Lab Rats

The abandoned cold room

An essay on depression

Julia Richards 12 November 2011

Incubated: the lab becomes your world

It’s easy to see why being in science can cause depression: you are constantly rolling the boulder uphill and then watching it roll back down when you reach the top

My three friends made a pact at the beginning of grad school: if any them became an asshole during the next five to seven years, he would be taken into the abandoned cold room on the third floor and have the crap beaten out of him. Grad school is a hard grind and the pressure can turn people against each other or just make them bitter in general. They designated two impartial judges, two of the most sensible girls in their class, who would rule on if the beat-down was necessary.

The cold room in question had stopped being used in the 1990s when the professor had transitioned from doing research to a more lucrative career writing biochemistry textbooks. It had a huge metal door like that of a meat locker, with no window. Inside the counters were still covered with the remnants of experiments: beakers, stir plates, old one-liter bottles of buffers growing mold. There was a twenty-year-old pickle still hooked up to electrodes from the famous glowing pickle demo they show in general chemistry. About twenty old FPLC columns of all sizes stood suspended by rusty clamps on crumbling ring stands. There was a second, smaller room at the back of the cold room, but the air was so filled with what felt like asbestos that no one even considered going back there.

It was the perfect place for a beat-down.

There was only one problem with this plan. The sensible girls graduated sensibly early, and the three participants were so crazy by the end that there was no one to carry out the plan. Grad student 1 went from a cheerful party-animal type to a sullen and bitter alcoholic. He would lash out at the younger members of the group and his boss. Grad student 2 went from one of the sweetest guys on the planet to a hyperactive, unpredictable spazz. Grad student 3 was English and so remained relatively good-natured but was cowed by daily meetings with his idiot boss and the constant inane questioning of his research. His expression became more defeated with every passing day. Maybe the real problem was we were all already in some sort of metaphorical abandoned cold room called grad school, being beaten up by scientific research.

My second year of grad school I became not an asshole but a depressive. Depression runs in my family, but I had no idea what it really was until that year. Suddenly, I would experience a few days a month where I would cry uncontrollably for no reason. And not just a few tears: full-out, snot-pouring-out-of-the-nose, hours-long bouts of sobbing. At first, I would just say to myself, "Huh, that was weird. It was probably just a bad day and will never happen again." Problem solved.

Denial only works for so long, in my case, about two months. The crying became more frequent, almost every day. I became familiar with all the restrooms on campus that weren’t used very much so that I could cry in relative peace. That was the point I said to myself, "Huh, maybe something is seriously wrong." I went to my school's counseling services and had medical professionals portentously tell me that I was depressed. They asked if I was willing to try medication but I balked at how willing they were to just write me a prescription within five minutes of meeting me. As my best friend said, “How did they know you weren’t just faking it to get some meds?”

I was so desperate for them to fix me that I did agree to go to weekly therapy. Therapy is pretty much my definition of hell: sitting in a room being forced to talk about your feelings while someone stares at you. I absolutely hated it, but telling my therapist I wasn't going to come back would have led to talking about my feelings about therapy and I just wasn't up for that.

I spent months doing all the things they tell you to do when you're depressed: therapy, exercising, eating healthy, getting out of bed every morning. And I felt like a huge loser because it required so much effort just to do ordinary things. I knew nothing was really wrong in my life. I wasn’t homeless and living on the street. I wasn’t an African woman being gang-raped in war-torn Sudan. However, I also knew it was a medical condition and I shouldn't feel guilty, and consequently I felt more guilty about feeling guilty. I knew things rationally but it didn't help because I didn’t feel they were true.

There are more than a few scientists who detest religion and find it incompatible with science. As a third-generation atheist, I completely disagree. There have been problems with the people who run religion and their history of repressing science, but the subjects themselves are not fundamentally in opposition. Science covers things that can be proven; religion covers things that cannot. One thing I’ve found they have in common is faith. In the case of science, it’s faith in your fellow scientists to use good research practices and report accurate results. And faith that science is self-correcting, so that even if bad research occurs, it will eventually be disproved. No one can be an expert in every field, so there has to be some trust among scientists.

So with depression, my feelings were that getting out of bed in the morning wouldn’t help me and being in the world would make me more depressed. But I had faith in the scientific literature that told me these would help. I turned off my thoughts and clung to my faith in psychology.

I still cried all the time. I think I cried in every restaurant/bar restroom in Philadelphia. I cried in yoga class, on jogs along the river, in lab while I was pipetting, and I would wait till my boyfriend fell asleep at night so I could cry in bed. When I wasn't crying, I would have dizzy spells or feel exhausted. At times, I would try to reassure myself by saying, "Baby girl, it'll be okay. I'm not going to let anything happen bad to you." I don't know why I called myself ‘baby girl’, maybe my depressed self is Jay-Z or something. That's how I knew things were really bad.

It’s easy to see why being in science can cause depression. You are constantly rolling the boulder uphill and then watching it roll back down when you reach the top. You work for years to get one little result. You repeat experiments changing one parameter at a time. In my particular department, there was very little concern with educating grad students. We were cheap labor for the professors. I watched people being fired for little reason and often in the most passive-aggressive ways possible. You aren’t required to have management skills to be a professor. One girl simply received a letter in her mailbox telling her that her funding was being cut off.

Unexpectedly, one of the hardest parts of grad school was what I called the Sarah Palin phenomenon. People who couldn’t find their way three flights of stairs down to the stockroom were getting Ph.D.s. If a professor wanted to graduate someone who was unqualified, no one cared enough to stop him. And those students often found ways to wriggle onto other people’s papers, or just have someone do their work and write their papers for them. It was a good life lesson: in every profession, there are incompetent people who somehow, inexplicably, get to the top. It was more difficult than I expected to see this happen, but ultimately, you have to judge your own work by your own standards and not worry about other people.

As I learned to deal with the pressures of grad school, I started to get better very slowly. Getting over the depression was kind of like trying to lose weight. You just have to work on it every day and you may lose a pound a week, but you don't see the dramatic results anytime soon. My lab-mate Garry took care of me. We worked together and saw each other every day. I would come in and say, "Garry, I cried all morning." He would say, "Oh, that sucks" and it would make me feel better. He made it seem like it was just one of those things that happen and would pass. When my boyfriend broke up with me, he took me out for chicken fingers and whiskey. He always seemed to like me. Loving people when they're being bitchy assholes isn't so hard because love is blind and whatnot, but actually liking them is an amazing feat.

Even though I was getting better slowly, I realized that I needed more help, so I finally went on anti-depressants. It was an act of desperation at the time, but it was the right decision. Everything just became a little bit easier. I was a little less sad, a little less worried about what people thought of me, and a little less inclined to cry. I don't regret waiting so long to go on medication because learning to deal through therapy was something I needed to do. However, Prozac helped me get the most out of therapy and finally start feeling better.

There is a stigma about drugs, even among scientists, which baffles me. Depression is a disease with profound physiological consequences. You can’t just get over it and be happy; you need to address the imbalances in brain chemistry. No one should feel like taking an antidepressant is some sort of failure. I think therapy is also necessary, but medication can make a tremendous difference.

There is a way out of the abandoned cold room.