I read the revising comments on a book review-cum-essay on Madagascar’s threatened biodiversity I was writing for American Scientist. One jumped out in particular, asking for a “nudge towards salvation”, a solution, a little something positive to end the review on a hopeful note.
I began to smile, a self-mocking smile. A nudge towards salvation? They were asking the wrong person; I wasn’t exactly Ms. Optimistic-About-the-Future.
.@D0CT0R_Dave asked how I keep “motivated & inspired in the face of so many challenges & biodiversity threats”.
— realscientists (@realscientists) August 8, 2015
I wish I worked in Darwin’s era. Pure discovery. Nowadays, I just feel like we’re bailing water on a sinking ship. That’s also on fire.
— realscientists (@realscientists) August 8, 2015
These tweets from my week on @realscientists encompassed my view, not only of wildlife conservation, but of life in general. I wasn’t able to offer a “nudge towards salvation”. I wasn’t even able to offer directions towards the general region. Salvation was some place that could only be found in the future, and as far as I could see, humanity wasn’t going to find it; we were all just going to drown.
Depression is when your brain turns against you. It warps your view of the world, your life, yourself, until you figure that it would just be better to be dead. It can show up in various ways. You want to be emotionally dead to the world, or able to cry at the drop of a hat? You got it. How about sleeping your life away, or staring at a dark ceiling through all hours of the night? All yours.
Depression is like slowly being moved–without your knowledge or permission–into a very small room without doors or windows. You twist and turn mentally, but can’t get comfortable. You know you aren’t functioning as you should, but can’t figure out a way to get back to normal. You’re helpless. Persistent feelings of helplessness leads to hopelessness. You can’t get out. You’ll never get out.
I was diagnosed with dysthymia, or mild depression, a few years ago, and since then it’s been something of a rollercoaster. The three biggest things I struggle against when I’m in the thick of it are:
Having a hard time focusing: My thoughts jump from topic to topic, while grasping only the barest surface of any information that comes my way. It takes longer for me to respond to the outside world, and even when I respond, I’m not quite sure what I’m responding to.
Emotional sensitivity: At least half of the day I can feel as if I’m about to collapse in a screaming fit of tears. Sobbing in the middle of a coffee shop or office is highly embarrassing, and focusing on not sobbing takes a lot of concentration which I would otherwise use to work. Stay at home? If I stayed at home, I’d more than likely crawl into my bed and contemplate the uselessness of my situation in favor of working.
Apathy: Hopelessness leads to apathy. If I’m revising a manuscript while this data sucks, this manuscript is garbage plays over and over again in my head, why continue? If I’m trying to look for PhD positions and I keep thinking that no matter where I go, my situation won’t get any better, why not quit? If I see research sites degrading before my eyes, and I can’t think of any way to slow or halt it, why return?
The worst part of depression is that you can feel that you are being overly dramatic. You ask yourself, what do I have to be so depressed about? You must be exaggerating*. So you suck it up. You’ve got to power through it. You shame yourself for your weakness, which only leads to lowered self-esteem, feeding the depression.
And above all, you stay quiet. You don’t want to be seen as one of those people crying for attention about something silly. I don’t want to be seen as one of those people. Even now, my heart is pounding as I write this post.
So what does a researcher do?
First, realize that you probably aren’t exaggerating your problems, and you should seek help from a mental health specialist. If you are affiliated with a university, most have a student health center where you can see a therapist. If you aren’t affiliated with a university, ask your doctor to refer you to someone, or look for a mental health specialist that is covered by your health insurance.
Practice mindfulness. When you’re depressed, your negative thoughts and feelings are legion. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Instead of fighting or suppressing negative thoughts, use mindfulness. Imagine your thoughts/feelings as clouds against the sky on a breezy day, or leaves floating on a stream. Don’t engage other than to acknowledge and accept them; then let them move on. Your thoughts and feelings, for the most part, change from moment to moment if you don’t pay attention to them. By paying attention to them, they persist.
Practice self-care. This is one of the tougher things for us academics. A mentor once told me: the work never stops. There’s always something more you can do, another analysis you can run, more code you can check or write, another manuscript to revise, another collaboration to seek funding for. Set a strict schedule for when you work and stick to it. This can be setting up a 9-to-5 work day, or just keeping your weekends to yourself. Don’t check email during that time. Don’t think about that data that needs to be entered. Sink into your hobbies, go for a walk, go see a movie, or read a book that’s just for fun.
For those times when you find yourself struggling, have some compassion for yourself, as you would for a friend. Don’t become frustrated at your inability to get a task done. Accept that you’re having trouble, and just do your best. That’s all you can do.
Don’t discount medication. As someone who also has Crohn’s, I’ve early on come across the mindset that being medication-free is the ideal state. But when I’m unable to drink or eat anything, vomiting bile and/or blood, and losing weight, I know that I need medication to get things back to normal. It’s the same thing with depression, although this is harder to believe because the symptoms are much more subtle.
When you have the flu, you don’t ignore it and pretend you are perfectly healthy. You go to the doctor and take your meds. Mental illness is the same thing. There’s no shame in taking antidepressants if you need them. And, in some cases, taking antidepressants isn’t a forever-deal.
Above all, connect with others. Depression feeds on isolation. Talk to family and friends. Seek out online support groups. Try to focus on others, whether it is through conversation, or helping someone else out. This is easier said than done, but it does help. By interacting with others, you stop focusing inward, where the battle is raging. Do this long enough, and you might find yourself feeling better.
A Few Resources
National (USA) Suicide Hotline: http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/
Suicide Hotlines by State: http://www.suicide.org/suicide-hotlines.html
International Suicide Hotlines: http://www.suicide.org/international-suicide-hotlines.html
Where to get help if you are depressed: http://psychcentral.com/lib/where-to-get-help-for-depression/
*I thought I was exaggerating my problems even when I started planning how I would kill myself and who would get my meager belongings. Even on my darkest night, I couldn’t call the suicide hotline because I didn’t want to waste anyone’s time with my silly drama. Even when I was diagnosed, I was sure that I had somehow faked my way into a diagnosis. I’m still not sure on the day-to-day basis. Depression be cray, yo.