Editorial Notebook

Looking at my past with a new perspective

“I’ve had to struggle and fight and that’s made me strong,” said Zuko in Avatar: The Last Airbender, as he looked out from a frosty cave in the middle of the North Pole. Although he still didn’t fully come to terms with his past, and this wasn’t the end of this emotional journey, that moment was a monumental one for him, marking the point at which he chose to fully embrace the disgrace of his past.

My own past is mixed. Although I’ve had some amazing, insane highs, there were a lot of bad moments—an abnormal amount, as I’ve come to realize. Atop that, my mental illnesses sometimes make it hard to stay positive. I often find myself believing that I’m unworthy of love, undeserving of help, and unwanted by my friends. It’s very easy to slide into those feelings, but insurmountably difficult to claw your way out of them, at least on your own.

I’ve struggled with my mental health my whole life. In 2010, I remember being so depressed and dissatisfied with life, I wanted to quit school. In 2012, I remember fainting from exhaustion in school because I overworked myself. In 2015, I remember going through the roughest situation at home, which included my parents separating for a while.

In 2016, my grandparents passed away a day before I had to write my first final. I remember my family leaving to go mourn them, which left me home alone for a few weeks to write my exams myself. I remember feeling more alone than I’d ever felt in my entire life. In 2017, I tried to take my own life. In 2018, I was left struggling to get my mental health back in order, reeling from the trauma of my previous experiences.

So, where does all this leave me in 2019? Right now, I acknowledge that I’m not wise enough to properly reflect on those individual experiences and glean any wisdom from them. However, I do have a new perspective on my life as a whole.

If there’s anything positive I can say about the experience of having depression, and of having several painful experiences in life, it’s this: the positives are stratospheric. When your house of cards falls, when your walls break down, when you finally see the notion “no one cares about you” for the lie it really is, you see just how wrong you were about yourself. After a lifetime of beating yourself over the head for the tiniest of mistakes, the smallest, most trivial gesture of kindness—like a friend saying hi to you for no reason—makes a world of difference.

I’m writing about this because I’ve realized that I can’t bury the past. You can run from it, hide from it, but it’ll follow you all the same. Even if you move to a new continent, and start a new life, you will never ever forget. The victory isn’t forgetting though; the victory is being able to think about the past without feeling any pain, resentment, or regret. The victory is being able to talk about it freely—as if it wasn’t a big deal, as if it didn’t hurt anymore, and as if you learned some lessons and grew from it. As for me, some of these memories are very recent, so they still hurt quite a bit, but I can feel myself getting better day after day.

That’s why I’ve stopped trying to pretend the past doesn’t exist. I made that mistake in mid-2018, when I tried to bury memories from 2015 and 2016, only for them to resurface. But I know better now. The past exists, and I acknowledge that a very substantial part of it wasn’t good. Despite that, I’m trying to see the positives even in my darkest moments, because they are just as—if not more—important than the negative experiences in my life.

So let’s try this again.

In my lifetime, for every struggle there was a victory. This is the other side of my story. In 2010, I remember switching to a better school, starting to enjoy school again, and becoming the top student in my class. In 2012, I remember the insanely fun times I had with my best friend; the fun after-school projects we’d create are some of my best memories. I still have some of the copies. In 2015, I remember winning Olympiad medals at the state and district levels, and my father telling me that he was proud of me for doing my best at home and at school despite our turbulent family situation. In 2016, I remember managing to live completely home alone after the death of my grandparents, and getting straight A’s on my finals during that time.

In 2017, I remember taking the SAT for the first time a couple weeks after I tried to take my own life, and scoring in the 99th percentile. Then I remember completely changing college plans (for most of my childhood, my parents assumed I’d go to college close to home) which worked out well, even though it was scary at first—more for them than it was for me. I also remember writing about my depression online, only for it to resonate with hundreds of people who had similar experiences.

In 2018, I remember taking the AP English Language exam on a whim—the class wasn’t offered at my school—and scoring a four even though I hadn’t written an essay for a class in over a year. Then I remember coming to Rensselaer, making two amazing friends during NRB week, and joining The Polytechnic. It took me a while to warm up to people in this club, but nowadays I’ll admit that sometimes when I feel lonely I look at the staff page just to remind myself that I’m part of a community of people who care.

There’s so much I’ve loved about 2019 so far, and I’m sure 2020 will bring its own amazing set of surprises when it finally arrives.

In the past, people have told me that I’m inspiring. Although I trusted their evaluation of me, it was always hard letting it sink in. But I believe in the friends who believe in me. And slowly, day after day, I hope this notion of self-contentment embeds itself deeper and deeper inside my frosted heart, pushing out the shrapnel of self-loathing on it’s way. I love my friends, but I hope that one day I won’t need their approval to feel good about myself. Until then though, I might need a few reminders, and I’ve learned that it’s okay to ask for them.

I can’t promise I’ll always be fine, but I can promise that I’ll always fight. I’ll fight for my mental health and wellbeing, so that I can feel better, and hopefully lift other people up in that process.