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Minutes after submitting the final assignment of my sophomore year at MIT, I told my dad, "Now that I'm halfway through college, I can't tell if that took forever or if it went by in a flash." He just looked at me and said, "Yeah, that's what having kids feels like."
When he said that, I felt like I suddenly understood an important part of parenting. When you're watching your kids grow up, the way you perceive time is... unsteady. I thought about how quickly my brother has grown up. He just turned nine years old, but I swear it wasn't long ago that I was visiting him in his preschool classroom.
I've noticed a lot of things feel this way, and my stint at Affect has been no exception. I started working here in the third week of June, and today is my last day. Tomorrow will be the first day of counselor training for a freshman orientation program. I'll have to start introducing myself as a junior (ugh), and that'll be the start of a new adventure. But I digress.
All in all, I volunteered for two months here at Affect. Sure, some of those days felt slow. Sometimes I was just waiting for the clock to move on to an acceptable time to leave. Other parts of work seemed to zoom right by me. I'd be joking with my co-workers over lunch, and suddenly an hour fly by. Or I'd be absorbed in writing a blog post, look up, and realize I had to leave right away to catch my bus.
Yet, the biggest surprise of this internship did not come from the way time seemed to dance around in my head. The biggest surprise of this internship came when I looked up and realized working here had had a huge impact on my worldview. Let me explain.
As I've stated in some blog posts before, my family has been extremely fortunate in terms of our physical and mental health. Naturally, my happiness has seen its fair share of ups and downs, but I've never had what I would define as a mental illness. The same goes for my parents and my siblings. (My grandfather may have had Alzheimer's, but he died before I could really get to know him.)
Mental illness always felt like something far away. Sometimes it would violently come crashing into my life, like the time a family friend killed himself or whenever a mass shooting would plaster words like unstable and bipolar all over my news feed. But after a bit, things would inevitably fade away. We'd send flowers to the funeral and see candlelit vigils on cable TV. It would be over, and life would go on... at least, my life would go on.
Part of that was just the way the media functions. You can't keep covering the same massacre for weeks. That's not how ratings work. In hindsight, I'm sure another part of it was my active attempt to avoid these discussions. One of the traits I inherited from my mother was a high capacity for empathy. As much as I understood the importance of these issues, I was trying not to dwell on them as well. It was too painful for me to hear stories of kids younger than me struggling so much that they were considering suicide. Plus, it seemed like nobody else wanted to talk about it, so why force myself?
Then I came to Affect. I was assigned to the Ops Team of the 1,000 Journeys project, an effort to interview one thousand people about how mental illness has touched their lives. I didn't realize it at the time, but that assignment would force me to overcome that long-standing fear of mine. After all, you can't just excuse yourself from a 1-on-1 interview because you're uncomfortable with what's being said. I would have to listen to someone's whole story until they felt they were finished. I had to promise them no less than that.
So I went out and did these interviews. First, I was unsure with how the interviewees would react. It was bound to come up in this conversation that I had never experienced mental illness. Would they clam up on hearing that I was unable to truly understand their struggles? Would they resent me for never having to deal with these issues? Would they still answer my questions?
I'm happy to say that I never felt any ill will from the people I spoke to. They were open, honest, and even patient with me when I still couldn't differentiate between a psychiatrist and a psychologist. At the beginning of every interview, I reminded the interviewee that they could skip any questions they felt uncomfortable answering. Looking back on all of them, I realize now that none of them ever used that option. They were all focused on supporting with this project. They would frequently start statements with, I'm not sure if this is what you're looking for or I don't know if this will help. Their continued commitment to lending me a hand while recalling some of their most painful memories was striking. I will always be grateful to them for that.
They shared their stories of living with depression, anxiety, and OCD. And while I developed a better understanding of how it feels to live with these conditions, every one of these interviews reaffirmed the most important lesson I have learned here at Affect: Living with a mental illness is a constant battle. Whenever I feel like I've heard too many sad stories on the news, I can just open up YouTube, watch some mindless videos, and forget everything for a bit. When you're living with a mental illness, you can never say, "Enough!" Even when you start failing classes, lashing out at your friends, or considering suicide, you just can't put a stop to your thoughts.
Disclaimer: I wasn't one of those "Get over it"-type idiots before this. One of the first things I learned about depression is that nobody can will it away, no matter how strong or accomplished they may be. But I think that the way I treated these discussions -- opting out whenever it got to be too much -- bled into the way I felt people actually experienced mental disorders. I knew anxious people struggled with panic attacks, but I believed that they got nice breaks in between them, as if their illness came in waves.
Now I understand that, for many people, it's less like the massive super-wave we see in movies and more like the tsunamis we see in real life. If you watch a video of the 2011 tsunami in Japan, there is no 100-foot-wave that crashes on the city. It's more like the water just keeps moving inland. There is no rest or respite, and it never seems to be over. That is what it feels like to live with a chronic mental illness. This led me to two realizations: 1) these people were even stronger than I had thought and 2) I became even more grateful for my own mental health.
I've written in another blog post that I hate when people claim mental illness is rising because millennials are weak-willed. It implies that a strong will is all you need to get over serious depression and anxiety. (These are the "Get over it" idiots I mentioned earlier.) Plus, I've always had a respect for those living with mental illness in the same sense that we honor those fighting cancer or living with chronic pain. But once I understood the unrelenting nature of serious mental disorders, my respect grew even more. I can't even imagine how hard it would be to wage war in your head while trying to work full-time or to graduate from MIT.
Understanding the gravity of mental disorders also made me realize, again, how lucky I am to be in good mental health. Frankly, I don't know that I would be strong enough to deal with what some of my peers handle everyday. It's an open question, and hopefully one that will never be tested. If it is though, I feel like I've learned so much from my interviews that I'll be better prepared to handle it.
I guess it's time to sign off now. Honestly, I don't know who's going to be reading this. Whoever you are, thanks for taking the time to listen to a mechanical engineer trying to do something new for the summer. Writing has been really fun, regardless of whether these pieces end up being read by 2 people or 200. Thank you again for joining the Affect team and myself as we navigate the world of mental health. I hope you've learned something along the way. I certainly have.