On not being alone…
I am not so special. You are not so special. We are in this together.
The first time on a summer festival, I noticed something strange. Whenever I blew my nose, my napkin got black. I thought it was some weird infection and I did not tell anyone. After all, why would anyone be interested to hear about me blowing my nose? Gross. Then a couple of days later, a friend said: “This dust is really annoying, I have a bunch of black stuff coming out of my nose since day one.” I was shocked and relieved at the same time. “Oh, me too. It is really annoying,” I said. It was a face-palm moment, for sure. (How the hell did it not occur to me that the black stuff was the goddamn dust? What was I thinking? We were in the dust for days, roaming from stage to stage. It was quite obvious.) There was a big lesson in this silly vignette.
My problems are not that special.
I first thought of rare infection, or god knows what and decided to keep the secret. It hasn’t occurred to me that I wasn’t the only one experiencing this annoyance. My first thought was that I was somehow special or different and that this was some weird stuff that should not be discussed with others. I also desperately wanted to leave the impression of a person who has her shit together. As I couldn’t figure out why are my napkins turning black, I figured that I’d better shut up and figure it out on my own. The solution was really simple, but it contained a grain of much bigger message.
What I was going through, many other people experienced as well. What bothered me, bothered many others. At least in terms of my worries and troubles, I was not special at all. I was not a delicate flower or unique snowflake. I was pretty much just like everyone else.
In grad school, I was depressed like never before in my life. I was still functional, but I felt my life was hopeless, worthless, and meaningless. I applied for counseling, and as I told my miserable story to a counselor who did a preliminary assessment, she just kept nodding her head. “Yep, yep, yep,” she went as if she was checking the stuff off of a list. When I finished, she told me: “You wouldn’t believe how many grad students come here feeling the exact same way as you do.” Again, I was surprised and relieved. Really? Many other students feel the same way? It seemed to me that most of the students are doing just fine. Again, I was not alone and my problems were not extraordinary.
I got a counselor, and after working with him for a couple of months, he examined me and one day decided to tell me my diagnosis.
“Your diagnosis,” he started…
“Yes, finally, someone will tell me what is wrong with me. I think it’s depression. Or bipolar disorder. Or anxiety. Or a combination. Let’s see if I am right. I surely hope it is not something worse….” my brain was running like crazy in a two-second break that he made.”
“…is nothing.” he said.
“Nothing. You don’t have a diagnosis. There is nothing wrong with you. You are mentally and emotionally healthy person, going through a difficult period in a hostile environment. That is it.”
Again, I was shocked and relieved. How can he be sure that there is nothing wrong with me? I always thought that there must be something…
A bit after that, I read an article that stated that more than 50% of graduate students can be qualified for clinical depression. That meant that I was doing better than half of the people in my situation. That was not a relief at all, believe it or not. I felt like total shit. I did not have any joy or life energy. I felt like a total failure and had a hard time getting out of the bed every morning. Yet, this article stated that I was in a better half of a grad student population. More than half didn’t even feel as good as I did. I haven’t felt triumphant, I felt incredibly sad for all the smart and capable young people who are depressed, defeated, and who feel that they are alone. Academia is tough and competitive and no one wants to show a sign of weakness. In that, we end up feeling alone, isolated and weird.
A big portion of depression is isolation: physical, mental, spiritual. When we are depressed we feel separated from the rest of the world. Depression has that strange and a bit arrogant element of feeling that nobody in the world understands our pain and no one else has ever suffered as we did. However, depression is also myopic and when we look a bit broader, we can see that many people are in terrible pain and that our pain is not special either.
In his interview for UnmistakableCreative, Gay Hendrix said that we all have a deep, inherent fear that there is something wrong with us. That in part explains why I was so eager to hear my diagnosis from my counselor. One thing that we forget is that over many years we have perfected the presentation game, the game of carefully curating, filtering and showing others the most glorious bits and pieces of ourselves. We have all been working very hard on maintaining the impression of a person who has his or her shit together. Perceiving others’ composed appearances gives us a false impression that everyone else has it figured out much better than we did. In reality, we are all facing similar difficulties and we are all suffering in similar ways. Whatever has bothered you, rest assured that you are not alone.
In her program, Defy Ventures, Catherine Hoke has an exercise in which prisoners and volunteers step to the line if the read statement is true for them. At first, prisoners and volunteers seem not to step to the line for the same things. Most of the volunteers, for instance, did not have to wonder where their next meal is coming from, while most of the prisoners did. However, as more questions roll in, more and more answers start to overlap and both groups are stepping to the line. For example, most of the volunteers and prisoners step to the line when asked if they ever did something illegal or something they could be arrested for. This exercise changes perception, builds compassion, and reinforces the idea that we are more similar than we think we are.
In Bird by Bird, Ann Lammott said:
“A sober friend once told me: “When I was still drinking, I was a sedated monster. After I got sober, I was just a monster.” He told me about his monster. His sounded just like mine, without quite so much mascara. When people shine a little light on their monster, we find out how similar most of our monsters are.”
If you are suffering, if you are in pain, if you are shocked, puzzled, confused, heartbroken, disappointed, lonely, you are not alone. However you feel, whatever you think, however strange or unique your situation may seem, know that you are not alone. Knowing that, share bits and pieces of yourself freely. Show us who you are. We will see the reflections of our souls in your soul. We will feel less alone. We will feel connected. We’ll realize that we are in this together and that we were never supposed to do it all on our own.
Before you go…
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