It started out innocent, as it always does: with ambition and drive to achieve it. I remember sipping milk tea from a coffee mug my then best friend had given me, watching a Ted Talk on ‘successful people’ to unwind. It inspired me, I took down notes, I revised it. It was final year, and as always I wanted to do well at final exams.
Based on preceding exams, I estimated that I would need at least a month of uninterrupted study to hit my target of, well actually there was no target : despite previous success, the ghost of always being overshadowed by my insanely smart brother (not his fault) made me feel like I wasn’t good enough to achieve whatever I would set. And as for stats, even a lifetime of study wouldn’t be enough to get me through. However I knew that I wouldn’t have the luxury of a month of uninterrupted study, so for the first time in my life, I would have to grind every day.
At first it was difficult, after travelling for 4 hours, spending another 1 hour completing a ridiculously thick journal, that involved handwriting at least 10 pages for each experiment, plus tables and graphs, it was impossible to find time to sit down and study.
So I began to make sacrifices, I went from reading a book each week to no book at all. I could catch up next year I said, I’ll be free next year I said. I gave up writing the novel I was working out, I had the outline worked out anyway, it wouldn’t be too difficult to pick off where I left.
Then I gave up my weekly French classes, I’d reached a level of fluency where I always got the tense right while writing, and though my speech was not perfect yet, it was good enough for a native speaker to understand me, and beyond anything else I prided myself at the fact that listening to hours and hours of French news had enabled to be able to understand the impossible task of understanding native speakers and their supremely fast speech. I was already at an intermediate level, one year off wouldn’t hurt right?
Then there was the Portuguese I was picking up, it was at a very basic level but because I watched enough episodes of Daniel Tigre, and because unlike the French, the Portuguese speak extremely slowly, I could understand most of what they said, and could comprehend text. But Portuguese is a language I have given up on many times (both European and Brazilian), so what harm would it make to give it up again?
Along with two of my greatest passions, I also gave up my social life; but I told myself that wasn’t important really, I’m an introverted misfit anyway. I wouldn’t even miss it, and no one would really miss me. The only bit of passion I held on to was the makeup that I woke up half an hour early and missed out on sleep to slather on my face. This was the one thing I was adamant to not sacrifice, the piece of me, the bit of happiness that I refused to let go off.
And so the grind began, and as crazy as it sounds, with time I began to actually enjoy studying so much so that I went out and began to research on methods to study better. While doing so I came across a book called How We Learn, and from it I learnt about Ebbinghaus’s forgetting theory, the importance of forgetting and the magic of spaced repetition. I also learnt that I had been studying math wrong my entire lifetime. So I changed my strategy; I had little faith that it would work, but I applied it nonetheless.
The first semester was in no way a breeze, but it wasn’t hell either. The goals I had set up were for myself only, and really it wouldn’t crush me if I didn’t achieve them. one day in an abnormal psychology class while we did mood disorders, I realized that my medically unexplainable bouts of hyposomia and fatigue, did actually have an explanation. While I knew I was by no means a happy person, I never went as far to think that I needed help, that I could possibly be clinically depressed. But there it was clear as day, I met almost every criterion for Major Depressive Disorder. I took standardized self inventories on depression, and each one confirmed what I suspected. Maybe I shouldn’t self label or self diagnose, but really, what’s the point of studying to become a psychologist and diagnosing others if don’t recognize the symptoms in yourself. I checked the label of the ‘it’ll make you feel better’ medication a physician had prescribed to me 2 years back, and which I stopped taking after 2 days because I didn’t like the side effects , and sure enough they were anti-depressants. I wondered then why he never referred me to a psychologist, maybe he thought that the biomedical model was answer to everything.
