Cliques, Serotonin and Self Awareness

Column by Ritika Agarwal
Ritika - JaeEun Oh
Grinnell is cliquey. Everybody knows it. There’s a window of opportunity that lasts about three weeks in the beginning of first year when everyone is searching for friends—and then it closes because people are too comfortable in their groups to risk trying to make a new friend. So, that makes it really sucky when your clinical depression and anxiety issues make you completely dependent on your clique and then turn you into someone who your clique can’t stand and then the absence of your clique makes you even more depressed and the cycle takes its vicious toll on you.
Depression is different for everyone, but for me, it affected my self-image most of all. It made me incredibly insecure about myself and my relationships, to the point where I was always questioning whether my friends actually cared about me or not. There were days when I felt irrationally lonely, and I would take it out on my friends by being snarky and condescending, and other days when clarity would kick in, I would be okay. Someone I know called it the “depression filter.” In her words, on bad days, everything that I experienced would go through the “depression filter” and skew my perception of it. Kind words would be heard as insincere, normal interactions would feel forced and exhausting.
When I got to Grinnell around a year ago, I was already taking medication to control my depression. Halfway through my first semester I foolishly decided that I shouldn’t rely on a pill to make me happy and stopped taking the medication. Bad decision. Depression is most fundamentally a chemical imbalance in the brain. Pills aren’t just around to make you feel like you’re doing something—they don’t just provide some sort of placebo effect like so many people tried to make me believe. They actually work. The kind I was taking was called SSRIs or “Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors,” and they work by “increasing the level of serotonin in the synaptic cleft available to bind to the postsynaptic receptor” (thanks, Wikipedia). The important thing to note here is that depression is an illness just like any other and antidepressants are just as effective as pills that get rid of headaches.
Anyway, things went predictably downhill from there. I lost interest in my activities. I started skipping class. I started to question the point of it all—yes, depression triggered my first existential crisis—and possibly worst of all, I put my friends and family through hell. A breakdown involving alcohol and self- harm the week before finals finally woke me up and made me realize I needed help. Over the summer I did some serious introspection and figured out my major problem—I have always relied on other people to give me self-worth. My priorities during my first year were completely messed up. I avoided loneliness at any cost, including my academics and paradoxically, my friendships.
This year I’ve decided to do things differently. For one thing, I’m taking my pills religiously. Besides that, I’m giving all my clique-mates some much needed space, and I’m focusing on things that truly matter. I’m learning to recognize when I’m being irrational about my friendships, and how to be okay by myself sometimes. I’m learning to take pride in myself and my work, both academic and extracurricular. I’m learning to rely on myself. This year is about ME.
So, if there’s a lesson to take away from my story, I’d summarize it like this: YOU are the most important and most dependable thing in your life. YOU have the power to make things better for yourself, including getting help when you need it. Make friends because you want to, not because you need to. Throw yourself wholeheartedly into everything you do, but recognize your limits. Take your Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors if that’s what’s necessary.

— Photo by Jae Eun Oh