Columns

Okun ’15: Brown, blue and gray

By
Guest Columnist
Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Editors’ note: This piece discusses depression and its effects.

It began — where else? — in chemistry class. Tenth grade.

A girl that I had always found annoying bounced into the room, chattering about her new endeavor to ask friends about their first kisses. The stories were adorable, she recounted, her voice tinged with nostalgia for a phase of life apparently long gone.

A few desks over, I absorbed her words like glue and wondered if I was falling behind. At 15, I had never held a girl’s hand. That was the moment I started to hear the social clock ticking. I could not drown it out.

Two years passed, filled with silent crushes and nightly prayers to God for some romantic luck. Suddenly, it was senior year, and graduation loomed like a deadline for all the elements of childhood that still felt unrealized.

There’s a term in psychology for what happened next: rumination. If the first kiss was all that I had lacked, everything else would have been fine. But it was just one ingredient in a potent cocktail. My body repulsed me. My voice grated. I worried I had too few friends. I was deeply insecure in my personality, my masculinity and my sexuality, and I fell into a routine of self-loathing.

This was all in my mind, but the effects rippled further. Sometimes, as I pondered the possibility that nothing would ever improve, I physically doubled over from the pain. My self-esteem and confidence plummeted, even as I outwardly remained the gregarious overachiever I had always been. I told no one.

•••

Brown turned out to be better than I had expected, but it was no panacea. In need of help, yet terrified that Psychological Services might tell my parents if I showed up as a minor, I waited until I turned 18 to make an appointment.

After three sessions, I’d gotten what I wanted — confirmation that these feelings were real and had a name, which was probably mild to moderate depression. But I never felt a connection with the psychologist. Returning from winter break, I told myself I was strong enough to overcome it alone.

Another year elapsed. On the best days, the notion that I had a mood disorder seemed foreign. I wasn’t suicidal, which made it easier to pretend there was no real problem. I was a master at hiding, even from myself.

But things deteriorated again. My sense of worthlessness was overwhelming. I never wore shorts or took my shirt off in front of someone else; I hadn’t been to a pool in years. Both mind and body became traps I could not escape. And, above all, sounded the steady drumbeat of feeling dislocated in my own life.

I submerged myself in classes and extracurriculars to fill the hours, but, at night, the darkness always found a way to seep in through the cracks. It became difficult to concentrate on homework. The self-criticism distracted me.

I took to tracing long 1 a.m. ovals around the three main campus greens. They were usually deserted, allowing the depression to envelop me. I would stand in front of the Van Wickle Gates and feel waves of goose bumps flood my skin. There was a certain comfort in sadness or at least its familiarity. It was so easy to sink into the pain.

When I returned home, the fatigue and depleted willpower made it hard to walk up the steps to my suite — two flights taking 10 minutes. Some nights, I would curl at the top of a staircase that led nowhere in a back corner of Barbour shivering into sadness and wonder if I was being melodramatic, making it all up or teetering on the verge of something worse.

Weekend nights were no better. Parties filled me with discomfort. I didn’t know how to interact with people. The sweaty bodies gyrating in sticky rooms seemed to speak a language I had never been taught. Within minutes of arriving, I would pretend to take a call, move away from the dance floor and edge toward the door. “My friend needs me,” I’d explain if anyone noticed, inverting the truth and inventing an excuse to trudge home alone.

If you had to describe depression as a color, you’d probably choose blue. We seem to have latched onto it as the clearest instantiation of feeling down. But during my spells of despair, blue — calming, tranquil blue — captured only part of the story. Emotions felt raw and rough. Depression was a sadness that pulsed an electric blue.

Until the colors changed, that is. In the long Providence winter, blue drained away and the gray skies began to take over. Exhausted from blackened nights, I awoke to find myself numb. Walking around campus, I felt like my edges had dulled. And the sole question reverberating around my mind — is this all there is? — made everything seem distant. In retrospect, this sense of detachment scares me more than any hurt.

•••

The start of 2013 found me back at Psych Services, where I zoomed through the allotted seven sessions and was referred off campus for long-term treatment.

There was little personalization to this process. I was handed a list of people who would accept my insurance and chose the one whose office was closest. When I called to schedule a consultation, I found out that he had moved to the other side of campus.

