When I was a little kid, I was a little darker than other people. As a child, there’s not really a space for that socially. I worried about things more than other people. I was worried about things going well at home and things going well at school. I was more existentially fraught than other people. I was concerned about death.
I grew up thinking that was way the way that life was, and that life was a generally difficult thing that you had to contend with on a daily basis. I have memories of watching television and seeing ads for anti-depressants on TV. There’s a little ball that’s bouncing, and it’s a sad ball with a frowny face, and it’s not energetic. Then it takes the medication and becomes happy and engaged. They were telling my story, but not for a second did I consider that that could be what was going on with me.
When I was eleven or twelve, I switched schools. I was trying to make new friends, and a combination of stressors brought my depression to a head, and it became difficult to go to school, to get up out of bed and go to school. My parents realized something was up, and so they took me to a therapist, but I didn’t get along with him very well. Two years later, I found a new therapist, and she pretty quickly said, “You should see a psychiatrist, someone who can prescribe you medication.” At the time, I thought it was funny. I thought, “Okay, I’m really pulling one over on these adults. These people don’t know what to do with me so much that they’re going to give me medicine.” I had no concept that it would actually work.
I took Prozac for the first time when I was fourteen, and it was a really profound experience. It was the first time I realized that my identity is separate from my depression. I felt like myself for the first time. The darkness and sadness and anxiety that I thought was me was actually changeable.
Coming to MIT was the next big awakening in my life. A lot of people were phenomenal in high school, and just killed it in their classes, and then they came to MIT and got depressed. I had the opposite trajectory. I was happier than I had ever been. I went off Prozac my first year at MIT, and that worked for two years. I thought I was cured.
Then, my junior year at MIT, I became depressed again. I don’t really know what triggered it, but I do know that it snuck up on me big time. It’s like the frog in the pot, where it gets hotter and hotter, and you don’t even know you’re being boiled. I have this memory of walking to class one morning when I was just so inside my head, and so not engaged with the world around me. The world outside is sad and cold. The world inside is sad and cold. It’s difficult. That feeling is the hallmark of my depression: things become more difficult globally.
I started seeing a psychiatrist at MIT medical, who I loved. I remember him saying, “Maybe this is just your adult depression,” and basically the thing we’re fighting has changed, and feeling like, "Oh, shit. I thought I had fixed this, and I haven’t.”
Being depressed has made me a bit more laid back about life. In my generation, my peer group, we have really amazing lives that are extremely rewarding and wonderful. We are very successful. We have career choices ahead of us, and sometimes we get the idea that we can win it. We can fix our life. We can use life hacks, put it all together.
I’m strongly of the belief that that is not possible. Life is continually changing. It’s something that you engage with and you do your best, and sometimes difficult things happen, and you try to work on them, but it’s never solved. It’s not an equation that you solve, and then you just have your happy life and it keeps going.
I have many dear, dear friends who are engineers, and who are depressed, or have difficult things going on in their life, and I suggest therapy to them, and they say, “Why is that going to do anything?” They say, “I’ve talked about that before, and it’s hard to talk about, and I why would I talk to someone else about it? Explain to me why that's going to do something.” And I can't really. I've been in therapy on and off for over ten years, and I don’t really know why it works, but it definitely works.
It’s easy to want to apply engineering principles to everything in life, but they haven’t really helped me with my depression. The principles that helped me with my depression are things like it’s good to be kind to yourself, and there is value in being vulnerable with other people, and it’s good to be kind to other people, and there is inherent benefit in talking about things that are hard, even if you don't understand the mechanism by which that occurs.
Anecdotally, the pattern I’ve seen among my close friends at MIT has been a toughness that prevents them from getting into talk therapy or medication. They’re plenty comfortable waxing philosophical about all kinds of things, but maybe sitting down and exposing themselves just isn’t something that they’re familiar with.
I was Course 10, chemical engineering, and then basically decided that I wanted to be a doctor and switched to Course 7, biology, because I thought it would be more relevant. I didn’t need to stay up until two in the morning learning about reactors when I was going to be a doctor. I was really embarrassed to admit that to people, that I had switched from an engineering course to biology, because I thought that they would assume that it was because I couldn't cut it in engineering. Of course that’s ridiculous, and biology is a complex and fascinating and difficult subject, but I feared the judgment of my peers. The idea of being hard core is cool at MIT. Not starting your pset until the night before, and then staying up all night, is cool. I think if self-care were a little bit cooler, that would help a lot.
