A disclaimer: take everything written below as you would any form of outside communication from a book, a movie, a piece of advice, a phone call, etc. Take it with a grain of salt.
The onset of my eighteenth year of life delivered the gift of hectic energy inspired by anarchy. I assumed this stereotypical rebellion had already worked itself out in my early teens, and was surprised to know I wasn’t as “grown up” as I thought.
I had lived my life up until this turning point, reclining in the collection of ideas conceptualized by society, reinforced by peers and militantly expressed by parents. Money is just as important if not more important than emotional wellbeing. Independent financial success meant overall familial success and brought with it bragging rights to be inappropriately used at dinner tables during big holidays.
I grew up in a household with a female breadwinner and a stay-at-home dad, which meant I enjoyed all the forceful iterations of toxic masculinity, like the denial of my emotions, the repetition of the ol’ “toughen up” adage and general roughhousing that is more universally understood as child abuse. When I was twelve I was told I had to stay “pretty” to ensure a fruitful marriage and experienced loving comparisons to a cow every time I gained weight, an animal that, interestingly enough, developed to be my favorite to this day.
In high school the chaotic interplay of intense masculinity and femininity were dashed aside for a new paradigm: it was both spoken and unspoken that my mother’s torch would have to be passed on. Terms like “dermatologist” and “investment banker” that I had learned were positive things to be in the fifth grade were suddenly racing to become the titles I would attach my name to for the rest of my life.
The words latched on like leeches and echoed themselves mechanically in every moment of idleness. Strangers and family perpetually inquired about the future, not-so-subtly mentioning college acceptance rates and how well their respective extensions of themselves (read: kids) were doing in law school. Words are powerful, and with each repetition of my future career I could feel my heart sink a centimeter lower until it made a permanent residence in my stomach.
It wasn’t that I hated these highly advertised, lucrative career paths; how could I truly hate something I never experienced firsthand? My melodramatic yet real plight was ingrained in a story as old as time: the insistence of free will. My choices had been taken away before I had the chance to know them; they were being held prisoner in an invisible cage of my own conjuring. These choices were replaced by shellac-coated buzzwords as much entrenched in well-meaning material security as in traditionally American capitalist ideology: hard work gets you paid, smart work makes you rich.
My freshman year of college at Columbia led to one of the worst personal breakdowns in my short-lived human experience. By that point I already had a history of depression with a sprinkling of suicidal thoughts, but had learned to keep it under wraps as best I could. A mental illness in my family would stoically be referred to as “being sad” and sometimes aggressively referred to as being “dramatic and lazy.” This breakdown was an entirely different monster that I was in no way, shape or form prepared to face.
It began and ended with economics. I threw away my micro textbook. I stopped going to classes. I sat and sometimes laid in bed in the dark, staring at the heavy ceiling for hours at a time. Sometimes I watched comforting TV. More frequently I fantasized about what process would most painlessly lead to my own nonexistence.
I never let anyone in on what was going on. People going through severe depressive episodes rarely do. There’s always stigma behind it, shame. In my case, I was not prepared to face the barrage of insults I knew would arise from my parents, nor was I ready to experience the blank, pitying faces of my peers. In any case, no one checked in. No one asked me how things were going or questioned why I wasn’t leaving my room. My contact with the outside world was limited to two indignant emails from both my lit professor and my advisor, both highlighting my poor work ethic.
After the obviously terrible performance reports of my second semester came out, I sent a lengthy five-page essay to my advisor detailing my exact thoughts, troubles, and struggles. We scheduled a meeting months later, during which he very seriously told me the titles of several self-help books written for students that outlined studying habits and time management skills. I very seriously wanted to deck him in the face.
Nevertheless, I look back at this time of my life with a gentle fondness. In the span of a month I had learned that strangers were often more capable of empathy than the inner circle, colleges function exactly like corporations, and financial economics was one thing I was sure I couldn’t bring myself to care about.
You see, what I learned in that month of bitter wallowing was that I had firmly decided to stop fighting for my right to a choice. My breakdown was fueled by a desperate search for outside intervention: I waited for at least one person to break down my door, grip me by the shoulders and shake me into following my dreams, whatever they were or could be. That moment never arrived, and it usually never does for those too afraid to make difficult decisions for themselves.
We are human beings living on a space rock in a universe we know next to nothing about. We fear that which we have no control over: our lives, the lives of those we love and care about, our environment, the survival of existence as a whole. Instead we are blessed (or is it cursed?) with the power of self. In the privacy of our brain cavities we may think as freely as we want, make decisions for ourselves, and turn thought into action with relative ease.
For most of my life, I struggled with the ideas and perceptions of outsiders. I denied myself indulgence of the self in favor of a ready-to-fail life plan of perfection. I attempted to be the perfect child to an imperfect family unit, the perfect student in a broken school system, the perfect athlete in a sport that often cares more about drama than skill, and the perfect human in a world destined for error. It took me coming to a point where I wanted nothing more to do with myself, to understand that the worst damage I could inflict upon my own psyche was to deny myself an opportunity to live as who I really am.
The choice of living for yourself is often demonized: corporate America encourages the idea of a free thinker but would much rather groom a majority of us into thinking a life worth living is one of material prosperity to impress people we don’t even care about. Trap yourself in a cycle of monotony and debt as your job slowly drains away the energy needed to perform things you adore. This method of control is used liberally and doesn’t have to wear the mask of an evil dictator to work. However, whether or not the control works, depends entirely on whether or not you are prepared to deal with the consequences of making your own choices.
I can’t say that I am a model to follow by any means. I work a dream job right now teaching people jiu jitsu at an amazing gym with an amazing team, but my dream job is probably not yours. I don’t make enough to buy a house or a new car or a boat or an island but I know I am feeding my soul, and right now, that’s the only thing that matters.
So whatever it is you’re struggling with, whatever choice you are having a hard time making, ask yourself if you will regret making it, or if you will regret staying still more.