This past September, my professor asked our small class of 15 students how our day was. As this was a Creative Writing class at NYU, his question was seen as an open invitation to rant. One student shared that she was harassed by a homeless man in the middle of Starbucks. Another said that a stranger threw a cup of water at her on the subway. A third mentioned that she was having a horrible day because due to a panic attack, she had to drop classes and become a part-time student. I could definitely relate to the first two stories–as an NYC resident, it’s almost impossible to avoid a crazy encounter–but the third struck me the most. I remembered that was my exact situation about two years ago.
In the Spring of 2014, I had returned to NYU from a year-long medical leave during which I was struggling with my anxiety and depression issues. I was eager to get back into the swing of things and catch up with the rest of my friends as quickly as possible. Spring 2014 would mark the semester my peers would be graduating. Meanwhile I still had a year to make up.
This was weighing on my mind when I applied to be a full-time student, filling out a schedule of 16 credits, 4 classes. My therapist warned me against this, saying that I should try to take it slow and consider attending part-time instead. My parents said the same thing, but in less gentle terms, saying that with my condition, I wouldn’t be able to handle the stress. I was offended. My brain translated their words as: “You’re dumber than your peers. You can’t handle what they can. You need a baby version of a full course-load. Take two instead of four. You need the handicap, you big baby.”
I didn’t take their advice. That is until two weeks later, I was forced to. I dropped two classes because I was having anxious breakdowns every night. I felt ashamed. I felt like I was admitting to the world that it was right, that I was not capable of handling what everyone else could. I felt like I was saying that I was inferior. Of course with this kind of mentality, things could only get worse. A month later, I withdrew from the entire semester. After experiencing an anxiety attack during my midterm, I took another medical leave and took yet another year off. I watched my friends graduate. And I was miserable.
My desire to graduate as quickly as possible was probably an extension of my irrational sense of anxiety. I thought I was a failure if I did not somehow prove to the world that I could function normally again. At the time, I was too blinded by this thought to see that logically, I was not ready for a full course load. A college semester brings on an onslaught of stress even for regular students. As someone who was still suffering from anxiety and depression, still sensitive to any form of criticism or burden, how did I expect that I could handle a 16 credit semester? Furthermore, it had been a whole year since I was last in an academic setting. I had almost forgotten exactly how to college at that point. To successfully complete a full semester after all that was not a realistic goal for me. Or perhaps it wasn’t that I was too blind to see this, but that I was just desperately hoping it wasn’t true. I didn’t want to acknowledge I needed time to get better. I wanted to be better, to be normal, now. But I was in for a huge wake up call; my anxiety-driven ambition/delusion kicked me in the ass.
When I returned to school in Fall of 2015, I still had not completely learned my lesson. Following my second medical leave, I attempted to go full-time again. My parents, my main source of money, refused to fund this idea, and only let me return to school if I was a part-time student. “I need an excuse to be a part-time student,” I thought, so I tried to get a job. My parents and my therapist both said no, again, thinking this would be too much for me to handle as well. “Here we go again,” my brain said, “Baby Eunice still trying to wear big girl pants.” I felt like a kid thrashing around only to be held back by a child’s leash I should have long overgrown. I hated it and I resented the three adults monitoring my life.
I’m glad that my parents and therapist said and did what they did though. I somehow got through my fall semester with less tears. Come spring, I had to be told to do part-time again. Come summer, I decided on my own to take extra classes so that I would be able to do part-time for Fall 2016.
I knew I was crawling at a snail’s pace. I knew people were watching me, wondering why I was taking so long. “At this rate, it’s a wonder if she’ll even graduate!” a high school friend of mine joked one night with our usual group when the question of how I was doing at NYU came up. I felt the sting of his words. I almost heard it in his voice: “Look at Baby Eunice everyone, stop to coo at her, she’s trying so hard.” But I realized I was putting words in his mouth. I knew that wasn’t what he meant.
You can’t stop people from making fun of you, or thinking little of you. But you can stop yourself from letting their words destroy you. I cherish that friend, and I know he cares for me. I trust he did not say what he said to hurt me. In the end, that’s all that I want to matter.
This past September, I sat in my Creative Writing class, a “super senior” student, bracing herself for graduation in December. My eyes snapped to the girl who confessed she had a panic attack. She saw my stare amidst many others and told us not to pity her, she didn’t want this to become a therapy session. She laughed nervously and other students obliged her request, filling in the silence with more horror stories from the day.
I wanted to tell her that she wasn’t alone, that I understood how she felt, that it would get better, and that in the end, it would be okay to admit what you couldn’t do. That maybe she would be happier, like me, to go at her own pace anyway. That life isn’t a race, maybe throw in some Albert Einstein “teach a fish how to climb trees”prattle. But also, what other people thought didn’t matter. It was so hard to believe, it was so cliche, but it was so true. But in the end, I couldn’t say any of this to her. It all sounded like empty words. Maybe this isn’t something we can be told. Maybe it’s something we have to learn. Many of us. All of us?
Still, I see this girl in class sometimes, and I wish we could be friends, so I could have an excuse to give her a hug, and she could give me one back. -Eunice