Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Peace in the Middle East in Starbucks


            The other evening, when I was at a Starbucks in Berkeley, studying for my social psychology exam, a middle-aged man came up to me and asked if he could sit down next to me because all other tables were taken. He looked well groomed—he had a jacked, his hair was combed back—but he was not cleanly shaved and he had a digital watch, the kind that men his age would not usually wear. He smelled fine, and he had a coffee cup filled with hot water, which he apparently got for free at the counter. He was Asian-American, and he must have been Chinese or Korean. I did not know whether to think of him as homeless or just as someone genuinely wanting to talk to somebody, but I amiably invited him to join me at my table. He had a calm demeanor, and his facial expression seemed a little grim. However, he appeared to be reasonably friendly, and asked me how I liked my Mac, and I enthusiastically told him that I loved it, and showed him a few cool features that it had, but when I asked him if he has a PC, he paused and then said that he used to have a PC.
            So there we were, sitting at Starbucks—me studying for my Sociology exam, and the man in the jacket drinking his water and glancing at what I was doing—and occasionally exchanging a few sentences about what we do and where we are from. He told me that he graduated from Berkeley in the early 90’s with an engineering degree, and that now he lives in Berkeley and thinks that’s where he is going live until he dies. He asked me what I was studying and I said I was studying Sociology and said that it’s a study of how society influences people’s choices, and that the society has a great effect on our choices and our behavior. Then he told me that he wondered why there was no rebellion during the Holocaust in Germany, and that he didn’t understand why the Jews who knew they were going to die anyway did not kill their oppressors, and he asked me what I thought about it. I told him that I didn’t know, but that my best guess would be that it’s hard to rebel on one’s own, alone without support from others. He said he also didn’t know what to think about it, but that he was pondering this question for quite some time.

 The same man, talking to another student at Starbucks.

            At one point a slide came up about the Zimbardo Prison Experiment, and that must have triggered his will to share with me that he just got out of jail for not paying for his food at a Thai restaurant. He said he spent five days there and that the conditions there are harsh, and that nobody cared about the prisoners, because he asked a guard to give him a blanket because cold air was blowing at him and he was afraid of catching cold, but that the guard did not do anything. Then he asked me what I thought about the conflict between Israel and Palestine. He somehow knew that I was Jewish because when he referred to Israel he said “you”. “What would make you be at peace with Palestine,” he asked me. He also said that he wants to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that he is going to meet up with some Palestinian heads outside of Starbucks in a little bit. He told me that once he makes peace in the Middle East he will receive the Nobel Piece Prize. I went along with these questions of this well-meaning, deluded man, because he comes from the world I am all too familiar with. It made me feel more accepting of my own insanity and misery. How strange is it that hearing about others' misfortune brings such comfort to the soul? He asked me “how do you see me?”, referring to himself as the savior of the Jewish people, and still to me as the representative of the Jewish people. He continued, “do you see me as a lamb or as the devil?” Clearly he had a grandiosity complex about himself, and a major denial of reality, perhaps as a defense mechanism to his perception of his utter insignificance and loneliness. But who is to blame him? Don’t we all deceive ourselves—only some of us do it less blatantly than others—trying to protect our egos, through self-serving biases and a multitude of other defense mechanism we employ to deny reality—our utter insignificance in the world and the absurdity of our meaningless existence?
            The man hesitated then asked to use my computer for five minutes. I agreed and didn’t ask why. He said something about looking for a woman. He got out a business card with a name scribbled on it. He returned me the computer in a couple of minutes, and asked if I knew a woman by the name he mentioned. Naturally I said no, but wondered who she was. He said she is a ballerina, and that she was beautiful and that she was kind to him. He said that Jewish women were kind to him, and that’s what he liked about her. He said he saw her perform five years ago and was trying to get in touch with her ever since. He said he once went to the synagogue that she attended to find her but was thrown out by some Rabbi’s. I felt sorry for him, for his inability to realize the hopelessness of his task, but was intrigued by his story and wanted to know more. He said that his family immigrated to the U.S. in the mid-80’s, and that he was adopted and was mistreated by his parents. He said they did horrible things to him that he can’t talk about. He also had a brother but that he tried to talk to him but his brother refused to talk to him, and he didn’t know why. He said that he couldn’t find a job when he came to the U.S. and that he stayed in his parents’ house, mostly lying around in bed, until about the mid 90’s. He seemed like he didn’t want to go into too much detail about his family, so I didn’t push it. I figured he was depressed because he had no job and spent that time at home loathing himself. I felt slightly superior to him, because I was only depressed for two years, and now I am much more aware of when my loathing is justifiable and when it is due to my mind’s capriciousness, so I can cease the vain struggle against its hold and patiently await for my mind to calm down.
He got up and got a second cup of water. At this point of our conversation I knew exactly where he was coming from, and I felt only compassion and sympathy for him. He said that every time that he is about to be happy—like when he falls in love—or every time that something good is about to happen to him, it is taken away. Now I was struggling to hold back tears, feeling that lump in my throat, and trying to disguise my sadness by keeping a straight face. He awakened a sensitive part in my heart, and I felt that familiar ache return to my chest, for I knew exactly what he was talking about. A warm tear escaped my eye. I was astounded to know that he is still devastated by his heartbreak, which still haunts him after all those years. I fear my scars, too, may never heal, and that I am forever damned to a life of misery and hate. Then, he talked about suicide—a most natural transition. He asked me how long I thought he had left to live and if he will die of natural causes or take his own life. I said I don’t know and that it’s up to him to make that answer. I know very well the state of wanting to die, when the pain and the sorrow are too great for one person to cope with and relief seems impossible and intangible, and the conceivable—although terrible—means to reach that peace of mindlessness is only through suicide. Yes, that man was sick, but so am I and the people around us who are in denial of the terrible suffering that exists in the world and who are preoccupied only with their own petty problems. Cruelty through indifference, misery through cruelty, and instability due to our own composition and ineptitude are what the world surmounts to. Everything else is denial.
He said the Palestinian Heads were late, and that he had to go. Before we parted, he told me his name was John, and I gave him my pack of cigarettes.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Denying Sadness


