Editor’s Note: Portraits of Resilience is a photography and narrative series by Prof. Daniel Jackson. Each installment consists of a portrait and a story, told in the subject’s own words, of how they found resilience and meaning in their life.
I think my depression fundamentally started with a not very healthy relationship, but it took me a very long time to realize that. It was the beginning of my sophomore year, I had declared civil engineering, and I suddenly realized that it was far from what I wanted to do. I started wondering whether I had even chosen the right school; my parents started talking about transferring — that thought in itself was kind of horrifying. Did I really screw up my college decision?
I had already started sensing something changing emotionally at the end of my freshman year. I tried to figure out the problem so that I could find a solution. The problem that I identified was that I didn’t have a strong community. So I thought, OK, I always sang through high school, this is something that I love. I’ll try out for a cappella; not only will this be a great use of my time and energy, but it will also be this great community. I was super excited. When I didn’t get in, I felt like I’d tried and still failed, and now all I had were dead ends.
The scariest part of my depression was looking at myself in the mirror and no longer recognizing who I was. I felt like I had adopted other people’s priorities and values, and I didn’t really know what I cared about any more, what I valued, who at my core I wanted to be. I had always considered myself a resilient person but that was gone; I had always prided myself in my ability to articulate emotions but that was gone too. All these pieces of my identity had slipped through my fingers without my noticing, and I was suddenly confronted with the stark realization that I hated the person I’d become. But I didn’t even know how I’d come to be this person.
My sophomore year was the worst experience of my life, and I wouldn’t wish that on anybody else. But I also wouldn’t want to rewind and not have the experience. I think it developed my depth and complexity as a person, in terms of the breadth of emotions I can experience. I feel like I’m a much more empathetic person now.
A lot of little things lead you into and out of depression so it’s really hard to pinpoint any one thing that helped me recover. During moments when I had more motivation I would immediately act on it. Like, there was one day when I felt particularly motivated, and I thought, I need to make my future self commit now. So I sent these emails to the music department and to different voice teachers to set up voice lessons, because I knew that even if I lost my motivation later on, I would still feel at least some kind of minimal responsibility in meeting the commitment. So I would do things like that. I also noticed that I felt most comfortable when I was around other people, so I booked my schedule full of meetings with other people.
It was the hardest when I was alone. Although there were also times when I was with people but felt very removed, because I felt like I couldn’t fully talk to them about what I was experiencing. None of my friends knew. I didn’t want to burden them with that information.
The biggest thing that I always advocate for is doing less, so you can sleep more. A lot of people at MIT get caught up in the idea of doing things not because they love it but because they feel like it proves something about them. Like, “if I can juggle this many classes it proves that I’m really smart.” I would talk to people I know, and they would say, “Yeah I hate this; I wish I didn’t have to do this.” And I’d say, “Well you don’t have to do it; you have the choice not to.” This tension of wanting to be a super-student all the time — it really runs you down. You end up spending tons of energy on things that you don’t necessarily care about, then you cut down on your sleep, and it becomes this huge spiral.
What do I see in the mirror now? I definitely think it’s a new Karen. I feel very at peace not only because I’ve learned the hard way to really pare down my activities to the ones I genuinely love and care about, but also because through my experience with depression I’ve learned the person that I want to be. So I try every day to be that person. When I look in the mirror now, I think this is the person that I’m striving to be.
Karen Hao is a member of the class of 2015.
This project is supported by the Undergraduate Association’s Committee on Student Support and Wellness, chaired by Tamar Weseley ’17 and Alice Zielinski ’16. To participate in the project, or to learn more, contact ResilienceProject@mit.edu.
There are many ways to find help. Members of the MIT community can access support resources at together.mit.edu. To access support through MIT Medical’s Mental Health & Counseling Service, please call (617) 253-2916 or visit medical.mit.edu.
Image and text copyright Daniel Jackson, 2016.