Do I wish I’d never had depression? No. I think it has allowed me to be much more empathetic and understanding of other people, and I can be a hard person in some way. But I’m lucky. My depression has never interfered with my personal or professional life in a devastating way. It’s been relatively low magnitude as depression goes.
It’s given me a deep, deep appreciation for people who are doing their best. When I run into someone in a work environment, and maybe they’re fumbling through something, or they’re having a rough day, or they’re not doing so well, it’s given me the ability to say, “There are a lot of reasons why that might be happening,” and treat them with kindness.
I’m going into general surgery. Being a doctor requires a lot of self-reflection. You’re in the mud of people’s lives on a daily basis, and having this experience with depression allows me to have some more understanding that life is complicated, and more acceptance of that. Also, when people are dealing with similar issues, I’m always hesitant to say, “Oh, you're depressed?”. I never want to assume they’re experiencing my experience, but I certainly feel like I’m one of them.
Grace Taylor, Class of 2012 is a medical student at Harvard Medical School
I’m from San Juan, Puerto Rico. My life was pretty stable, and I had always lived in the same house. I’m an only child. I didn’t have a dad. I was raised by my mom and we were very close. We would sing in the car and that was my favorite thing. We sang Italian songs and listened to Pavarotti. My high school experience was very much like other people’s here. I was very involved in extracurriculars and different clubs.
MIT was my top choice for college. I got in early so, I didn’t even finish my other applications. I was, like, that’s the only place I want to go. So I’m about to come here, I had committed a week before, and then my mom had a heart attack right in front of me, and she died. I had to move out of my house that same day. I couldn’t stay there on my own. I was 17.
I stayed with my great uncle or sometimes with my great aunt. They’re brother and sister, but they don’t live in the same house. I went back and forth. They were my family.
I thought I was very tough, so I went through with my plans. I told myself, “This is what I’m doing in the fall, I’m going to college. Everyone has to deal with their parents’ death, so this is something I can deal with.” I think that was a mistake.
The first semester here was okay. I’d cry and I was sad, but it wasn’t completely horrible. I didn’t join any clubs or anything. I joked around saying, “Oh, I’m too busy being sad.” Then I went home for the holidays. When I came back that second semester, that’s when I started having serious problems.
I decided to take 5.12, 8.02, 18.03 and 9.00, all in that semester. I ended up no recording everything except for 9.00. I didn’t even try. I would go to lecture and I’d fall asleep, and then I’d go home, and tell myself ,“I’m not going to turn this problem set in because this is wrong.” I would go to tests and try maybe a little bit, and then I’d say to myself, “I’m just going to leave it blank, because it’s going to be wrong.” I felt so completely out of control of my life. There was no escape of where I was spiraling down to. I was so helpless. I thought nobody could help me at all.
On top of everything, I started having flashbacks. I felt so guilty because I was such a rude child. I was sure my attitude had killed my mother. I was very depressed, but at that time I had no idea. I was just, like: well, my mom died. What is the point? We’re all going to die. I’m supposed to be sad. I just didn’t expect everything to go so completely wrong.
I went to a therapist that summer and she told me I had major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety. They gave me some medication, and I hated it. It made me jittery all the time.
At the beginning of my sophomore year I joined an a cappella group because I thought that might help me. I’ve always loved singing, but that first year even singing in the shower made me sad. I did have friends. I would talk to my roommate and she would listen very intently. I felt really alone though. I thought “You’re sad for me right now, but you’re about to go home to your house and Christmas with your family.” I just felt so alone in the world with no one to help me. But there were many people that were trying to help me. That also made me feel bad, because I knew they were there trying to help and I just didn’t feel it.
Officer Collier’s death was in April of my sophomore year, two weeks before the second anniversary of my mom’s death. There was this huge funeral, and I had to go and sing. All I could think about was death and all the tragedy that had gone on at the Boston Marathon. I was sad because people were dying. Then I would feel guilty and selfish. “There are people dying everywhere. Why am I not sad for them? Why am I only sad for my mom?”
At this point my classes were going horribly. I was required to withdraw, and I went back to Puerto Rico. This is where things started changing. I ended up staying a year away. I had to choose a place to live, so I chose to live with my great aunt. I started to be treated regularly. I realized if I wanted to go back to MIT, I’d have to do something about it. I’d have to get better. I started taking my medication every day, and I’d be very consistent about it.
