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That dark cloud over your head

  • Published at 09:52 pm August 2nd, 2019
Photo: BIGSTOCK
Photo: BIGSTOCK

There’s no shame in seeking help for depression

Of all the curious questions I get asked, the one that tops it all is “tomar ar koidin baki (to graduate)?”

This is a question people started asking me even before I was done with my first year of university. With time, the question has become more urgent and demanding and has taken a turn turned for the worst: “Ekhono shesh hoi nai? Etodin kisher honors?”

It’s a simple calculation to many. 

1 year down, 3 more to go. 

2 years down, 2 more to go.

1, 2, 3, 4. Basic math.

Yet my internal calculator broke somewhere down the middle of my academic journey and I had no idea how many credits or how many courses or how many years I had left. Every time I tried to think about it, trying to do this simple calculation, the walls closed in on me and I was left in a stupor of helplessness and despair. I failed to see the light at the end of the endless tunnel I seemed to be stuck in forever.

The torrid affair

You see, ever since third grade, I knew I wanted to be an architect. The confident little brat that I was, I had my goal set. I fell in love with the word “architecture” even before I knew what it meant. 

And I fell harder in love after figuring out what it was. So when, after a huge battle with my dad who wanted me to major in business, I finally convinced him to let me pursue it, I was ecstatic. But that was short lived.

I started my undergrad in 2014. What I didn’t know at the time of applying to my university was, I had to compete with 139 other students in my foundation year to get into the architecture program. And after a lot of back-breaking hard work amidst a completely new environment in a completely different country and living alone, I did not make it into the program.

I was shattered. I did not know what to do because I had no back up; this is what I had always wanted. And moving to another university to study architecture wasn’t an option. 

In the meantime, I was taking English courses as my general requirement and slowly falling in love with a topic I always enjoyed. But when Abbu asked me what other majors my university offered and I meekly said “English ase,” my desi dad’s typical reply was “English tinglish pore labh nai.”

So I quietly decided I wouldn’t press again. I fought for something before but failed to prove myself. This time I’ll study something my dad wants me to. And that is how, in 2015, I chose to major in business.

My confidence was already down in the dumps and on top of that the courses I was required to take to major in business were math for business and economics -- all math heavy courses. 

Anyone who remotely knows me knows I am terrified of math. It’s not a joke. I ended up failing both the courses that semester. Thereon began my spiral into depression.

I repeated the courses, but by now I had developed severe anxiety. Every time a grade came out and I didn’t do well enough, I would panic. Every time I missed a deadline, I would stop going to classes and checking my emails. 

Gradually, this started seeping into all my courses -- even the ones I enjoyed. Semester after semester, I tried to start things over but one tiny slip and I would spiral down and stay in my dorm room alone for weeks, not getting out of bed, not showering, barely eating. I even started skipping finals. 

On the outside, no one knew. I put up a facade that everything was fine. I started Litmosphere and used it as an escape, pouring my heart and soul into it, running away from reality. I didn’t realize that 2016 had passed.

My CGPA went from 3.6 to below 2 in the next 3 semesters and got me into academic probation. 

In the last of these three semesters, I failed all 5 courses I was taking. My dad got a call from my university.

2017. I was in my third year of undergrad with no sense of direction. I had humiliated my parents. I was going to be kicked out of university if I didn’t turn things around. I was ready to give up. If at that moment Abbu had said, “you don’t need to study anymore,” which, by the way, my mother did suggest, I would have quietly agreed with him. 

But this otherwise strict and conservative man surprised me that day. He flew with me to my university, sat with my academic adviser who told him that my passion lies elsewhere, and gently made him realize his daughter was clinically depressed. 

So after a long discussion and mutual agreement between my dad, my adviser, and me, I switched to English literature.

Depression in academia

This isn’t a story of how I achieved a happily-ever-after just by switching to a major I love. Unfortunately, depression doesn’t work that way. It stays with you, lurking beneath the surface, ready to rear its head whenever the opportunity presents itself. 

I enjoyed my courses a lot -- I participated in class discussions, spewed out analysis like a little scholar. I loved my major! I absolutely nailed my first semester as an English major. 

But come spring 2018, my anxiety reared its head again. My mother was ashamed that I was an Arts student and my dad was worried if I had a future. 