I went anyway, and, finally, on this third try, the therapist clicked. He pulled no punches and wasn’t afraid to make me feel shitty when I needed to. But, as we embarked on the profoundly strange journey of uncoiling all the knots in my mind, his insight and refusal to accept excuses gave me the energy to keep moving forward — to keep doing the work, as he put it.

The work, it turned out, entailed a number of things I had never imagined doing: Skyping my family to tell them about my depression — and discovering an extensive genetic precedent I’d never known; combing through my childhood for buried pain and reliving the stroke at age seven that left me disabled; lugging around a book with FEELING GOOD emblazoned on the cover and attempting the cognitive exercises listed inside.

There were no miracle movie moments where the clouds parted and the sun shone through. It was a matter of chipping away at, piece by piece, the emotional scar tissue encasing my mind. Some weeks were more successful than others. But, by the end of junior fall, I was past the inflection point.

From the outside, my life didn’t look much different. But to see yourself in a new light is a revolutionary occurrence. Over time, I had started to internalize small moments of beauty, new layers of understanding and silent revelations—in short, a transformation.

•••

One summer day that year, I walked by a tour group at the precise moment the guide was reciting everyone’s favorite factoid: “Brown students are some of the happiest in the country.” I was on my way to therapy.

The “happiest students” moniker comes from Princeton Review rankings in 2009 and 2010, when we claimed the top spot.  The methodology is dubious, but it has nonetheless taken firm hold in our collective consciousness — Brown has since fallen out of the top 20, but nobody seems to have noticed much.

Happiness is worth celebrating, but this accolade can suffocate important discussions. At the time, nobody had ever opened up to me about experiencing the kind of problems that I faced. Some campus groups stimulated discussions of mental health, but they were few and far between, and I was too embarrassed to attend the events. I knew all the statistics. They didn’t make my nights feel any less solitary.

We have a curious way of talking about hardship here. Slogging through mountains of homework and weeks of sleep deprivation is an accepted norm; it helps us coalesce around surface commiseration. But when it comes to some deeper issues, conversation still seems rare, though I’m hopeful that lately this has started to change.

Stigma is more insidious than the silence of a student body. It infects the individual, too. For a while, I felt as though I couldn’t tell anyone about my depression. Even as I worked through my insecurities, the shame of talking about them outside a therapist’s office was too strong. That shame partly resulted from my fear of showing vulnerability. But I know I’m not unique.

•••

Still, of all the people struggling here, I have been among the fortunate. I worry more about the students who can’t rely on sympathetic parents for weekly co-pays. I worry about those with depression orders of magnitude more severe than mine — if one can measure depression quantitatively — whose illnesses push them into hospital rooms and medical leave. I worry about the people of any mental state grappling with inadequacy by themselves, ashamed of their shame and alone in their loneliness. And I wonder how it makes them feel each day to navigate a campus brimming with the smartest, sexiest, happiest students in the country.

For a long time at this school, I thought I might be defective — the kind of person that natural selection is meant to weed out. Once depression became habitual, it was difficult to envision change or even to remember what a healthy emotional life felt like.

And I won’t pretend that all my problems have evaporated. Some residue always lingers; a certain darkness is always accessible; and some nights still drag me down. But sadness doesn’t attack as often as it used to, and when it does, I have ways to handle it.

I am devising my own language for understanding this life. The perfectionist in me struggled so long to reconcile dreams with reality, and the process of letting fantasies go has been painful. But it has also brought me closer to some truer ambitions. In fits and starts, I have become a bit more comfortable with uncertainties, slower to judge and hungrier for genuine connections. If I believed in normalcy, I would say I’m heading there now.


Eli Okun ’15 is a former editor-in-chief of The Herald. He is an international relations concentrator from Rockville, Maryland, and can be reached at 
eliok46@gmail.com.

  • Senior’15

    I have felt this way throughout most of college. Thank you for writing this.

    • Senior2015

      Me too.

  • Alum ’14

    To the author-

    I admire your courage in opening up about your struggles with mental health, and this is a very well written article about a topic that needs significantly more awareness. I wish you all the best on your journey.

  • also

    You deserve huge kudos for the courage to write this article. There are parents out there who’s children may be saved from getting your experience visible. I wish it were published in the Alumni Monthly… BAM.