Last week I completed the paperwork to take a temporary (~3mo) Leave of Absence from grad school. I have begun intensive outpatient therapy to treat a comorbid diagnosis of severe depression and substance abuse.
If you ask me what’s wrong, what happened, what triggered it, I would be at a loss for a warm gun. My life is rich with love and absurd fortune and gorgeous experiences. By most standards, I am a successful graduate student. I love my research. I love my lab. I love my program. I love my school. I love my rats. I love my friends. I have the most wonderful partner and I have the most loving family.
However, for the past months, I’ve been slowly disabled of my capacity to appreciate my many blessings. Insidiously, I began to dissipate, to dissolute, to waste, to fulfill my nihilistic beliefs in a truly meaningless existence. I started to lose days of work because I simply could not move myself to quit my bed. I would ignore hunger and my sense of responsibility left me with a sigh. I was emptied of any willpower required for tasks beyond reading and dreaming. I have often platonically and passively entertained the idea of having the ultimate tryst with death, but during this period I began to plan my suicide for the very first time in my 24 years. While I don’t know the catalyst of my spiraling descent into that depersonalizing abyss, I am intimately acquainted with my guide.
At age 16, I gave birth to my depression’s creature. It has lived within me ever since. And it has grown and matured, as creatures do. Its step is subtle and its shadow sinister. Most of the time it burrows quietly in my subconscious. In order to survive the years, however, my offspring must eat of me. It lives to hollow me. It knows how to numb me before it bites and leaves me less than before.
It knows me so well by now. We have bonded over a bizarre indulgence in sadness. And although its presence is always familiar, its form and mechanism of affect evolves with each binge. Moreover, it’s grown quite adept at justifying why my guts are in its mouth. Quite considerate, my child. It would rather I feel nothing while it carves my insides. If I could take it out of me, I think I would. But it is too mine, too much of myself; unless I forget or destroy myself, my child will never leave me and I will always have to give of myself to keep it alive. I have accepted this fate. And, usually, I believe I have learned how to coexist with it. This cursed parenthood has left me permanently ill*, and my dark child will die with me.
When I think of its conception and what fertilized its existence, I see myself lying face up on a table in the study room of the girls’ dorm during my last year of high school. I often felt sad, alone, and reflective that year. While on the table, I was contemplating the development of apathy towards meaning and reality; I now recognize these as contractions of a pregnant consciousness. Nevertheless, I remained ignorant throughout the whole period of gestation.
The birth itself was marked by protracted silence: it was gradual, it was lonely, it was numbed by extreme dissociation. I do not remember pain. I only remember the slow widening of a void. My child began to leech me before it could open its eyes, but I first became aware of it when it learned to walk in the realm of my waking thoughts. I initially called my child Emptiness.
It did not speak to me for a couple of years. When it did, I had taken to alter my senses through intoxication in order to disassemble my fundamental boredom, to distract my teenaged ennui. I started drinking because it was fun and because it’s ingrained in the social dynamic of my family and my culture. My child, pleased by the many advantages of my slipping into an indifferent stupor, began to crave for it during its visits, slowly contracting a habit that turned ours. These visits increased in frequency as I recklessly made decisions and relationships that destabilized my life in disdain of meaning and allowed my child to feast freely. It became hard to stay sober on purpose for more than a couple of days and I sometimes went a day without feeling anything at all. If I had the choice, I would rather alter myself than not. My child could easily convince me that I did not care about the consequences of isolation and destruction; after all, I am a nihilist. My child gorged itself of me. If I were not so lucky or curious about life, perhaps I would have ceased to be a while ago. It still takes much effort to practice moderation and sobriety, especially in the presence of my child.
Besides my extraordinary luck, I have a romantic heart. When my child is asleep or its appetite and influence subdued (under my careful control), I can enjoy and learn and live and I have a love for love that depends on the empathy and kindness my experience and nature have produced. When I was younger, unbridled romanticism was my power to pour meaning into what I naturally understood to be inherently empty of it. Beauty in ideas and people move me. Now, while less of a Byronic, I strive to sustain my prerogative as a creative nihilist to maximize the pleasure and meaning of my experience, no matter how empty my reality truly is.
My child, however, is not motivated nor convinced by such arguments. It must bleed and drink my love for life and capacity for pleasure if it is to stay alive. It must remind me that I am a failure as a human, that I cannot thrive in society, that I will never understand meaning, that my mind will persist in breeding existential agony, that I will never know the value of truth, that nothing matters or is worth the effort, that my interests are lies, and that “life is permission to know death”.
I wish I could not justify my Depression so easily to myself. I wish I had never met certain thoughts which have embedded themselves in my consciousness in the guise of secret knowledge or insight, thoughts which invalidate all means of living a human, fulfilling life worth more than its end.
Alas, I cannot extricate them nor deny them. To cope with the misery they bring, to not forfeit my ambitions and the people I care about, I must make myself immune (or at least more resistant) to the whims of my child. I must keep myself healthy. I must try to understand it better. I must create. I must keep moving. I must learn not to indulge my now natural inclinations towards sadness and indifference and minimize what I give of myself to my child, for that is how it gains power. I must be more than my child can consume for long enough to achieve the goals I’ve decided are valuable and to keep my curiosity alive.
Grad school is the most challenging and rewarding experience of my life so far. I want to make the most of it, but right now I need help and I need time to unlearn habits that hinder my willpower, to learn how to better cope with living with this creature and myself. There’s still so much I want to do. And right now I feel hopeful.