A Depressed Graduate Student

In my previous post on my time in graduate school, I discussed how I learned to handle failures better. Today, I’m going to talk about how I failed to handle the depression that these mounting failures produced.

Let’s start where some people find it difficult to start: I have struggled with depression, and odds are that I will stuggle with depression again in my future. This isn’t a sign of weakness; this isn’t something shameful. This is just a fact of my life. I’m a self-critical perfectionist who tends toward absolutist perceptions of reality; of course I’m going to struggle with depression. Unfortunately, when I entered graduate school, I was generally unaware of this likelihood. As with Imposter’s Syndrome, I thought I knew what depression was and I thought I could spot it fairly early on. And, as with Imposter’s Syndrome, it snuck up on me slowly but fiercely.

When you feel like you are failing frequently and regularly, when those failures build up on top of one another, it can start to have odd effects. The more I thought I failed, the more I wanted to succeed in my next task. Yet, the more I thought I failed, the less energy I had to put into that next task. “I’ve failed at these things; I’ll probably fail at this. Why even try so hard?” This is the internal thought-process I assume my mind had. I say “assume” because I never consciously thought anything like this. My conscious mind wanted to succeed, to return to my old form. My unconscious mind seems to have grown more and more weary, more and more gun-shy.

For me, depression felt like I was loosing control of my intention. What my conscious mind wanted seemed to have very little effect over what I actually ended up doing. This is the vicious cycle that Imposter’s Syndrome and Depression can generate. The more I thought I was failing, the less energy I could muster to tackle the next task. Putting less energy in, I was more likely to see the result (whatever it might actually be) as a failure, a failure to perform with enough vim and vigor. Failure -> Waning energy -> Failure … on and on.

I got caught in this cycle for probably two years without really noticing what was happening. This is one of the shittiest things about depression–once you’re in it, it is so much harder to get out on your own. It’s like trying to run in mud: the more you try, the dirtier and more tired you get, without actually getting as far as you think you should.

Depression is a spiraling-in on oneself. You are the center of gravity, so you cannot generate the outside force to propel yourself out. However, others can. I wish I didn’t take so long to actually talk to someone about how I felt. I was so ashamed of my failures, so oblivious to my depression, so insecure in my position, that I kept everything hidden, consciously. There can be a quiet cloud that lingers over graduate school which says that weakness is death, progress is paramount. In many departments, this isn’t probably actually true, but the shadow remains, and a shadow can be enough. I lived in that shadow for far too long.

But, after finally getting to a point where I simply was unable to keep moving forward with all of the stress internalized, I went and got help. I started going to a therapist. This was a wise decision. No practical effects came of it–I didn’t get any diagnoses, no prescriptions–but I did get better. Talking with someone, being honest about my feelings, emotions, fears, got those things outside of my head, put them in front of me, and thus allowed me to see them for the puny things they were. Fear and depression grow in the shadow; in the light, they shrink to their actual sizes.

So, I’ve been depressed, I’ve been (and continue to go) to therapy. For anyone out there in anything at all similar to my situation, know that understood weakness is the foundation of wisdom, progress without wisdom is folly, and getting help really will help.