On Pride and Failure

When I came home from a 72-hour stint in the hospital following a string of anxiety attacks and depressive episodes, those close to me asked if I wanted to take a break from school. It was the spring of 2015 and, although it had officially ended, I hadn't yet finished the semester. I was also struggling to find a new place to live and was running out of time before I had to be out of my apartment. By all accounts, my answer to their question should have been yes. I had just (well, almost) finished my fourth year of college and I wasn’t graduating, but I felt close. I was almost there. Now was no time for breaks.

“What would I do?” I asked my mother. “What would a break look like?” She suggested I come home. She said I could work and get used to having a routine again. I was going to be taking macroeconomics and I’d just gotten a job working on campus for the summer. I figured I could reestablish a routine here in Kent.

That summer, I did my best to take care of my mental health. I was meeting with my therapist regularly and working to regain control of my life. In addition to class and work, I spent the summer reading, writing and walking up and down the Cuyahoga River before visiting a bar on its banks. A few of my closest friends were moving to new cities at the end of the summer. I wanted to enjoy their company before our lives continued in separate spaces. This scared me. I would have to, once again, get used to caring for myself and spending time alone.

I did well. I was eating regularly and I was beginning to enjoy music and sunshine again. Still, I started the fall semester feeling unprepared to be a student. I’d passed my summer class, but I had incompletes in two classes from spring semester and I wasn’t even close to finishing the remaining work. Over the course of the fall semester, I managed to barely complete one of the spring 2015 classes. I would retake the second later. That fall, I completed my senior seminar and planned a well-received event, but I was struggling to devote the necessary time to many of my other classes. By the end of the semester, I’d earned three failing grades. My GPA worsened and my graduation date was postponed.

My mental health remaining at an incline, I’d decided the spring 2016 semester would be my second shot at academic redemption. The semester would be demanding, but I felt prepared. I needed to feel prepared. Weeks came and went and, despite my efforts, I wasn’t seeing any changes in my productivity. I couldn’t afford to perform poorly this semester.

I started to doubt if my mental health progress was progress at all. Realizing the whole year was less-than-stellar, I agonized about not taking the break from school when it was offered. I was generally less anxious, but I wasn’t completing much of my work on time. My stabilized mental health hadn’t come without a cost.

Tree with no leaves, branches covered by snow. Photo: Marcus Donaldson

Tree with no leaves, branches covered by snow.

Photo: Marcus Donaldson

During a phone conversation one evening, a friend urged me to use my challenges to help me complete my work. On my walk to class the next day, I saw a tree. Its branches were quilted with a fresh layer of snow and the clouds opened just above it, allowing the sun to shine. When I got to class, the sunshine, the snow and the tree were still on my mind. I tuned out a lecture about the law of increasing marginal utility and wrote a haiku instead:

In winter, bare trees,

Limbs outstretched, exalt the sun.

They’ll produce fruit yet.

In the days after, I noticed my outlook begin to shift. I thought less about the break I didn’t take and worried less about what I wasn't accomplishing. Instead, I focused on growth. I’d learned only months earlier to respect my process. I remembered the state of my productivity was temporary. I would soon enter a more fruitful season if I exercised patience.

Today, I start my last semester of my undergraduate career. I’m admittedly a bit anxious about how I’ll perform, but I remember I eat at my time when I spend it worrying. So I’m taking a deep breath on my way to class. I’m watching trees in full bloom knowing, if I’m patient with myself, I’ll get there soon.