I am convinced that stoicism is never the answer to anything, being nothing more than a cruel, callous encouragement to people to devour each other, a powerful ally of sadists and tyrants keen to get people to endure things which should be firmly refused as unendurable. Courage, indeed!
--Les Murray, Killing the Black Dog

Through my countless hours of idle contemplation I became aware of one simple fact. We do not talk about sadness. Anyone who talks about it is seen as whiny and unpleasant to be with. We discourage expressions of sadness with nonsense about Getting a Grip on Yourself. “Emo” is used as a derogatory term. Nobody wants to hear about your dead aunt or mother or brother, and you don’t want to bring it up for the fear of burdening your friends. But has this always been the case? Is it our nature to frown upon talking about sadness? Or maybe this is a socially constructed norm that we all just grown accustomed to, like our obsession with individualism? Somewhere in Abraham Lincoln’s biography I read that in his days showing inner angst was the equivalent of getting a six-pack. So what has changed since then that stigmatized sadness?
There are 50 percent more suicides than homicides in the U.S. Most people get these numbers switched. This is partly because of the mis- and underreporting of suicide by the media, mostly due to coverage leading to copycat suicides. This ignorance prevents the society from addressing the problem of mental illness and perpetuates the stigma associated with mental illness. It seems that people are in denial of all the sadness in the world. They consciously, and often even craftily and pertinaciously, refuse to face the reality that surrounds them. The suicide rates, the prevalence of illness, poverty, and inequality are just a few of the plethora of issues that cause people their lives, and, probably even more importantly, the quality of their lives. But if there is so much suffering in the world, why do we often overlook it? In another book I read that the self-conscious mind makes up only about five percent of our thoughts. If that is true, then that means that 95 percent of our decisions, actions, and behaviors are the result of something wholly out of our control, the subconscious mind. So maybe avoiding sadness is a built-in defense mechanism that protects us against overwhelming thoughts of pain. After all, denial is the first stage in the five stages of grief.
I think our society is in denial of sadness. We avoid the subject of suffering at all costs, and thereby make it taboo. This is because we have not developed coping mechanisms, and simply do not know how to address and deal with the reality of death. We even put make up on the dead to make them seem life-like, as if they are only going into a long sleep. Or maybe we can’t yet accept that suicide is a part of our society. Newspapers underreport suicide for fear of rebuke by family members devastated by guilt and shame. Maybe yet it is anger that we are afraid of. We suppress anger for fear of getting labeled as someone with anger-management issues. We escape and reject pain at all cost. We praise those who go through pain without complaining, because pain is seen as weakness. We say things like "just snap out of it" and "pull yourself by the straps", which are cruel and hurtful, especially to somebody suffering from depression who has no control over his illness. And sadness; well, we brush it underneath our beds because we are too busy being preoccupied with being positive and optimistic all the time. If you talk to a random sample of people in our society, or look at a random sample of profile pictures, you would think we are the happiest people on earth. However, the rates of mental illness and suicide in America are bigger than those in any other industrialized country.
We make the topic of sadness taboo, making it impossible for someone to discuss feeling a healthy dose of sadness with anyone else. We perpetuate these fears by social norms, such as everyone telling us that being sad is somehow a weakness and that we should be calling 5150 if someone even mentions the word suicide. We what message are we sending them other than “under no circumstances talk about sadness or people will think you are crazy.” So people never do, and one day they are gone without even saying goodbye, and you wonder how can it be. So talk, talk, talk about sadness, suicide, depression, about your inevitable death, which could come at any moment and under any circumstances, and about feelings of sadness and melancholy. Because by sharing sadness with your friends, you are letting them know that when they are going through hard times they are not alone.

