Depression and Despair at Harvard
Update 9/11/12: When I wrote this a few days ago, I never imagined the overwhelmingly positive response it would receive. Over 2,700 people have read it in just a few days. I’ve received dozens of encouraging messages from acquaintances, phone calls in which friends broke down crying sharing their own struggles, and emails from fellow alumni as well as a message from a student from my high school. If it wasn’t sufficiently clear from the fact that I posted this online for the world to see, please feel free to share this with others who you think might be helped by it.
Originally, I had intended to write today’s post as a reflection on last week’s debate “Good Without God?”, but in light of the events of last night, I felt compelled instead to share a story that fills me with such deep shame that I have only told my closest friends bits and pieces of it. I only write it now because my prayer is that this story may help others – either by sharing with them the hope that I possess or at least by letting them know that they are not alone.
During my four years at Harvard, I contemplated committing suicide no less than three times. It wasn’t until I almost failed a class during my senior year that I realized that I struggle with depression.
Those words themselves – I almost failed – are almost unbearable to write. The Monge clan is dominated by men – my father is one of seven brothers and just three sisters – and prides itself on strength. Admitting my weakness feels like admitting that I am not good enough to bear my own name. This deep pride in being strong and capable was at its peak just before my fall.
Over the course of my senior year, my schedule got increasingly more challenging and I struggled to make everything fit. Not to mention that I had vastly underestimated the pressure of that great impending Future which lay just beyond graduation. I had always taken pride and joy out of the juggling, and it was out of the question to admit I had taken on too much.
It got to the point where I didn’t turn in the final paper for one of my fall classes. As I sat down to write, I was filled with such great shame that I couldn’t bear to begin. Each painful page filled me with misery because it was simply a reminder of how incompetent I really was. When the deadline passed, that guilt just got increasingly worse. Waves of self-doubt inspired insurmountable writer’s block. I spent my entire Christmas break fretting over it and felt immense guilt every time I sat down to write a single word. Though I’d gotten an A- on my first paper, my professors kindly gave me a C when I didn’t turn in the final one. I was so overjoyed to simply have not failed, which is ironic given that at any other time during my career at Harvard getting a C would have counted as failure.
Still, I couldn’t so much as bear to read a single email between Christmas and the start of spring term for fear of receiving the one that would read, “You have failed. Please take a semester off.” When I sat down to work on my thesis, I was overwhelmed by the shame of not finishing my other coursework.
I got called into my Resident Dean’s office in February, when my thesis adviser perfectly legitimately complained about my falling off the face of the planet. I confessed to being very overwhelmed and to not quite caring about things as much as I used to. I began weeping in her office while she persuaded me to seek help from a counselor at the Bureau of Study Counsel (yes, they have psychologists there) because I was exhibiting some of the characteristics of depression.
Depression. The word seemed so meaningless whenever I joked, “I’m so depressed!” But when Judith said it – with that capital D, that clinical depression that gets you put into the hospital – I couldn’t tell whether to be relieved I’d been diagnosed or disturbed by how weak it made me. I went to the counselor mostly because I was hoping to get diagnosed with ADD or something else instead, so that I might get drugs to give me the focus I couldn’t quite harness of my own willpower. Instead, the counselor suggested that I go on anti-depressants. I declined, mostly since I wasn’t suicidal this time. My despair felt justified in light of my obvious failings in my classes.
I shared some of this – the part about being diagnosed with depression – with my parents. I am very grateful to have incredibly loving parents who have never tied their affection for me with my academic success. When I called my mom the first time to tell her, she broke down crying. On my mother’s side of the family, unbeknownst to me, there had been a history of depression. Our conversation finally gave a unifying thread to some of the mysteries of that side of the family: that uncle who was gone but seemed dead far too early, my mother’s proclivity for wearing black in her high school years, a distant cousin’s recent suicide attempt, and now my own diagnosis.
Looking back at my life, I realized that I myself had a history of depression. I had felt suicidal just before I entered high school, I had depressive periods throughout my time there though most of them weren’t severe. In college, I had contemplated suicide during my freshman year, my sophomore year, and my junior year – mostly for different reasons. The first time, I was saved by my philosophizing ways – overcome by nihilism, I decided to give faith a chance. The second, a good friend from church forced me to spend the night at her house. The third, I had called my closest friend from high school who worked Nightline at Columbia. I had never actually attempted suicide, but I had been seriously considering it. I assumed that because I had experienced despair so often that it was just normal; that contemplating suicide was an ordinary part of the human experience.
