To The Man in the Depression Study

It was 11AM but the fluorescent lights made it feel like we’d been there forever. Or maybe it was because I hated it there, so time slowed down. Whatever it was, I was staring at this man and he was staring at me and I felt nothing.

I was 23-years-old, with the face of a 14-year-old which is a really great quality for modeling but not great for getting adults over 40 to take you seriously.

The man staring at me was one of the patients in our study. My job was to assess his symptoms to see if he was getting better or worse this week.

“Have you felt sad, depressed, or low this week?”

I hated myself for asking that.

I’d undergone extensive training to ask that question, but it never felt right. If someone with the face of a 14-year-old ever asked me that when I was feeling “low” I’d lie my face off.

“Any feelings of guilt?” I continued.

It took me another year before I had the courage to throw those questions out the window and open with, “So, tell me what’s been going on this week?”

Sitting across from this man, I felt shame. I was embarrassed for both of us. He was a grown man enrolled in a depression study so he could get better. So he could feel something, anything.

Here he was forced to tell a stranger that he’d only met last week that he was having suicidal thoughts.

What kind of shit system was this?

I knew from his intake form that his family didn’t even know he suffered from depression. This was common. I was often the first person who found out about abuse, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, suicide attempts, and rape. Before any loved ones.

It’s easier to tell strangers things sometimes.

I reached for something to say to make it less awkward. “Say something, Margo. Acknowledge that it’s awkward for you too. Show him some humanity. Give him some dignity for fuck’s sake.” But I wasn’t allowed. The training was strict: Stick to the script. Do what you’re told.

If I veered off course I would contaminate everything. It could disqualify the man from the study. And then he’d have nothing, no help, no treatment. Nothing.

So I stayed neutral. For his sake and mine.

Becoming cold and clinical is a protection mechanism. If you spend your days asking people about their pain you’re bound to feel some of it yourself. And no one checks in with you, the assessor, (certainly not at 23) to see if you’re OK. If you can stomach it.

For me, sitting in that room at 11AM with that man, I’d never felt less like myself. I knew that if I had any hope of making a difference in his life or mine I had to GTFO.

This was no way to help people.

So I left.

Four years later and I was sitting in a focus group talking about diamonds.

Yes, diamonds.

“What does it mean to own a diamond ring?” we asked the participants. I was helping moderate the discussion.

We learned that diamonds weren’t really about diamonds. They were about fantasy and romance. To look down at your hand and believe that you too are worthy of love. That someone cares about you. That you matter.

Photo Credit: Heather Mount, Unsplash

You. Matter.

We took this finding to our superiors (a jewelry company) who treated it with care. “People need to know they are loved. That someone cares about them. That’s what we give them. Affirmation and validation of love.”

If you’re wondering where I’m going with this it’s this:

In a focus group of people talking about the worst industry on the planet (diamonds), I saw more empathy than I ever saw in the depression clinic.

We took time to understand each person’s hopes, fears, and dreams. The diamond jewelers weren’t evil corporate drones, they believed (sincerely) they were helping people find love (whether that’s actually true is another topic)(back to our story).

I’d undergone so much training to be a CITI, HAM-D, SKID, INSERT ACRONYM certified researcher, but no one — no one — taught me how to have empathy.

I was trained to see a collection of symptoms, not a human.

In the lab, we purported to care about curing depression and helping people, but the truth was we cared about statistically significant results and getting published.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be published. Or wanting to make money. Where it becomes a problem is when we lie about it. When we purport to care about humanity when really we care about something else.

In fact, in 2008, when the Bear Stearns of the world were making headlines, the Principal Investigator on my depression study made the front of the WSJ for conflict of interest charges. Turned out, he was taking money from the pharma companies who manufactured the medications we were testing. And lying about it to the university.

The study was “paused” for 8 months while people were still in it.

People. Were. Still. In. It.

How’s that for empathy?

Money and power aren’t what’s evil. It’s when you stop seeing people as people in pursuit of them that we have problems.

It’s why I couldn’t feel anything when I saw the man in front of me in the depression lab suffering.

I was so focused on getting published, pleasing my boss, getting into graduate school, and making ends meet that I failed to see the real person sitting in front of me.

When people ask me how I could leave a “noble” trajectory like academia for something “base and superficial” like marketing, I think about this man. And the hundreds of other people who’ve been robbed of their humanity thanks to people like me, “just doing my job.”

Brene Brown says we could fill football stadiums with people suffering from internalized shame. Our little clinic probably multiplied that number 20-fold.

I don’t know what ever happened to the patients in our study after I left, but I do know what happened to me. It lit a fire under my ass to make sure no one was robbed of their humanity ever again (which is how I landed myself here).

Our society likes to denigrate and dismiss feelings as something to be controlled. “Emotional” is thrown around as criticism implying you are unstable or unable to endure the realities of life without falling apart.

I’d like to suggest the opposite. Feelings are data. From your insides. They’re not weak or strong they are just part of being human, like breathing. You can heave healthy breathing and unhealthy breathing, but breathing is happening whether you like it or not.

Same with feelings.

It’s time we start embracing those pesky little emotions instead of ignoring them. And no, this isn’t license to act a fool. Listening to your feelings is not acting on them. It’s learning to pay attention to what your insides are telling you.

And when I was 23, my insides were telling me to ignore my training and stop remaining neutral. So I had to leave.

To that man in the depression study, if you ever read this, I am sorry.

I’m sorry I listened to my superiors stuck to the script. I’m sorry I did what I was told. I’m sorry I didn’t have the courage to listen to my feelings when I suspected something was wrong.

I’m sorry I didn’t have the courage to behave like a human being sitting in front of a human being.

You deserve better.

If you’re reading this and you feel at odds with the profession you’re in, do not remain neutral. We live in a world where we have the privilege of choice and you can choose differently.

We all deserve better.

Margo Aaron a recovering academic and accidental marketer. Read more about her here.