By the end of that year, I just felt so much better. I had learned so many other things. I’d realized the amazing family that I had, and I think that made the biggest difference. I worked in a lab for a while. I took music classes, stuff I hadn’t done before. For the first couple of months, I was sad about being there without my mom. For example, I had her car: I would drive and be like, “This is my mom’s car. Why am I driving this?” After I started getting treated, it was like, “Oh nice, I have a car.”
Coming back to MIT was hard. I was assigned an amazing new advisor, and he helped me in so many ways. Also S^3, I had a lot of help from the deans there. My first semester back, I retook 8.02, I remember it being hard again and I was sad and I stopped going to class. Then I realized: no, this is something that has happened before, but I know what I can do about it. I let my therapist know, and I contacted my professor, and he was amazing. He would meet with me every week and help me out. It was such a big shift from my first two years here. I think the biggest thing I learned from being away was that you can always ask for help and there will always be someone to help you here. That’s something I just didn’t know before.
I’m off medication now, but I still go to my therapist every month. I feel like a much better person than the person I was in high school. I feel I’ve learned so much, that I have developed so much patience. I’ve also learned how to be a lot more proactive, making sure everything is on time.
I’m proud of where I am. I am proud of what I’ve done, but the thing I’m most proud of is that I was able to get help. In that sense I don’t feel that where I am today is my accomplishment alone. I feel it’s an accomplishment of everyone around me.
When I talk to other people who are depressed, the thing that I most want them to know is that it will end. It’s something that takes effort. I put in so much effort to get better. Even if you’re 100% sure that there is no way for you to get better, there will be a way, and it doesn’t matter how long it takes you to find it.
Caterina Colon is member of the Class of 2016
I knew I was in bad shape, that I couldn’t handle this myself. You keep going over and over in your head how to solve things, but I had so many problems, the whole system just broke down.
Being clinically depressed, you can be in extraordinary pain. Just existing can be painful. It’s very hard to see that other people are struggling with the same things. Part of the downward spiral is this feeling that you’re not making it here, you shouldn’t be here, that you’re not worthy of being alive.
If you’re clinically depressed, sometimes your cognitive processes are impaired. My favorite example is that I could not recite the Pledge of Allegiance. That’s something that anyone can do. But whatever was going on chemically in my brain, when I would try to recite something by memory, I could not do it.
What I didn’t realize was how important it is to be involved with people. Depression happens when you get in your head. You have to get out of your head, because your head is a very strange place. If you’re connected to other people, it allows you to get more perspective on your problems and to get away from the things that lead to this downward spiral. It’s a much better way to live.
I’m asocial, in the sense that many physicists are. I would rather be sitting in front of a computer screen than interacting with people. I always did very well in school, and that was how I accomplished things. I was just more interested in abstract ideas than people. Dealing with people was not painful, but it was always difficult. I still have trouble calling people I don’t know on the phone, and I’m 72 years old.
Having been depressed has been a major positive for me. It’s one of these things, if you live through it: difficult times make you grow. My motivations have changed—what I think is important. My priorities are more oriented towards people as opposed to doing scientific projects. I still enjoy sitting in front of a computer at the Linux command line. That’s what I used to do all the time. Now I’m a little more multifaceted.
I’m happy with the progression of my life. I’m very lucky to be a faculty member here. I don’t think I would’ve done that differently, but I’m glad to have a different perspective on things now.
There’s a whole mindset here at MIT, which is very ambitious. It’s very hard to break through that, unless you have some personal crisis. We tend to be asocial, off building something in our closets that we’ll bring out and impress our colleagues with. They’ll go, oh my God, that is so bright, I don’t know how you did that, and you’ll say oh yes, that’s right, I’m really bright.
One of the things that was good about my travails was that if I hadn’t had them, I would have been trying to climb that ladder until the day I dropped dead. In some sense, I am still trying to climb that ladder, but it’s balanced by a realization that there are much more important things, like being able to walk and get out of bed in the morning.
I was raised as a Southern Baptist, but I decided I was an atheist at the age of 13. So I’m not into religious interpretations. Let me take that back. When I had the melanoma, and my children were eight and eleven, I made deals with every god that I could think of. If they would just let me live until my kids got out of high school, that would be enough and I would be devout the rest of my life. Of course it didn’t happen like that, and my kids are now 35 and 38.