But I digress. So after months of wake up, travel, college, study, sleep and repeat, the first final exams approached. I stocked up on those sleeping pills (physician prescribed) that sometimes saved me and sometimes failed me completely, and like a good girl I took only the lowest dosage needed, cutting tablets into half. But this time, unlike the 10th and 12th boards, I was fighting both hyposomnia and insomnia, and I didn’t know which one would attack and when. The day before my practical exam, the hyposomia hit me so bad that I slept for an hour, studied for an hour (barely able to keep my eyes open), and slept again and so on. But I repeat: it wasn’t that bad. I recall a panic attack only before the first paper, and it was a mild one, I’d had worse.
And then I got my results. I couldn’t believe it, the hard work paid off; the highlight of everything was the 97% I secured in statistics. I was happy, I laughed at how ridiculously high the marks of a subject I previously failed in multiple times were, and then I sent screenshots of it to the people who meant the most to me. They patted me on the back, they told me they were proud and my ego, it inflated.
My happiness didn’t last long. I got texts: are you going to give your papers to reevaluation. No, I said. Why should I? I got more than enough, I did excellent. Why be greedy? But the marks increase they said, you’ll get more they said.
And then it began to eat me up, what was enough was no longer so. If others were going to increase their marks, then so should I. Eventually, I didn’t give in my papers for reevaluation. I didn’t give in to the pressure. I was never one to compete with others, why should I start now? If I was to lose my 2nd placing in class because someone else gave in their papers, it should not bother me. I study for myself, not for a prize and for no one else.
And then came December, and with it came trauma that continued till March. My episodes became more frequent, the symptoms more intense and longer lasting. I started to realize that what I previously thought were side-effects of the anti-depressants, were really symptoms themselves. I was tempted to give them another go, but I held myself back. I was a big believer ( and still am) of CBT and positive psychotherapy.
Things started to get more difficult; I no longer had my weekend French classes that had previously helped combat depression. There were days I spent crying for no reason, days I didn’t want to live, days I wanted it to end. I was no longer a good girl taking the sleeping pills only before exams, I needed it to escape.
But still, I kept the grind up religiously but imperceptibly the reason changed from doing it for me, to doing it because I had to live up to expectations from others; a state rank was within my reach, I wanted it. I had to put in everything; and I did.
I remember while doing Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I couldn’t stop gloating over the fact that self-actualizers did things for themselves, irrespective of the outcome, they didn’t follow the norm , they strove to achieve without pulling the other person down. This is me, I thought – I am Maslow’s idea of an exceptional human being. It would take me a long time to realize that this wasn’t me anymore, the competition got to me, and while I wasn’t obsessing over being the best, I did care about being better than the other person, I did care about the outcome, I thought twice before helping people out. If you have ever had the misfortune of Baumgardner and Crothers being prescribed as a textbook, then you know that it is bland and boring. It is torture. Positive psychology was a paper I looked forward to so much after reading Seligman’s Learned Optimism, but the textbook contains nothing but research and lists that we had to memorize. At first I tried the peg system, but I got confused with so many lists, so then I turned to mind palaces, they were tedious and at first I was skeptical, but they are memory athletes’ tools for a reason: they work 100%.
I began to be prodded from all sides, by everyone. You’re too good for this small place, they said, you should go to one of the big cities, they said. You should compete with the best of the best. The idea seemed more and more acceptable to me, leaving would mean escaping my problems, and why shouldn’t I have the best? I deserved it.
Then came the second semester finals, and with them came hell. A few days before the papers, I tried to cope without the pills, I couldn’t. I got bad anxiety that kept me up for 48 hours straight. I cried, I restocked the pills and then I literally told the anxiety to go away, I told it that it could come back after the exam and bother me then, a trick I learnt from a self help book. I couldn’t afford panic attacks; they were a waste of study time. at first I thought I had won, the anxiety did go away, and whenever it did start to creep back I told it shut up, and it did exactly that. I thought had things under control, but I didn’t.
