even remember what that was like.




Sometime in early November, I found myself in the waiting room at MIT Mental Health services. I realized, awkwardly, that I recognized another undergrad sitting there, and I proceeded to avoid eye contact and look at my shoes. I was thinking that I was glad that I wasn’t alone, and then wondering whether or not that was a selfish thing to think.

A nice receptionist at the desk gave me some forms to fill out, so I busied myself with those. Another person came out later and collected my forms, glanced at them, and asked me to follow her to a room. She became the therapist I saw regularly for the rest of the semester, and into IAP.

Externally, unless you had seen me sitting there fidgeting in the waiting room, I don’t think anyone would have thought much was wrong. I had just spent the summer visiting China, UROP-ing for Mediated Matter with two weeks at Google in California, and successfully beginning well construction for my project in Ethiopia. When back on campus, I continued to be involved in many activities in the MIT community, including Chinese Students’ Club, the Ethiopian-Eritrean Students’ Association, and my sorority, Delta Phi Epsilon. I was still UROP-ing with Mediated Matter, still blogging, and even working on the Pi Day video. And while I was doing these things, I really was fairly happy, at MIT doing stuff I enjoyed.

Except, pretty much all the time that I didn’t have to be around other people, I would retreat to my room and feel like there was a sinkhole in my stomach. It was really affecting my work–I would often miss class, and the occasional assignment. There was a point where I really didn’t know how to fix what was wrong, or what to do about it, and that scared me. I was at a complete loss. I was sleeping enough–8 hours a night sometimes, usually 6-7–and I was eating, healthy-ish at least. But when I was in class, there were days that I just couldn’t handle being there and I wanted to leave immediately. I would go home in the middle of the day because I was on the verge of a breakdown. One of the few things that kept me going was just calling my mother, and talking to her about feeling stressed, or sad. Sometimes it was just nice to talk to someone–about anything.


The issue was that I had devolved into a deep, deep well of self-loathing. A lot of pressures–MIT things, non-MIT things, college things, home-life things, identity things, getting sick during the semester–had piled up. I felt like I was carrying a lot of stuff at once. It was so ironically in contrast to the person that I was projecting on the outside: active in the community, hard at work pursuing projects, bright and energetic.

One of the pressures that I can disclose was feeling this strange, existential crisis for being a mixed person–a feeling that I still have, in milder quantities. It goes back to a post I actually wrote during the summer, Alien in America. Discriminatory incidents happen frequently in my life–even here in Cambridge, random strangers will heckle me in rude or vulgar ways related to being mixed or “exotic”. I started to view myself as useless and worthless, truly alien–like I didn’t belong anywhere, and horribly alone. I fixated, day-in and day-out, on this feeling. Normally, like any regular person who sometimes receives angry or negative comments, I try to take it in stride, live my life, remember that those people don’t matter. But combined with other pressures in my life, that ability to deflect those incidents was getting chipped away at, bit by bit.

Here is an excerpt from something I wrote at the time:

“I was thinking often that what if I just moved to Oregon and become a fair trade coffee shop barista. And I stop talking to most of the people I once knew. And whenever I meet anyone new, I only tell them I’m from Denver, and if they ask “where are you really from” I say Denver, and “where are your parents from”, Denver. If anyone asks me about my name I simply say, “oh, my dad picked it, it means peace in several languages”. Or maybe I just go by “Angela”. And everyone I’ve ever known, except for maybe my family, mostly forgets. I bet if I didn’t talk to anyone for years, they would mostly forget, and move on with their busy lives. Heck, it happens to people all the time without them even wanting it to. And maybe occasionally there’s still people on the street who randomly yell things like “where are *you* from?” or “are you Hawaiian”, and I just ignore them.

I just erase everything. I don’t tell anyone who I am, or rather, who I used to be. I don’t talk about these things. I disappear, completely and quietly, into the crowds.

I was talking to someone the other day, who said that suicidal thoughts are often a measure of how depressed someone is. Thinking about things abstractly is very different from having already pondered the details of what you would do–it’s more concerning if someone has a plan than just a vague wish. And I do not think about that, mostly because I’d never do that to my mother. But I do think, in detail, about disappearing. About becoming nothing, which is the way I feel already. I am just an empty shell of a person who pretends that they belong here, with all these vibrant, purposeful people. I wish I could just quit everything and give up and go.”

Never before in my life had I a stronger wish to run away from myself, from who I was as a person.

I felt dissociated from people, like I was far, far away from everyone. It felt like looking at life through a glass window, but not actually participating in it. And many days I didn’t want to participate–pulled out of bed only because I didn’t want to disappoint my mother, and somewhere, deep down, myself. Sometimes a normal day was a herculean effort. Getting out of bed was reaching deep into myself and gathering strength I did not have. Doing my homework–just starting it, ignoring the actually difficult task of completing it more or less correctly–was nearly impossible.

