Last fall 2021 was the pinnacle of my anxiety-ridden college experience. My transition to college as an international student was crippled with fear and resulted in an abrupt leave of absence.
Freshly graduated from a private school in the suburban bubble of wealthy families, I was ready to leave the comforts of my privileged lifestyle to seek the American dream of opportunities, independence and freedom. Like the glorious gates to my promised future, college was like a stepping stone to a stable career and life. My efforts were finally paying off with admissions into Emory University in the “land of opportunities.”
After settling in, I was supposed to be grateful I’d finally “made it.” However, my feelings indicated otherwise. I convinced myself I liked being alone, even though I dreaded every minute of studying in my isolated dorm. I convinced myself I enjoyed working out, even though I was driven by the guilt I would feel from not exercising. I convinced myself that I was happy after this “adjustment” period despite knowing I had unintentionally trapped myself in a self-destructive cycle of toxic productivity — one where every minute not spent working was wasted.
But in reality, I didn’t like being alone. I didn’t have friends because I became exhausted with attempts to even socialize. I exerted all my energy burying myself in my room all day, grinding assessments and studying for quizzes because I wanted to optimize all the time I had in my hands. I wanted to be the most efficient version of myself without considering my mental or emotional health. The toxic cycle I’d self-induced and perpetuated began consuming me, gradually reaching my core. That was when I realized I no longer wanted to put up a facade that I was “fine” anymore: because I wasn’t.
The double-edged sword of high functioning anxiety or depression is that we fail to validate feelings of exhaustion and burnout simply because we function well on the outside. Sometimes, I wanted to physically collapse to the ground so others could see how much I was hurting. I wanted someone to reach out a hand to me, acknowledge what I was going through and tell me I deserve rest and help.
The day before my Counseling and Psychological Services appointment, I ended up in the emergency room waiting at the hospital. It started with a panic attack in my dorm room, and my uncontrollable crying made it increasingly more difficult to breathe. I could envision a tunnel where all that was ahead was murky, dark and filled with uncertainty. I couldn’t see myself being strong enough to fight through this very moment. I couldn’t stay here any longer. I just wanted to go home, but home was 9,000 miles from Emory, in Thailand.
Despite dropping all academic responsibilities while at college, I couldn’t seem to eradicate a burdening feeling. The more I tried to meditate, the heavier each breath felt. I couldn’t focus on anything but my chaotic thoughts, battling the intrusive ones that held me back from restful days and nights. I felt trapped, and the only way out was to return home.
The 18-hour plane ride home was filled with much contemplation and self-doubt. Though I knew it was the best decision I could’ve made, I feared the judgment and questions that would follow; I feared I had essentially become a failure no one expected me to become. More importantly, there was a fear of uncertainty about whether I’d be able to finish school or become a college dropout whose future was cut short by my inability to handle the pressures of college transition.
Though I couldn’t pinpoint one reason for my culmination of anxiety, I believe it was a blend of the adjustment, my preconceived notion that college was purely a stepping stone instead of an experiential 4 years of my life, my expectations of college and most importantly, my internal state of mind. The consequences of my toxic productivity mindset ultimately caught up to me.
Until now, I’ve dedicated time to doing nothing. More precisely, rather than focusing on productive resume-building activities, I’ve been reflecting in retrospect and introspect to find what I truly want out of my college experience and other future experiences. I’ve discovered what brings me excitement and joy in life, like spending meaningful time with people I love and listening to music. My ultimate goal is to fixate my joy in every present moment.
Perhaps the lifestyle I’m living may not be optimal for some, but for me, it’s the best decision I’ve made. But what remains universal is the empathy and kindness we should all have toward others suffering from experiences alike or different from ours. Mental health intervention should never be stigmatized and should absolutely be available and readily accessible to everyone and anyone.
Mishaps in life are often depicted with regret; however, these hardships reveal a nuanced understanding of the complexities of our lives. Learn to appreciate small hope not at the end of the tunnel but in every unique and purposeful path you choose to pursue.
Taking this leave was the best decision I have made because these trying times allowed me to acquire not the strength I hoped to have but the strength I never believed I could have.
Fay Sukparangsee (26C) is from Bangkok, Thailand.