Still, I suspected that taking medication was not the answer; I felt as though there must be some other way to deal with it, like I had many times before. Hadn’t my counselor admitted that at times, I didn’t sound depressed? I experienced great delight when I explained my work as an intern at The Veritas Forum and when I told her about my boyfriend. Maybe just talking would help? A part of me suspected that my sin – that chiefest of all sins, Pride – was playing some role in all of this, and I questioned whether talking without dealing with spiritual issues would even help. I figured I would give it a shot, but of course, I got sick with the flu and had to cancel our third meeting, and spring break put things on hold, and I just never ended up going back to meet with her after our second talk. Not to mention that having yet another meeting wasn’t exactly going to reduce my stress levels. Without the serious symptom of suicide, I just thought my depression was something I could handle on my own.*
Yet my coursework grew increasingly unbearable. When I missed a deadline for another philosophy class, I stopped attending it. I couldn’t bear facing the professor and I couldn’t bear facing my shame by sitting down and actually writing it. When I talked to my friends, I admitted to being overwhelmed and stressed but never quite admitted how deep my troubles actually were. I liked to think that I was saving them from worrying about me, but I suspect even more deeply that my pride prevented me from being fully honest. Confessing how close I was to failing would confirm my deepest fear that my friends were indeed more beautiful, more intelligent, and more talented than I. Though I’ve never met any man who loved me quite so unconditionally – I couldn’t breath a word to my boyfriend out of fear that he’d stop caring for me once he knew how weak and incapable I really was. Knowing how much my parents were giving up to send me to Harvard, I couldn’t reveal to them how much I was really struggling. When I tried to work, all I could do was stare down the wall of my own insecurity, doubting whether I even deserved to be at Harvard at all.
Each day was filled with a deep sense of dread. Dread that all this would catch up to me. Dread that I would run into a professor who thought me inferior because I had failed to turn something in. Dread that my friends would find out how terrible a person I really was. My only solace – the only way to avoid being overwhelmed in a world where I couldn’t share my deepest struggles with anyone – was escapism. While my papers and projects floundered, I caught up on all my favorite TV shows just to escape my guilty conscience. Of course, just as scratching a wound is simultaneously delightful and destructive, my escapist procrastination simply made the problem worse.
Escapism was also my only solution for dealing with that great unforeseeable future that would become my life after graduation. While others were counting down the days, I deliberately avoiding reminding myself how much little time I had left. The future seemed to constantly serve as a reminder that I would never be as good as those who came before me. Destined not to be president, to start a tech company, or to be a business tycoon, I knew I would fail at being one of the greatest Harvard alums – just as I had failed at being a great Harvard student. I’d always found solace in having a plan, but the future now could lead anywhere. Given my current trajectory, that didn’t seem nearly so promising as it had when I first walked through Johnston Gate.
By the end of the year, I met with my Resident Dean again. Of course, this time I was in much more serious trouble. My professor was going to fail me for the course in which I hadn’t submitted two papers. I explained the situation and met with him, and he agreed to let me turn them in late. I missed this second deadline but emailed him before the end of the semester pleading with him to pass. I think he ended up giving me a D; I haven’t had the courage to look at my transcript and to know the truth.
I would have failed were it not for the graciousness of several professors to whom I am incredibly grateful though I am utterly incapable of emailing them to express this gratitude. I’ve even avoided walking around the Philosophy building for fear of running into them, their eyes penetrating my façade, knowing my weakness more intimately than many of my close friends.
My guilt and shame was exacerbated by my faith; I converted from a once-militant atheism to Christianity during my freshman year. Though this faith often gave me courage, humility, and joy, I found that during my senior year, the desire to share the faith that helped me so much made me hyper-cognizant of how I was portraying my beliefs to others. Each of my failings seemed to suggest not only that I was personally weak, but also that I was disappointing God with my failure to be a good witness to others. Even though I believed Christianity initially because I recognized my own weakness and guilt, it felt like a personal failing that I hadn’t gotten around to being perfect yet.
This became all the more poignant when Wendy passed last April. I didn’t know Wendy personally, and I cannot confess to know why she took that final step that I did not. But Wendy was from my home town, she attended a high school much like my own. She felt – in many ways – like another version of me. And I struggled to figure out why – in light of how much despair I felt, in light of how much I miserably failed more than ever before – I hadn’t considered suicide during my senior year.
It came down to this and this alone: I had the hope to know that God was using my suffering to effect some important change in myself and in those around me, and the faith to trust that all of this temporary failure would not matter in the grand scheme of eternity. You see, I believe in a God who loved each and every one of us so much that He Himself came down to die on the cross that we might be freed from our sins, freed from our guilt, freed from Death itself. I would venture that He loves because that is who He is, and you can’t change who He is. He didn’t love me more for going to Harvard, he didn’t love me more for my success, and so He couldn’t love me less for not being perfect. He loves me simply for being human, and that is something at which I can never really fail.
