Ever since my voice first cracked, depression became a major problem. At first, it was the acne, then my seemingly permanent braces, and finally, a vague, deepening feeling of insecurity. I was refugee skinny, my face was weak, and I would wake up every morning, stare at my mirror image, and think of all the structural changes that I wished my genetics had determined instead. A bit of bone here, a little less hair there, a smidgen more muscle everywhere. I was ugly. That was my view of myself, and it influenced everything about me.
But I made it through high school relatively unscathed, mostly because I pushed myself to be active in athletics, earned high marks in my classes, and developed a sense of humor that earned me friends enough that I was sure I was a person of value, even if I was physically unattractive. Importantly, I forced myself to discover and cultivate aspects of my personality that gave me a feeling of value as a human being.
Unfortunately, my depression was not left behind in high school. The unique pressures of college introduced new and even greater problems. In college, though my looks transformed – many even thought I was attractive (oh happy day!) – I found myself struggling with my social self-worth. I met great people and was part of a fun group, but I was no longer the center of attention, a role that I had grown used to in high school as the ‘clown’. My social anxiety and insecurity, however, was ultimately minor in comparison to new issues concerning my academics and career path, and what followed was the most severe, long-lasting depression of my life.
But let’s backtrack to the beginning of college.
When I first arrived, I knew I was going to be a doctor – a neurologist, to be precise. Thanks to a glitch in the computer system at a university summer program after my junior year of high school, I was accidentally placed in a health sciences career program. I wasn’t a science guy. That just wasn’t me. I was all about history, art, and literature, but I figured if I already knew what I liked, it wouldn’t hurt to try something different. So I took the course, enjoyed it thoroughly, and in the end, before the start of my senior year of high school, decided that I was going to be a neurologist, and that was that. My family – highly-educated Indian immigrants to the USA – who originally assumed that I would bounce between liberal arts majors in college until finally settling on some sort of stable, well-respected career, were astounded by my decision to pursue medicine. For the first time in my life, my decisions brought my family genuine happiness, and it was addictive.
Fast-forward to the second semester of my sophomore year of college. I was applying to the early-acceptance medical school program at my university. By this time I was very conflicted about my academic path. Though I enjoyed neuroscience well enough, I found the sciences meager satisfaction in comparison to the joys of history, philosophy, drawing, and other liberal arts, which I continued to pursue even while going through my pre-med studies. I remember looking at my early-acceptance medical school program application, half-filled .pdf on my computer screen, and being surprised by a sudden influx of anger. In that moment, I wanted more than anything to smash my screen and scream. Regardless, my family convinced me to apply – might as well, considering that I had worked so hard for it already, they told me – and several weeks later I was chosen to interview with the medical school, and several weeks after that, I was told that I had been preliminarily accepted. I was in. News of acceptance erased my mind of the conflicts that had once so thoroughly gripped my mind. Family and friends encouraged me, and I was genuinely excited. In the back of my mind, however, I was taking mental notes. I knew I didn’t really want to be a doctor, but I told myself it was okay. I told myself that I could write a book or do indie films on the side, especially with the steady, high income of a doctor, and maybe I would generate enough of a following eventually that I would be able to quit and pursue something creative full time.
That summer my grades slipped drastically. In the fall, I was thrown out of the medical school program. When I spoke with the medical school dean, it was apparent, however, that re-admission would be trivial. I would need to improve my grades, finish the pre-med track, and everything would be okay, just as how it was. I remember thinking at the time: this is my chance to say no. And for the next year, I said no. I said it over and over and over again. My depression deepened as my family’s disappointment increased. I began to delve into the creative arts, film in particular. I started taking classes, making short films and writing short scripts in my free time. The depression forced me to think. I decided that I wanted to be a filmmaker. I was obsessed, but it dawned on me that I was making very little progress and taking too much time. Senior year was fast approaching, and I had only a few badly lit comedy shorts, and two reasonably well made serious shorts, under my belt. Pretty soon, it was either medical school, or a 9-to-5 job, or some other graduate school, and my opportunity to explore the creative arts would be extinguished. I started to have suicidal thoughts. People told me to seek therapy and possibly medication, but I was convinced that White American therapists wouldn’t understand my Indian-American family and value systems, and they didn’t. Medication? I believe in the power of psychiatric medication, but I knew what my issues were, and in that moment, they were purely external. Depression is a complicated thing that depends very much on one’s personal circumstances. I learned not to rely on simple people to give me the answers I needed.
