From Surviving to Thriving
Trigger/content warnings: depression, loneliness, disconnection, home, brief discussion of suicide (although I was not and will never be at risk).
This semester, the proverbial rug was pulled out from under me.
I hit the bump of sophomore slump with so much speed that I was launched straight up into the air; unable to spot my uncontrollable flips and twists, I had no idea what was happening until I crashed into the ground in a blinding cloud of smoke and dust, coughing and dazed. I couldn't see, I couldn't breathe, and I had no idea what had just happened.
Colourful metaphor aside, I was tired, I was burnt out, and I was struggling intensely with just about every aspect of my life.
I felt lost.
It had finally emotionally hit me that I won't get to return to New Zealand, my home country, for many, many years, and I grew bitter and brooding.
Throughout my time in the US, I've slowly lost my New Zealand national identity. I no longer sound like a Kiwi, I don't care for the sports, and worst of all: my NZ flag has started to look foreign in my room. It felt like I had lost a piece of myself.
I had lost my home.
And yet... while I yearn to see the rolling green hills, stare into the big blue sky, awe at the vast Pacific Ocean, hear the hard rain pounding at my window, and feel that sense of peace that I've only truly felt through the New Zealand landscape - I know that if I returned, it wouldn't be enough for me.
I loved little old New Plymouth, but I was desperately craving to leave the place and see the world. It was the same ol' story you've heard a hundred times before: a small-town boy with dreams of something bigger.
Besides, I never truly felt like I belonged there: I grew up an American citizen raised abroad (and all my extended and close family now live in the US), but now that I had finally returned to my 'roots', it didn't feel right.
I didn't feel like I belonged here, either.
I felt trapped at Oberlin.
Sometimes, snow will blanket the ground, casting the world in a mystical and boundless beauty... but more often, it will just be bitingly cold, constantly muddy, and dark. During winter, something deep inside of me just wants to walk south, and keep walking until I find the sun again. Goddamn it, humans were supposed to migrate.
Instead of obeying my animal impulse, I stayed, and it was like time had stopped altogether. It didn't make any rational sense, but it felt like nothing would ever grow again; that this was the winter that was going to last forever, and I would never be able to escape. Winter was here, and summer would never come again.
My seasonal depression grew, and I no longer felt inspired by Oberlin. I grew frustrated at the lack of 'happening', my perceived 'deadness' of campus, and the 'lack' of a strong community that I didn't feel.
I found reasons to hate this place, and for a few weeks, I strongly considered transferring. More often, I just wanted to get in a car and drive somewhere, anywhere that wasn't here.
I felt like I wasn't good enough.
Instead of escaping and taking a much-needed break, I decided to double down. I broke myself on Oberlin's culture of busyness; exhausting myself completely in everything that I could find. It wasn't hard - my schedule made everything a mess, and I found myself busier than I had ever been before, frequently working past midnight, unable (or unwilling) to take time for myself.
Instead of busyness distracting me and filling me with purpose, it filled me with stress. My anxieties and insecurities began to fully manifest, controlling my thoughts in their bold, intimidating, and overwhelming presence.
I felt that no matter how much I accomplished, it wasn't enough. I wasn't athletic enough for my movement pursuits, I wasn't smart enough, and I wasn't good enough at anything that I ever did. As a result, I began to excessively punish myself for any perceived failure or social mishap.
And as I began my newfound dance and movement arts career proper, I started to question if it had any value to society. It became easy for me to devalue what I loved. How were my passions supposed to make the world a better place?
And after all, if I didn't feel like I had any worth, how was what I did supposed to have any worth?
I became terrified that the things I had started to invest myself so deeply in weren't going to bring the fulfillment that I deeply sought, and that they weren't going to make other people's lives better in some way.
No longer the happy-go-lucky freshman, I began to excessively worry about my future.
I felt alone.
However, my deepest insecurity is that at the end of the day, no one actually loves me.
I felt like an open book sitting out at the library; many may have passed by and flipped through my pages with interest, but at the end of the day, the library closes, and no one takes the book home with them. Darkness spills out over the pages as the book lies forgotten.
I was missing deep something inside of me, and despite my best efforts, I couldn't fill it. On the worst of nights, I *intellectually* considered the action of suicide. Despite my initial revulsion at the idea, I felt a curiosity there, and invented truly imaginative ways to do so.
And there, every time I hit rock bottom, I knew that it wasn't me.
Giving up is so antithetical to my nature - I'm just too stubborn.
And so, I had to find another way to escape. I needed to climb out of the deep, dark, cold hole that I found myself in.
Something needed to change, and it needed to come from me.
From Surviving to Thriving
I had been making strong attempts to change my thoughts, to break out of my negative cycles. I leaned heavily on my friends. I frequently found incredible, limitless, devouring joy and obsession in my passion for movement. I used the wonderful free counselling service offered at Oberlin, and had weekly therapy appointments with a psychologist (which, by the way, is an awesome resource available freely to students).
I had good days - great days, even - where I thought I had made it. I thought I had it all figured out.