The most spiritual I’ve ever felt was sitting in support groups where people are sharing anonymously, where you don’t know their names, and they’re talking about things they’re going through. That’s the closest I’ve ever felt to being spiritual. I never felt that in a church.
One of the reasons that MIT is the way it is is that we tenure based on outside professional reputation. There are a lot of things that follow from that that are not good, but we’ve made the choice, and I would not make a different one. Some of the uniqueness of MIT comes from that choice. And it means that some faculty are wonderful human beings, and some aren’t.
We have a really excellent institution. There are bad things about it, and I’m not quite sure how you fix them, because some of them are the same things that make us excellent. So it’s a real conundrum.
John Belcher is the Class of 1922 Professor of Physics
It was April 15, 2013, and it was my twenty-second birthday. I had just made the decision to come to MIT. I was in class in the morning, and we learned that there was a terrorist attack in Boston. It’s strange for me having a connection to the Marathon Bombing without actually having been here on campus.
I went to Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. My major was chemistry, and my minor was in women’s and gender studies. That’s where I began to realize that I had this sense of duty and responsibility that led me to being the president of the student association there, and later into my current role of being Graduate Student Council President here at MIT.
One of the first things I did in the summer before I came to MIT was to make a plan for myself. In my first few weeks at MIT, I was going to go to MIT Mental Health, so that if an issue ever arose, I would have somebody here who had seen my face and talked to me before.
I sort of knew, but I had never really come to terms with the fact, that I had some sort of mild obsessive-compulsive disorder. I grew up in suburban Missouri. Different parts of the country are different with respect to views on mental health. There, people think you should pick yourself up by your bootstraps, and you can figure it out.
I’d never processed that most people aren’t keeping a running tally of every step that they’ve taken when they’re walking around. Anytime I would see a phone number in public, like on a billboard or something, I would just in one quick swoop sum all the numbers. It didn’t mean anything. Oh, there’s a phone number. Okay, 45.
When I was most stressed, things got a little bit worse. As an undergrad, I was very busy being the president of the student association, writing up my senior thesis and taking a lot of challenging classes. I might be in a meeting with somebody, with my advisor, let’s say. I’m sitting there and I just sort of have this running conversation in my head, thinking “What’s the worst thing I could say right now?” Something that would just ruin my professional life, such as standing up and swearing at my advisor and walking out.
Of course I never acted on those thoughts, because ultimately, I’d like to think that I’m a good, nice person and I wouldn’t want to hurt anyone. A lot of people have intrusive thoughts enter their head, but there’s a filter, and most people can let them go. I would sit there and be worried. My hands would start getting cold because there was always this gripping fear in the back of my mind. What if I actually did it?
One of the things I do best is getting other people into the mindset and into positions where they feel like they have adequate support and resources so they can do their best. Trying to square that up with the terrible thoughts inside my head was very difficult.
About half an hour before I went into my meeting at MIT Mental Health, I made the decision. I’m just going to talk about this, I said to myself. I’m just going to say it, and I’m going to have to face this fear, this anxiety of talking about something that might potentially be very sensitive. In the end, the discussion went fine, and they suggested I talk with someone who deals with anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. At the time, I lived in Brookline, so I started meeting with someone there about once a month.
I saw her four or five times. Simply talking about all these little behaviors and patterns that I had made me feel better about it. I went to Ireland that summer, to start measuring isotope ratios of nitrous oxide in the atmosphere. I was at Mace Head, in rural Western Ireland, and I was too young to rent a car; I had to bike many miles to get anywhere.
There was no real grocery store nearby, so I ended up eating about the same thing every day. It would be oatmeal and an egg in the morning, a sandwich and an apple for lunch, and then steamed frozen broccoli, rice and smoked salmon every night. Some people couldn’t stand eating the same thing day in and day out. The good thing is I don’t get bored with food. As an undergrad, I ate the same breakfast every morning: oatmeal with peanut butter, and eggs with Tabasco sauce.
When I came back from Ireland, I felt like I was in a much better place and I didn’t need to continue talking with the therapist in Brookline. Going to that first meeting at MIT Mental Health was one of the better decisions I made since moving here. All the changes that I’ve made, and coming to being more open with people about these experiences---everything that has followed from that decision has been transformative in my experience here.
