With tenure but not without troubles
Professor John Belcher’s experiences handling depression
The April 10, 2012 issue of The Tech carried an article by Grace Taylor ’12 that I greatly admired: http://tech.mit.edu/V132/N17/depression.html.
It was about her depression and how she dealt with it. Her article inspired me to write an article on the same topic from a faculty point of view. Why? Because there is a stigma attached to having been clinically depressed and being on anti-depressants (as I am). That stigma is undeserved, and many people who should embrace such treatment instead avoid it. The more open people like Grace and I are about our experiences in dealing with depression, the more acceptance of those treatments there will be.
Near the end of the 80s, I was doing well. I had a stable marriage and two wonderful children, 8 and 11. I was a tenured Physics Professor, and Principal Investigator on an instrument on the Voyager Outer Planets mission to explore Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, with a Neptune encounter coming up. Then I was diagnosed with a malignant melanoma. Its thickness was such that the chances it would metastasize were about 1 in 4. At that time, metastasized melanoma was a death sentence. I became hyper-vigilant about my health. A bit later, my then-wife and I started a major renovation project on our home, which did not go well. Because of the stress of that situation, and my own preoccupation with my health, our marriage collapsed. At the beginning of the summer of 1989, I was trying to figure out how to get divorced, what the custody arrangement for my children would be, how to prepare for the upcoming Neptune encounter in August, and because of the melanoma, still panicked about my mortality.
It was the perfect storm. My physical coordination went. My thought processes became disordered. I had a hard time, for example, simply reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. I became lethargic, and had a hard time getting out of bed in the morning. Sleeping all the time seemed like a good option. I retained a certain detachment as I was sinking into depression. “So this is what it feels like to become clinically depressed” I would say to myself. You cannot imagine what it is like unless you have been there. I have always had hyper-active thought processes—juggling a million things at once in my head. For the first time in my life I could no longer do that. I soon realized what “living in the day” meant. The best I could do each morning was make a sort of ranked list of the things I had to do to get out of the situation I was in, and then just forget everything except the one on the top of the list. Considering the full list for even a second was just overwhelming.
I started seeing a psychiatrist, who immediately diagnosed depression and recommended an anti-depressant. I was reluctant. I was raised in Texas and had a macho attitude. Real Texans don’t take Prozac. But I sank further into depression and became less and less functional, and I realized that I had no choice. I had to do something. The well-being of my children depended in part on my being a reasonably functioning adult, and I was far from that state. So I started taking Prozac.
I know that there is a lot of popular press these days about anti-depressants not always being effective. Maybe that is true for some people, but nothing could be further than the truth for me. I could immediately see the difference in my mental processes two days after I started taking Prozac. I would describe it as like being in a room full of a huge amount of static background noise, that makes it impossible to think, and then someone walks into the room and turns the volume way down. I could think logically again. I could recite the Pledge of Allegiance. My physical coordination returned. Life became tolerable. Not great, but tolerable. That made it possible to slowly start dealing with the situation I was in.
These events took place more than 20 years ago. I am now happily remarried. My children are now 34 and 37. I am permanently on Prozac, as a prophylactic. Since I am a Texan and by definition should be able to whip depression all by myself, I have on two different occasions in the last 20 years gone off of Prozac. In both cases after about six months I lapsed back into clinical depression. I think once having been depressed, your body chemistry is such that you are more susceptible to a recurrence. Watching my descent into depression again those two times was really enlightening. I would do fine with a certain level of stress, but if one additional, not so big, stressor was added, I went from flying high above the waves to being right at sea level, and then even the slightest additional thing could cause me to go down. And it could be really fast, like stepping off a cliff. My body chemistry could change in a few days from more or less normal to clinical depression, with all the symptoms I mentioned above. So I just stay on Prozac. Luckily for me, it has always remained as efficacious as the first time I used it.
This term I am teaching in and co-administering 8.02, a class with 830 students, along with Peter A. Dourmashkin ’76. We both know from long experience that it is statistically inevitable that a handful of our 8.02 students will get into trouble this term, with their own perfect storm, and that clinical depression is one of the possible outcomes. I am no doctor, but I do recognize the symptoms of depression. If a student comes to me with troubles of any kind, I always tell them to go to S3 or Mental Health. In case depression is the cause of the trouble, I also share with them that I have been clinically depressed and am on Prozac, and that there is no shame in that.
We should all be thankful that we live in this day and age, when these medications and treatments are available. We should not avoid them. In the words of Grace Taylor, “It’s not you, it’s a disease.”
John W. Belcher is a MacVicar Faculty Fellow and a professor in the Physics Department.