Friday, May 12, 2006

So, this Sunday, at 10 AM Eastern Time, I'll be wearing my stupid robe and my ridiculous hat (and the tassel I don't get to keep), feeling slightly giddy but also like an idiot, walking across a stage in front of my mother and a lot of other people's parents, formally graduating from college.

Somebody said to me recently, "you don't seem like the type to walk at graduation." And that was very astute of him, because I'm not. I don't even care overly much about the piece of paper, or about the officiality of the degree it represents (except inasmuch as actually having it simplifies the resume-writing process.) I know what I know, and I know a great deal more than my degree suggests. But the formal recognition of that, while pleasant, isn't really worth the trip in and of itself. I never had any doubt that I was baccalaureate material; I think it's not too presumptuous to claim that doctoral work is easily within my reach, even if I can't be bothered to undertake it yet. (I think it would be an excellent thing to do in my 50s or 60s, though.) The reason I'm going back for the ceremony isn't about graduation or the degree, really. It's more about everything that happened between the time I left college and the time I went back.

I don't talk much about why I left college in the first place. I have my quick version -- got tired of academia, wanted to go study film instead -- and that version is absolutely true, if grossly incomplete. I don't talk about the real reason much because, like most people who've been through similar kinds of experiences, I tend to worry about what other people will think it says about me, that they'll judge me for something that is very much a part of me, something that I'm certainly not ashamed of having survived, but which was very difficult and humiliating at the time. But the most meaningful thing about my graduation, to me, is that I waded through a lot of shit to get to this point, and being at this point is testament to my being a stronger person than my diagnosis might suggest to a judgemental mind.

The real reason I left college at 22 is that around that time, and for a couple of years prior, I went mad. Not hearing-voices mad, more like intensely melancholy mad. To use the technical term, I was diagnosed at 22 with severe atypical Depressive disorder. And in retrospect, I think I only barely made it through that period of my life alive. Depression -- the capital-D variety -- is something that those who've never been through it really can't understand. I myself suffered through two years of it without realizing what was happening to me, which itself isn't an unusual phenomenon. It was a gradual descent into hell, slow enough that from day to day I wasn't able to discern much change, but by the time I reached my personal low I was almost helpless against it. I was unable to take much care of myself, unable to face the outside world, and filled with self-loathing and self-recrimination.

My grades had dropped off to the point that my academic standing was in question (that was an especially frustrating thing for a lifelong gradehound like me) because I could no longer hold my mind still enough to concentrate on anything. I'd try to study -- I'd sit for hours with a book, reading the same page or the same paragraph over and over and over again, taking none of it in; eventually the frustration would overwhelm my drive and I'd push the academic work away completely, since any attempt only brought failure and more self-loathing at my inability to work.

The thought of interacting with other people was unbearable; I avoided it as much as possible, abandoning my classes and only venturing out late at night when the town was mostly empty. I dropped out of contact with my mother most of the time, I turned away from most of my friends, and I just stayed alone in my room. It wasn't, ironically, all that painful -- the thing about depression that most people don't understand is that it isn't about sadness, it's about numbness and about the inescapability of the all-consuming deadness at your core. When I was depressed I rarely felt much of anything at all, and what little I did feel was directed entirely inward. The only thing that ever hurt was my own sense that I was failing profoundly at life, that I was hopelessly inadequate as a human being, and that I was personally and solely to blame for my state. My mental state left me unable to cope; my inability to cope was, to me, a sign of personal failure; my despair at my failure worsened my mental state.

By the time I reached a point of genuine crisis, it still hadn't occured to me, in spite of blatantly obvious evidence, that there might be something physically wrong with me, that I might be literally ill. I believed that if I were just stronger, if I were just more driven, none of it would be happening and that I'd have been able to overcome whatever loathsome personal flaw was manifesting itself in my life. The shame of not being able to handle it, the belief that I was to blame, was by far the worst part of depression, and the humiliation of my situation seemed like a fair punishment.

