The University is a challenging environment that puts many students through tough mental roadblocks. This place has knocked me down numerous times, but I am determined to stand up once more and walk across the finish line with a smile on my face.

This past summer, while most Michigan students interned, worked, traveled or took classes, I climbed out of a deep pit of emotional turmoil.

My inner equilibrium initially faltered at the end of last fall. As I struggled through my pre-med classes and extracurricular obligations, the anticipation of returning home for Winter Break stood as my only beacon of hope. Home life, though, came with its own stressors: a strained relationship with my brother, a lack of upkeep with my high school friendships and the dread of returning to Ann Arbor for another soul-crushing semester. While at home, my heart and soul began to spiral downward. I kept asking myself, if I didn’t like being at school and I didn’t like being at home, where did I like to be?

As winter semester began, I noticed a heavy feeling in my chest. I woke up each morning dreading going through my day. I spent hours lying in bed and staring at the ceiling, my mind blank and my heart heavy. I lost interest in the few enjoyable activities for which I had made time in my otherwise-tedious schedule. In the midst of feebly attempting to pull myself together, my support system disintegrated, due to an irreparable rift in my group of close friends. Whatever small hope I had held for a speedy recovery vanished.

As humans, we are evolutionarily programmed to adapt. I do not believe feeling permanently sad is possible; instead we eventually become numb to our pain so that we can go about our daily lives. By February, I had fallen into a routine that kept my feelings in check. Each day I would wake up, go to class, nap, go to meetings, finish homework, go to bed and repeat. The less thought required in completing my day, the better.

Knowing that I needed help, I signed up for a Counseling and Psychological Services appointment, but felt wary of attending weekly meetings devoted to discussing my sadness. As my appointments continued and the ground beneath me thawed, my heart and mind followed suit. By the time my parents came to pick me up in April, my full range of emotions had returned and my mother and father witnessed me collapse into a puddle of tears. Unlike Riley’s situation in “Inside Out,” though, my breakdown did not lead to an immediate, happy Pixar ending. Instead, that moment was the initial step down a long, winding road of eventual recovery.

The first half of my summer seemed to worsen my mental state. Rather than properly studying for the MCAT as I had intended, I would go to the library and my mind would start to race. Each day I became increasingly aware of my disinterest in pre-med life, my disengagement from the University community and my disconnection from the social circles all around me. Unable to ignore these thoughts, I postponed my MCAT to a later date and opted to work the rest of the summer as a camp counselor. For the first time in months I rediscovered something that I loved, and from that moment forward the true recovery process began.

Being a camp counselor did what months of therapy could not — it shifted my perspective through firsthand experience. Instead of waking up each day focusing on my own problems, I woke up thinking about how to best serve the needs of my campers. Instead of celebrating my own moments of success, I celebrated all the times my campers learned something new or made a new friend. The best part about camp was that all the usual pressures from life did not exist. I was free to be myself without worrying about doing well. Instead of trying to outshine one another, the entire camp community worked to shine brightly together. The moment everything clicked was when my campers and I went on an evening motorboat ride together on the lake. I’ll never forget our shrieks and squeals as the driver accelerated full speed across the water. We clung to each other over every sharp turn while wind whipped our hair and faces. I drank in the perfect evening air and a thought popped into my head: this was what it meant to be alive. Life was not about comparing myself to others or aiming for success purely for the sake of appearing successful. Life was about doing what I loved with people I loved.

For the rest of the summer, I turned this epiphany over in my mind. Were the concepts of enjoying life and achieving greatness mutually exclusive? Did the road to happiness necessitate giving up my dreams of becoming a doctor? After much thought, I became convinced that happiness and achievement are both possible, as long as I push myself for the right reasons. Medical school will be difficult, but I just need to remember that I’m going on this journey to help others, not to boost my own image.

As I begin my senior year, I worry that I will relapse into my previous stage of emptiness and depression. However, I strongly believe that if I surround myself with the right people and do things that make me truly happy, I will be able to push through the tough times and achieve my dreams without sacrificing my mental health. The University is a challenging environment that puts many students through tough mental roadblocks. This place has knocked me down numerous times, but I am determined to stand up once more and walk across the finish line with a smile on my face.

Annie Humphrey can be reached at annieah@umich.edu.

 

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