Hey there every peoples!
A recent event has spurred me to talk more about being an aspiring paleontologist with depression.
For many people like me depression is a chronic mental illness that one needs to figure out how to live with. Pills aren’t always the answer. Instead what needs to be done is find the things that make you happy and try to apply that. Also having too much down time is another problem. It gives one time to think and dwell on the negative. This is a little difficult to achieve when even the slightest things can trigger an episode.
Enter me. While I love it here on the Central Coast it is not the best place to nurture a burning passion for paleontology. But that’s just the beginning. As I alluded to above the slightest thing can send me into the bottomless pit. This can be because of my inferiority complex, lack of confidence, and all around depressive thoughts. One such occurrence may be the age old seemingly trivial matter of getting things wrong. Now everyone gets stuff wrong from time to time and admitting their error is regarded as one of the most intellectually honest things to do. So what happens when you never get anything right? I refer you to the aforementioned lack of confidence. I never seem to get anything right, always being corrected on just about everything. Just when I think I know something I learn that I had it wrong for some time. When you can’t get even small details right it begins to erode your confidence bit by bit. Right now I’m at the point where I point out I never get anything right when I engage in any speculation or dialogue. Getting things wrong despite your best efforts to learn makes one feel rather stupid. This is made all the worse when the words “myth” or other such heated language is used. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t use such words when appropriate. But when you have depression and are told that you believed in a myth based on what little info you can get, you really feel like the village idiot. [(You’ll see this more in the next post)(this is why I like Brian Switek’s writing style. He always makes it sound like part of the learning process and not about getting right. It does lessen the blow…)]
Depression has a way of perpetuating itself. You make an error and your mind will find ways to make that seem like the mistake of the decade. This mistake in my case is a seeming lack of ability to think critically and apply science. I read various blogs and the comments therein and am just amazed at what people can write based on their own observations and research. They see things I would never have noticed. They always seem to be ahead of me in their sources and knowledge. I have all too often just believed what the news says (like the “dragon of Lisowice”) only to find out I had it wrong. All this sounds trivial. But thrown in the factor of a depressed mind and it all falls apart. It weakens your resolve about going into a field where you have to think critically and be able to debate using evidence. This brings me to my next point.
I suck at debating. And in a field that is fueled by debate that can be a major handicap. After all, why be taken seriously when you can’t defend your position? This doubt then feeds back into the lack of confidence that is a big part of my depression because not only does it make me worry about the ability to stand on my feet in the scientific community, but also because discussions of paleontology often become debates. I mean just look here to see how much I suck. I’m using an argument I saw on tv and when I couldn’t handle the tension, just up and quit. Flight won out over fight. This inability to support an argument is probably a good enough reason to consider another profession
The biggest problem I would say though is in trying to hold on to hope for the future. In my first post of paleontology and depression I talked about how school can really play Marry Hob with your negative thoughts. I despaired about not being able to go to college because I was afraid I would never meet the high standards of California universities. But then I started to think and then I had a revelation: I was going by UC standards. What about colleges abroad? So far University of Nebraska Lincoln and Carthage College have written back (2 out of the 5 I sent letters to. Not bad I guess). But this isn’t enough to banish the “Noonday Demon”. Every little thing can get me down. But what causes the greatest pit of hopelessness is this insurmountable task I have afflicted myself with. I make no bones about my intentions of founding my own museum here in SLO county. However I still cannot get over this crushing feeling of hopelessness that I will fail in the long run. The reasons are many:
- I have practically no idea what I’m doing.
- I can’t look for fossils because while I know what formations I want to search, I don’t exactly know where. All efforts to fix that problem have failed (thus perpetuating the feeling that I can’t ever do anything right).
- I read about fossils being dug up all the times, by professionals, volunteers, commercial hunters, and creationists. Depression creates the feeling that I would not be able to compete with the big league institutions or other parties. Not to mention the fact depression creates the feeling that there’s really nothing left to find. This is obviously not true but we’re talking about a mental illness here.
- How is such a project to be supported? I’m working on a proposal to the city of San Luis Obispo to see if I could get support from them but it will likely go nowhere.
All that combined with the lack of confidence and my massive inferiority complex too often fills me with that nihilistic sinking feeling. Combined with the fact that the fossils of the Central Coast (the main reason driving my museum) are locked up aboard out of sight (with a few exceptions of course), and you have the recipe for a miserable mind.
The one time I didn’t have these feelings was in the summer of 2008. Through a chance encounter in late December of 2007 I got a foot in the door and became a volunteer at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. They had acquired a mammoth skeleton from the City of Moorpark and was able to have a public view prep lab open that summer. I couldn’t believe it. I was actually working with fossils! I was even quoted in the Ventura County Star as saying “You wait your whole life for an opportunity like this”. But it wasn’t meant to last. The museum only had enough funding to keep the lab open that summer. After that, she disappeared behind the scenes where someone came in once a week to work on her. I tried to continue my volunteer prep work but in the end I lost out. And I have been trying to get that sensation back ever since. I have attended a couple trips where you can look for fossils (with the San Bernardino County Museum and with the LA Museum), but they were short and I didn’t find anything. I tried to offer my services to paleontologists to try and get in on the action. Like when I told the curators at the San Bernardino Museum that if they needed a grunt to dig away overburden in their Las Vegas project, I was willing. Or when Butch was thinking of coming out to California to look around Barstow. Or when Bobby was thinking of plying the bluffs out at Avila Beach for marine fossils. But none of that ever came to pass. I have emailed paleontologists or met them in person trying to get on their good graces:
Why? Because I am desperately searching for that small ray of hope. I am desperate to try and do the one thing that seemed to put my depression at ease. My depression drags me down and down but I keep the search going in the forlorn hope that maybe I might be able to exercise what I love and learn the skills I need to bring my ridiculous goal to fruition. But like all else, I have failed. I am still where I am when I last left the mammoth lab almost 3 years ago.
This is how I think depression can impact paleontology. It may be different with people interested in other sciences or other fields. But I hope to have shown that depression is a mental illness that can interfere drastically with the scientists of tomorrow. It is not easy to overcome. I don’t know how likely it would ever be, but if you are a paleontologist and someone shows more than a casual interest, try to support them. They may have depression. And helping to immerse them in the wonders of paleontology might be the thing that pulls them out of the Abyss.
Till next time…