Darkness is as light to you

“I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness;
I will take you by the hand and keep you;
I will give you as a covenant for the people,
a light for the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.” 
(Isaiah 42:6-7)

Taken with an iPhone 5s at Goodspeed Hall, University of Chicago

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Magic words to tell everyone around you

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I heard these magic words on February 13, 2013: “Karen, don’t let the fact that others may go through harder things allow you to make light of your pain. It’s never ‘just’ anything when it comes to hardship. You have just as much a right to the compassion and empathy of your brothers and sisters in Christ as anyone else with problems. Really, no matter what one is going through there’s always someone worse off, you can’t let that invalidate your suffering.”

Some context: For a few weeks, I’d been noticing signs of a depression relapse and was trying to come to terms with it all. My new friend, D, sent a Facebook message asking how I’d been lately. Now, our friendship had begun on rather interesting note. At a large Christmas gathering of Christian students at UChicago, D publicly shared, for the first time, about having struggled with severe depression for 7 years (and counting). That night, we talked for a really long time, exchanging stories of depression and faith.  So when I received his Facebook message, I felt I could tell him about the recent onset of mild depression. But I also added, “I almost feel ashamed cus I know that what I go through is really small compared to your depression.”

That was when he told me the magic words that would stick with me as mild depression turned into full-blown clinical depression, as I crawled toward recovery 8 months later, and as I began talking to others struggling with various issues (mental or otherwise).

Almost every person who’s opened up to me, at some point expresses shame about asking for help because there are many out there who are worse off. And I’d tell them about what D told me, that I care about them and what they’re going through. Period. We don’t allocate compassion based on relative magnitudes of suffering. God’s infinite love means infinite compassion. There is more than enough to go around.

At the well

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” –Jesus (Matthew 11:28-30)

When I told my professors about my depression

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Last week was spent bedridden with a fever fluctuating in the 100-103F range. It also happened to be finals week, so I wasted no time in requesting deadline extensions. I was relieved, though not too surprised, that my professors were generous and understanding enough to grant extensions stretching beyond finals week. But it made me wonder why reaching out to my profs with this request was such a no-brainer, when I was so reluctant to do the same last year when I was struggling with depression. If you think about it, what’s a better excuse to ask for help academically? When your body is sick, or when your brain is sick?

It took me a long time to muster the courage to tell any of my professors about my problem with depression. My counselor, knowing how much the condition was taking a toll on my mental capabilities, had advised me to inform them as soon as possible. At first, I didn’t think it would be necessary (it also seemed like TMI — would they even care?). As the depression got worse, I wondered if I was just using depression as an excuse for my stupidity and laziness. After all, I was spending most of my time just lying in bed and/or staring off into space, or playing brainless iPhone games. If I would just open a new Word Doc, I’d be able to work fine, wouldn’t I? (Wrong.) I suppose that was around the time the depression began to convince me that I wasn’t really depressed. Eventually, for the sake of my grades, I did email my professors about this, even though I remained half-convinced that I was a terrible person for exploiting this “little” medical condition.

This was Prof S.’s response to my email asking for Pass/Fail (instead of a letter grade). She was the first prof I’d told about how depression was impeding my academic performance. Not only did she grant my request, she graciously offered a Pass without requiring me to turn in a final paper at all:

Dear Karen,

I have struggled with depression on and off all my life; it is genetic in my family. It will pass! I will give you a P for the course. Meanwhile I hope that you are receiving the proper medical help.

No need to hand in a paper. If I can give you a word of advice — please be sure to consult both a counselor and a psychiatrist. Some depressions run their course in 9-10 months even without medication. But often medication is needed, even if for a show period of time. There is nothing  wrong with taking antidepressants. It is tricky sometimes to find the right antidepressant but when they start to work, they are worth their weight in gold.

S.

And this was Prof L’s response. I couldn’t afford to Pass/Fail this class because it was a requirement for my major, so instead I asked for deadline extensions:

Hi Karen,

An extension would be just fine. There is no need for an explanation, but I am glad that you are getting the appropriate medical attention. I know how difficult it can be to respond to treatment and to be open to people around you, so I am happy to see that you are taking the right steps. I’ve seen a lot of students who are too scared to get the help that they need, both medically and academically, when dealing with a mental illness, so know that you are handling this in exactly the right way. Let me know if you need anything, and also let me know if you’ll need some extra time on the final assignment.

R.

The genuine empathy and concern in both professors’ replies astounded me. They assuaged my fears of coming across as lazy or weak. And more importantly, in my confusion about my own mental state, they gently affirmed that depression was a complex illness that crippled people in very real ways. I know some college students who don’t feel like they can or should inform their professors about their depression. I would strongly encourage anyone in that position to do so without fear of judgment. Nobody talks about depression in class, but this doesn’t mean our professors know nothing about it. If they haven’t personally experienced it, given the amount of stress in academic circles, and also the number of years they’ve lived, our professors are a lot more likely than our own peers to have personally known someone who’s battled it. Either way, they will understand.

Note: Taking  a leave of absence from school might be a better option for others, especially if you are having recurring suicidal thoughts. Do discuss your options with your counselor and people who know you well!