I still get anxious when I’m stressed. During our general exam process, I was working with an instrument to look at properties of simulated clouds that form on Mars. It was late at night and I just wanted to get one more point of data out of it, but I had to check something on the inside of the instrument. I didn’t realize how heavy the part was, and I dropped it, snapping some wires. There were things that I couldn’t really handle, in that late-at-night, tired, really wound-up state. So I sat down for 15 minutes and didn’t move. I was sort of overwhelmed. I wrote an email to the post-doc saying, “I think I broke something. I'm going to deal with it in the morning.”
I don’t get troubling thoughts nearly as frequently now. But yesterday I was in a workshop and something did come up. One of the people that was putting on this workshop---in my mind I was saying that this person’s the size of a whale. That’s something that’s really hurtful. I just thought, “Okay, that's destructive and that doesn't represent how I try to interact with people.” I can let it go now.
Now, when I’m walking around, I’m not counting steps. I live in Jamaica Plain, so it’s only 45 minutes or so to get here every day. I listen to a daily podcast about baseball. While I’m intently trying to listen to that, I’m not counting. It’s more productive to get up-to-date news on something that I care about, rather than wasting time and counting numbers. Somehow the phone number thing sticks with me though.
I’m sure that everyone’s experience is different, but if there are things that are disruptive, I think there are a lot of different things that you can do to make them less disruptive, less interfering in your life. Just talking to someone about it rather than just keeping it bottled up is really liberating. Even just a check-in with friends, having an honest conversation about things that are happening in your life.
One thing that has really helped me in my time here has been doing something active for an hour or so a day, scheduling myself every single day that I can. Somehow all the loose nervous energy that was causing issues in the past is more constrained.
We’re all in this together. Sometimes people ask me what my favorite thing about MIT is. I really enjoy our departmental Cookie Hour. This is endowed; there’s money in it that’s going to make sure it goes on perpetually. Every day, at three o’clock, we have cookies and fruit in our lounge. I get to see everybody almost every day. I’m sure—beyond all doubt—that all the people eating cookies are dealing with issues of their own. I hope they feel comfortable confiding in someone. If not, I hope just eating cookies and cherries with friends is as much a daily highlight for them as it is for me.
Michael McClellan is a graduate student in Earth and Planetary Sciences, and president of the Graduate Student Council
I am an immigrant from Mexico. My mom raised me and my two siblings all by herself. My dad stayed in Mexico. My mom struggled a lot; she never learned English. Halfway through third grade, I was placed in an English only class, and by fourth grade, I was outperforming most of my peers.
I didn’t have a lot of friends growing up. I would watch shows on TV with my brother’s friends. They would make fun of gay people all the time, so I got into that same homophobic trend. I didn’t want to be attracted to men.
I was very overweight. When I started high school, I was weighing myself every single day. I lost about 70 pounds that year. I was hoping people would notice and treat me differently. Girls started paying more attention to me and I made friends. People were still making fun of me that I was gay, but at least I was happier with myself.
When I got into MIT, my mom said, “No, you can just go to the community college here.” But when I told my dad, he realized it was the MIT, and he said, “Wow. You have to go.” When my mom heard him, she of course supported me.
I fit in well at MIT. At the end of my sophomore year, I slept through an exam and failed two classes. I was experiencing my first signs of anxiety. The muscles in my upper body would tense up and I would want to crawl up into a fetal position and not do anything.
My junior year, I ended up having conversations with a lot of close friends who were also experiencing stress in their lives. It taught me an entire new perspective on life, and it was a great year for me. I was taking a lot of classes and extracurriculars. I had a couple of different positions in my fraternity. I was sometimes leading parts of rehearsals with the gospel choir, I was a tenor section leader of the concert choir and a member of the chamber chorus.
In my senior year, my anxiety came back. I went to office hours one day. The professor was asking me questions, but I didn’t understand, so I just froze. He said, “I think your IQ went down when I asked you that question.” A lot of thoughts were flowing through my head, like, “Why did I come to office hours? I’m so stupid. I don’t belong in this class. I don’t even belong at MIT.” I’m walking away and I’m sweaty, and tears are starting to form but I’m trying to hold them back, and it feels like I’m swallowing all these tears. As soon as I exit his office, I just start crying and crying.
Another time, I was working on a project with an instructor from the Scheller teaching program. She kind of just shut me down and said, “Wow, you’ve spent so many days and you don’t even have a concrete question? What have you been doing?” I’m now a licensed high school teacher, and I’ve taught students who are immigrants, who are working two jobs to pay the bills and who come to school and they’re falling asleep. I would not dare ask them the way she asked me, “Why is it that you haven’t been doing your homework?” especially because she didn’t understand that I was depressed.