Somewhere in the haze of that negativity, I was talking to one of my best friends, Javier W. ‘17 of Trinity College. He convinced me that this wasn’t normal, and that I should get help. I wasn’t very reasonable with him at first and refused for a while. But eventually, I went to a slot at Let’s Chat, a program started at MIT fairly recently; I think within the last three years or so. During the week, you can drop into a room in building 6 during certain times for a small, informal, 20-minute conversation with someone from MIT Mental Health. I didn’t tell anyone about it. I had looked at the mental health website, but calling to schedule an appointment felt too intimidating. Let’s Chat seemed a lot more casual and easier. It was a Thursday, and I remember feeling my heart sink, because the next day that Let’s Chat was available was Tuesday. Getting through four days, even when two were on the weekend, felt like such a difficult struggle, when even waking up required all the willpower I had.

I felt immediately better after finally going to Let’s Chat, and not only because the conversation was helpful. It was actually mostly because I felt like I was doing something, that there were steps I was taking, that we were going to get somewhere, eventually, and the strange slow-motion hell I was in wasn’t going to last forever. The person I had spoken with there helped me schedule an appointment at MIT Medical, which later led to sitting and fidgeting in the waiting room.

Something I realized during and after all of this is that happiness has a lot of basic mechanical components you have to plan and maintain for. When people talk about happiness they quickly go to big concepts like career fulfillment or finding love, but sometimes it’s just sleeping and eating right and making a little time for being with friends. Being happy, to a degree, is part of your health–in particular your mental health. When traumatizing or difficult things happen in life, you have to learn how to cope with them. You have to take tiny steps, every day. Going from a dark place to being happy again can’t just happen overnight–it’s a long, long road, with a lot of checkpoints on the way, like cleaning your room again and isolating yourself a little less.

Sometimes, you just have to seek small victories, like showering and doing your laundry, and this helps you get back to a place where you can work on homework again and study for exams or work on projects.

Some of the best advice my therapist gave me was the following, which I wrote down on my tumblr:

  • When you wake up in the morning, eat a warm breakfast
  • Get at least 7 hours of sleep.
  • Spend lots of time around people, especially when working. If social interaction is stressful, then spend time in “in-between” places–coffee shops, libraries, places where people are around you but you may not know them and you don’t have to talk to anyone.
  • When working, listen to music. Make sure it’s music without lyrics so that it isn’t distracting.
  • Take breaks, especially if you feel like you’ve been “working” for a while and not been productive. Just standing up from your seat will change your blood pressure, heart rate, and body temperature.
  • Exercise as much as possible. Doesn’t have to be much, just 10 minutes or more at a high intensity to increase endorphins.
  • Hang in there!

It might seem pretty basic, but you’d be surprised how in the busyness of life you forget to do these things, and how much they can affect your mood. Even when I started doing a bit better and just having bad days instead of bad weeks, I noticed that I had to make an effort to check myself–did I eat or sleep, do I need a break, or maybe a walk? Do I need to talk to someone–my mother, a friend–or just sit in the library around other students? Who can I reach out to? The same communities that I had honestly started to dread attending meetings for (only because of what I was dealing with, no fault of theirs) I realized were also my support groups. I talked to other club members about stuff going on, big and small, and reached out to my sorority when I needed company or hugs. Working with them became fun again.

It took a lot to climb out of the hole, and part of it was just the semester ending and having a break for a while during winter. But I still feel like I’m working on it, at least a little. Sometimes I have bad days, but, like I’ve learned to manage migraines by taking painkillers early, I manage depressive thoughts by calling my mother, talking to someone, taking a break, a walk, a nap, doing any of the above things my therapist suggested.

The real reason I decided to write this post is that I don’t think enough people who seem to be successful, especially those who seem happy and well-adjusted on the outside, talk about what’s going on under the hood. Things happen, life happens, to everyone, whether you’re at MIT or anywhere, in college or not. I’m grateful for all the opportunities I’ve had, and I’m so glad many of them have worked out–but my mind wasn’t, and isn’t, always in the right place or thinking positively. A lot of people tell you that to be successful, you have to work ridiculously hard and stretch your limits. But you also have to take care of yourself, at least part of the time, in small ways and big ones. When life gets in the way of your work or school, you have to deal with it and recover, because, surprise, trying to ignore it and keep working won’t work. The only regret I have is not getting the help I needed sooner.

One of the other reasons I was able to start being more stable and productive again was finding other MIT students who were open about not doing well or struggling in classes, and we would talk to each other about it or do homework together. Like fidgeting in the waiting room with another person I knew, it was comforting to know that I wasn’t alone–though, I still wonder if that’s maybe a selfish thought. Hopefully, if this lets you know you’re not alone either, it will balance that out.