Island of Despair.

It’s been a little while since I’ve written about depression. A number of things I’ve run across lately have made me think about it more and assess just how well I really am doing. Outwardly, I seem to be doing a lot better, but in some ways still the same.

I’ve been having discussions on Twitter about AltAc (Alternative academic) careers and what exactly is keeping me from exploring more things– AltAc or not. One is certainly the mindset probably common amongst academics ‘who would hire me?’ (from @FromPhDtolife). Another is the feeling that I’m a robot that doesn’t understand interaction with other people (a lack of networking, basically).

While that was going on, @Dr24hours published a post on his Infactorium blog about the tragic death of Philip Seymor Hoffman and addiction. He wrote about how addiction can come back; that it’s never fully behind you. And that is also often true of depression. He said addiction is a little less vexing in a way because it’s known what exactly to avoid whereas depression is a bit more nebulous.

And then there’s just my life and work. I’m not sure how much better I can say I’m really doing. I’m working longer hours, doing new things, but still feel kind of dead inside, not engaging very well with the world, like a neutrino that just passes through nearly everything. And I still feel that some of my mental habits and self-care aren’t the best.

Jonathan Rottenberg (@JonRottenberg) wrote this in the Chronicle about basically about not staying in the dark about our experiences with depression, as one thing that lets it fester is isolation. Isolation is not good for humans. While I don’t know if I fully agree that ‘if you just talk about it it’ll go away’ is right, it is something that needs to be spoken about more. And I can’t speak for other depressives, but I am glad to live in a time when there are many different ways to treat depression. Exercise, medication (in some cases, like mine, really does make a difference), new hobbies, changing contexts, challenging negative/ruminative thinking, gratitude journals, and anything else that could work for someone; I talked about Andrew Solomon’s TED talk that I think is fantastic with respect to this.

And being depressed does not mean someone can’t be successful (there are tons of examples). One is Ben Lillie (@BenLillie), co-creator of the Story Collider (scientists telling stories about how science has influenced their lives) told the story of his successful career in science that made him depressed and miserable. He talks about something that I also feel, that I’m just not connecting with people very well, not able to empathize very well or really gauge people’s reactions to me very well. For him, going off his anti-depressants really led him to his new path, and I may try the experiment of going off mine now that I feel like my mind has a lot more productive thinking habits.

I was listening to my iTunes library the other day stuck at home when it was snowing very hard outside and Jewel’s ‘Hands’ came on that a friend of mine sent me when I was at my lowest of lows of my depression (yes, it’s a Jewel song, I know…I’m sticking up for my fellow Alaskan). It made me tear up and put me back in those horrible moments when I felt worthless, useless, and hoping I’d get run over by a bus. One of the lyrics is

 “I won’t be made useless on my island of despair” 

Depressed doesn’t mean unable or defective (even though the depressed person might well feel that way and basically be unable to be convinced otherwise). It does make things harder; and there are days when depression wins and nothing happens (my big fear after being depressed for a long time– that nothing will happen to me, that I’ll just go through life like a zombie).

The only thing I can say is to keep swimming– even if it’s upstream. A friend of mine and I say that to each other a lot as a reminder that even though life is hard, it’s important to keep going. Discover new things that work for you. Experiment, interrogate, and change. It’s not easy by any means, especially if your own brain is aligned against you, but luckily the brain is remarkable in that it is plastic and new habits can form!

To write this post, I delved into some past posts and realize that throughout the history of this blog, I’ve been a lot more upbeat than I thought. I think one reason is that as much as I write about myself, I’ve tried to focus on other people who I have always been able to celebrate and be positive about. And I also write a lot about how to not go down my path into depression; I wouldn’t wish depression on anyone.

I may just be starting to be able to talk myself up a bit more. That is a version of the ‘Who would hire me?’ stumbling block. How can I answer that if I can’t be very positive about myself?

The big goal this year is to be able to sell myself effectively; in all areas of my life and hopefully get off the island of despair that I still find myself on all too often.


Author: Ian Street

Ian is a plant scientist and science writer relating stories of plant science and scientists on his blog, The Quiet Branches as well as other outlets. You can find him on Twitter @IHStreet.

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