By mid-semester, I had a slip-up; I got a really low grade in a quiz and everything resurfaced. I stopped attending classes again, I stopped checking my emails, messages from my classmates. But to everyone else in the world, I was perfectly fine. 

I was communicating with the outside world as my usual chirpy self like nothing was wrong, as I lay in my bed with the same clothes I had been wearing three days ago. But something changed this time. I managed to pass the semester. Barely, but I made it through.

Because this time, I did things differently. I let a friend in -- let him see the darkness inside and let him help me find the way out. He helped me with the simplest tasks, like reminding me to drink water and eat a proper meal, things I should have been able to do on my own.

But what I learned was that there was to be ashamed of if I failed to do something. 

I let my professors in -- the very same professors I was afraid would judge me for being a failure -- who hugged me tight after I entered their offices and the first words they uttered were “Thank God you’re OK, Rubaiya, I am so happy to see you.” 

They were more concerned about me than my academics. They helped me with deadlines and even excused me from class, letting me work quietly in their offices during class time so that my anxiety doesn’t get triggered. 

I did something that is the hardest for someone suffering through depression -- I opened up and sought help. And the right people shouldered me till I managed to walk on my own, then run.

Academia can be a very difficult place to resist the idea that depression is your own fault. As a former “brilliant student,” I was struck by how my feelings of shame and guilt around depression were reinforced by narratives about the determinants of academic success in our society. 

You have to graduate within four years, you have to have a certain GPA, you have to study some specific majors that determine your brilliance. And if you fail to comply by these rules, you’re a failure. 

But if there is one thing I have learned from my experience, the biggest critic of a person is the person herself. I struggled for a long time before redefining my definition of a failure -- right now, at this moment, I am studying and working for something I am passionate about. 

I am mentally at peace with myself and who I am, and that is far from being a failure. It took me four years to come to terms and accept that I suffer from depression and that it is not my fault. 

It took me a long time to accept that just because I am bad at math, does not mean I am not intelligent. I still struggle with the notion, but I am slowly teaching myself -- my CGPA does not define who I am.

Treatment

The reason for such a long write-up is to say that, if you relate to any of this, there is nothing wrong with you. It is so normal to encounter depression, and there’s no disgrace in having it. 

Attempting to conceal how you feel often seems enticing. However, it’s only just deferring an inescapable retribution. It can feel pretty vulnerable to open up about your feelings at first. 

However, if you can do that with a friend or a counselor who will support you -- or with a journal, or in prayer, or in some other way if you’d rather do it privately -- then there’s a high chance that you’ll start to feel better. 

Simply talking about your feelings can help you to feel better and more in control of your life, even if it doesn’t instantly fix an underlying problem.

There are various ways to deal with treating depression. You might try some of them, alone or in combination, before you figure out what’s most effective for you. For me, journaling and talking to my best friend has been incredibly effective. 

It took me some time, but ultimately it helped me cultivate a great deal of insight into my own emotions, and recognize solutions to a range of problems. Speaking to a therapist is also very effective in reducing depression. 

I started seeking professional help from this year. Prescription drugs are also an option, and you can work with a psychiatrist to figure out if it seems effective for you. Using medication to treat depression is in no way shameful, and there’s also nothing wrong with deciding that you’d rather not use medication. 

It’s really important to pay attention to your own experience and preferences when you’re seeking treatment. It can feel really difficult to find the energy for this when you’re already depressed, but I promise it’s worth the effort.

Epilogue

It’s 2019. A year has gone by. My academics have improved a lot, and I got a job as a student support crew to help other students in probation. I became a fellow of the English Department’s Outreach Committee and arranged three major department events under it, I organized ATW 2018, I took a huge step that got me out of something that was making me miserable for years, I am working to take literature to new heights every day, I won the CEOx1DAY competition, I opened up to Abbu about my depression who supported me in getting therapy, I am working on my post-grad applications, and most importantly, I am excited about the future. 

I still struggle with depression and anxiety -- they won’t let go of me so easily. But I have learned to deal with them better and make peace with my demons.

A year ago, I didn’t know if I’d be able to graduate or even know how many credits I had left. Now I have a fully chalked out plan of what I want to do after I graduate. I know enough math to tell I have just one more year left before I wear that gown. 

Rubaiya Chowdhury is founder of Litmosphere.