Two days before a paper I would get excruciating pain, it started with the neck so I thought it’s because im sitting up so much to study, then it slid down to my back; still I attributed it to too much sitting. I had to study with my neck propped against a pillow whilst lying down on the bed, the pain was distracting. I am a person with high pain tolerance, I do not feel piercings, I’ve felt no pain after a dog bite , I felt pain only for a few minutes after I badly scalded my whole leg with boiling hot green tea. But this pain was unbearable. The night before my personality theories paper ,it got so bad that I hugged my dog and cried while waiting for a painkiller to take effect, after that my mother would do a hot water treatment every night. I did yoga, I went from half a sleeping pill, to full one to two full pills. I threw up before every paper, I got chest pain and found it difficult to breathe. a lot of times I just cried. The morning of the paper my full body, especially my legs would be on fire. There is no better way to explain it than so say that I felt like I was burning. How I wished for those panic attacks I had banished, at least they last for just an hour. The physical symptoms would torment me, and torment me, then completely disappear after the paper was over.
I didn’t want the results to be released because I irrationally thought I would fail, or I wouldn’t do good enough to be the best, get into the best so I could compete with the best. My vacation was ruined by another episode of depression that lasted almost a month; the anhedonia was so severe that I’m still trying to overcome it. The results were released, and I did great; but I felt no happiness like I did the previous time, I just felt relief that I hadn’t done badly, that I hadn’t failed. And then I thought, this was not worth it. Those marks, a possible rank was not worth the stress, was not worth the pain, was not worth the pill popping. I promised myself I would take it easy, even mediocre will do as long as I’m happy.
After my moment of epiphany, the devil crept back in – since you’ve done so well you HAVE TO do clinical psychology now. An idea I was apprehensive about because I wanted time for my passions, I wanted to complete my goal of reaching native level French, I wanted time to read and to write, and realistically if I did pursue clinical, I would not be able to do it. I’m pleased to say that my brain immediately told me that that’s a very stupid reason to do something, very reminiscent of the typical Indian all-smart-people-should-study-science mentality.
My friends who struggled with anxiety during the exams echoed the same thoughts; the stress was not worth it. While I was texting a (real) adult about my realization, and about my newfound philosophy of taking it easy, he flat out told me that it was worth it (because obviously he had suffered my pain, and anxiety really is not a big deal), and that was just the beginning, things would only get more intense from now on. My brain screamed hell no, I would not endure that again. Not for anything.
I still had anxiety and was depressed over the possibility of not getting into colleges I didn’t want to get in to in the first place, because I knew that if I didn’t go out there to compete with the best of the best, I would shamed from all sides. To the people I trusted, and knew who won’t judge me, I told the truth, and I cried (because that’s what I do best). While I scrolled through instagram I came across a post that said ‘ the answers we seek are the ones we already know.’ This couldn’t be more true for me, I already knew what I wanted, but I was seeking people’s assurance, making excuses, coming up with explanations to gain their approval.
I thought of me sitting in class thinking that I should do distance ed, because classroom learning isn’t for me. I cannot pay attention for more than ten minutes, I cannot take down notes, I am not an auditory learner. I zone out, I space out. Audio-visuals do nothing for me. The only way I can learn is if I read it myself, preferably from printed material, and understand it myself. I think of me being so terribly bored, fidgeting and doodling, waiting for the bell to go. I think of how I only agreed to another two years of regular classes because finding a subject in a foreign city would be quite a challenge .I think of how I’m still struggling to ignite that passion that I thought would be so easy to just pick off where I left – I can no longer write as fast and as much as I used to, and my French fluency has dropped so low that I cannot understand a native speaker if they talk too fast, I can use only the present tense correctly both while reading and writing, I’ve forgotten the grammar, I’ve lost the confidence I had. I think of how I’m agreeing to what I know is two years of stress, sacrifice and unhappiness for something I don’t even want.
And I think, why am I being so stupid?
Maybe I will regret this as they say I will, not moving to these big cities and exploring their world of opportunities. But at least the regret will be my own; but really is it goal disengagement, if the goal isn’t even mine?