Cause And Effect
First. Do you have depression? I don't know. I don't even know if I have depression. Maybe you don't know, either. Consider reading anyway.
Second. If you did have depression, would it mean you fucked up? I don't know that either. I'm gonna talk about that.
Third. If you fucked up, and you have depression, did the fuckup cause the depression, or the other way around? Careful. That's the tough one.
"I went to university and now I have depression."
Depression as I understand it is the brain not producing the right balance of chemicals, Or Whatever. I figure that's often either biological (legit) or some result of long-term mental Pavlovian training (also legit). Other reasons may vary. So, me going to university didn't give me depression, directly. University doesn't do that to the average joe with dandy brain patterns. It's not the fault of university, then. That section title is horseshit. So whose fault is it?
I always want to say it's mine. If you asked me every day for a year, "Why are you depressed?" I'd say "Because I fucked up really bad. It's my personal failure to excel, and it's also my fault for depending on a success in the first place." I'm wrong. Bear with me.
My whole life I grew up with every person around me casually talking about university like it was the end-all be-all of successes. If you can get a degree, you can do anything! / If you don't go to university, you'll end up working in McD█████'s forever. / Your grades used to be amazing, you can definitely put in the work and get to university!
Jesus Christ, I thought. I don't want to work at McD█████'s for the rest of my life! And the positive part of me added, Not with my grades. I'm going to be a big shot. I'll end up some CEO of a major company or a world-renowned artist/writer/coder no matter what happens. The negative part of me said, Imagine the horror and embarrassment if you didn't bring home a solid career. Imagine having to work in fast food, just like everyone warned about. God, don't be that person, whatever you do.
Therein comes the Pavlovian training. I'm conditioning myself to feel a swell of pride at the thought of graduating, and a sense of deep disgust for not graduating. So when I didn't graduate, the disgust welled up and looked for a target, and what's the one constant in all my failed endeavours?
that cursed Egyptian amulet? Me. I went, I fucked up, and I'm back at square one with a mountain of debt and it's all my fault. There's no pride to be had in fucking something up that royally.
So then came the phone call. How are you doing? / Bad. I fucked up. I'm so sorry.
I was sorry because me not being dedicated enough to finish university is not a fork in the road me, my parents, or my friends ever mapped out before. And then crying about it down the phone? Jesus. Here comes the fast food industry.
I was angry about it for a long time. Not in general, just... angry at myself, and then when I realised this was not conducive to being a healthy individual, I instead started being angry at society for training me to be so dependent on a specific future I was never going to attain. My friends - good friends, people who have been there through thick and thin - would tell me casually about how their education was going (it was always going well) and I'd have to excuse myself from the conversation to go and have an angry cry about it. For a long time I was looking for someone to blame that wasn't myself, because I already blamed myself and it was propelling me headfirst into complete misery, so I needed a scapegoat.
Trouble is, it still just isn't anybody's fault but mine. Other people do well at university. My teachers and lecturers were good people; they helped me at the drop of a hat and asked after my well-being and wanted me to succeed. I'm the one who fucked it up. And yet...
When I trace it back, university wasn't where I suddenly started failing.
I started failing in secondary school. High school, for Americans, kind of - it's the easiest/closest analogy. Maybe I started failing earlier, when I angry-cried in primary school because I couldn't do maths like everybody else. (Maybe I started failing the moment I entered education? I don't remember that far back.) But secondary school was where I most strongly remember everything starting to slip. My grades were okay sometimes, but my attitude in class was lacking. I didn't listen, or take notes on anything I didn't already understand. I did my homework on rare occasions, though on those occasions I did well. Outside of the classroom, I was getting bullied relentlessly because I never had many friends growing up and my social skills were absolutely cringe-worthy godawful. I remember thinking, at least I'm smart, and that uppity self-righteous feeling didn't translate well when I was expected to do things like homework or jump through hoops for a grade. Why bother? I knew I was clever. My friends and family told me so.
