When we think about “challenges,” often we regard them as one difficult moment or struggle. After all, in most famous stories we have read as children, the protagonist is often faced with a single, finite struggle—one might be faced with the task of slaying Goliath, and after their gruesome journey in doing so, everything is fine. With the obstacle overcome, the protagonist enjoys a happy, idealistic ending. Yet some challenges can be a bit more complex. My biggest challenge, which I continue to overcome, would be dealing with my mental illnesses.
I struggle with moderate depression and anxiety, but am also a perfectionist in school. I used to equate my self-worth based on the numbers I saw on my tests or my quarterly GPAs. I made sure to consistently fulfill my standards because when I would fall short, I would spiral into a cycle of self-loathing. My need to academically succeed turned obsessive. I displayed my hard work in the classroom and continued to study deep into the night. Even if it meant sacrificing sleep, time with my family, or my emotional wellbeing, I was willing to prioritize my academics above all else. I would seclude myself in my bedroom and study for hours-on-end. When I wasn’t keeping my nose in the books, my anxiety would eat at me. There was always this voice in my head, demanding me to put in work, or else I would receive a bad grade, which I thought would be the end of the world. I listened to that voice, and maintained my academic endurance. I began to pride myself on having a work ethic that I thought was unbreakable.
Yet I grew to become extremely self-conscious. When given the time, I thought myself into oblivion. I sometimes criticized myself without just cause, lost energy to do basic tasks, and just felt completely numb and discombobulated. Even in the summer, when academics were put on pause, I sometimes felt a lack of purpose and accomplishment. One summer, I remember feeling stuck in my house. My parents were out at work, I lacked plans, and felt too drained to put in effort to enjoy the outdoors. This was one of the first times where I realized I was extremely sad and numb, but did not understand why. It drove me crazy knowing that I should be happy and enjoying the sun, but instead I am moping and being down on myself for no good reason. It almost seemed as if my academics were all I valued me for, and when I was not receiving high grades, I lacked a real purpose. Without keeping myself occupied that summer, I sunk into my intrusive thoughts. I became really mad at myself and would constantly put myself down. However, the following autumn, my work ethic returned and I was prescribed antidepressants, which helped bring me out of this slump.
I understand now that, because of my warring anxiety and depression, everyday tasks seem like challenges themselves. My mental illness has a way of making every obstacle I face seem so much more daunting. It is a challenge getting out of bed each morning, knowing that I am going to subject myself to another day of mental exhaustion. It is a challenge fighting through the black hole of my mind.
Unfortunately, this year, my work ethic declined, while my overthinking tendencies manifested. Even though I was still maintaining high grades, I knew something had been off with me for months. I think the stress of COVID and my desire to expand my life beyond this small-town became too much for me to handle. I am not the same student I was. I used to complete assignments days in advance. Now I find myself procrastinating until the last minute, after I finish squirming out from under an invisible weight placed on top of me. This weight is suffocating me, but rather than physically smothering my body, my mental state is what feels trapped. My anxious thoughts pressure me to work, but my disillusionment from my depression prohibits me from doing so. Even when I am not doing my assignments, my anxiety about completing them takes over. I complete my work by eventually succumbing to my intense guilt that wins over the weight of my depression.
Frustrating does not even begin to describe how this feels. I wish I could flip a switch inside me that would keep my mind in check. I wish that I could be understood as a person and not be valued solely based on my successes. I feel guilty because I know I should be working hard. I grew up privileged, and I should be making the most of all of the opportunities I was given. I feel like I am being unappreciative by failing to maintain my work ethic, and I know all of my loved ones expect me to succeed because of my academic track record over the years. Have I really lost my work ethic, the sole attribute that has defined me for so long? Am I still worthy of the immense praise from my family and teachers, if I am plateauing with my academics? I have always felt Asher the student was more important than Asher the person. Asher, the student who has been maintaining stellar grades since the sixth grade, and the topic of conversation in my family. Asher, the person who has always played second fiddle.
It is a challenge talking about these issues because most cannot empathize with me. They think that with a simple pep-talk I should be fine. I am not fine. I have not been fine for months. This year I am scratching and crawling my way to the end, and not because it is academically harder than in previous years. I am struggling so much because my mental illness manifested itself into a monster that simply will not be tamed.
But I am starting to appreciate my mental endurance and survival. I might not feel like I am always putting my best foot forward, but at least I am putting a foot forward. I continue to fight to get out of bed each morning and go to school. I am ultimately winning the battle with my depression and anxiety by continuing to exist. I’ve learned that this is all I can ask of myself sometimes. Returning to bed after a long day of dealing with my mental illness is a bigger accomplishment than any academic accolade. I am learning a lot in this process of losing my academic fire and fighting through my depression. I might not be an impeccable student anymore, but I am a warrior for persisting through all of my struggles that are invisible to others. Maybe that is worth more in the long run.
If you or someone you know is struggling with their mental health, help is available. You can reach school counselors here, or call the Response crisis intervention/suicide prevention hotline at (631) 751-7500, open 24/7.