My unbalanced life led to isolation, despair, and what some might call classic signs of “clinical depression.”But it wasn’t until years later that I had any contact with the mental health system – after I’d become desperate enough to crack in a highly visible way. I went on a journey to try to renew my spirit, ended up considered “manic” and “psychotic,” and was thrown into the hospital.At that point, doctors and nurses tried to sell me on the idea that I had a biological illness. No one ever suggested that my life circumstances were related to the desperate place I’d ended up. It was all about my so-called “illness” — the same shallow proclamation of a “chemical imbalance” that no one has ever proven exists.They never considered that my life situation did not meet my needs and desires. It was beyond unbalanced; it was horribly skewed against my own inclinations and temperament. And yet the so-called “mental health” system has never understood this, and never addressed my unbalanced life in any of my dealings with them.
My Unbalanced Life Started Becoming Too Much For Me in College
I got sick of everything. It started when I was 19 years old. I was in university, studying computer science. As a teenager, I’d developed a love affair with computers. That, coupled with social isolation and emotional shutdown, led to me getting sucked into computer programming.It was a love affair that society encouraged. It wasn’t like doing drugs or drinking alcohol. It was doing a skilled activity that could, one day, get me a career. Or so the logic went.I used to think that I would become a scientist, a researcher. I filled my head with ideas of combining computer science with biology somehow. All the cool things I could do and learn. Or so the theory went.Except that somehow, in cultivating this interest, I lost track of all the other things that had supported me growing up: the fabric of my life, consisting of languages, piano, clarinet, dancing, prayers, playing outside with my brother, even Barbies in my neighbor’s basement.I didn’t consider what would happen if I grew into a one-trick pony of an adult, a person who was so focused on my single-minded pursuit of one particular activity that I ended up hating it.
An Unbalanced Life is like an Unbalanced Diet.
I imagine it’s like being a child who only likes rich, sweet foods, and one day discovers that you like broccoli. “Aha! I like broccoli and what’s more, it’s good for me!” So you eat tons and tons of broccoli.
And guess what? You get sick of it.
I kept flogging and torturing myself to study, study, study, when in fact that’s what I’d been doing since I was 11 or 12, and discovered I was “good” at school. My whole identity rested on being smart. “Smart” was defined as doing well in school.
Little did I realize that school is its own game, that the only benefit you get is that grade, and that it’s a form of obedience. It’s a form of behavioral compliance. I didn’t see that, because up until a certain age, compliance brought rewards.
Growing up, being “good,” doing what was expected, came easily to me. I didn’t rebel. Because I was showered with attention, and treated fairly well in my family, doing well in school came with a bevy of psychological rewards for me.
My unbalanced life paid dividends. Up until it didn’t.
My Life Became Unsustainable
But being 19 years old, studying computer science, suddenly I lost my appetite for it. Even in my second year, my eyes started roaming to other departments. I remember fantasizing about switching to chemistry, or biology, or physics even, and constructing elaborate course schedules and multi-year plans on scraps of paper.
In the end, my parents pushed me to finish the Honors Computer Science degree, and in my last year, my interest waned so much that for the first time, I started talking with my classmates instead of listening, and started not caring about what I was learning.
You could say that I got depressed. You could say that’s when my so-called “mood disorder” began. You could name symptoms, e.g. trouble concentrating.
I remember finally being able to do my Undergraduate Honors Project, but not feeling that there was anything worth studying in computer science proper, as I’d been bored and disappointed by the material.
So I tried to do an “interdisciplinary” project, but without background in the other discipline, I ended up doing a dilettante’s job. I remember slide after overhead slide basically proving nothing, but painting a thin veneer of intelligence over the whole useless enterprise.
Sometimes I think that the problem was the curriculum. I was a curious person, and wanted to do something glorious, something interesting, fun, adventurous. But all I could do was study, do the experiments in the book, and get along.
Then, if I just happened to luck out and pick a tiny slice of science that I liked, I might one day become a researcher doing something I gave a crap about.
But I realized as I went along that specialization becomes a prison. I was seeking something beautiful, something beyond the ugliness of this regimented world of mutual isolation.
Instead I found an institution — the university — that took my money and gave me my courses, the same curriculum as numerous students. It didn’t help me on my process of discovery. All I could do was follow the rules and play the game. It pushed my life even farther out of balance.
Well, I got sick of the game.
On my exit survey, I wrote “I feel like I’ve just come out of a sausage factory.” That’s how disgusted I was by the commodity that I had purchased, this standardized crappy “education” that wasn’t really teaching me what I wanted to know.