So the spoiled "I'm smart so why should I have to put in work?” analogy didn't let me learn to do my homework, or pay attention in the classroom. Then, in sixth form college. the curriculum took a step up - you really had to do the homework, or your grades would suffer. This wasn’t Coast-Along Kansas any more. But I didn’t train the skills, and I didn’t train the work ethic, so I kept coasting and my grades kept sliming their way down like the inevitability of pudding thrown at a wall by a baby having a tantrum.
Time to go to university. I do remember thinking, at this point, “this is a bad idea.” I remember saying once or twice, “I just don’t really think I want to go to university.” I already felt guilty enough for doing so badly at college, and I was worried about what would happen to me if I failed. Not career-wise - emotionally. I was scared because I'd realised by this point I didn't have the work ethic or study skills to get me through college, and that was my fault, and if I failed - which seemed likely - I'd be utterly fucked.
But I didn't say it. I'm not good at saying things. I just said I didn't want to go. Which, obviously, was taken as "I'm lazy and I don't see the point in university", because I didn't explain myself, so what else was anyone supposed to think? So everyone launched into full "If you don't go you'll end up at McD█████'s" mode, and believe it, that made me feel approximately zero per cent better. But I went. Because, Jesus, imagine the humiliation if I didn't!
Is it my fault? Well, I'm seeing direct cause-and-effect. I'm a logical person and I can't just ignore the facts like that, no matter what other people tell me though they're well-meaning and trying to be kind.
I was never ready for it. And the worst part isn't that I fucked it up - it's that I should have seen it coming. I started fucking things up a long time ago, and I had no reason to believe university would be any different. I could probably have stopped myself from going and prevented a lot of my issues if I'd put my foot down, but I'm not good at putting my foot down just like I wasn't good at being social or making friends way-back-when. Which leads me onto the why.
Imagine you're a loser. What are you going to do about it?
I was an awkward child at primary school, and did more fighting with boys than I ever did talking with anybody. Once I hit secondary school, I realised most of the kids were bolder than I was - I'd been a bold child in a quiet little C.E. primary school, and now I was a small and awkward C.E. primary school kid in a pond of much bolder and bigger kids. So I stopped fighting and started keeping my head down in the hopes that would keep me out of trouble.
It did not. People saw the quiet kid as a target back then. I took a few punches, to the face and to my self esteem. I had a few friends, I thought, but later I overheard them talking about me and sometimes I'd tell them a deep secret only to have one of them shout it from the seating stands in the crowded main hall a day later. My parents still push me to reconnect with them and I can't find the words to explain that I realised too late we were never really friends, I was just allowed to do things with them because they felt sorry for me. I was the weird mantel ornament that people kept around for a conversational piece and not because they liked it on its own merit. And the worst part is that these were good people - I knew them well, we talked every day, and I knew they had good morals. I was just so strange and came out with stupid junk all the time and I was that weird kid that hung on people's arms. No wonder people talked. (I had a couple of true friends that are still with me today. More on them some other time.)
When I went to sixth form college, I took a stand. I realised I was on the social fast-track to being a weird and awkward loser for the rest of my life, and I didn't want to be that, so I started forcing myself to put myself out there and be bold.
I still hung around with the typical college reject squad, all those teenagers who liked anime and video games and usually disliked too much eye contact - except now I was doing it on purpose, because this was a pond I knew and I could easily make myself the biggest fish if everyone else was awkward like me. I forced myself to talk more, I started analysing my conversations later and picking them apart for ways to be Cooler and Bolder, and because the only experience I had of people being bold was people being real mean at the same time, I started turning into a bit of a bully. I don't know how much damage I did, but every sentence that came out of my mouth was either to put someone else down or lift myself up higher.
To my confidence at the time, these people started hanging on my every word. When I spoke, people actually listened - usually because I'd turned the conversation into a game where there had to end up being a loser that everyone had permission to laugh at. Whoever slipped up - said the wrong thing about a video game, fumbled their words, had an opinion I didn't like, tried too hard, didn't try hard enough - earned my immediate and scathing disdain. I really started picking on people. The stairwell where we all hung out would turn into a mutual bully circle the moment I entered the room, and looking back I know I probably really hurt a couple of people - they were less confident than I was, and it made me feel like I was improving every time I put them down, so I needled everyone relentlessly under the pretense of being cool and ironic about it.
