By Kelly Douglas
I recently stumbled upon a list of phrases I had written about my life for a class assignment in my second year of college. One phrase struck me deeply, like a lightning bolt penetrating a clear blue sky. “I am wondering if I should be doing less.” I immediately laughed. I have never been one to take things slowly or to scale back my ambitions, and my time in college was no exception.
At the end of my second year of college, when I was asked to compile the series of phrases, I was a 19-year-old college senior slated to graduate the following year, one year early. I was balancing five classes, one of which was an internship for my major. I had recently become the newest president of an honor society and was attempting to muster any leadership skills in my arsenal to undertake the task. I felt intense pressure to succeed in my classes, in my new position in the honor society and in all other aspects of my life.
However, I was rushing through life, with scant time to devote to my friends or to leisurely pursuits. To the outside world, I appeared to clear any obstacle set before me like a hurdler would, quickly and precisely, before moving on to the next. Internally, by contrast, I felt frenzied, unhappy and unable to muster the iota of resilience I believed I possessed to be able to complete college. Studying for hours each day overwhelmed me and worrying about whether or not my dream of graduating summa cum laude after three years of college would come to fruition agonized me. I was constantly bending, caving in to the demands I relentlessly placed on myself, but I never broke.
Then, just as quickly as my ambition to move as quickly as possible through college consumed me, I broke. The quarter before I graduated college, I was enrolled in a time-consuming, challenging psychology course, and as the final approached, I doubted my ability to earn an “A” grade in the course. The night before the final, I studied for hours, reaching the point at which I could no longer comprehend the material. I scanned over a particularly difficult question multiple times, struggling to pull the material from the furthest reaches of my mind, failing to remember the answer.
In that moment, nothing seemed real. My heart raced. I could feel the sensation of sweat beading on my palms. was afraid that I was losing my mental faculties, terrified of losing control. It’s going to be okay, I told myself. Calm down. It’s going to be okay. I gave into the fear, which was all-encompassing, consuming every part of my body and paralyzing my mind. I screamed for help, wishing more than anything that this mental haze that enshrouded me was nothing more than a nightmare, that any moment I would wake up refreshed and ready to conquer the final exam that loomed ahead.
The reality of the situation, however, hit me as starkly as the panic had rushed over me. Concerned students arrived to help as I sat cowering on the couch in my apartment, sobbing and apologizing profusely for the disturbance. I felt a deep, penetrating anger towards myself. Why couldn’t I have handled this differently? I wondered. I felt tremendous guilt wash over me due to the worry I had caused others. I probably ruined their rest; no one deserves that, I thought.
My catastrophizing mind, awash with the consequences of my onslaught of panic and the potential judgements of others, failed to consider that I was battling the symptoms of a mental illness, that I cannot fully control when panic strikes, and that in that moment, I needed to prioritize protecting myself over others’ reactions. As I was contemplating the implications of my actions, however, I felt a wave of relief flood over me. I was safe. I was supported. It was in that moment that I realized the most important lesson I learned in college: In order to achieve my ambitions, I needed to slow down and not push myself to the point of mental distress.
The next quarter, my final quarter of college, I committed to prioritizing my well-being. I still held onto a powerful hope that I would be able to attain the success for which I strove, but I set aside time for leisure and for self-care. I began to formulate a new sense of self, in which I could be successful despite mistakes or perceived shortcomings. I gradually became more open about my mental health and disclosed to my friends when I felt particularly anxious. In turn, they held me accountable for treating myself with care and respect. I felt happier, lighter, and more carefree than I had been at any other point in my college experience, but I also felt understood. In my frenetic race to finish college as quickly as possible, I had been an enigma, enshrouded in darkness and mystery, but in deciding to savor the college experience and prioritize my health, I was basking in the sunlight.
On my graduation day, I stood in front of the mirror, in awe of the moment, surprised that the day I had waited for so long was finally upon me. A sense of pride enlivened my spirit, however, a twinge of regret tugged at my heart, weighing it down. I should have slowed down, I thought. Why did I place so much pressure on myself to succeed? How will I ever make it in the real world? Will leaving my friends this early be worth it? What if I’m not ready for these new challenges? My uncertain future left me in a state of trepidation, but in that moment, I realized the action I needed to take to quell my fears.
I slowly walked across the stage at graduation, savoring the beginning of a life devoid of the pressures I had placed upon myself. I strode through a seemingly endless line of professors, who were eagerly awaiting graduates with high-fives and congratulations, absorbing my final moments in college. I turned my tassel from right to left steadily but cautiously, knowing in that moment that it was time to move forward from the pain and heartache of constantly speeding ahead in college. The moment my tassel reached the left side of my cap and my fellow graduates flung their caps into the air in jubilation, I knew I was moving on, beginning a new chapter in my life. A relaxed chapter. A chapter in which I would move at a comfortable pace. A chapter to savor life and escape the confines of self-imposed pressure and perfectionism.
I have now adjusted to a more relaxed post-college life. In this life, finding the perfect job and relentlessly climbing the corporate ladder has no place. In this life, rushing into law school with perfect LSAT scores does not matter. In this life, I understand that pushing myself to succeed at the expense of my mental health is deleterious. In this life, no matter what the outcome of my efforts, I am enough.