If God could turn the most terrible misfortune in history (His son dying on the cross, ridiculed and shamed) into the most remarkable event (the redemption of all mankind), then of course He could turn my nearly-flunked course into something beautiful. Because my life revolves around Him and His glory, instead of around me and my success, my own failings and insecurities matter much less. That’s the only reason that I can share this story with you now: because though confronting my most humbling failings publicly has taken as many tears as it has keystrokes, I trust that God can use my story for greater good.
I was incredibly surprised and thankful for Steven Maheshwary’s speech at Class Day, just before Commencement when I still wasn’t completely certain that I would be graduating. He gracefully acknowledged not only how Harvard students actually do fail, but also the gut-wrenching feeling it inspires and how uncomfortable we are discussing this with our parents. It is only when we become comfortable discussing failure that we can overcome it instead of being overwhelmed by it. I wish that more underclassmen – who still have to deal wit the bizarre yet beautiful world that is Harvard – had been there to appreciate what Steven said. I can only hope that my words can continue what Steven started.
C.S. Lewis once wrote in Mere Christianity, “Some of us who seem quite nice people may, in fact, have made so little use of a good heredity and a good upbringing that we are really worse than those whom we regard as friends. Can we be quite certain how we should have behaved if we had been saddled with the psychological outfit, and then with the bad upbringing, and then with the power, say, of Himmler? That is why Christians are told not to judge. We see only the results which a man’s choices make out of his raw material. But God does not judge him on the raw material at all, but on what he has done with it. Most of the man’s psychological make-up is probably due to his body: when his body dies all that will fall off him, and the real central man, the thing that chose, that made the best or worst of this material, will stand naked. All sorts of nice things which we thought our own, but which were really due to good digestion, will fall off some of us: all sorts of nasty things which were due to complexes or bad health will fall off others. We shall then, for the first time, see every one as he really was. There will be surprises.”
I realized that faith was the key difference between my last episode with depression – in which I not once contemplated suicide – and all the others. This time, in the deepest depression I had yet experienced, I still had hope. Knowing that my old suicidal habits had been transformed into hope amidst despair made it clear that my faith had made a difference in my life and that I wasn’t simply “a bad Christian.” Of course, the whole business of being “a bad Christian” is rather silly anyways; the reason I converted was because I recognized my own weakness and guilt. Following in Jesus’ footsteps does not require me to be perfect all the time, but it does demand that I seize the opportunity to really wrestle with life’s hardest problems with my friends rather than hiding behind a false veneer of strength. The Christian faith has never been about living up to God’s standards for goodness, but rather how God uses confession, hope, and faith to transform our brokenness and shortcomings. My raw material may be shoddy – my genetic code seemingly designed for depression – but God is using it to transform me. My pride was my downfall, but my faith is my salvation.
I do not know if you share this faith, and you may find me foolish for believing it, though I think I have good reasons. But if you do, I pray that this story inspires you with the hope that I have felt, the hope that has seen me through my depression. If you don’t, I pray that you will at least be comforted by the knowledge that other Harvard students have gone what you are going through. Sometimes, it just takes patience to see the ways in which your struggles can serve as a comfort to others; it takes pain to weep with those who weep. Worry gets us nowhere, but waiting often brings us to a better place. Had I known in the fall that I would end up graduating on time, that I would end up working at my dream job, that I would be surrounded by friends who thought more rather than less of me for sharing, I probably would have approached my suffering differently. Of course, everything is 20/20 in hindsight.
Last night, Nick Nowalk gave a talk to Harvard College Faith and Action on hope and despair, and he pointed out that Harvard students have an abnormally high rate of depression compared to the population at large. Often expectations shape our emotions more than actual experiences. Nick suggested that because we have such high hopes for ourselves – we are told that we can take on the whole world – we feel our failings all the more astutely. Our highs are higher and our lows are lower.
In all your lows, may you still have hope. May you find solace in the company of those who share your sorrows. May you learn from my story and feel more comfortable sharing your troubles with those whom you love than I was. May you know that great strength often comes out of great weakness. May Cote’s family be healed from this tragedy. May Cote’s soul rest in peace.
Tonight, a group of student gathered in the Science Center to discuss these very delicate issues. The amazing thing is that though at first it is incredibly difficult to admit to our failures, mistakes, and struggles – it grows easier to do it in community. Confession – though painful – is cathartic. Knowing that you have told all you have to tell, that no one can discover some deep secret about you, that the Truth is out – is an immensely satisfying feeling. I hope that discussions like these can continue at Harvard; that students would have a place to share their common sufferings and to grow in true caritas together.
* I think that it’s worth mentioning that though I elected to not take medication, I now seriously wonder whether that was the right choice. If you are struggling with depression, I encourage you to seek help from the Mental Health services at Harvard. Please learn from my mistake and don’t give up just because you have a couple of scheduling problems! Here are some other great resources if you feel like you are struggling: