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Alex Ritger

Hi, my name is Alex Ritger.  I’m majoring in Psychology and Neurobiology, and my interest in those fields has largely been fueled by my past experiences.  I come from a long family history of depression, and I turned out to be no exception.  While mental disorders or dysfunctions can be very different from physical disorders, I think a lot of people go through the same emotional experiences while facing them.  Not only can they be difficult to face individually, unfortunately they can also set people apart from society in many different ways.

Depression is a mood disorder that affects many aspects, of life and often occurs in conjunction with other disorders, such as anxiety.  It is very common – about 17% of the population will experience at least one major depressive episode in their lifetime.  Additionally, depression is much more than “being sad.”  Symptoms are characterized by feelings of hopelessness or pessimism, loss of appetite or overeating, insomnia or sleeping too much, irritability, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, excessive guilt or feelings of worthlessness or recurrent thoughts of death.  To receive a diagnosis, you must experience a persistent (not just occasional) feeling of sadness or loss of interest in nearly all activities for at least two weeks, along with 4 of the above symptoms.  The symptoms must all interfere with normal daily functioning.  A typical depressive episode last about 6 months if untreated, and about half of people who experience one depressive episode will have another.

When I first started experiencing symptoms in high school, I had no idea what was going on.  I started having panic attacks and terrible mood swings.  I stopped eating and stopped sleeping, and turned to drinking to try to block everything out.  Even when something good happened for me, like a good grade or a scholarship, I would feel like I didn’t deserve it.  I couldn’t sit still for an entire class and would make up excuses to leave.  I barely made it through sports events.  For a long time, I wanted to die.  I couldn’t understand what was going on, but I didn’t want to feel like that anymore.  My thought processes and judgment were no longer clear and I thought there was no other way out.  I tried so hard to keep up a normal life and not let anyone know something was wrong, because I felt like I needed to be strong enough to do everything on my own.  But after a while, it became clear that I was falling apart.  My dad suggested I start seeing a counselor through his employment, and it was a disaster.  I felt like the counselor didn’t treat me like a real person or understand anything I was going through.  I stopped going, and after a period of time, I decided to try again with a new counselor.  She ended up changing my life.

I was diagnosed with moderate depression and mild anxiety.  Hearing that there was something clinically wrong with me and that I wasn’t simply failing at life really changed something in my mind.  Not only did I start to improve through treatment, my counselor started teaching me about my symptoms and small things about psychology.  I was just stunned to find out that so many little things had names, and from then on I was hooked.  I started studying psychology constantly, and that turned into researching more and more things about mental disorders and their causes, which ended up leading me to neurobiology.  I selfishly wanted to learn more about myself, but I ended up finding out that I had a true passion for doing work in the field.  Getting to start college and study all the things I was interested in was a perfect fresh start for me, and I felt happy again.

However, in college, I had another episode.  This time, I just slept constantly and couldn’t get up the energy to do anything.  I had no interest in anything and my grades suffered immensely.  My GPA dropped below what was required for one of my scholarships, and I lost the money.  That was absolutely crushing and was a huge wake-up call for me.  I went to University Health Services and had to start all over again telling my life story to two strangers – a counselor and a psychiatrist.  I think there’s a really unfortunate stigma with receiving mental health services, so I was always really embarrassed to be “going to the doctor.”  But looking back, I cannot advocate it enough.  It’s not a sign of weakness to ask for help any more than it’s a sign of weakness to take Nyquil when you have a cold.  A doctor sees things that you can’t see when you look at yourself, and they can point you in the right direction, and at the very least, give you someone to talk to.

In the process of seeing the psychiatrist, we mutually decided to try medication, because it was becoming clear that this was a reoccurring problem and not just a one-time thing.  For those unfamiliar with antidepressants, they usually take 4-6 weeks to kick in, and the results are different for everyone, so they are not guaranteed to work.   I went on two trials, first with Prozac and then with Zoloft.  I briefly experienced an elevated mood, but soon I was sleeping too much and couldn’t get out of bed with anything under 12 hours of sleep.  For me, the negatives outweighed the positives because I obviously just could not afford to sleep that much during college.  But for everyone, that is a personal process to find out what works for them individually.

Al2

After my failed experience with medication, I decided I wanted to do the best I could for myself and make as many positive changes as I could in my own life.  Exercise has long been shown to be effective at treating depression, so I started running and working out.  I even completed my first half marathon this past fall.  After I got into the habit of treating my body well on the outside, I also started eating healthier.  That’s not always easy to do in college, but one of the best things you can do is to cut out snacking and make even small attempts to eat better overall, like limiting take-out.  I also forced myself to stop napping during the day and sleep at more regular times of the night, so I could be more productive.  (That sucked, naps are so great.)  I also decided to stop wearing sweatpants and t-shirts and dress better for class; oftentimes the way we choose to present ourselves will reflect itself in the quality of our work.  When I paid attention to myself, I could tell I never got as much done or felt as good about myself when I was just lounging in sweats and eating junk food.  Additionally, I started actually paying attention to what made me happy and what didn’t, and not just what I felt I was supposed to do.  Certain things were having negative influences on my life – friends, social media, and clutter (for lack of a better word).  I “cleaned up” my life a bit and started surrounding myself with the things that made me happy.

These things by no means were a cure.  I still struggle all the time.  But they are really good stepping stones for treating yourself better and feeling better about yourself.  After that, a lot of other things fall into place.  Even if you’re in a bad place, imagine yourself as the person you want to be and start acting like that person.  It might feel out of place, but the more you act out your goals, the more they will start happening.  It’s really hard work, especially when it’s easier to just go to bed or try to pretend nothing’s wrong.  But we all do hard work in other areas of our lives, so we should be doing even harder work to better ourselves.

All these experiences led to some great outcomes in my life.  I now have a job in a neurobiology research lab and have graduate classes in neurobiology lined up for the fall.  I have a unique and personal perspective on many of the things I’m learning in psychology.  After this, I plan to attend graduate or medical school and fulfill my goals in research and/or treatment.  I think what I got out of my experiences outweighed the pain of going through them.  But that doesn’t mean that everything happens for a reason.  You have to make everything happen for a reason, and you have to make yourself learn from your experiences and grow stronger.  Being passive through life’s trials will not give your life meaning.  No matter who you are, you have to fight to be the person that you want to be and that is what will give you character.

I’ve always been pretty embarrassed about these things, because depression always seemed like the kind disorder that I was responsible for, rather than something “naturally” wrong.  But for most people, that’s just not true.  Rather than anyone blaming themselves, or worrying about other people judging them, it makes more sense to move forward and be constructive with what life has given them.  If sharing my story can help anyone else through similar experiences, it’s well worth it.

The best way I can wrap up is by speaking about Bella Soul.  This organization is creating a wonderful new way for people to connect and share experiences and hope with other kids in college going through the same things.  It is scary going into college with no resources.  At once everyone is making brand new friends, starting brand new classes and organizations, and finding everything on campus for the first time.  Bella Soul creates a home away from home for people with similar life experiences.  I can’t wait to see what it becomes, and if you feel the same you should definitely consider getting involved or spreading the word!

Al

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