Anonymity was an option. However, one thing that I learned from coping with depression is that I must face my problems directly. Therefore, let me introduce myself. My name is Anh Cao. I am an international student. I am from a low-income family. I am a gay man. I am an overachiever who graduated as the top student at the University of Toronto. To top it all off, I am a graduate student. Moreover, for a moment during my graduate studies, I thought about suicide.
I woke up every day feeling worthless. I used to be on top of everything, spending every weekend happily in the lab and producing consistent results. I felt like a shadow of that former self, which fuelled a growing sense of failure. The negativity grew stronger day by day to a point where I could not contain it inside of me and I started projecting my own self-doubt on to everyone else. I thought that my lab mates judged me for being an inadequate version of my former self. I blamed my boyfriend for distracting me; he was a new variable in my life equation that took it out of balance. I ran away from my supervisor and I stopped having real conversations with my mom. My depression was like a growing maelstrom. I spent less time in the lab and produced less data, further propelling the self-judgement and feelings of worthlessness. The climax of my depression was the time I thought about jumping from the 11th floor of the condo where my boyfriend lives. Not only did I want to end my suffering, I wanted “revenge”. I wanted to make the people left behind feel regret. What stopped me was the fear of vanishing: that those people would instead forget me and move on with their lives. That incident made me take a break. I visited my family in Vietnam and took time to collect myself.
In a moment of enlightenment, I realized that I was always seeking external validation to build up my self-image. I am good because you say that I am good. I am loved because you say you love me. This mindset worked so well in my undergrad because each A+ whispered that I was good and I should be happy. This same mindset almost killed me in graduate school.”
I have always been proud of my resilience, and I have faced tougher adversities. Even when I lived in a homeless shelter (waking up every morning in a room full of marijuana smoke), I was extremely happy (and it’s not because I was high). Why was I then so unhappy when I had a place to live and some money? In a moment of enlightenment, I realized that I was always seeking external validation to build up my self-image. I am good because you say that I am good. I am loved because you say you love me. This mindset worked so well in my undergrad because each A+ whispered that I was good and I should be happy. This same mindset almost killed me in graduate school. Each failed experiment was proof of my worthlessness and fuelled my distress. By running away from my supervisor, my labmates, my boyfriend and my parents, I further deprived myself from external validation, which made me crumble to almost nothing. So what was there to live for? I recognized that in my first year of graduate school – I had lost meaningful human connections. During my break in Vietnam, sitting with my parents on the floor just having dinner was truly healing. I was reminded of why I left home in the first place: I wanted to learn so that I could bring back the knowledge to help treat diseases. In Vietnam, I caught up with friends and shared my story with them and was stunned to learn that many of them had similar experiences. Since then, I resolved to learn, read and talk more about mental health challenges, which many of us are struggling with on a daily basis. I learned that mental health challenges are common and the first, as well as the most challenging step, is to accept it: accept that it is okay to be not okay.
As I am writing this article, I am still not depression-free. Coping is a learning process. The first and most challenging step is acknowledging the problem and facing it directly. Instead of denying, I have started embracing these challenges as a stage in my development. If I had never experienced depression, I would not have appreciated the fact that I am breathing, I am living, and I am doing what I have always loved to do – science. Because of these experiences, I will always – no matter where I go – champion for increased awareness of mental health challenges and advocate for accessibility to mental health support.