By Way of Explanation

Everyone has these two visions when they hold their child for the first time. The first is your child as an adult saying “I want to thank the Nobel Committee for this award.” The other is “You want fries with that?”
– Robin Williams

I suppose I should say something here, because this quote turns out to be a bit on the poignant side. Readers already aware of some portion of the following detail may be excused for skipping this one; I have alluded to various portions of it in posts and comments on different blogs over the years, and I tend to feel like I’ve worn friends and acquaintances out with it in conversation. It’s that worst of topics, my autobiography.

It is nonetheless relevant because I put my parents through both of the “visions” in that quote, and because something resembling, possibly closely resembling, his difficulties was an obvious part of the explanation for my transition. At seventeen I was admitted to, and a few months later matriculated at, a school I hardly need identify to this audience, one which is rated #4 in the US and #8 in the world. I declared my intent to enter an honors program in a particularly demanding major of maximum historical significance to that school, and upon arrival, tested into courses fully in accordance with my desired program. Of the four million or so in my age cohort in this country, no more than a few hundred, and possibly only a few dozen, were afforded such an opportunity, one which was thought to be firmly based on my accomplishments, my carefully measured aptitudes – which included some of the highest test scores of the decade at my high school – and my ardent desires. So if my parents ever did imagine me thanking the Nobel Committee, they had better reason to do so than about 99.99% of the population.

Two years later I was working on a loading dock for twenty cents an hour above minimum wage, and a couple of years after that I was moonlighting at a fast-food restaurant so I wouldn’t bounce (more) checks. I have not sat in a regular classroom since age 19 and have less than one full semester of college credit. Meanwhile, the University is out around $10,000 in late-1970s money on a complete nonperformer (nearly quadruple that in current dollars), since I also hailed from a low-income household and my parents could contribute practically nothing, much less in fact than I did from summer jobs.

Monocausal explanations are seductive. The wrecked vehicle or bankrupted business may appear to be, and may in fact be, the result of a single failure or obvious mishap. But human affairs are usually more complicated than that. So even though I now know that my maternal grandfather was hospitalized for depression and that my mother, who was routinely described by her high school classmates as the smartest person they’d ever met, was affected by it to the point where she could barely hold entry-level jobs, it is not a simple matter of inheriting one trait. I was also significantly delayed in purely physical development, having hit puberty at least two years later than average; had a history of extremely poor peer relations; and had entirely inappropriate coping skills developed in an alcoholic household. It is unlikely that without drastic lifestyle changes, counseling, and a nonmathematical major at a school somewhere in the Sun Belt, I could have made it through college anywhere.

Still, depression is the topic du jour, and a massive amount of, well, depressing commentary and contention is being published in various high-traffic venues, much of which I perceive as coming from approximately quantitatively equally depressed people whose qualitatively different experiences are being hurled at one another in a distinctly unhelpful way. So, a few points:

  1. Getting this one out of the way first, I did not actually write this to aim directly at the stereotypical If Just One Person Will Seek Help, but if you are thinking about killing yourself, I don’t want you to. Beyond that, if you are not necessarily having such thoughts but are acutely aware of, shall we say, a gap between ability and performance, read on for some helpful tips.
  2. Depression is at pandemic levels in American society, where the lifetime risk of a major episode has risen from perhaps 1% in the 19th century to around 1 in 4 in the early 21st. Heritability cannot explain more than a tiny portion of this. Notoriously, about a quarter of middle-aged American women are already on medication for depression, and only male reluctance to seek treatment keeps men’s numbers any lower. The American male suicide rate is four times the overall homicide rate and as such would constitute living in a pretty dodgy neighborhood if it were somehow to be converted to homicides.
  3. For my fellow believers, the intersection of the statistics in the previous point and the approach described in the following point provides perhaps the best way, at least in American society, to fulfill the admonition of James 2:15-16.
  4. Stephen Ilardi of KU has done some fascinating work in this area and has developed a program which seems to work about as well as medication. I am not at all anti-med; I mention this only because I have found it helpful. The elements are diet (omega-3s), exercise (aerobics), light exposure (outdoors), sleep (more), social support (friends), and “anti-rumination strategies.” Eat fish, work out, go for walks even if it’s not a sunny day, get plenty of sleep, whomp up some friends, and don’t sit around feeling sorry for yourself. Obviously some of these are easier than others. Exercise is in some ways the most difficult due to the pervasive lack of energy that accompanies depression. Americans notoriously don’t sleep much and, if recent surveys are to be believed, often have few or no close friends. Anti-rumination strategies aren’t intuitively obvious when you’re depressed, either. So a lot of people miss most, or even all, of these things. My mother certainly failed at all of them. But they are achievable, and awareness is the first step.
  5. Various commentators have described their thoughts when suicidal. I don’t think the semantic content of such thoughts is necessarily significant. The important thing about that state of mind is the lack of energy and descent into despair; and of course there is the Hayek quote “[t]he mind cannot foresee its own advance”; future good is hidden from the depressed (just how much future good is out there is something one learns to appreciate with age). Talk therapy, broadly defined, is nonetheless enormously helpful. The introduction of the right idea at the right time, and even just the act of communicating itself at the right time, may very well save a life.