Long nights with my depression forced me to think and reflect even more. I realized by that point that the creative arts were my true passion – nevermind the medium – film, writing, drawing, whatever. I wanted to create. It explained why I bounced between so many potential careers from high school through college, and never settled on one. People tend to assume that indecision is an indication of lack of passion. That is completely untrue. Indecision is often a result of being forced to choose between a set of terrible answers.
Senior year rolled around. I had not taken the MCATs, and decided not to complete the pre-med track. I was locked out of the medical school program for good, now. My neuroscience degree from my university, graduating in a rough economy, was not going to get me a respectable job. My family pushed me to apply to law school. I figured that it wasn’t a horrible idea: I still very much enjoyed history, philosophy, and politics, and I thought of myself as an effective debater. Why not? My passions took a backseat, again. Just as I did with medicine, I imagined that I would be able to pursue writing or film or something similarly interesting while I was a lawyer, so everything would be okay. At some point, I could start living my dream. At some point.
The LSAT came quickly. Got my scores back. Was very pleased with my performance. Applied to my older brother’s Ivy League alma mater. Got in. I was conflicted, still, but excited. My family was proud of me again. My friends were encouraging. Everything was okay, for a time, and the depression subsided.
Fast-forward to law school. I hated it. I hated it more than an academic institution ought to be hated. I was upset at myself, my family, and the world. Myself, for not finding the courage enough to have pursued my dreams at the expense of short-term comforts like social respect and acceptance. My family, for pushing me down paths that I never wanted to pursue in the first place. And the world, for showing me people existed who had the courage I didn’t have, who had the determination I didn’t have, who had the talent that I had not cultivated. I sank into a deep depression. I began to have suicidal thoughts again.
And under this depressive spell, at the start of the summer between my first and second year, I came upon the most important epiphany of my life. If I was willing and ready to die, given all that I had and was on track to have, then none of it really mattered.
“It is only after we lose everything that we are free to do anything.”
– Tyler Durden, Fight Club
I was willing to throw away my entire existence because of the choices that I had made. It made no logical sense to continue to make the same choices, or to walk the path created by those choices.
I started to write. Furiously. I wrote and wrote. I wracked my mind for ideas and characters and stories. Entering my second year, I felt happy, truly and completely happy, for the first time in a long time. Yes, I was still in law school, but I still had time to make my dreams happen. I couldn’t give up yet. I stayed up long nights, skipped some useless classes, and by the end of my second year, I had written a full novel, upmarket general fiction, that I was proud of. Then, I took more risks. I was lined up for a New York City corporate law firm job, you know, suits and long workdays and shitty personalities. I told them no.
Enter this summer, coming quickly to an end as I type this. I have been trying to get agented, but have been reconsidering traditional publishing in lieu of self-publishing. Meanwhile, I’ve already started on a second book, fantasy this time. Things didn’t pan out the way I foresaw this summer. I figured that I would have an agent, that I would have publishing houses fighting with each other to give me a contract, and that I would be entering my third year a writing success. But I’ve figured out my shit. I’ve fought the skeletons in my closet and come out victorious. I’m not depressed anymore, beyond the occasional blues that everyone gets once in awhile. Why? Because despite my short-term failures, I know that I’m doing what I need to do.
I’m following my heart, and no matter the results, that’s what fucking matters in the end.