More on Paleontology and Depression

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:


You can tell Xiaoming isn't entirely thrilled with my antics

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…

11 thoughts on “More on Paleontology and Depression

  1. When paleontologists (professionals, students, avocational, whatever) are writing, I don’t think we often talk about our failures. Maybe the little ones; if you look at my old blog entries, you’ll see all kinds of incorrect identifications, for example. Paleontology is a field in which you have to get used to being wrong a LOT (even if not everyone admits it.)

    But there are also big, sometimes colossal, failures. Sometimes I don’t write about them because they aren’t interesting, sometimes because they’re still painful, but they’re there. I’ve had at least 4 major field research projects fall through for various reasons, one of which I had put years (and lots of my own money) into trying to develop. Most of us have had more rejections on grants and papers than acceptances. They all sting a little, and it’s harder when you’re getting started.

    But you’re definitely not alone with this.

  2. Hey Doug,

    You’re being WAY too hard on yourself. I’ll raise a few points – I know that being disagreed with can suck, but I’m going to play devil’s advocate here. In this case I think being disagreed with might make you feel a tad better.

    1) Disagreement, criticism, all that crap is integral to paleontology and science as a whole. When I was still an undergraduate, I had really thin skin, and losing an argument hurt – quite a bit. Finding out an idea of yours doesn’t pan out really does suck. However, scientific dialogue is how the field moves forward. Sure, sometimes there are a few researchers out there that get their temper and emotions involved – they’re called assholes. Ignore them. They’re doing science wrong. While on one hand avoiding confrontation of a certain topic simply out of politeness can be construed as obstructing the scientific method, on the other hand many use the arena of scientific discourse as a way to ‘attack’ dissenting opinion, which is clearly bad. It’s important to walk this minefield carefully.

    2) We’ve all had failures. I just had a massive failure (I won’t go into it) that makes quite a bit of others pale in comparison. Anyway my point is not to say “I’m suffering more than you!” – it has more to deal with the fact that you will succeed (eventually) if you try, try again. If you’re truly passionate about paleo (and I am convinced that you are) then you’ll rise above all the crap. I agree with Butch on one point: I don’t often reflect on past failures, simply for the fact that sometimes it can be painful (there’s no point if you’ve already learned from the experiences anyway). Sometimes, they’re just plain embarassing. And eventually, several years down the road, they suddenly become funny after a few beers.

    3) One of my geology professors told me once “You’re going to be wrong 99% of the time. Just accept it. It’s OK to be wrong. That’s part of science- recognizing you’re wrong. As long as you’ve followed reasonable reasoning and correct methods, it’s OK.” The whole reason why G.K. Gilbert devised the method of multiple working hypotheses was so that we would not treat our hypotheses and ideas as children – distancing ourselves from individual hypotheses, and not freaking out when a hypothesis is killed. Killing your children is a shitty experience, and we all go through it early in our career. Lets face it: science is a very unnatural way to go about things: we have to be able to separate our emotions from our ideas, and abandon (without despair) ideas once they’re disproved. It’s only human to be attached to your own idea.

    4) You have no idea what amount of crap I’ve been dealing with at MSU. Trust me, I’m looking into Avila Beach. Dealing with the SLO county bureaucrats is not the most fun experience. Anyway, once I finally figure out who I need to talk to to get a permit, I’ll send in an application. I *might* be able to get to that in the next month or two. My long term plans have changed, and I’m going to be living in central CA (SF) through at least next January. I also just got a permit for Pt. Reyes, if you want to drive up, I could use another hand out there.

    • which is the point i was trying to make. depression has a way of over blowing and distorting things. Don’t underestimate that (i did. This little psychosis of mine has done some scary stuff recently; stuff i thought i never had the will nor the nerve to do).

      1. I understand that. But it is difficult when you have a mental illness that can make a person terribly easy to discourage. some measure of success would undoubtedly help, but until that comes, it’s an uphill struggle.

      2. I refer you back to my comment about being easily discouraged and how some measure of success will indeed help.

      3. I guess you can say it stems partially from cynical and inflammatory language i have seen directed at failed ideas (again bringing us back to easy discouragement).

      4. Crap, that was never meant to sound like i was kicking your ass. that is the kind of thing that happens all the time that perpetuates the feeling i always screw up (not that you shouldn’t have said anything. By all means put your foot down). Anyway check your email. Also, your offer for Point Reyes does make me feel a little better. Keep me posted.

  3. Pingback: Bones of 26 dinosaurs coming to Houston Museum of Natural Science

  4. Keep wondering. Don’t stop. The payoff won’t be the many times you were right. The payoff is also in the process itself, yes? (And besides, we like to read your blog.)

    What exactly do you most want? Credibility? Knowledge? The thrill of the hunt? An impact in the scientific community? Simply working with fossils? If you pinpoint what specifically you most need in order to be satisfied, you will find success a heck of a lot more attainable.

    Don’t underestimate what you have to offer – your intelligence, your passion for paleontology, and your perspective. Whoever gets your help on a dig will be lucky.

  5. My partner and I absolutely love your blog and find nearly all of your post’s to be just what I’m looking for. Does one offer guest writers to write content for you? I wouldn’t mind publishing a post or elaborating on some of the subjects you write in relation to here. Again, awesome website!

  6. Definitely believe that which you stated. Your favorite reason appeared to be on the internet the simplest thing to be aware of. I say to you, I definitely get irked while people think about worries that they plainly do not know about. You managed to hit the nail upon the top and defined out the whole thing without having side-effects , people could take a signal. Will likely be back to get more. Thanks

  7. I just came upon your site. Thanks for writing this. I too, have depression and your observations went along way to help me kill my own dragons. One thing is certain and that is you are an excellent writer. You are able to make things shine in a way most academics cannot. That spurs one’s imagination and that’s why we have this interest in the first place. At least, it should be.🙂

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