I wanted to drop out of university. It was near the end of third year. I had a complete, mental breakdown. I was bitter about paying thousands of dollars to a money sucking institution just for a piece of paper. A piece of paper that may, or may not, be relevant to what I will end up doing in my life. I found many flaws in the school system. I hated cramming and memorizing instead of learning, for a superficial letter grade that stated “student #10****, was sufficient enough to stay here.” I was tired of constantly being assessed on flawed rubrics. I felt like I was trapped in a narrow cycle of: working to pay to be at school, going to school in order to land work, and working to get money to live…
There were so many things I wished to discover, so many hobbies I wanted to pour my heart into, but I felt numbed and restrained by school. On top of that, I was going through things… as every 20-something-year-old does, with a few extra shitty circumstances thrown in, I suppose. But I was so consumed with school, work and volunteering that I neglected self care.
Instead of addressing my state of despair, I suppressed it. But, as John Greene says “that’s the thing about pain, it demands to be felt.” So, eventually, it did. The pain slowly grew, finally erupting through every pore, crease and crevasse of my skin, demanding my body to crumbled to defeat… on my kitchen floor, as a I sobbed in front of my parents.
When it comes to the bodies fight or flight mechanisms, I fly, almost always. And so, the only way I could imagine grinding out the last year of university was to daydream 24/7 about getting out of there and flying far, far away. Until, like most coping mechanisms, that didn’t work either.
One day, the anxiety was particularly bad. I paced the house, unable to shake a heavy, weighted down feeling in my chest. I felt trapped. And for someone who likes to fly, the feeling of being unable to escape is detrimental. In the midst of my pacing I had a thought. It was a quick, momentary bubble. The thought went something like this: “I have never wanted to hurt myself . I still do not want to hurt myself. But I’m maybe starting to understand why someone would. Like, if they constantly felt the way I’m feeling right now, it may seem like the only way to find peace.” It was a momentary lapse, the thought fluttered in and out of my mind so quick. Like if a dragon fly were to whiz past your face, and when you finally register that it was a dragon fly, it’s already gone, blending into the air. My thought was the dragonfly. But, none the less, it scared me. And I knew I needed to go talk to someone.
When I first sat down on the couch she looked at me with gentle eyes and asked me why I was there. I opened my mouth to speak, but instead just started to sob. And following that came a 10 minute rampage that may or may not have made any logical sense at all. And when I finally stopped talking long enough to pause, and breathe, she handed me a kleenex, gently smiled at me… and began to speak; beginning the most influential lesson I’ve learned at university.
1 – YOU NEED TO HALT THE RUNAWAY TRAIN
When I start to feel anxious, my mind gets on this runaway train that does not stop. The train quickly spirals through every station: anxiety, dread, worthlessness etc. etc. She said: “we need to put up a wall and stop that train.” So she gave me a checklist. A checklist to go through every time I started to feel the trains engine revv. It goes like this: -5 things you can see “people, the sky, buildings, the bird that just flew by, my hands“ -4 things you can hear “someone laughing, cars going by, the conversation of the people ahead of me, the wind“ -3 things you can feel “the skin on my hands, my pants on my legs, my backpack on my shoulders“ -2 things you can smell (breathe in and out) “the grass, the fresh air“ -1 thing you are thankful for “my housemates“ I’ve done this once a day, I’ve done it 20 times in one day. I’ve done it at the library, at a coffee shop, in my bed in the morning, in my bed at 4:00 am, at parties, at work. I’ve said it out loud, I’ve went through it in my head. This checklist grounds me, it helps me be present in the moment, it reminds me I have a lot of things to be thankful for, and most importantly… it stops the train. I would highly recommend it.
2.YOU WILL NEVER EXPERIENCE THESE 12 WEEKS EVER AGAIN IN YOUR LIFE
It seems obvious, but I needed the reminder. She said, “if you need to put your head down and just get through school, then maybe that’s what you need to do. But, every time you talk about your housemates, you laugh and you smile. And so, I have a feeling that although you hate school, you don’t hate everything about being here. And I want to remind you that you will never get to experience these 12 weeks ever again in your life.” She was right. One of the things I’m always thankful for about school is the people I’ve met, in particular my best friends that I live with. And although the school part would be rough, I would regret if I closed my eyes and wished these weeks would go by faster. Because the end of the 12 weeks also means the end of an era of living with my best friends.
She asked me what I liked to do for fun. I listed some things: going to a pub with friends, rock climbing, yoga, art. She asked me when I allow myself to do those things, and I said I had a reward system, as I think a lot of students do. It goes something like this: If I get this paper done, then i’ll let myself go have a drink. Or, I want to do some art, but I can’t until I finish this reading (and by the time I finish the reading it’s usually really late and I’m tired and frustrated about losing my art inspiration so I just go to bed). She proposed I make self care part of my schedule, rather than my reward. “It’s all about balance” she said “And if we use the things we love to do as only a reward, we may not be balancing work and play.” So now, I make sure I have at least one hour in my day that I set aside for doing something I want to do. Sometimes it’s more, but it’s always at least one hour. It can be a full hour at once, or two half hour chunks in your day. School will pass, days will pass, but you will always be you so you need to take care of yourself. I’m through with just closing my eyes, waiting for the moment I write my last exam so that I can finally open them up again. I will never get these 12 weeks back, and I want to soak up all they have to offer. You’ll be amazed how much self care can supplement your life. It may seem obvious, but it’s often forgotten.