It was a very, very difficult year, but I graduated. I joined Teach For America and started Summer Institute, but it was as though MIT never ended. If I turned in a lesson plan at 1:00AM instead of midnight, they’d sit me down and tell me it was a breach of professionalism. I didn’t understand that I was going through mental health problems. All I knew was that I needed sleep, and I hadn’t even caught up on the sleep deficit from my time at MIT.
By the end of the summer, I had been hired to teach at a charter school called KIPP in Lynn, Massachusetts. My coaches were saying they were going to tell my principal that I’m underperforming. I started teaching at KIPP anyway, and I enjoyed it. It was rigorous, and I felt very challenged. But a couple months in, my principal tells me, “Hey, the Algebra 2 teacher left, so we need someone to substitute.”
Nothing could have prepared me for stepping into that classroom. The kids were so frustrated that they had had different teachers coming in and out, and their teacher had just disappeared without notice. The first day the kids tell me, “Mr. Morales, you’re not going to be able to get our attention.” It would take a good fifteen minutes at the start of every class for me to get them to be quiet. The students who wanted to learn were frustrated because they were already so behind. They thought I was a joke. It was out of control, and that was very, very stressful. My principal ended up sitting me down, telling me “It sounds like a very difficult experience, but you can, Victor, you can do this.”
That made me feel terrible. For all I try, I just can’t do this. She would tell me “Victor, these are all the things that need improvement. Such-and-such kids walked in late. Such-and-such kids were talking when you were talking.” Every time, I came out of her office feeling like I wanted to vomit. I would shut myself into the bathroom for a couple minutes just to breathe, just to cry a little bit.
I was taking days off work because my anxiety was so bad. My principal said “You need to come to work every day no matter how you feel. All of us here,” and I remember her looking at the assistant principal and them nodding heads to each other, “All of us here have experienced some level of what you’re experiencing.” I had told her that I was going through mental health problems. What she said belittled my experience and made me feel like I was being whiny, that it was a small thing, so it just made it so much worse.
I fell in love with the kids, and I built great relationships with the staff. But by the end of the year, I was having an anxiety attack every single week, and I just couldn’t take it. I knew I couldn’t keep teaching at that school, and the principal ended up not inviting me back.
I found another job at a school called Boston International Newcomers Academy. They had an old building, and the hallways weren’t the cleanest, but the culture was so warm. The teachers made me feel so valuable even on day one. All the students were immigrants, going through challenges like the ones I had experienced. They were so polite, so respectful, always so happy to see me. I felt so proud, so privileged to be their teacher.
It was the end of October last year when the depression came back, and it came back many times worse. It was like I woke up one day and felt numb. I couldn’t feel as much as I had felt the previous day. For an entire week, I sat there at my desk and could not do anything.
I had an ever-growing stack of papers to grade, and my kids kept asking me about them. I would say, “I have a lot of things going on. I’ll try to do it by this day, but no guarantee.” They were like, “Okay, Mr. Morales. We understand.” I would smile because they were so nice to me.
I was sleeping twelve hours per night. I couldn’t eat anything because I couldn’t get hungry. I couldn’t even feel sad or sorry for myself. There were days when I had to call a friend and ask them the silly question, “Can you come and pull me out of bed?” They would do that.
It wasn’t easy to explain. People think that there has to be a reason for depression. They would ask, “Why are you depressed? What happened?” I didn’t know what to say. Nothing really happened. Depression just kind of came back, and it came back at a point in my life where I was so happy. I loved my students. I had a very good job.
Depression stole my life. It stole my desire to live. It came down to me asking, “Why should I be alive if I can’t feel anything? Why should I be alive when I’m just this zombie?” Things got worse. I applied for medical leave and was denied. Then I was terminated because I had missed too many days. I struggled financially, and my medical insurance ran out. I started seeing a therapist and taking Prozac, but it just made me feel more numb.
There were a couple occasions when I asked my friends whether I was alive or not. I thought maybe I had died. Hurting myself was the only way to try to release my soul from this dream. If I could at least feel extreme anything, it was such a relief to know that I could feel something. But when I would hurt myself too much and see the scars on my body, I would think that I was lost in my depression, that I didn’t know who I was anymore.