Depressed and at Cal


I never really thought about mental illness until the start of my sophomore year when my psychotherapist diagnosed me with major depression. I saw the Prozac commercials on TV and the posters around campus, titled “Look for the Signs of Depression”, but I never suspected that it would happen to me— much less that it would force me to withdraw from school and admit myself into a hospital.
One day I was disturbed by the eccentricity of my thoughts, so I decided to call and make an appointment to see a counselor at the Tang center. As I found out, I had six free sessions, as all Cal students do even if they do not have insurance, which gave me some comfort. However I was very apprehensive about my first appointment—I am not all too comfortable with spilling all of my personal problems to a complete stranger. So in an attempt to regain some potential loss of control, I wrote a list of all of the questions that I would ask my counselor during our first appointment, such as “What are your religious views?” and “Why did you decide to become a counselor?”
The first counselor I saw at the Tang center was Dr. H, a non-intimidating, energetic man. When I sat at the chair in his office, and after he asked me, “so what brings you here,” my defenses somehow dropped, and thus my treatment began and continues until today, although with a different counselor. While sharing the experience of my first counselor visit with my friend over the phone, he asked me, “so how did it go?” To which I replied, in jest, “he said I was crazy”. He responded, “come on man, this is serious”. It is. As I later found out, one in ten students are treated for depression in the U.S. in any given year and many more are affected by it through knowing somebody who suffers from it.
            Despite seeing a counselor, watching my diet and exercising, I was feeling progressively worse, and even though I was attending my classes, I was failing them. This led me to withdraw from all of my classes by the end of every semester that year. So, Dr. H recommended me to take antidepressants, to which I initially was extremely opposed (“I am not down to take drugs”, I told him during our first meeting. I was against any sort of pharmaceutical intervention because my cultural background taught me that I was the one who should resolve all my difficulties and the belief that such medication is "unnatural"). However, the symptoms kept exacerbating, so I finally gave in and saw a psychiatrist, Dr. M, who prescribed me my first antidepressant, Paxil. I put all of my hope into these pills, and—thanks almost exclusively to the placebo effect—I started feeling better almost immediately. But this amelioration was ephemeral, and my health soon regressed.
When the summer came, and I went home to San Diego, thinking, "if I couldn’t get better at Berkeley, I will get better here". After all, the sun is supposed to be good for people with depression, right? When I stepped into my home in San Diego, I remember crying from relief. But as the end of summer drew nearer, things weren’t looking any better, especially because around that time I was going through withdrawal while trying to wean myself off of Paxil, which was only making me drowsy. So I withdrew from Berkeley and admitted myself into a hospital for “Cognitive Therapy Intensive Outpatient Program”.
This six-week, twenty-day program consisted of lectures and group therapy. The purpose of the lectures was to help us re-learn the rudimentary life skills, such as making decisions and being assertive. Group therapy was where everybody had a chance to talk about his or her issues and receive feedback from the rest of the group. Of course, the issues in these groups revolved around the most familiar topics of conflict, intimacy, and loss.
            Following the hospital, more treatment of meeting with my therapist followed as well as being put on a new antidepressant, Effexor XR, and then on Welbutrin. In addition, I was taking classes at UC San Diego and a community college to satisfy my UC Berkeley requirements, with the full intention of returning as soon as my health allowed. What was I doing in my spare time? Trying to escape my misery through watching TV shows, hanging out with friends, learning to meditate, volunteering, and making some pocket money through tutoring—everything a non-depressed me would do, only without enthusiasm.
            One spring day, I walked outside to go to my car and noticed that something was different, slightly yet distinctly so—that unnameable tide that obliterated any enjoyable response to the living world was gone. For the first time in many months I felt pleasure—I could feel the sun’s warmth on my shoulders, I noticed the greenness of the grass, and I smelled the freshness in the air. That was the day my depression was gone, and tears of relief filled my face. Now it was time to face the life’s responsibilities and return to Berkeley, where I am currently continuing my study and reflecting on these past days.