3.YOU ARE A GOLD PANNER
She said, “You’re feeling a lot of emotions. You need to affirm and accept them, rather than thinking they are outrageous, or bad. Behind every emotion you are feeling, something good can come out of it. You are angry about school- but that allows you to critically think about institutions and not be manipulated by them… that’s a good thing. And you’ve mentioned at times when you’re the most sad is when you find the most beautiful inspiration to write or draw.” She said: “You are a like a gold panner. All these emotions you’re experiencing – they are the sand, and you need to sift through the sand to find the golden nugget; the positive things that come out of every emotion we experience.”
We shouldn’t be scared of feeling unhappy. It’s our beautiful privilege as humans to fully feel every single millimeter of the emotional spectrum. Joy, sadness, grief, fear, anger, love, despair, passion, hate, aspiration, empathy, trust, kindness, disgust, euphoria…. and then to not only feel them, but to create something with them. Realizing that there is gold does not mean that you won’t have bad days. It does not mean you’ll always be okay. But here’s the cool thing I’ve learned: sometimes, the sand is too heavy to sift through alone. And if this happens, all you need to do is ask for help. Because many hands make light work. And if you have more hands to help you sift through the sand, then you are likely to find the gold faster.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help to find the gold. It’s there, but we can’t always find it alone. I fell into this trap of thinking that being anything other than happy was unacceptable. And now I realize that every thing I feel, and how I express those feelings, makes me stunningly unique. And the same is true for you.
There’s a trick I’ve learned to this, and that is that you can’t be constantly comparing yourself to other people on social media. Because no one is as happy as their profile makes them seem. And when you do that, when you compare yourself, you disregard your uniqueness. That’s insulting to how wonderfully you were made. That’s the most tragic trap we’ve fallen into. Pictures, videos, commercials, advertisements, they are showing you multitudes of happy people, making you feel like you must not be okay if you’re not feeling happy. Happy sells.
But guess what? You’re a human, not a product. Embrace unhappy. No activism or societal movements started because a group of people were just too happy. Some of the best artistic revelations are not based on happiness. I am not wishing unhappiness upon you, but I am wishing that you will not be so scared of feeling things that are outside of the happiness realm. Because sometimes, the darkness is beautiful too.
There is this galaxy inside my head. Some of my thoughts I can place into logical constellations. But other thoughts slip into black holes, and I can’t even begin to try and explain those thoughts to other people. Some days I get very frustrated by this, and some days I feel the most creative in the midst of these black holes.
Have you ever noticed that when someone has a big, emotionally cathartic moment they stretch their arms out, beam their chest upwards, look up, and shine their palms towards the sky? It could be for many reasons. They could be looking up towards the sky with their palms upwards, spinning and laughing because they have so much joy pouring out of them and that was the only way they could properly express it. Or, they could be looking up, with their palms facing North in an act of giving up, as if to sarcastically say “really?? What more bullshit could the universe chuck at me today?”
In those moments, when you’re looking up at the sky with your palms up, in any circumstance, it’s like you’re acknowledging that the universe is allowing you to feel… with every. single. cell. in. your. body. Be thankful for that. Even on the bad days. Because there is always gold to be discovered. Laugh lines are beautiful. Gasps for air as you sob are beautiful. You are a bad ass gold panner. And you are beautiful.
I am 40 days away from handing in my last university paper and leaving this place. Just because I have learned these lessons, doesn’t mean I have it all figured out. In fact, I’m far from that. There are still times where I want to fly. There are times when I doubt myself. There are days when I laugh and cry in the same sentence (really, I do that). By some standards, I think that would label me as “not okay.” I don’t like labels – so I’m just going to say that I’m riding out the wave. Just recently, I got bad again. School was stressful, and then I neglected self care, and then I couldn’t shake certain thoughts that kept creeping into in my mind. I started being hard on myself, I started to get spacey, I started seeing pain, I felt helpless and confused. I couldn’t finish an assignment let alone calm my body and mind long enough to string together one complete sentence to ask a friend on campus how they were doing. I was right on schedule for another break down…
So, I asked for help. To stop the train, to calm my mind, and to regather myself. This time, I wasn’t confident that I could find gold. But, while sifting now, I’ve realized that the bad days have made me stronger, the good days have made me grateful, this battle will shape me into a peaceful warrior, and getting through university has taught me many things; the most important of which, that came from outside of the classroom, and will be relevant for the rest of my life.
Sometimes we find the golden nugget when we least expect it, and it looks nothing like we thought it would. I started to use yoga and meditation as part of my self care routine when things were hectic and stressful at school and in my life. My yoga practice has since focused my mind, strengthened my body and sprouted my soul. Now, I think I may want to look into getting my yoga teacher certification.
Such a big part of why I was able to get through what I did was all the hands helping me sift through the sand. The support I have in my life from family and friends is so humbling and wonderful, and I credit their support for why I was able to be so resilient.
One day, I thought about how tragic it is that some people don’t have that support. How, it must be so so SO hard to get through things alone. And so, I think I’ve decided, sometime down the line, to pursue a post grad program in social service work – to make sure no one is left alone sifting through the sand. And, I wrote this blog. I never thought by the end of this year I’d have the slightest confidence to post things I’ve written online. But, my therapist also asked me why I thought therapy worked… and I didn’t have an answer.
She said: “Therapy works because you find an instant connection with another person who is affirming how you feel, telling you they understand, and that you are not alone.” So, my friends, my hope while writing this was that when you read it, you may find a part of it that you can relate to, and you can know that you are not alone. And hopefully, you now realize that as you embrace all realms of this wonderful, epic existence, there are millions of golden nuggets waiting to be found… go start sifting my friends.
Much love, LMC.