By December, I had built a set of strategies to overcome depression. I had known that if I was experiencing anxiety, what works is to clear my mind—by watching a BuzzFeed video, meditating, or having a conversation with a friend. Depression was a totally different beast. To overcome it, I had to develop meta-cognitive strategies.The first step was to convince myself that life is worth living and then choose to live. I had already had this sort of plan to take my own life, but I couldn’t stand the idea of taking my own life and setting up my friends to experience a tragedy of this kind.
My friends were taking me out to lunch and dinner, spending three, four hours with me, talking about me and me and me all the time. They had become a reason for me to live. How could I take my own life when so many people had invested so much in me? So many people saw—I don’t know what—in me, and I guess they cared or loved me. In that way they communicated to me that they thought it should be worth it for me to survive.
One day I discovered that at the source of my depression was this idea that my greatest value came from the way others saw me. I cared if other people saw me as ugly or attractive, as intelligent, as smart, or dumb or stupid. I cared if I was a successful teacher or not. One of the solutions, if the problem was that I thought I was unattractive, could be to convince myself that beauty is only a relative term. If someone now makes me feel stupid, I say to myself, “I interpreted their tone to be demeaning, but they probably don’t intend to make me feel bad.” That makes me feel so much better.
I identify as bisexual now. When I went home for the holidays, I told my mom that I’m attracted to the same sex. She started asking me all of these questions about the Bible and about what I’d done. She wasn’t asking me in a loving way. With my dad, I’m taking it more slowly. I feel like if I tell him what I’m doing he’s going to misinterpret it and get upset at me, so I want him to first understand what I believe. He’s a very understanding person.
Because I wasn’t able to get my job back at BINCA, I’m working as a tutor at The Academy at Harvard Square. I’m also working at the Edgerton Center at MIT, and I’m applying for a number of different jobs for next year. I’m off medication, and I’m no longer seeing my therapist. I haven’t had anxiety in weeks, months even. My biggest stressor now is my finances. I’m thousands of dollars in debt because of medical bills. The stress I get now is very mild. Maybe it’s the kind of stress other people feel who are not going through mental health issues.
I still identify myself as depressed because I understand that depression can come back at any point. I have to be ready. I've thought about giving gifts to my friends who helped me survive. But there's no need. My life from now on is a tribute to those people who showed me love. I hope my story can help others in a similar way.
Victor Morales is a member of the Class of 2014
I’ve had three episodes of depression that stand out in my life. One was toward the end of my undergraduate career. I was an EE major at Georgia Tech. When people would take their minor classes in easy topics, I took nuclear astrophysics and stellar evolution. I was taking six EE and physics classes and doing several extracurricular activities. It was insane. I managed to finish number two in my class. The guy whom I’d tied for number one in high school became number one.
I loved my work but I became a working machine. I thought I needed only enough sleep to stay awake. I used to fall asleep in my history class after lunch, which was bad. I made a B in history. I thought that’s why I lost my number one spot.
I had no idea that anything was wrong with me, until the end of my senior year, when my closest friend and roommate pulled me aside and said, “I’m worried about you.” I was sliding down a scale from being somebody who is usually very joyful and happy to being somebody who wasn’t feeling much joy, and who was very irritable.
Anyway, it was close enough to graduation that I got through everything and felt great again. I came to grad school at MIT in EECS. I loved it here. I was not grade driven; I was much more driven by wanting to learn new things. It was paradise. I worked as hard as ever, loved it as much as ever, and things were really going well.
Then I got married. I was certainly happy to get married, and my marriage is fabulous. But that first year of marriage was the toughest year of my life. We were living up in Wilmington, so I was spending all the time in a car, instead of walking and biking, and I took the hours of commuting off my sleep.
I became really depressed that year. I had every logical reason to be happy. I actually loved my work, but it’s like there was no joy; I would wake up angry for no reason and wonder why I could not make myself feel happy.
I had the first thoughts ever of suicide during that time. That’s when I started really worrying about myself. I had this image of approaching a cliff, and I would get near an edge and I would feel this panicked feeling. I felt like I was getting so close to it that if I looked over it I could fall, that I was going to let myself slip. That was a very scary feeling.
As an undergrad, I had become a practicing Christian, and I thought that killing oneself was wrong, and my husband also thought it was wrong. I remember that, at that moment when I didn’t care any more, there was a little voice tugging me a little bit away from the edge. I felt that no matter what I wanted, there was a greater source of knowledge saying, “This is wrong,” and that I would benefit by listening to that.