But it would always come crashing down. The sun would set, and my spirit would fade. When I fell back into the depression, I would write down everything negative thought I had, which only strengthened it. It helped me figure out why I was so unhappy... but it didn't help me change.
I became even more frustrated - why couldn't I just be happy? Why, even when things were objectively going well for me, did I still struggle?
Learning to Be Present.
And that's right when I learned an important life lesson - what it means to be truly be present.
See, being present is hard. It's easier, I think, to obsess over mistakes of the past, or worry about the future. Especially in sophomore year, when existential crises slap you in the face and school suddenly gets challenging, it's natural to agonize over your busy schedule, workload, and fate after college.
You know what, though? That sucks. I've spent so much time this semester bitter about the past, and anxious about my future. I was so caught up in my own head-space that I wasn't present, and I was deeply unhappy.
But here's the thing: to be present means to see the beauty contained in every moment. To connect to something greater than yourself. To awe at the wonders of the world, both big and small - The set of circumstances that led to life as we know it. The inexplicable bond between a group of performers backstage, about to go on. The wonderful feeling of soft grass on your feet. Seeing the complex and yet gorgeously simple algorithmic solution to a tough problem. A song that always pumps you up.
And when I opened myself up, I started to see how absolutely, utterly, completely wrong that depressed me was.
People loved me, and I loved them. Some relationships have faded away this semester, but a few have flourished and blossomed; as I shared my vulnerabilities with certain friends, they shared their vulnerabilities with me, and we began to see each other in our complete humanness - two souls, bound together for a single moment in the void.
I realized that my book was not only in their library - it was on their nightstand.
Learning to love myself.
Opening myself up didn't just mean developing relationships with others - It meant changing my relationship with myself. I had to learn to accept that my greatest strengths are also my greatest weaknesses, and that they will always be tied together. I had to realize how to productively challenge my imperfections with great empathy for myself, instead of self-punishment. Above all, I had to see my own value for myself, and not through the lens of anyone else.
After a time, I discovered that there's a simple, powerful difference between isolation... and solitude.
However, it's not that simple. Some moments, it's hard to love myself, or feel others' love for me. I'm still learning the most effective method to get out of my negative feedback loops: but more importantly, how to simply accept and be comfortable in the depressive moments of life.
But I'm trying. Some days I'm winning, some days I'm losing; but I'm always learning, and it's becoming easier and easier to find my own strength and self-confidence.
And as a result, in the last few weeks, I've had some of the happiest moments of my Oberlin career.
Oberlin is a home.
As soon as the dread of winter lifted, I felt alive again.
Just maybe, we experience winter so that we can truly marvel at the spring:
I began to realize how much joy and growth that I've experienced, and continue to experience here.
Oberlin is inspiring. Sometimes, it slaps you in the face, and sometimes you really have to search for it... but it's always there. There's this energy and intensity about this place that can just fill me up right when I don't expect it to.
And when I thought about it, I realised just how much of an inspiring and welcoming community I have here.
This semester, I joined Koreo, one of the hip-hop dance groups on campus, which has been incredibly fun and rewarding.
One of my dance classes this semester is Capoeira, which has enough community to write an entire blog post on by itself.
Even in Computer Science, I found myself in classes with people that I've known for two years, suffered through late night problem sets and labs with, and realized that there's even a community that I appreciate around my academia.
And I've found myself in a leadership role in Tumbling and OCircus!, and I've slowly become aware that I'm now in the position to be the inspiration to others that now-graduated Obies were to me. Far from being a weighty responsibility, I find myself even more energized to spread my enthusiasm and knowledge. If I can help even one person stoke the flames of passion... then I'll be fulfilled.
Not all who wander are lost.
And yet, right as I find my grounding at Oberlin, I find that I must leave it again - except this time, for eight months.
Next semester, I'll be in Budapest for a Computer Science intensive program.
As my last few weeks - days - at Oberlin for the rest 2017 dwindle away, I finally don't want to leave.
But I don't think that I'm supposed to stay in one place for too long. At least, not in this part of my life. I can't truly ground myself in a place just yet - I'm still exploring, and figuring out who I am and what my place is in this absurd reality we live in.
Forgive me for the stereotypical hipster-wanderlust-rant that you've probably read a million times, but: I want to really see the world. I want to bear witness to all the natural and man-made wonders on this incredible planet. I want to seek the thrills that make blood pump through my veins and adrenaline through my heart.
I want to feel small in the beauty of the universe.
An important question that I've posed to people that I know is 'If you could go to Mars on a one-way ticket, as part of the pioneers making a new colony, would you?'
It shocked me to my core to learn that the vast majority of my friends and acquaintances answered with a staunch 'no'.
Because for me that's not even a question - if I had a PhD in six different sciences and was actually smart enough to be an astronaut, I'd apply in a heartbeat. If NASA or Elon called me up today and asked if I was ready to go, I wouldn't even hesitate. The chance to be a part of an incredible moment in human history, and live on another planet? Sign me the hell up.
But I'm only going to Europe. It'll have to do.