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It's okay not to be okay

It has haunted me for more than half my life now, but for the longest time, I refused to acknowledge it as a problem. The sleepless nights, the tightness in my chest and the jittery feeling that was constantly coursing through my veins were just inevitable concomitants of being a high achiever. I dismissed them as seasonal allergies that would wax and wane naturally as stressful periods came and went. Even if they persisted, I believed that I would eventually grow accustomed—or at least desensitized—to them. Teachers, friends and family took turns expressing concern, but I casually brushed off their worries with well-rehearsed shows of nonchalance. 

That was how I coped with my anxiety—I swept it under the rug. Recognizing and confronting it felt disempowering. It meant losing half the battle before it even began. I wanted to believe that I was stronger than most people, that I could go about my business as usual even under the hefty weight of (largely self-imposed) stress. 

And for a decent period of time, I did. Living in perpetual fight or flight mode enabled me to function astoundingly well with minimal sleep. In fact, it boosted my productivity by keeping me on my toes and ridding me of any desire to slack off. The stellar accomplishments that ensued established a vicious positive feedback loop that reinforced my habits. Emboldened by my seeming invincibility and fuelled by greed and ambition, I kept pushing myself harder. I had no intention of stopping. I saw no need to. Anxiety was no longer an unfortunate corollary of success, but a powerful steroid that catapulted me to new heights. 

Like a runaway train without brakes, I was virtually unstoppable—that is, until forcefully derailed.

As you can probably imagine, my anxiety levels skyrocketed during my senior year of high school, as I contended with a lethal combination of national and international competitions, a high-stakes national examination and, of course, ruthless college applications. With my future seemingly hanging in the balance, the pressure to perform was greater than ever. The deleterious effects it had on my mental health manifested palpably. Attempting to scatter my attention across so many different things at once truly tested my limits. The flustered and helpless feelings that arose whenever I felt inundated and out of control sent my head spinning madly and my heart palpitating wildly. Chronic sleep deprivation began to take its toll. I often woke up feeling exhausted and, even when I didn’t, a wave of crippling fatigue would suddenly sweep over me as I was going about my day.

As always, I tried to pretend that everything was fine, but the symptoms eventually escalated to a point where it became impossible for me to even function normally, let alone excel at my work. And after a panic attack and a fainting spell landed me in the emergency room with a clinical diagnosis on the eve of my final examination, ignorance was no longer an option.

If you’ve ever experienced a panic attack—and if you haven’t, I hope you never will—you’re probably familiar with the paralyzing paranoia that follows. You start paying acute attention to the rhythm of your breathing and checking for signs of dizziness habitually. Even the slightest physiological abnormality is sufficient to summon the terrifying premonition of an impending attack. Simple and straightforward tasks suddenly become insurmountable because you’re so consumed by these persistent, irrational thoughts that you don’t have the mental capacity to operate normally. 

Such was the psychological battle I fought every day till the end of my senior year, as I struggled to end my high school career on a high note against the odds. It was a struggle that consistently reared its ugly head throughout my gap year and continues to do so during my time at Duke.

The most difficult part of being a Duke student for me isn’t the classic case of being afflicted with imposter syndrome—I have enough confidence in my abilities to know that I deserve to be here. Rather, it is the frustration of not being able to fully leverage the plethora of resources at my disposal, of being hamstrung from reaching my full potential by something as “trivial” as anxiety. It is the embarrassment of having to use academic accommodations as a safety net to break my fall whenever I feel like I am teetering on the precipice of a mental breakdown, and the guilt of inconveniencing the people around me when mental health emergencies necessitate special requests and last-minute cancellations. It is the exasperation of allowing trifling concerns about assignments, midterms and extracurriculars to overwhelm me, as though the recuperation and recalibration I worked so hard to achieve during my gap year were all for naught.

Part of me is still driven by the fiery ambition that got me to Duke in the first place, but part of me just yearns to be normal like everyone else. There are good days when I feel alive and rejuvenated and allow my aspirations to soar a little, only to have them tamed by the sobering realization of my own limits when anxiety strikes out of the blue. This never-ending cat-and-mouse game has conditioned me to be cautiously hopeful, not overly optimistic—to tighten the reins on my ambition whenever it starts running too wildly, lest it brings me to heights I cannot yet attain. 

Anxiety may have taken a lot away from me, but I’d like to believe that it has given me so much more. By bringing out the best and the worst in the people around me, it has helped me distinguish fair-weather friends from those who truly care. By stripping away things I once took for granted, it has made me realize that I have a lot to be grateful for. By springing surprise attacks on me from time to time, it has taught me to live in the present moment because I never know what the next one holds. It will probably remain with me for a long time to come, and that’s okay. I’m not perfect at coping with it, but I’m learning and getting better every day. 

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