What Comes First: Grades Or Mental Health?

Have you ever completed an assignment that you meticulously researched the topic for days, landed on a perfect topic and then started writing it, only to hit a blank?

You stare at that empty screen for hours on end, then you go back to all the research you did, only to be overwhelmed by the amount of information you have to sort through to write a paper that makes sense.

If you have, welcome aboard! You are not the only one. There is at least one other person there with you. 

I normally don’t face problems writing assignments, essays or articles—it might not be the best but I can write an essay that gets me a B-grade in a span of 24 hours (I don’t know about anyone else but I consider that pretty good). However, there have been two instances where I couldn’t bring myself to write a single sentence. Both of these instances were for a final course essay. I had amazing topics for both essays and I was actually looking forward to writing them. I had done about two weeks of research to collect enough sources for both essays. And for a change, I had actually started writing them about three days before their due date. The first instance happened in my second year, two years ago, and the second instance happened about three weeks ago. 

The second instance was an exact repeat of what had happened two years ago. But, two years ago, I didn’t have Her Campus to write about this and now I do, so here I am writing about the difficulties I faced while writing. 

At first, it was all well and good. I read a ton of papers at length. Usually, I just skim over the abstract and conclusion, because who’s got the time to read the entire thing (not me, I have more important things to do like binging Friends on Netflix). But for these two essays, I actually read the papers, highlighting the important and relevant points that I planned on talking about in my paper. I was going at a good pace and felt confident.

Boy, was I wrong!

I opened a blank word document to write the essay. I typed out the title of the topic and the relevant details like my name and the course. Then I hit enter and start writing the first paragraph. Six hours later, the document has an essay title, relevant identification details and a blinking cursor waiting for me to write something. A quarter of a day had passed and I hadn’t written a single word. 

I was a bit worried then, but thinking this was just writer’s block, I closed the document, packed up my bag and went home to sleep the block off. 

48-hours before the assignment, I went through my day as usual: lectures, coffee, more lectures, lunch at 5 PM, a small Netflix break and then hunkering down to finish my essay. I knew I had more than 24 hours to finish this thing and I was not too worried because I had already done the research. It was just a matter of writing it down. 

Spoiler alert: I am about to lose every bit of confidence I have in myself.

I get to writing. The limit is 2000 words (minimum 1500 required). I write about 1400 words and decide that it’s not good enough, so I end up completely starting over.  By this moment, it’s already 11 PM and the essay is due at 11:55 PM on the following day. 

After deleting my first write up, I start writing again. This time, I get to 1200 words before deleting everything again. I start over once more and write about 1000 words before getting rid of it all. At this point, it is about 2:00 AM. I have been in the same booth since 5:00 PM, so I get up to stretch my legs. Somehow, I find myself in a bathroom stall, crouched in a corner, bawling my eyes out like never before. It was that ugly crying where there is bouts of tears running down your face and you have to forcefully stop crying to breath. I cried for 10 minutes and then splashed my face before returning to my spot to write the essay. After two more attempts at writing the essay, I was back in the same bathroom stall, crying just like the last time. After 10 minutes, I washed my face again and came back to write the essay.

After about 14-hours and three crying sessions, I finally wrote a very ragged first draft of my essay. It was 7:30 AM when I finished this first draft. I had five hours before my next lecture. So I went  home, took a shower and slept for a total of three hours. I woke up being barely conscious of anything, other than the essay I had due in about six hours that I still needed to work on. I attended my lecture and printed out a copy of my draft to edit because my face was in pain from all the screen-staring. I did two rounds of editing on that essay and finally submitted it by 9:30 PM because I just couldn’t deal with it anymore. 

I did end up doing pretty well on both of them. I got a higher grade than I expected. I guess the professors liked my essay more than I liked it. Yay, happy ending!

EXCEPT, I was so tired I thought I was going to fall down at any moment. Because of my stress and anxiety/panic attacks I had while writing the essay, I had forgotten to eat. You remember my 5 PM lunch the day before? That was the only thing I had eaten in the 46 hours I spent writing my essay. I had barely had any water during this time either, so my face was in a pain that’s equivalent to period-cramps. 

Unfortunately, I went through this twice and both times there wasn’t anyone I could call because I thought that I wasn’t worth it. That I wasn’t worth comforting if I couldn’t even finish an essay that decides whether I pass or fail that course. I wasn’t worthy of anything that I had at that point - my awesome parents, lovely brother, a fantastic major. I had to beat myself out of that corner to get to work on that 1500-word essay, which in retrospect wasn’t worth the extreme stress I put myself through. 

In complete honesty, I could have called the 24-hour crisis helpline (here is a link with the crisis center contacts) but that never occurred to me at the time. I was so busy spiraling down that I forgot that there are people who can talk me through this. I was feeling so unworthy that the only thought in my head was why should anyone bother with me. Fortunately, that thought is what helped me snap out of the spiral. 

When there is just one thought going through your brain, it becomes easy to provide a counter-argument to it. I have always been motivated to surprise people with what I can do if I try hard enough. And that is what I did. I told myself, “I think I’m unworthy, incompetent and a complete failure. Let’s prove me wrong.”

I know this sounds cheesy, but sometimes you have to cheese it up to pick yourself up again.

The only reason I am writing this is because during these two particular instances, I felt alone. I feel alone most of the time, but I’m usually ok with it. But these two instances made me feel so alone that I wanted someone near me, but I couldn’t think of anyone. Stress, panic, and anxiety over regular things like essays, assignments and deadlines can be so intense and profound that your brain can just stop thinking about anything other than that one thought. It is important to be able to break that cycle. Here are some things you can do in advance (hopefully these will help you):

  • Breath! Breath slowly

  • Have at least one or two friends or family members on speed dial who, you know for sure will pick your call at non-ordinary hours

  • Have the contacts for the crisis centers/helpline saved on your phone

  • Drink some water and eat something

  • Take a nap

  • If you can, go outside into the open and spend some time just sitting there (looking at the moon helps me to calm down)

  • Have a list of things that calm you down on  a post-it on your desktop as well as in your notes on your phone

  • Try to remember that you are not alone, others have faced it or are currently facing it too. Reach out in whichever way makes you feel comfortable. Believe in yourself! 

I know grades are important and I am not here to tell you otherwise. But, maybe you don’t have to face it alone. I know it is not easy, but try putting yourself over your grades. Put yourself first and maybe everything else will become a little easier.

For anyone suffering through a personal crisis can call any of the 24-hour helplines listed here or go to the 24-hour mental health and addiction crisis clinic at 648 Huron street (here is the link to the map location of the clinic).

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