The following guest blog was written by Jae Moon, a 4th year life sciences student who has been battling depression since high school. Jae describes himself as a person who is curious about the true nature of things and enjoys applying evolutionary thinking. Upon meeting with Jae, I asked him if I could share his writing on my blog and he kindly agreed.
“Death is a cure, I tell myself, as I drag one leg over the ledge. It hangs there lifelessly while my other foot grasps the concrete roof with little friction. The wind is icy and forceful; it numbs my face and freezes my tears. The night sky is open and clean. The height of the building brings me closer to the stars and farther away from light pollution. I feel serenaded by ancient cosmic energy and think to myself: ‘what a night to die’. For whatever reason however, I cannot muster up the constitution to give myself up to gravity. Exhausted, I go home at 2AM and fall asleep.”
There have been many nights I pondered the rationale of dying – of why it would be a simple solution and solve all of my problems. Oftentimes, I used to think it was selfish to do so. I don’t anymore. It wasn’t my choice to be born, but it should only be my choice to die. I have been living in a society that emphasizes the need to be happy, all the while feeling clouded and darker. It was evident to me that I didn’t belong. I felt like a burden being the walking antithesis of everyone’s joy.
This all changed the summer of 2015.
One does not escape or recover from depression. One just successfully integrates it into their psyche and consciousness. My first step on the ‘road to revelations’ was when I fully accepted that I was depressed. So I began to let myself feel the full force of the symptoms in terms of dysphoria, lifelessness, emptiness, loneliness – this was by far the worst aspect – and so on. All this helped me grasp depression as a reality. I still remember being in my dark room, on a dark day, staring blankly at the ceiling, lifelessly. I would scream with my face buried in the pillows and clench my chest. I told myself, ‘Acceptance is always the first step’. It was a lot of emotional distress, but I always remembered that the next days would bring me clarity of thought – and to some extent, peace.
The defining quality of myself that helped me integrate my depression is my ability to let my mind run. This was mostly done through meditation. I began to psychoanalyze my own thoughts (meta-thinking, as they say) and break down my subconscious reasoning behind my emotions. I became the woodpecker of my own psyche – I dig and dig until I find the worm. For example, when I react with anger to some seemingly negligible event, I now stop to think why. If others see my action as an overreaction, then it is a question of sensitivity and exaggeration. If so, is the emotion itself rational? What does the topic represent to me such that it brings out this side of me? So then what psychological need am I trying to indulge by reacting in such a way? The way I see it, every reaction is a window to my subconscious. This applies to other people as well; I think a judgmental person’s spoken words describe more about themselves than they do the person being judged. This sort of meta-thinking was the catalyst to my mental growth. I am now a very self-aware and mindful person. I realized how my past affected me and how it was mirrored through my attitude and perspective.
With the clarity of thought that accompanied this mental growth, I realized that it’s okay to be who I am. Regardless of how I feel about myself, I shouldn’t resist who I am. Why wouldn’t I want to be what I am made for? I was treating my self the way I was treated by others when I was a child; they persuasively changed the image of my selfhood. I realized that every person has the opportunity to bring something new to the table. The reason why a particularly successful species is defined by the abundance and population size is because of the level of genetic variability they bring. Genetic variability – since we cannot predict the environment – is a safety net for the chance of the species responding adaptively to the environment. Thus, variability allows for a wider breadth of environmental challenges a species can survive. Anyway, this line of reasoning made me think that it’s okay to be different because it means that you have that much more you can bring to the table.
I think society views depression negatively because of its immediate symptoms. But this is only in the short term. In the long term, there are huge opportunities for self-growth and for opening one’s mind. In another way of putting it, the brain in ‘depression mode’ is sacrificing short term capacity for long term planning. I find the emphasis on happiness a little paradoxical because in a state of constant and consistent happiness, would it even be called happiness? It would just be the norm. My point is that without the lows you don’t even notice the peaks highs.
Throughout the past 4 years as I observed myself I couldn’t help but think why an organism becomes depressed. Is there an inherently adaptive function? Or is it rather an effect of a suboptimal cause? More relevantly put to myself, I think depression is a relic of a troubled past of traumatic events. Some people believe it’s in the genes, that epigenetic changes can be passed down to offspring, leaving them more predisposed. But this isn’t really why people become depressed, rather just a factor involved in making it more likely to occur. Depression is an effect; and the environmental input is the cause. In other words, I think depression is largely a circumstantial effect and based purely on individual experiences. Genes merely provide a template of behaviours and personality traits that can be modified throughout life with external input.
To make concepts more mechanical and verifiable, take the weather as an example: there has been enough research to diagnose individuals with Seasonal Affective Disorders (SADs). I get a case of the SADs too sometimes – all it takes is a dark, cloudy day. So, I bought a SunTouch light lamp as an artificial substitute for sunlight. This has helped me maintain a more stable mood for that day. This is an example of how the environment can influence our mood and cognition (whether it is done in this order, I don’t know). Now, imagine the influence of parental input. As offspring you have to have complete trust in your parents. I mean, what biological organism would forsake the direction of their genetic counterparts? But then, what are your parents influenced by? Culture, society, physical environment, culturally significant events… so on. The point is the past provides a rich context of interacting variables that leads to your cognitive self as it is now.
So I think it’s certainly more useful to treat depression as experience-based and environmental – at least when dealing with patients with depression. What I’ve come to realize during my time in the ditches so far is that there is a reason to everything. Something in my previous timeline has occurred, perhaps as a cumulative set of events that has put me where I am now in this spot. I think depression can be seen as a strong behaviour generator in that it inhibits most behaviours; hypersomnia, reduced motivation and activity. I think the reason for such behavioural dampening is because there is an inherent need of the brain to process all the information stored in the brain. In order to do this, it cuts out any further stimulation by rendering the organism immobile. The person then gets a chance to reevaluate their value systems, what they care about, who they are, and ultimately what they want in life. It’s almost as though the brain is rebooting itself. So why do I have this physiological need to reboot myself? I think happiness is a physio-emotional symptom that signals to cerebral organisms such as humans that the behavioural patterns (lifestyle, routine, etc) are detrimental to the organism. It means that something in that person’s life has to change. So this dampening effect over behaviour could be seen as a natural sensory deprivation to allow full processing of information. In this sense, we could define depression as an effect of cumulative unhappiness (or a higher punishment to reward ratio). The deprivation can leave the person thinking about what life needs to be for them to be happy, and can motivate them to mobilizing those changes.
Overall, it has been a very rough ride. That being said, I don’t think I would want to change any of it. As dark as I felt, the things that I learned about life and about myself are so valuable to me that it paints the whole experience positively. I still feel down from time to time and my view of death has become more…spiritual and mechanistic. Every organism that has ever lived has died – there is an energetic need that has to be fulfilled by coming into existence (i.e. being born), like a chemical reaction… but I digress. Anyway if there is a phrase of advice I can give anyone who is also depressed: Embrace it. There is a reason why you are depressed. Try to see the undertones that have made you depressed.