The only reason I ever went for help, in the end, was an alarming afternoon when I began to experience real thoughts of self-destruction. I want to be very careful about how I put this, because I was never "suicidal" in the usual sense -- I never planned or plotted or considered ways to hurt myself, I never seriously contemplated killing myself. It was never about self-harm or some melodramatic plea for help for me. Rather, I began to feel very strongly that the people I loved most in the world would be much better off if I was gone. It's completely sick, of course, to think that the people who really love you would be happier if you were dead, and (fortunately) some part of my intellect was still sober enough to recognize that and send up an alarm. Had I let myself slide much deeper into that kind thinking, though, I think it only would've been a matter of time.

Instead, I went to one of the college counselors, whom I'd seen a few times before for different reasons. The first thing she said to me was, "I bet you thought you had to deal with this all by yourself, didn't you?" She was the first person who offered me an explanation for what was happening to me, and simply having a name for my experience was an enormous relief. She called up the college nurse for a consultation (not only about the diagnosis but about my general state), and after much talk the two of them sent me away with some books to read, instructions to stop by every day to check in, and a prescription for antidepressants. I hung on for the rest of the term, waiting to see if the pills did anything to help, and tried to understand what it all meant.

In the end, it wasn't enough to get me through my last year of college. My mother dragged me home to Mississippi, I abandonded college, and spent the whole next year hiding out, thinking about nothing but pulling my psyche back together. I quit the pills after a couple of months -- I've always struggled against any feeling of being under the influence of a drug -- and turned to self-nurturance instead. After a year was up and the depression was in remission (which is to say, once I felt like myself again), I departed for London to do what I really wanted to do. My three years in film school were some of the happiest I've had.

I haven't had any big problems with depression since then, although it's always going to be a factor in my life. I've had a few minor-to-moderate episodes (I spent almost a year in a mildly-depressed state after coming back from LA, kind of apathetically slouching through life in Memphis), but nothing resembling the abyss in which I spent my early 20s. I've also come to the conclusion that mental illness (of a relatively benign sort) is rife on my mother's side, even though it generally went undiagnosed. There were a lot of eccentrics on that side of family: Great Aunt Jenna who was a Rosicrucian and heard voices (until they electro-shocked them out of her, to her despair); Cousin Clarence who spent the last ten years of his life in bed wearing silk pajamas; Aunt Mary Louisa who was kind and generous and possessed a rather brazen sense of aesthetics, but who was also patently batty; my great-grandmother, known in the family as Dollbabe, who apparently played a mean ragtime piano and who killed herself when my mother was a teenager. I never met any of them apart from Aunt Mary Louisa (who seemed like an odd-smelling but magical auntie when I was a little girl), but I've heard about them, and they're some of my favorite relatives. Once I'd gotten a grip on the idea of depression, I was almost grateful to them -- I felt like I'd been invited into the Cool Ancestors Club. (I have some amazingly cool ancestors -- I come from a long line of black sheep people. But that's another post.)

In any case, I've learned to recognize my personal early signs of depression, and by catching it early I can generally head off the worst of it. I still don't know exactly what triggered it that first time -- I think it was rooted in several years of constant chaos and trauma during my early teens, combined with one other big issue in my life (which is much too complicated to go into now). At the time, I had coped with it all by flatly denying that anything much was wrong, and continued to steadfastly shrug it all off afterwards. Unfinished business, of course, doesn't evaporate, it just waits until your guard is down and then explodes in your face. I guess I didn't lower my guard until my sophomore year of college.

But it's all okay, because I got through it, I've done some interesting things since then, and eventually I went back to finish the degree I'd abandoned in despair. Having fulfilled my degree requirements is great and all, but what I'm most proud of is everything that happened inbetween -- not that I finished, but that I'm still here to finish; that I'm not a hopeless failure after all, in spite of what I thought at the time; that having dealt with the madness, I can settle in to enjoy the eccentricity; that I have the opportunity, by virtue of having been born into better circumstances, to fulfill my highest black sheep potential.

Anyway, I'm fine now -- happy, even. And everyone knows that all the best, most interesting people are a bit mad.
2:06 AM ::
Amy :: permalink