Thanksgiving Retrospective, or How I Beat the Blues

I spent most of Thanksgiving Day this year in my bed in
Clark III with a box of tissues and some close cousin of the seasonal flu. As dismal
as it felt to be coughing, sneezing, and unable to stand up without my head
spinning, this year’s break was still a whole lot better than last year’s. I
didn’t have to visit a psychiatrist, and the most reckless thing I did all
weekend was eat pasta at Harvey Mudd College without taking a Lactaid pill. My poor
lactose-intolerant digestion aside, this was definitely a step up from the
mental health crises that arose for me in the aftermath of last year’s festive

Between marathon-watching episodes of Scandal and hacking up mucus, I thought about what I was up to one year ago. It wasn’t a pretty trip down memory lane. Last November was a
major turning point in what has now been two years and counting of getting to
know a mood disorder that descended upon me … what’s that John Green reference? “Slowly, and then all at once”? So it was with the deterioration of my mental health, with the “all at once” part coming to a head exactly
a year ago. And who doesn’t like symmetry, the opportunity for a
retrospective? But here I am today, December 2013, living what is much of the
time a pretty enjoyable life, and I’m not entirely sure how this happened. 

my parents came to visit last month, it seemed to come as a pleasant surprise
to us all that I had no fresh crises to report or big problems I needed them to
help me solve. It’s a confusing context for revisiting the past, but I do like
that I now get to play up the narrative of redemption rather than the desperate
“Please trust me, I can do this” feeling I had during almost every conversation
of academic year 2012-13. Trying desperately 24/7 to convince others, and
somehow also yourself, that you’re a real person who can do things, is not the
best look for me.

I know, of course, that I’m far from the only person around
here trying to cope with the fact that I’m fallible without totally losing my
confidence. It’s easy, when you have a history of being good at stuff (hi,
everyone I know) to coast on the confidence that your intellect is some kind
of manifest destiny–and eventually fall flat when your life doesn’t pan out
effortlessly. In light of the self-doubt and struggle I’ve witnessed in all of
my friends at one point or another, I find myself almost grateful that my big wake-up
call took a more clinical route. Self-actualization is a bitch, and dealing
with your built-in limitations in the process of developing your dreams is the
ugly secret nobody seems willing to tell you when you’re 17 and “full of
promise,” whatever that means. I got the chance to torch everything: fail a
test, flunk a term paper, take an incomplete, and then get a good life again with
lots of people on my side. How did I deserve this kind of second chance?

It’s not because I’m some special snowflake. It is, in large
part, because I was fortunate enough to have people who believed in me, who
witnessed my failures and were still confident I’d succeed eventually. It’s
easy to accept the narrative that mentally ill means broken, and my greatest
thanks this year go out to the people who have consistently refused to
believe that. Furthermore, it’s easy to assume that the end goal of recovery is
to get back to who you were before—again, to stop being broken. I bought into
this for a while, fantasizing about the functional and happy person I used to
be and would be again, but that’s just not how it works. Seductive as nostalgia
can be, there’s no reset button for life, so sometimes the only way out is to
grow up and be someone new. This is terrifying and I’m not always ready to deal
with it. It’s also sometimes really liberating, the feeling that totally
messing everything up is not even close to being the end of the world. Definitely a good
approach going into finals.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the phoenix lately. Not as
some cute little metaphor where depression is ashes and mania is the
full-fledged bird—that would be wildly inaccurate and really annoying. I’m
thinking of a more balanced duality, where failure and success, bad days and
good days, are connected and coexist healthily. Maybe we don’t have to torture
ourselves with the expectation that everything will be good and happy and fine
all the time, and that’s okay. It’s a pipe dream, I know, but I’m feeling sentimental
this December. 

While I ponder this question, if anyone does figure out the secret to being a real person who does things, please let me

Julia Austenfeld PO ’15 is a Music major from Freiburg, Switzerland.

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