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.
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 be 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.
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.