The importance of seeking help and building a support system
“Who is she? Why does she look so sad?”
It was a summer day in 2013. After lying in my bed and staring at the ceiling without doing anything for the entire day again, I finally got up.
When I looked into the bathroom mirror, I saw my eyes filled with tears. What is worse, I could not recognize the sad person in the mirror.
“She looks miserable”, I said to myself, “yet I can do nothing to save her.”
This is not my first episode of depression. I experienced my first in my junior year, as a result of the stress of academic research and personal life crises.
Often feeling incompetent, sad, and hopeless, I chose to avoid my family, friends, classmates, and professors. Frequently “going missing” for a long period of time, I hid in my room, cried, and dwelt on my misfortune.
The situation was the worst during my senior year, when I twice attempted suicide by overdosing on my medication. I survived both, but it seemed that I constantly lived under desperation and depression.
Despite my poor grades during my junior and senior years, I was able to get into MIT for the PhD program in chemical engineering in 2011 )thanks to my previous good performance and a great amount of help from my undergraduate research advisors at CalTech).
I thought the move to a new city might improve my condition. It turned out that I was wrong, as the first term of my PhD program was stressful, requiring students to take three core classes and simultaneously find a research topic and advisor.
The episode of depression continued, and I constantly missed lectures, problem sets, and even exams. Eventually, I had to take a medical leave and went back to my hometown, Shanghai, hoping that traveling and more importantly, distance from stress could help with my recovery.
This medical leave seemed to work at first. When I returned to MIT in the fall of 2012, feeling more energized and hopeful than before, I managed to finish all the courses and find a research advisor. I also passed the written part of my PhD qualification exam at the beginning of 2013.
My life seemed to have returned to the right track for the first time in 4 years. However, the lack of alertness for my mental condition and the neglect of how serious the condition led to another long period of depression.
When I was constantly faced with disappointments from my PhD research as well as was saddened by my failed relationships, my positive energy built from the leave was gradually consumed. I started to disappear from my lab, my classes, and my social circle for an extended period of time, hiding in my room and often crying all day.
The opening paragraph describes what my typical day was during that period of time. What is worse, when my research advisor and friends became concerned, asked about what was going on, and offered to help, I often refused to cooperate.
Honestly, I was scared to seek help. It never occurred to me that I was actually sick, and I always treated all the symptoms as signs of my personal weaknesses: my lack of self-control and determination. What is worse, mental illness has been a cultural taboo in China, where I grew up.
I remember the first time when I finally gathered the courage to tell my parents about my mental condition. My mother looked extremely sad, disappointed, and even angry, screaming, “How can you do this to our family? How will you get married in the future? Nobody will marry a crazy person!”
I finally decided to seek help, partly because I finally realized that self-pity would never help improve my condition. More importantly, I gained a lot of support after having discussions about my situation with the dean for graduate education and my research advisor, whose support allowed me to take some time off and focus on improving my condition with professional help.
I still remember what Dean Staton told me during our discussion, “Erin, we will do everything in our capacity to make sure that you are getting better. I have faith in you.”
My friends at MIT also did a lot to help me. During my relapses, they would take me out for meals or take long walks with me in Boston, listening to me and trying to comfort me. For the first time in 8 years, I truly feel that I am not alone to fight against depression.
To be honest, I have not made a full recovery yet. However, I am in a much better position now than I was 8 years ago.
MIT has helped me build a support system I can rely on when facing episodes of depression. More importantly, I am no longer ashamed of suffering from depression. I have learned to treat it as a part of my life experience that makes me stronger.
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