And yet, outside the safe bubble of the Geek Stairwell, I was back to being the smallest fish again - in corridors I'd internally go on high alert if I heard someone laughing, because my brain remembered when it was at my expense all the way through secondary school; in the classroom I spoke to no one and ended up getting paired with the most discomforting people on Earth for group projects. You know. People that are the living embodiment of the feeling you get every time you cringe. (People like me, just a few years ago. People like me then, if you registered the fact I was hanging out in a stairwell with a bunch of likeminded weeaboos.)
That's why I hated it, and why I got mean. These people reminded me of me, back before I became the confident big fish arsehole-everyone-loves. These people, and the nerds I needled in the stairwell, became a symbol of everything I desperately wanted to change about myself. The higher above them I could climb, I felt, the more successful I was at changing myself for the better.
I came to the realisation in my final year of sixth form that I was laying it on too thick. I was becoming mean and unpleasant and aloof while I was gaining confidence, and the part of me that my mother raised right suddenly took me aside and said This isn't you. You can be a confident version of yourself without also being a complete dickhead. Don't you remember when you were in their situation? Imagine if someone said half the shit you've said to them, to you. Jesus. You'd think about it for weeks afterwards and probably cry about it. You know you would. Who the fuck are you and why are you doing this to them?
I eventually apologised, much later. It was the best I could do. We'd all left sixth-form college and drifted, and so I was too late to make amends properly, so I did what I could and initiated conversations with some of the people I felt I'd hurt and tried to minimise the damage I may have done by explaining why I did it. I was going through some issues, but that's no excuse. It wasn't your fault and I'm sorry I made it seem like it was. I'm really sorry for hurting you. Etc. Etc. I'm glad I said it, but I'm not proud that I had to after everything I did. People were cool about the apologies. They said they didn't really know what I was talking about. I suspect I know better, and I'm not going to bother them again. They've all got a life to live without me, and I hope they do well.
So, I was a loser, and then I wasn't. I clawed my way up to the top of a social ladder, geeky as that particular ladder was. That taught me to fake being bold and confident so that everyone believed I really was, and when I realised I was getting mean, I hung onto the boldness and confidence for dear life while I tried to re-teach myself not to be a giant dick about everything at the same time. I manage okay in social situations now. I've learned to confidently engage with other people without being a tremendous douche. At least, I'm better at it than I ever was. I don't recommend taking the bully route, but that's the route I took and I guess I'm owning that.
Taking away the meanness factor helped me connect with people properly.
I wasn't this aloof HBIC any more. I was just me, but more confident. I made a quiet vow to myself that I'd be kinder, and that I'd stop hiding behind this veil of ironic jest and start being genuine and honest with what I was laughing at and why. And the people around me started reflecting that. The more genuine emotion I shared with other people, the more genuine they were with me.
I used to be on edge all the time in social situations, because I didn't really know what people thought of me - they could be laughing at me in secret, right? That's what I'd do! But now they'll be honest, and they'll tell me straight to my face if I've fucked up. They'll open up to me, because I'm not holding that threat over anyone that I'll scoff at them for anything genuine. And I found it easier and easier to believe people when they told me they considered me a friend. I stopped telling myself I was smarter than other people, and I started really listening to them, and they automatically started listening back. I feel closer to my friends than I ever have been, and I understand strangers that little bit better. And, damn, that's something. It's really something.
Irony is a poisonous bastard. You only realise how poisonous after you start getting it out of your system.
You're bold and confident now. You'll never be more ready for university.
Remember I never learned study skills. Remember seeing awkward people reminded me of my own deep-rooted self-disdain. So, no. I wasn't ready. But I'm not one hundred per cent sure that's another thing I have to hate myself over, or blame on anyone else. It took me a long road to get to that particular failure, and every factor along the way culminated in me shutting myself away in my room and biting off more than I could chew and doing no coursework and panicking at the last minute and withdrawing from study right as the final exams started.
