Joonas Keppo

39


I thought I had a sound plan. I was about to be shipped off to college and spend the next ten years prepping for a lifetime in academia. I could hardly wait. Senior year of high school felt like one drawn-out countdown to the moment I’d set foot on those greener pastures. Surely I, an overzealous, socially awkward teenager, had life all figured out? Well, not exactly.

Although I was born in Finland, my adolescent years were spent in the U.S., specifically Michigan. It’s a pretty solid state in retrospect; I’d give it like four stars on Yelp. I went to a high school with some really great teachers, who taught me to enjoy a whole slew of academic pursuits, be it science, art, or English. Judging by this asinine writing, you can already tell some of them failed at their jobs. During this time, I also damn near idolized the physicist and Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman, the embodiment of both “wicked smart” and “cool.” So maybe it should come as no surprise that this shy, bespectacled kid with unkempt hair and a confused fashion sense aspired to become a physicist one day.

When I finally started college in Jyväskylä, I had mixed feelings. Although I was ecstatic at having started a new chapter in my life, I couldn’t help but secretly feel incredibly underwhelmed after my first few weeks. Maybe part of it can be chalked up to culture shock, but something didn’t feel right; the students had different aspirations, the teachers felt less enthusiastic than the ones in high school, and the general atmosphere wasn’t what I expected. Maybe I just wasn’t ready to be an adult, which, to be fair, is a sentiment I still hold to this very day.

Not appearing stupid was actually pretty high up in my list of priorities.

Fast forward to the following summer, and I’ve just started doing some voluntary, independent research. It wasn’t anything spectacular or even particularly complicated, but it sure kept me busy, despite outward appearances pointing to the contrary. In fact, I never managed to finish what I started. I was always the timid type, so I didn’t want to bother the more important guys with my petty questions for fear of not only taking up their precious time, but also for fear of appearing stupid. At this point, not appearing stupid was actually pretty high up in my list of priorities. What kind of mental gymnastics I had to pull off to convince myself otherwise astounds me.

It didn’t help at all that I was the ultimate try-hard; a square peg desperately trying to fit into a round hole. I had my share of insecurities. I wanted to fit in with my peers, but until I learned to accept myself for who I was, it was never going to happen.

The following year, my grades had already started to plummet, and eventually I stopped attending exams altogether for fear of failure. Yeah, imagine that. This all culminated in a nervous breakdown one day, so my knee-jerk reaction was to call my grandmother. I told her I desperately needed therapy, because I was out of options. The curious thing about myself at this point was that I didn’t even realize I was severely depressed. My understanding of depression up until this point was largely based on the colloquial usage of the term: transient feelings of sadness and anxiety. This also shaped how I thought about my predicament: I didn’t even consider seeking help until the going got really rough, not because I thought it would be shameful, but because the concept of “being depressed” didn’t really register as a valid state of mind.

The one good thing about my tenure with depression can be summarized with the oft-quoted, and typically misused phrase: “what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.”

There’s quite a lot to be said about the different ways depression can mess up your thinking. In particular, I recall the emotional rollercoaster, where occasionally I’d experience a fleeting moment of happiness, only to be followed by a period of utter dread and despair. That’s one wild ride you really don’t want to get on. One minute, things are looking up, and the next, you’ve managed to fail at yet another basic human task. The most humiliating of all was having to tell my family all the things I couldn’t do. Despite their unrelenting love and support, I’d never felt so alone in my entire life, and deep down, I knew everything I was trying to do was only set up for more failure.

In spite of some residual issues, I’m happy to say those days are now over. The one good thing about my tenure with depression can be summarized with the oft-quoted, and typically misused, phrase: “what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” It certainly heightened my focus on maintaining mental clarity, through things like exercise and various activities that challenge the boundaries of my comfort zone. I try not to overdo it. What’s keeping me relatively upbeat is knowing that I’m constantly seeking new experiences, regardless of the outcome.

This wouldn’t have been possible without years of therapy and the help of my family. Unfortunately, not everyone has a similar support network, and I understand my perspective can come off as being self-righteous to those less fortunate. Although what little advice I could possibly give would likely fall on deaf ears, and rightfully so, I will say one thing: most people aren’t the judgmental monsters I mistook them for, and a good deal of them genuinely want to help. Depression skews your world view and your judgment becomes clouded by completely unfounded biases. This was a sobering fact in those darker days, despite how long it actually took to reconcile my head with reality. Thankfully, there was a light at the end of the tunnel.

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