Now, since somebody’s going to ask, my life has progressed a bit since my early 20s. I am a homeowner and a landowner, and thanks to my employer of twenty-five years, have a relatively secure retirement. More importantly, I have more friends than I know what to do with and more fun projects to work on than I have time for. There have of course been tradeoffs. But in the end, it’s like this …

Somewhere in a parallel universe is a version of me who got what I wanted at seventeen. He makes more money than I do, but he lives someplace a lot more expensive, so he has less to spend. After the first few years he didn’t get to spend much time at a telescope, and now he never does. He’s in a departmental leadership position and mostly does managerial duties, and when he’s not fighting those battles, he’s in a nonstop status struggle over publications and honors and general metaphorical, er, size comparisons. He’s managed to infuriate enough people over the years that at any given moment, several competitors are working actively to destroy him – and he them. He has no close friends and sleeps poorly. The worst nights are the ones where he wonders what his life would have been like if he’d chucked it all and gotten a random job instead. Maybe saved up a little money and bought a house and hung out with normal people rather than the creeps he became one of. And just did astronomy as a hobby. What would that have been like?

I got to be that guy.

9 thoughts on “By Way of Explanation”

  1. Not sure if there is any connection, but one of the things that popped into my mind while reading the part about the depression pandemic was Susan Cain’s book “Quiet” about introverts in America. One of the points that she makes is how extroverted American culture is and how out-of-step introverts can feel themselves when they bump up against that overwhelming rush toward extroversion.

    I’ve got some depressive tendencies myself (which I address with something that sounds like Ilardi’s program, although I’d never heard of it until now), so Jay’s post resonated with me in many ways. But here’s the connection to introversion: until I read Cain’s book, I thought a lot of my introvert tendencies were psychopathological. Now I realize, no, I’m just introverted. I wonder how many introverts are tipped over into depression because they feel so alienated from what appears to be the dominant culture. I’m guessing that people tending toward STEM disciplines–I’m not one of them–might be more vulnerable to that kind of pressure.

  2. I’m guessing that people tending toward STEM disciplines–I’m not one of them–might be more vulnerable to that kind of pressure.

    Hey, I’m an engineer and an extrovert….I look at your feet instead of my own……

    But seriously, I know very very few engineers who suffer from depression. Most of us just tend to be happy to not deal with people in large numbers. Problems of physics are much easier to solve…..

  3. My first knee-jerk reaction is artists, writers, or musicians are more prone to melancholy than the more technically oriented. The tortured artist for instance.

    On the other hand, there’s a case to be made for social ineptness of the science minded geek that may or may not have its roots in deeper psychological issues. The ‘Beautiful Mind’ and all that.

    Maybe this is how it breaks down:

    theoreticians and those involved in abstractions could find themselves, by virtue of the nature of plumbing mental and emotional depths, closer to abnormalities.

    Tinkerers, doodlers, scribblers, noodlers, etc may be more grounded because of the more casual, trial and error, random walk nature of their pursuits.

    Or it could be that it isn’t helpful to reduce this complex issue to cultural stereotypes, and this is all nonsense.

    Anyway, I would add probiotics and sans gluten to the list. There’s more and more evidence of a connection between the mind and the gut. I’m a big fan of fermented Korean food lately – kimchi and Kombucha.

  4. My point WASN’T that people in STEM professions tend toward depression. It was that if you are introverted, you get the message that you are abnormal–simply because you aren’t extroverted. What I meant to get across was that IF you also have any natural tendency toward depression on top of that, the fact that you tend to be judged as abnormal simply for being less sociable than the norm could nudge you in the depressive direction. I was positing that people in STEM professions might tend toward introversion and, hence, might experience more social messages of “you’re not like the rest of us.”

    If I was being critical of anything, it was of our society’s bias in favor of extroversion. I wasn’t criticizing wasn’t introversion; I like being an introvert!

  5. I’m an introvert, and troubled occasionally by the message that I’m abnormal for that reason, but I’m not at all depressed. It really is different. Which is not to say that it can’t be uncomfortable, even painful, to be an introvert among people who think there’s something wrong with introverts, but it’s not the same as being unable to feel, or unable to see any point in going on with life. Occasional sadness because people misunderstand you or treat you with unjustified hostility is completely different from being disabled by depression, thank goodness.

    Neither introverts nor extroverts are necessarily any more skillful at forming the intimate ties that make life worth living. They just go about it in different ways, often annoying each other in the process.

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