Maybe that’s why I snapped. I realized what I was doing was wasting my money and time. And with that realization came a despair and disorientation whose roots I couldn’t understand, not for years.
I Had Fun Before My Life Became So One-Dimensional
I used to be an avid reader as a child. I gobbled up books. I remember crying and laughing, and loving what I was reading. When, my identity rested on being “smart,” the same books I once loved became chores, something to “understand,” something to do with “proving” myself.
I’ve been beating myself up because I don’t read much for pleasure anymore. Just the other day, I went to the library, and read the first page or two of over a dozen books, and came away with nothing.
I don’t want to read the same stories I read as a kid. I don’t want to read fantasy or science fiction about people having really cool lives in universes that don’t exist. I don’t want to read prairie literature that only ever was an English assignment.
I don’t want to do anything I have to force myself to do. And what “worked” when I was younger doesn’t work now.
Now, I rarely select a book to read. I rarely get that immersed. And it’s hard to say exactly what will engage me. It’s a bit of a crapshoot.
Trying to Balance My Life
I could lament that I am depressed because I’ve “lost interest in activities I once found enjoyable”. That’s a core “symptom” of clinical depression. And YET:
- Saturday evening I won a “Learn to Knit” prize in a raffle at a fundraiser. Since Sunday, I have been obsessed with knitting. When I wake up, when I go to sleep, eat lunch, ride the bus, everywhere. I’ve taught myself to cast on, knit, purl, cast off, reduce, and (almost) increase. All from this book I won.
- Monday evening I met for an hour of conversation with a young man who grew up speaking the foreign language I’m studying in his home. I took the first-year course at a local university last year, but was having trouble finding anyone for conversation. So I finally got enterprising and offered to pay this young man to speak with me. I had an absolutely wonderful, delightful time Monday evening. And he was impressed with how strong my Yiddish is, even though I haven’t spoken much.
Tonight, I tried to get engaged with a programming challenge on a website, because the challenge offered money. I stared at the problem, and then just clicked to go to the next, and clicked onto the next, and finally just gave up and closed my web browser.
I felt absolutely awful. The whole thing was dreadful. Less than 20 minutes, and I’d unsubscribed from their mailing list. I felt horrible that I had wasted even a few precious minutes that way.
This is how I feel at work all day. I work as a computer programmer, because it’s the only way I can seem to get paid in this economy. Often I will look at the clock two or three times in the same five minutes.
I only work part-time now, but the day creeps by. It is an act of constant willpower to remain focused and get work done. I just hate computer programming.
It’s easy to fight with yourself if you are trying to do something you once liked, but now hate. It’s also easy to decide that you are floundering because you are “depressed”. But that’s wrongheaded.
Was My Depression Really My Unbalanced Life?
I was once in the hospital, and my roommate, who said she’d been depressed for 10 years and wasn’t getting better despite all the meds, lay on her bed and read a book I gave her from cover to cover.
It was Pseudoscience in Biological Psychiatry: Blaming the Body by Colin Ross and Alvin Pam. Not exactly light reading. Then, she asked her nurse a thoughtful question, about whether there really is a chemical imbalance, and what psych drugs actually do. The nurse couldn’t give her a thoughtful response.
Some of the most recent books to captivate me have been The Holy Machine by Chris Beckett and Higher Ground: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost by Carolyn Briggs.
The Holy Machine is about a world in backlash against science and technology, where religious fundamentalists have taken over. The story centers around a man who falls in love with a robot prostitute whose inner dialogue speaks to me of the futility of machine intelligence. I identify, as I lost faith in artificial intelligence when studying it in university. The book’s pathos that is hard to summarize or explain, but it touched me.
Higher Ground is the real-life story of a woman who became an evangelical Christian and then left the faith. For some reason, I’ve had a fascination with the experience and meaning behind such experiences. I want to know what God, and Jesus, do for people on an emotional level, not because I want to find a faith to believe in, but because the idea of authentic, full-hearted belief speaks to my needs.
I’m not suggesting these books will speak to you, only that out of all the stories I could have picked up in the past few years, these two were some of the rare ones that spoke to me. They were the ones that satisfied a hunger that I’m only learning how to name.
I wonder if my depressed roommate needed something that she couldn’t name either.
Sean Blackwell of Bipolar or Waking Up has a theory that “bipolar disorder” results from a person outgrowing what satisfied them in the past, even outgrowing their old ego. An inspiring theory.
How do stagnation and an unbalanced life relate to your struggles?