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1. Never take your support system for granted.
I grew up in a family riddled with mental health problems. While I was in high school, my sister and mother were respectively diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder and Bipolar Disorder. My dad has had Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder for as long as I can remember.
I prided myself on being the only ordered member of a family chock-full of disorder.
However, what I failed to realize at the time, and what I now realize in college, is that mental health is like physical health. The maintenance of both is crucial to a balanced and healthy lifestyle, but unfortunately, more often than not, mental health is stigmatized and neglected.
I didn’t realize that mental health, just like physical health, does not remain in stasis. It is not constant, nor is it immune to the psychological viruses of stress, depression, and dissatisfaction.
I learned the lesson in a painful way my freshman year of college, when a series of academic failures and outside circumstances sent me reeling off-kilter. I had lost the very thing which I had built some of the foundational elements of my identity on – my stable mental health and self-sufficiency.
Instead of reaching out to family members, the ones closest to me – who perhaps more than anyone else were capable of understanding, empathizing, and helping me – I retreated, more determined than ever to do everything myself, fix everything myself, fix myself.
I learned my lesson the hard way in college. I eventually realized that the reason behind my inability to deal with issues I had no problem with in high school boiled down to the fact that I had never been self-sufficient in high school. My parents and sister had always been by my side to guide me.
I will never take them – my support network – for granted again.
2. Familiar surroundings and routines go a long way towards comfortability. Never conform to customs you’re uncomfortable with.
The flat, grayish planes of the Midwest were a far cry from the lush evergreens and rolling mountains of the Pacific Northwest, the place I called home for the first 18 years of my life. During my first quarter at Northwestern, I was struck by a homesickness that far exceeded my expectations.
I was at a new school, nary a familiar face in sight, with a completely different academic and living situation than the one to which I was accustomed. I was used to sleeping by 11 p.m., but the freshman orientation “Wildcat Welcome” (and afterwards, my dorm mates) had programming and events scheduled as late as 1 a.m. in the morning.
Caught up in the whirlwind, the bubbly social network of shiny new friends and experiences, I adjusted my sleeping habits (stay up late, wake up early-ish) and study habits (stare blankly at a textbook and blink slowly from sleep deprivation) accordingly.
Even my bed sheets were different from the ones I had at home.
I was utterly miserable. Forcing myself to break 18 years’ worth of habits over the course of several weeks was not only insane, it was mentally and physically debilitating.
Grades plummeted. Health suffered. Depression deepened. Many of my memories of freshman year exist in a foggy cloud, suspended in time as a shining example of manic insanity and blurry recollections.
I crumbled under the peer pressure in college first quarter freshman year – something I had never done in high school.
I wish I had carried over that lesson from high school to college. Although a constant litany of “don’t give into peer pressure” is chanted by adults everywhere, I never understood the harmful effects to my psyche until I myself gave way.
When I reverted back to old studying and sleeping patterns my sophomore year, and developed deeper friendships with fewer people (as opposed to the many scattered and hectic acquaintances I called “friends” my freshman year) I instantly gained equilibrium. My grades shot up, my depression retreated, and I was happier and finally at home in my own skin.
How much I had missed it!
3. Don’t isolate yourself if you’re feeling stressed – ask for help.
This relates back to the first point. I was extremely lucky to have a support network on which to fall back when I finally realized my depression was not merely sadness and my problems not quite temporary.
However, one thing I learned in college that I wish I had learned in high school was that even when family is far away (either geographically or emotionally), I could – and should – ask for help in different ways.
Northwestern offers free therapy service through CAPS – short for Counseling and Psychological Services. Unloading to a professional, reaching out and asking for help, and breaking through my self-imposed isolation was – well – therapeutic. (heh.)
Spilling your soul and your burdens to a stranger circumvents (sometimes) the necessity for repercussions, disapproval, or punishment. It provides an element of perspective that close friends and family may not be able to offer. Moreover, a professional can (and does) offer solutions or treatment options others without their training would not be able to.
I realized there were plenty of resources I could turn to if I didn’t feel comfortable talking to my family or close friends regarding an issue I wasn’t ready to reveal yet. This is one lesson I’ll always carry with me – one I wish I had learned earlier on, sans stigma.
4. Friendships are important. Invest in them.
In high school, I was largely focused on academics. I had my eye on the prize, and rarely removed my eyes from it. I achieved the best grades I could, pursued the most prestigious extracurricular activities I could, prepared for standardized examinations rigorously and passionately.
I missed countless birthday parties, movie nights, and after-school get-togethers. Eventually, the invitations stopped coming. In my eyes, it was – and still is – a necessary sacrifice in order to achieve all that I wanted to. I had several close and intimate friends who I stuck by in high school, and who stuck by me. I was close with my family, and that was enough for me.
However, when I reached college, I had difficulty building intimate friendships. Everyone seemed in such a rush to build as many connections as possible that they circumvented any intimacy those connections could have attained. I wasn’t used to this meet-and-greet-and-move-on culture, and I floundered. I tried to assimilate; I failed.
I realized that classes in college, unlike high school, left very little room for meeting people and hanging out. Thus, I had to invest in relationships to make them meaningful – invest in movie nights, date nights, girls nights, trips out to the city, in a way I never had before.
I realize now what I wish I did in high school. School’s importance may be in attaining the degree and grades necessary for future success, but its true value lies in the connections and friendships you forge.
5. The objective of school isn’t perfection – it’s growth.
In high school, I was, if not a perfectionist, something very close to it. I relentlessly pursued a 4.0 GPA, a beefed-up resume, and high SAT and SAT II scores. I cried and despaired if and when something went wrong academically, convinced every time that I had lost my chance at an elite education.
Now that I have attained admittance into said education, I realize now what I should have realized then. Learning for the sake of grades is a thankless, worthless endeavor. It is meaningless, and ultimately pointless. Learning how to learn, however – how to think critically, how to problem solve, how to analyze and rotate dilemmas in three-dimensional space – is what I should have been focused on.
In college, my attitude toward and relationship with academics has transformed into something I’m truly proud of. I’m not proud because of a stellar GPA, of a long line of academic accolades, or even of prestigious research and internship opportunities. I’m proud that I finally realized how meaningless the aforementioned items are without growth of character.
My father used to tell me, “Erika, I don’t care how successful you later become. I don’t care how much money you make, how big your house is, how fancy your car will be. What I care about is that you grow to become a good person. If you do that, and only that, I will know I raised you right.”
In my constant pursuit of academic excellence and perfection, I lost sight of what school should and could be about. True interest, instead of internships. Revitalization, instead of research.
Growth, instead of grades.
When I realized that, the stress – and the accompanying knot in my stomach – melted away, and I embraced the beauty of knowledge.
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