Sometimes this kind of thing just happens to you, over time. Factors build up and make you into a certain kind of person. Sometimes the kind of person you end up as is not someone who has a chance at succeeding at a certain goal, no matter how important it is. Maybe some of them are your fault, or society's fault, but if you didn't know any better at the time, does it matter? I want to say no.
Saying I was "doomed to fail" is overly-dramatic. I don't know if it's correct. I do know it makes me feel a little less like it's my job to hate myself intensely for failing. When I look back, I see signs that I had issues, when at the time I just didn't realise they were signs of anything at all. I thought it was just me. Maybe it was early warning signs that I was developing a bad psychological framework. Maybe those things were adding up to depression all along, and it was just hard to identify them because everyone in my life acted and talked like depression was a momentary feeling everyone got some days, and not a permanent brain pattern you live with the same way people live with a missing limb.
What's wrong with a crappy job, exactly?
I work as a cleaner now, two days a week. I go to work, I clean kitchens and bathrooms and living rooms in holiday cabins for a greedy company that overworks us and doesn't pay enough, and I go home. It took me a year to build up the courage even to apply for this job. But my coworkers are nice because I'm nice to them, and sometimes we have a laugh together about how crap this job is, and I'm feeling less dramatic about not being able to accomplish anything (at least I can clean a grill, am I right?). As it turns out, getting a shitty job is not the end of the world. I've cleaned every (every) human bodily secretion out of showers and toilets, which is arguably worse than working behind a fast food counter. And yet I'm recovering, I think - as opposed to being in education, which was making me want to spontaneously die with no conscious effort on my part. I don't like my job and I acknowledge it sucks and the pay is terrible, but I'm still doing better mentally than I was in university.
I'm saving my money, and I hope to move out of my hometown for good sometime soon. I've got two close friends IRL who are the two people I credit with bringing me out of my shell; without them, I doubt I'd have gotten this far. They know who they are. They've got my back. I love them dearly. I love my family dearly for putting up with my biggest mental breakdown and letting me stay in their house while I sorted my life out and dealt with debt. I love the friends I've made online who support me and listen to me and make me feel like the things I say are important even when I'm talking out of my arse, who got to know me like an open book and decided they've read enough good pages to stick around. Things are going okay.
My best tactic for dealing with depression is to acknowledge it's there but deliberately try not to think about factors. I have to acknowledge it, because otherwise I forget to fight it, and I'll stay in bed and not leave the house and what's the point in drawing, or walking the dog, or eating, or doing anything at all?
I have to register that my brain is failing to spark the chemical engine, so that I can start it up in autopilot instead. There doesn't have to be a point, but I still have to draw, and the dog still has to be walked, and I still have to eat. I don't have to enjoy it. It's still all got to be done. Getting through the day in detached autopilot mode is at least still getting through the day. Maybe the next day I'll feel something again. Sometimes I do, which is enough of a reason.
I just can't think about the factors too hard when I'm not ready for the self-flagellation that comes with it. Sometimes the analytic part of me will sneak up and surprise me with, "You got where you are today because you fucked everything up. It's your fault you feel nothing." I have to distract myself from that as soon as I notice it. This is why I get so deep into fictional media. Can't catch me, bad thoughts.
Between these two ethics I'm learning to be productive, or at least I'm trying. One example of a big factor in my failures has been inconsistency. Doing a project for one day and not touching it again for a week is the main spanner in the works. So I'm working on that. I'm identifying places I have to improve and I'm trying to fix my flaws without dwelling on the fact I put them there myself. From here, self-improvement is a much longer road than making a quick-and-ruthless turnaround in sixth form college, but as long as I'm here, I can try. So I'll keep trying.
I don't have a big conclusion to this piece, but that's that. You can't draw big conclusions while it's all still happening.
Stay frosty. Be genuine.