How I kicked myself out of work and became a student of depression
In some form or other, everybody is lying about depression.
And that’s a real problem: not only is depression the major
cause of suicide today, but it’s also something that affects (or will affect at some point) one in six among us.
A few months ago, I left the company I’d co-founded to spend the rest of the year tracking down and talking to brain scientists, psychologists, clinicians and depressives. I wanted to understand — to really pin down — what depression is, how it works and how to overcome it.
I dug up a boatload of myths peddled by our press and even by our medical community — some comical, others tragic. I was angry and I was sad, but mostly I was humbled by the stories I heard, stories of suffering and overcoming that taught me this:
Even at our most fragile, we are more resilient that we imagine ourselves to be. We hold on, we change, we heal.
In the upcoming posts I will share all the lessons I’ve learned from science, therapy practice and lived experience about depression — its causes and recovery routes. I will try and tease out the patterns of plunging into depression, getting stuck and climbing out of it based on data and real stories, rather than bad science and folk stories.
Before we get to the heavy stuff, a bit about who I am, how I came to make myself unemployed, why this curiously twisted interest in depression and why it might even be worth reading this.
The story behind the story: Depression’s silver linings
A friend said to me the other day, only half joking, that I was 26 going on 62. He said this, I think, because I’ve worn more and bigger hats than would befit my tiny skull and tender age.
A book rat inebriated by daydreams and scared of numbers, I went on to compete in math and physics on a national level; became a stock analyst in Washington DC the summer of my junior year in college, while my classmates waited tables in Provincetown; went straight into a top MBA program after graduation and dropped out to join a startup incubator in Bali before starting a technology company out of London and growing it to a team of seven.
It’s a story that looks good on my CV and one that, when I think of it, strikes me for its unlikeliness, its opportunism. It shouldn’t have been; I was, after all, the weird daughter, the clumsy kid. I was supposed to only go so far.
But what’s more striking to me is how much of it all I owe to depression. How the peaks of my life followed its troughs in almost perfect correlation, the tense but necessary coexistence of opposites, the dark growing into light, not detracting from its brightness, but rather bringing it out, making it deeper somehow.
I am not depression’s cheerleader, mind you.
I’ve experienced pain that I wish I hadn’t known existed, yet I would not trade it for a more, er, normal existence.
This is hard to reckon with. We the people like things black and white, hemmed in, with edges clear-cut.
Surely depression is a weakness of personality, a matter of mental and emotional fragility, of being unable to cope with the stresses of life. Or, depending on where you get your data from, it’s an illness wrought on by a chemical imbalance in the brain. Either way, it’s bad, it’s wrong, it’s aberrant.
These are neat explanations. They are also tosh.
The closer you look at depression, the more slippery it gets, the more paradoxical, the more peskily convoluted. And let me assure you that I’ve not only looked at it, I’ve rubbed my nose in it and I’ve inhaled it and digested it, and for good measure I even walked across northern Spain, twice, to mull it over, free of other distractions.
To put depression into words comes close to impossible for me. Every revelation uncovers even more perplexing questions and I am often hit by this creeping awareness:
Some of the most complex, interesting, intelligent, creative, wonderfully twisted and utterly original people I know have also been (or still are) rather intimate with depression.
It’s almost as if the very extremity of their despair allowed them to tap into and live from the deepest depths of their being, wholehearted and more indomitably alive.
I wrote about my experience of depression and some people got interested in what I had to say, so I incidentally joined the wider social conversation about mental health. I attended some events, spoke at others, but mostly listened. And I found that, all too often, the silence and the taboos around depression were being superseded by noise and misguided sympathy.
Why I got so mental about mental health
I heard arguments to do away with mental health as a label and spread the gospel of mental fitness instead. (With all due respects to mindfulness, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be — a blue funk repellent.) I heard impassioned pleas to normalise mental breakdowns, to invite people to share their struggle and institute hugs for those who opened up.
Passing time before an event, I heard someone in the audience whisper to another that the speaker, a well-known figure in tech, was “finally coming out”. No doubt meant as a salute, the comment conjured up images of impending depression pride parades that filled me with unease. For a while, I wasn’t sure why.
Then I knew: it felt like pity.
I suspect that we might be soon veering away from explicit stigma and careening into an apologetic, politically correct, profoundly sympathetic society-wide mental health campaign. There is a sort of cathartic release in witnessing adversity out on display at a safe distance. There’s also a sense of vicarious redemption in feeling sympathy towards those struggling.
But sympathy is not empathy.
Sympathy is a reaction to others’ helplessness; empathy is a recognition of and respect for their struggle. It’s the difference between “poor darling, here, here, cheer up” and “man, this is some tough muck you are going through.”
This is turning into a rant. And as everybody knows, rants are a futile exercise in jerking off to our own clever retorts to what other people are out there doing. It’s not the real thing.
I’ve been opinionated before and I’ve been comfortably numb when I could have spoken up and helped somebody.
Being 26 going on 62, I hope I’ve grown up now. That’s why a few months ago I kicked myself out of my comfortable job and set out to study depression. I packed up my things, bid a last look at the comforts of regular paychecks I was leaving behind, and took a walk on the dark side. In the upcoming posts we’ll get to find out what happened. Be ready for some myths to be punctured and consider yourself warned: I won’t mince my words.
Here is the story that started it all. You might enjoy it. It gave some people goosebumps, apparently — and I just tried to put into words something that’s become a very common experience indeed.
Thank you for reading. I believe that words help us hope and heal. If you’ve been touched by depression in any way, consider doing me one more favour today to push this thing further.
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Thanks. It means the world to me to know I’m not speaking into the ether but reaching out to others who might just need to be heard, seen, understood.