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An Open Letter to Just Getting By



To “just getting by,”


I’m not a stranger to functioning. Most people aren’t. I never had serious problems getting up in the morning or finishing my homework. I could make it to class on time every day. I had good friends. I maintained my GPA. I partied on Saturdays and called my parents on Sundays. Life had rhythm and competency.


The problem was that I was only functioning. To me, that was just fine. But nothing could have been further from the truth.


The first hint was my sudden lack of hunger. Unless I had not eaten in the last six hours, I simply never felt hungry. I justified loss of appetite with normal college stress, an excuse that came in handy. Paranoia and anger could be swept away with an apology and explanation of academic pressure. What student in Geneseo isn’t always experiencing that? The culture of our school demands that we constantly push ourselves to the limits with extracurriculars and more credits than we have use for. So long as I could continue to get out of bed in the morning and do my work, I thought that I was doing just fine. It didn’t matter what happened during the day so long as everything was done by the end of it.


And the days when I couldn’t – well, I wrote those off as burn-out.


Pushing through every day felt like a non-stop breaststroke. The weight of daily life felt like a formality. Enjoyment for my extracurriculars came in just quick enough spurts that I could justify involving myself in them from day-to-day, but not enough to feel overall satisfied with my work in them. Work was done, and high grades were received, but I never felt any pride in them. They were just another reminder that a wrong step would bring my GPA crumbling down, that the professor must have breezed through my work too quickly to see its flaws, that it was nothing more than a delay to my inevitable downfall. But I could still get out of bed, and I could still get those grades – I was fine.


I was getting persistently sick. Headaches and nausea forced me to stay in bed, but they couldn’t stop me from opening my laptop and typing out response papers and discussion board posts. Viruses get passed around at college constantly, and I was just experiencing yet another tic in the college-stress checklist. I couldn’t get out of bed, but I was still being productive. I was functioning. Perhaps not at full capacity, but I was functioning. Therefore, I must have been fine.


I cried a lot. I cried when I was stressed (about college, obviously), when I was writing essays, when a friend looked at me funny. It felt equivalent to vomiting. Uncomfortable to do, but necessary to feel better. Except “better” had been quickly becoming “empty.” My normal state of being was disconnect. I didn’t feel pleasure, or hunger, or joy, except in quick bursts that never lasted as long as I needed them to.  But I could keep pushing forward. I wasn’t spending all my time indoors. I was still spending time with my friends, calling my family, participating in my extracurriculars. My grades remained high and steady. This behavior is not typical of someone who is depressed. I wasn’t depressed. I was functioning.


It felt strange when a therapist first told me that it wasn’t normal to have a preoccupation with death. It was something I understood was true, of course, but every college student makes a joke at one point or another about offing themselves. The problem was that I made them frequently, often at my own expense. I made them at passing cars, about train tracks, about the one-too-many aspirin I accidently took. Most of the time, people agreed, and laughed. I wasn’t suicidal, after all. I made that perfectly clear to anyone who expressed concern. I was functioning. I wouldn’t be if I were suicidal. I just wanted a car to skid a little too close to me, to close my eyes and drift off somewhere that I wouldn’t wake up from. I had no active plans to harm myself, and while the thoughts were slightly disturbing, they were integrated into my everyday existence. I learned to deal with them by shrugging them off and blaming it on the stress. They didn’t actively impede me from getting anything done, and therefore…


“People usually don’t feel that way about death, no matter how stressed they are. It sounds like you have passive suicidal ideation.” The therapist had her hands folded, waiting for a response or possible a rebuttal.


I had neither. I burst into tears.


Multiple sessions and a Prozac prescription later, I find myself writing this article sort of bemused. I spent so much of my life excusing my behavior on the environment, my disposition, and maybe a small dash of anxiety, but never depression. I didn’t see myself as deserving the label. I was able to get by, after all.


Then I think about it, and I suppose it makes sense. I had grown too accustomed to the idea of what normal functioning was or should feel like. My depression adapted within those lines – or, more likely, my understanding of it did. It had a heavy toll on my physical health, and that could be explained by saying that I was naturally predisposed to sickness. I was still stressed about college, like everyone is, but how I approached it was compounded by my depression. When I had been on my medication for a few weeks, I was amazed that food had actually had flavor and taste. It was something that I wanted. It was strange to actually want anything, besides an end to my pain.


It’s hard for me to even get into the mindset that has been clouding me for the past years (not that I would like to now). My medication and therapy has made me feel like an entirely different person, operating an alien body. I can’t help but wonder how many bridges my depression had inadvertently burned, or how I managed to go so long without help, especially as a psychology major. All I can do now is pick up the pieces the past me has left behind and form a new normal. All I can do is make sure I am no longer just getting by.


I want to thrive.


– Jessica Bansbach


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Jessica Bansbach is a junior psychology major who has more campus club memberships than fingers and toes. In her spare time, if she's forgotten that she's a college student that has more pressing matters to attend to (like, say, studying), she enjoys video games, thrift shopping, and ruminating. She was elected "funniest in group" by her summer camp counselor when she was nine and has since spent the next eleven years trying to live up to the impossible weight of that title.
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