Sometimes I think that what makes me successful in math makes me kind of terrible in some aspects of “real life.” A few years ago, I wrote a post for PhD+epsilon about how close I came to having a car accident for putting off car maintenance from being “too busy.” In a way, my “success” (which we all have to admit, is an obnoxious word that just means “success as the successful people have defined it”) was related to my dedication to my job, and could have led to a terrible (or at least scary) accident. More recently, I discovered a new, more insidious problem: I was dealing with depression.
Unlike screeching brakes, depression is not something that you can easily identify, at least not at first. It is funny now, after a few years of dealing with it (by no means am I “fine” or “cured,” just better), how long it took me to realize I was depressed. It seems so obvious in hindsight. And again, I think certain aspects of my personality, which work well within the expectations of mathematics, were probably the reason I was so unaware of my own mental health. In particular, I am a person who tries to “figure things out,” and I don’t care how long it takes me to do so. I deal very well with failure and frustration. So what happens when you don’t want to get out of bed in the morning, you eat crap food, avoid phone calls and social obligations, and stop showering regularly and taking care of yourself? When you have panic attacks for what seem like the silliest reasons?
First, you pretend nothing is going on. You’re just tired, or very busy, so it all makes sense. Also, there’s no reason to be sad, I have a good job, great colleagues, a good life, friends, a family who loves and supports me, so what am I complaining about? This I’m good at: reasoning. Because I am a logical person, I will try to convince myself that what I feel is illogical and therefore should not be happening.
So you keep doing the things you do: you teach, you work on math, you talk to colleagues, you smile when people say hello, you wear decent clothes, you behave like everything is fine. But it’s more work every time you do it, so you stop having energy to do anything else. You figure out you can always just order pizza (online, because you don’t even want to talk to the pizza delivery person on the phone), you figure out how long you can go without showering before it shows, you tell your friends and family you’re just too busy to talk on the phone or go out, you get home and turn on the TV, sometimes for the whole weekend, and try as hard as you can not to think about how you feel.
This is what my therapist later called “high functioning depression.” Amusingly enough, I did start reading a bit about depression, since I was already suspecting that there was more to how I felt than just “being tired.” But most of what I read said that, if you’re depressed, you’re not able to get out of bed, you don’t want to do anything, you cry all the time. None of this happened to me, so I thought: well, I can’t be depressed, since I don’t fit the definition. By the way, this is another thing that’s terrible about academics — we are obsessed with definitions.
In short, I could do all the same things, it was just a lot harder. I found the analogy later, when I started talking to people about my depression (I actually eventually told it as a story in the Story Collider podcast, with the same title as this post). In my college years, I did a bit of high altitude mountain climbing. I compare my depression to what it was like walking at high altitudes. You can do it but it’s just a lot more work, you’re doing things that should be easy but with less oxygen. That’s how I felt.
How did I finally get out of that, you may ask? Well, dear readers, it was hard, and for a while, even after I had figured it out, I thought I could just work it out on my own, through sheer willpower. This, my co-writer Piper pointed out, is also the result of ableism — thinking that you are less valuable if you have a disability. So my self-worth was tied to my making myself feel better. Some people have a wake-up call when they start thinking about suicide or self-harm, and sometimes other people notice and try to help. I never got that far. But I did start crying uncontrollably, for several days, right after Robin Williams committed suicide (even though apparently it was not just depression, but a rare form of dementia as well that drove him to it). And I think there was something to his depression that reminded me of mine — here is someone that people describe as “happy,” who is doing everything he is “supposed” to be doing, who doesn’t seem depressed. (I can’t tell you how many people, even after I “came out” as depressed, would respond with “but you’re so happy!”) And so I saw myself in Robin Williams, and it scared me — I felt like that was my future if I didn’t do something. And “doing something” meant getting someone else to help.
Finding a therapist was hard, and taking medication was hard. Because I felt like I was weak for needing someone else, and for needing drugs. Because I was raised to be self-sufficient and tough, which worked well for me academically. Because I am part of an ableist culture.
So, why write about this here, in the inclusion/exclusion blog? Well, I’ve been wanting to write about this for a while, so there’s that. But also, I think there is a systemic problem to which we should pay attention. We need to give space to self-care and mental health. We need to stop judging people who are mentally ill, and we need to support them. If there was not such a big stigma on depression, I probably would have gotten help sooner. Some of my friends might not have been killed by this disease. I’m hoping that, by talking about this more, we can all come to understand and accept mental illness as what it is, an illness, and not a weakness or a personality flaw. And to all of you who may have gone through something like this, I want you to know that you are not alone.