To my husband’s credit, he was wonderful and supportive, and I had amazing good friends who helped me through this too. This was the first time I got counseling. One of the things the therapist suggested was that maybe the hormones I starting taking when I got married were making a difference. I stopped taking the pill, and I started feeling better almost instantly. I started feeling like my old happy self again.
I got my PhD, I got hired by MIT, I got promoted, I got tenure. All was cool. We started a family. Son number one, great. Son number two, great. Son number three, I’m laying there over at MIT Medical, and they’re checking on me, and I’m blessed with healthy children, healthy marriage, everything’s great. Doctor says, “How are you doing?” Tears just start rolling out of my eyes.
Once, a friend of mine who was going through a really tough situation said he felt like he had been asked to climb Mount Everest, and only been given a bathrobe and slippers. I felt like I was being asked to climb a little personal Everest at this point, and I just didn’t know what lay ahead or how to prepare for it.
The doctor said, “You know, I think it might do you some good to talk to somebody in mental health.” I went to talk to a therapist a couple times and it was wonderful. She laid out the emotional trajectory of what was likely to happen. It’s as if somebody asks you to sing a song you don’t know, and they don’t give you the lyrics. You’re kind of stumbling through, but then if they give you the lyrics and you can read them first, and then sing it, you do a little better. I could now see, “Oh, yeah, it would be normal to feel that at this point.” Instead of just being broadsided by a set of feelings, I’m suddenly able to step back and say, “Oh, I know now what’s going on and I can manage it.”
It was resolved within weeks after I went to talk to her. It was amazing. In that case, it was just a cognitive thing. Perhaps the hormones were bringing it to a peak, but it was more that I had not prepared myself mentally for what I was getting ready to go through.
Depression isn’t just one thing. Sometimes it’s biochemical. Sometimes it’s exercise and sunlight. Sometimes it’s sleep. Sometimes it’s cognitive thinking that you need a little help debugging, ideally by somebody who has the words to what you may have to sing.
Now I see it as this juggling act of figuring out what my priorities are, keeping them straight, and, also, having really great friends that help keep me accountable to that. My Christian faith has made a huge difference in my life, too. It’s not just a set of beliefs. It’s a set of practices.
I’m this extreme introvert. I would be very happy just curling up with a book and the Internet permanently by myself. But the Judeo-Christian scriptures tell you to put others before yourself, and to go out and love other people, even those who we think are unlovable. I fail a lot, but when I have those momentary successes, it’s amazing for my mood and my well being, as well as perhaps making the world a little better. I don’t want to think I’m doing it for selfish reasons, yet I feel like I benefit more than I deserve from some amazing relationships. Social relationships are good, even for introverts like me.
Often we’re focusing on ourselves—on our own sleep, our own health, our own mental thinking, and all of this is important. Taking care of one’s mental and physical health is number one in order to succeed at anything. But, to exclusively focus on yourself is unhealthy. For those of us who would just live in our own worlds and do our own work, being strongly encouraged, even admonished in some cases, to get out of that cocoon and reach out to others is incredibly beneficial, not only for our community, but for our own wellbeing.
I do a lot of research with neurologists and psychiatrists, and I was meeting with the chief of pediatric mental health at a major hospital in the UK. After we finished a discussion of neurophysiology, I was rushing to my next meeting. He says, “Wait. Do you know the most important thing for children in preventing suicide?” I stopped in my tracks and said, “No. What?” He said, “It’s having a family with strong religious faith.”
After that, I went back to the people who did the Healthy Minds nation-wide survey and I said, “It had a couple questions about religion. Did we have any significant difference there?” They said, “Oh, yes. It’s well known,” and sure enough, the MIT numbers and the national college numbers show huge statistically significant differences. Students who have regular religious practice are more mentally healthy.
I grew up as an atheist, and I know religion is not a comfortable topic. And religious practice is not the only protective factor. But at MIT, we have to talk about all these pillars of wellbeing. It’s time to do the science to really understand what regulates mood – up and down. We don’t want to take away Everest: That wouldn’t be MIT. We want to climb something even bigger than Everest, but we want to succeed and help people succeed in doing it. So how do we do that?
Rosalind Picard is Professor in the Program in Media Arts and Sciences, and Faculty Chair of the MIT Mind+Hand+Heart initiative