Editor’s Note: Portraits of Resilience is a photography and interview 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.
In many ways, I had an idyllic upbringing. I was the seventh of eight children. My family was very close, and my parents were always there. I had a babysitter exactly once growing up. But my family thought that people wouldn’t tell you if you were doing something wrong, so it was their job to do that. I was kind of weak, and a very shy child. My siblings were 13 to 23 years older than me, so it was like dealing with eight parents at once. I don’t think they knew the impact their words had on me.
I was fine until I was a teenager. That was when I first started feeling like I wasn’t good enough, wasn’t measuring up. I went to college and moved to Denver. I struggled with feeling unstable. I needed other people, I needed their approval, I needed to be married or in a relationship. I was what you would call “high maintenance.”
Then I moved to Boston and the shit really hit the fan. It was horrible. I was 28. I talked about it as my great depression, my emotional stock market crash. I didn’t know anybody, and I found it nearly impossible to reach out to people. Before, people had always reached out to me. When I moved here, people were standoffish. I needed them to make me feel welcome, and they just sat back waiting for me to initiate. Not an option.
I struggled for a year and a half, and I was suicidal for a large part of that time. I went to a couple of psychiatrists and it was just a big mess, not helpful. When I described a session with one of my friends a few years later, they said, “Did he give you a gun on the way out?” It was that bad.
I was in a constant state of almost crying, or struggling to hold back tears. I would go into the bathroom at work and cry, cry, cry. People at work, I couldn’t believe they didn’t notice. Someone would ask me, “How was your weekend?” and I’d say, “Oh, not that great,” and then they would go off on their own thing. My inner experience was so far away from what people were expecting that I couldn’t even begin to broach the subject of the pain that I was in.
Things got really bad on the weekends. I felt like I had a cloud around my head, and I would walk through my neighborhood and it was like nobody saw me. I felt completely separate from the world. It was like looking through a tunnel, and people seemed so far away. At one point I went to the emergency room on a Friday and the resident who saw me was somewhat hostile, as if saying, “What are you coming to me with this stupid thing for?” She gave me Ativan which was inappropriate but got me through. I hoarded those pills. I would take one or two every weekend when things got bad (which was every weekend). It calmed things down a little. I was not the kind of person who could chat with people. At stores or restaurants I would pay and leave. I kept my eyes down, so people would be even less friendly than they might be. I would spend the whole weekend by myself. I tried to have a couple of rituals: lunch at this place, or breakfast at that place, just so I could get out. It was really, really tough.
Then I met a couple of people at work who were really friendly and lived near me. They started calling me. At that time, I couldn’t call people unless I had a reason to. I couldn’t stop by someone’s office and say hello. I thought I’d be bothering them and that they wouldn’t say anything, and would be thinking, “Oh my God, I wish she’d leave, I have work to do.” That was what I thought that people were like. But they were absolutely not like that at all. These friends were really wonderful and sort of brought me out.
Then a friend in Colorado that I’d talk to once in a while told me about these Insight Seminars. I was having back issues and I went to an acupuncturist the next day and, lo and behold, he starts talking about Insight Seminars. Then, I came back to my apartment and in front of my house was a car with an Insight Seminars emblem on it. I was like, okay, I guess I’m supposed to do this.
So I went to Insight Seminars and it changed my life. You do these little processes and they seem like nothing, but every part has a purpose. They were designed to bring you awareness of your life, so you could see what was really going on and whether it made sense. One night, I was lying there and one of the exercises that day had been about guilt and resentment. I had been processing this resentment that I had for this boyfriend who didn’t share my feelings. I somehow just got to the point of forgiving him. I flew out of bed and ran over to my roommate and said, “Oh my God, you’ll never guess what I just realized.” I was ecstatic that I could just change the story on my own, and change my feelings.
Up until that point, I felt there was nothing I could do about my emotions. They were dependent on somebody apologizing to me, somebody saying they love me. I just thought, you are this way, that’s the way you are forevermore, there’s nothing you can do about it. It was just a miracle to me to discover that that’s not true. I can actually decide to feel different. I didn’t need to be shy. I could be shy, but I could also practice not being shy. That was a concept that I was completely unaware of. It was phenomenal.
Everything I learned there in that one seminar has changed every moment of my life since. It didn’t resolve my depression, but it gave me all kinds of tools, so it was manageable. I would still go into funks, but they would be a few days or a week long instead of months long.
I started practicing little things like going to a bar by myself, sitting at the bar and saying hello to the bartender. Or sitting on the T and asking the guy next to me what time it is. I had been afraid of the dark, but I realized I wasn’t any more. I can shut off a light and walk into my bedroom and not expect someone to jump out at me.
I got my job at MIT, and I went to a psychiatrist as a preemptive measure because the holidays were always really hard. He thought I had seasonal affective disorder and suggested I try this medication called Celexa. Within a week, I was like “Oh my gosh, this is what normal people feel like.” That medication gave me back winters. I take it now from September through April.
What you see in other people isn’t all there is. You might be thinking everybody else around you has it together, but they really don’t. You find out about that by being honest and vulnerable yourself. I used to think that the goal was to be perfect and that everyone expected me to be perfect. I don’t feel that way anymore. I’ve got a lot of flaws and it’s perfectly okay. I can do things that are wrong. I can make mistakes, and I can be sorry about them and apologize for them. It’s absolutely not about being perfect. That’s not the goal and it’s not human.
Anita Horn is a Service Quality Specialist in the Technology Services department of the Sloan School of Management.
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 resources.mit.edu/support. 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.