Editor’s Note: Portraits of Resilience is a photography and interview series by Prof. Daniel Jackson. Each installment consists of a portrait and a story, told in the subject’s own words, of how they found resilience and meaning in their life.
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 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.
This project is supported by the Undergraduate Association’s Committee on Student Support and Wellness, chaired by Tamar Weseley ’17 and Alice Zielinski ’16. To participate in the project, or to learn more, contact ResilienceProject@mit.edu.
There are many ways to find help. Members of the MIT community can access support resources at mindhandheart.mit.edu. To access support through MIT Medical’s Mental Health & Counseling Service, please call (617) 253-2916 or visit medical.mit.edu.
Image and text copyright Daniel Jackson, 2016.