Learned Helplessness – Naadeyah Haseeb
Perfusion. Pin the mouse to a Styrofoam board, belly up. Pretend the crunching sound of metal piercing paw doesn’t bother me. Imagine the mouse is waking up from anesthesia. Blink a few times and calm down. Don’t rub at hands to alleviate strange sudden stabbing pain in palms, don’t picture stigmata or the tiny research rodent as mouse Jesus. Keep hands steady while opening abdomen, exposing liver and intestines. Steadier as the beating heart is exposed. Wonder if feeling of needles in chest is anxiety or some kind of sympathy pain when nicking the left ventricle. Flush out the blood, watch it run red to pink to clear. Pump in the fixative. When the viscera are blanched and the muscles cease all twitching, it is done. The mouse is stiff. I snip off the head and take its brain.
I wander campus holding my cup of coffee. It’s the third of the day. My doctor has advised me to avoid caffeine. If I must drink coffee, she says, I should consider decaf and cut off consumption before noon. Before grad school I didn’t drink it at all. I’ve since learned this socially acceptable stimulant abuse is something boasted about. Needing eight cups from the lab’s pot means you’re up working early and fueling yourself to keep working late. When I told a fellow student about guzzling so much one day my hands were trembling, they laughed along. When I told my doctor she wrote it down and told me yet again about the importance of making healthy lifestyle choices in order to stay well.
But I sip and sip, even though it’s almost one in the afternoon. The cup and my bulging bag and the notebook I carry but do not need, the quick, long strides I take, they all say I’m busy and working. Moving toward a building and an overall larger goal and purpose. In reality, I’m meandering. This place is sprawling but I’ve traveled every part, often leaving lab with the intention of getting coffee and returning to work, but instead giving in to the compulsion to just keep walking. I’ve studied every section, taking in the uniformity of every corner of the old medical center, the intimidating beauty of the gothic structures where the undergraduates reside and learn, and all that lies in between.
I’m out of place. I do my best not to look it. The coffee, the bag, the notebook—all part of my costume. Stare straight ahead as I go and tell myself nobody is paying attention to me, ask myself who cares if they are anyway. Keep my head down and walk faster when this doesn’t work. Breaths come out heavy and erratic and I turn to see how close the person behind me is, wonder if they can hear it. I’m stopped and asked for directions. I’m thrilled any time this happens, viewing myself through their lost eyes as someone that belongs here. Paste on a smile and consult their campus maps, point the visiting parents or basketball fans or touring prospective students on their way.
Bi-weekly therapy and medication management has given me a legitimate excuse to avoid lab. I like my psychiatrist and so I lie to her all the time. I’m fine. The boyfriend and I are doing well. School is challenging but I’m handling it. Caffeine, drinking and drugs, ample sleep—no, no, and yes. The trick is to admit to a minor failing in one or two of these areas every now and then so the lies are not terribly obvious. Say I had a little too much coffee before studying and had trouble getting my eight hours. Mention the one or two glasses of wine at department happy hour. Talk about fight with boyfriend but focus on how it was resolved.
It’s obviously silly to care about disappointing her. She’s seen me giggling through tears and babbling about my suicidal ideation during the mixed episode she diagnosed when we met. Listened to and considered my feedback about the various pharmacotherapies we’ve tried. Talked me down over the phone while I was wasted and sobbing about something I can barely remember. Later she swore to the fact that I was well and could handle the rigors of my program once again in a letter to the people at school who wanted me out. Embarrassment and guilt prevent me from telling her it’s not all okay. I know it’s my fault things aren’t working, but I’m incapable of doing anything I’m supposed to. My brain screams for the forbidden chemicals, keeps me up all night researching obscure topics of no relevance to my course or lab work, makes me forget the pills or, lately, tells me to stop taking them as an experiment. See what happens.
Hypothesis: I will not go crazy because I am not truly insane. Just a spectacular fuck up.
My method is not totally scientific. I really believe in both this idea and its opposite at once, because either results in what I view as a positive outcome. Days I think I’m just bad at life, I hope maybe I can change. Times I know I’m insane, I hope the mania will creep in again. My doctor said to picture my mood without meds as a sine wave cycling up and down. The goal of treatment is to keep everything closer to flat. My goal is the peak amplitude. When you’re told the high you get just from being alive is really mental illness, that operating at your highest level and feeling like you can run the world if everyone would just get out of your way is actually a symptom, but this all happens after you’ve suffered through a mind- and body-crippling period of depression so bleak you were certain you’d never feel anything good ever again, it seems pretty reasonable to think, “So what?”
Forget to take the mood stabilizer. Skip the dose even after remembering. Taper down the antipsychotic at my own discretion. I probably don’t need it anyway. Forget the pills again and again. Go a week or two like this, and then actively decide not to take them at all. I’m fine. Have dreams about breaking through rodent skulls and watching life flash pink again into the once dead grey eyes. Try not to cry when I’m sent to cut off the heads and tails of twenty mice. When I hesitate the research technician takes over for me. Smile when my advisor thanks me for getting it done so quickly.
I’ve become convinced my boyfriend likes having a bipolar girlfriend. Maybe it’s exotic to him like my brown skin and big hair and the fact that I’m a scientist. He uses it to win arguments and also appear caring and concerned. Jealousy, fear, and insecurity are all dismissed as paranoia. If I raise my voice too much, I’m asked if I’m still taking my medication. But he doesn’t stop me from drinking. Still stays up all night with me. Shotguns smoke into my mouth.
He’s just having fun. I imagine I’ll be a story he tells one day. My mother has warned me many times, before I’d ever kissed a boy and once again after I brought him home to meet the family, that white guys will only use me for sex. They aren’t looking to marry girls like me. I told her I didn’t want to marry them either. Told myself I was using them too. But this one fooled me into thinking he was in love. Made me feel the same. I resent him for it nearly as much as I do myself for being an idiot. We fight about what he feels is nothing, just my inexplicable rage. It’s me building up the nerve to walk away from it all, to allow myself to hate him. I’m even angrier when he rolls his eyes instead of arguing back.
Sit there hating him in a silent room, mind loud with racing thoughts trying to piece together a vicious exiting speech. I realize I’m maybe falling apart, but can’t separate valid concerns from possible symptoms. The urge to leave and wander the dark streets hits and I stand to go. His dog follows me and he doesn’t call him back. White people like it when their dog likes you, I think. They tend to trust you more. I walk too far and don’t want to go back. The dog waits patiently with me before I finally decide to turn around. No matter what happens, I always seem to love him again in the morning.
The mutant mice we use are bred for depression—only you don’t call it depression because you can’t ask a mouse how it feels. Talk instead of observable behavior. Subject the animal to repeated unavoidable shock. Give it no control over this. Then watch how it reacts when it’s allowed to escape. It’s learned helplessness when it doesn’t even bother. Measure the declines in cognitive function and reaction to rewarding stimuli. Write up the paper about the gene or family of genes possibly responsible for the pathophysiology of these depressive-like behaviors. Trash everything when it all sounds wrong. Skip lab, then class, then therapy, and consider never returning. Forget you don’t believe in God and realize life is his gross experiment. When it’s done he’ll play with your brain.