BY REBECCA HEILWEIL
The East River is a peculiar thing in the summer. The sky is a often bright pink or purple, and the stars shine in their full force. The water is slow and calm, reflecting the lights of its surrounding city. It’s a rare sight for New York, which so regularly shields its inhabitants from the horizons that live above them.
As a child, the sky always seemed strange to me. On trips in the suburbs, I was simultaneously fascinated and scared of all the nothingness over me. There was an entire universe encapsulating me, and it didn’t make any noise. I felt a strange loneliness looking up at all those worlds beyond my own. It was a combination of deeply-seeded anxiousness and an internalization of all the things I couldn’t control.
Yet for the summer after my freshman year, my family had decided to make a tradition of sky-gazing from the river. My father returned from work in just enough time to catch the sunset, at which point we proceeded East. We’d pick up cheap Mexican food, some Snapple, and head towards the East River promenade. We’d search for the bench with the best view, our odd collection of four, a father, uncle, sister, and brother, among courting couples and urban soccer moms walking their dogs.
We’d make jokes about how we were too cheap for people living in Manhattans. We preferred take-out and public parks to the diverse selection of high-end restaurants spread throughout our neighborhood. Still, the whole moment was absurdly magical, a state of grace hidden in a city of chaos.
“This is really splendid, isn’t it?” My uncle often commented. “Nothing beats this.”
As we ate, we stared across the waters towards the upward tip of Roosevelt Island. Beyond, I could see the strong outline of Queens’ skyline. From the borough’s tip, we would notice the line of descending airplanes, sending their landing signals across the sky towards JFK . A trail of five or six could be located at once, forming a curious cue towards the earth.
The view was so humanly gorgeous.
I think a lot about my family dying, more than is healthy. And when I’m away from home, I am constantly nauseous that I have not spent enough time with them. It is part of my perpetual discontent, and constituted a fear that plagued me for much of my first year of college. I don’t talk about this much, as unhappiness in college presents as silent, uncelebrated counter-culture. This is the type of worry I can’t help but find all-consuming. The mixture of rational and irrational fear is nauseating.
This was the last weekend of my summer, before returning to school. I had hoped the closing convention of my family would make me happier, and put me in the right head for heading back to college.
My uncle jovially began to recount a week-long road-trip across California with a friend from high school. I wanted to enjoy what he had to say; his stories seemed right out of a 1960s novel. My father laughed about a recent trip to Canada with my brother and me, snickering at my inability to speak French with a straight face.
And still, in the ending chapter of my months off, with work over and goodbyes from revisited high school friends finishing up, I finally had the time I so often concluded I could never have. But instead, I found myself trapped in my own mental health, so far away from the loved ones right next to me.
And quickly, I was presented with an anxiety attack. It wasn’t nuanced, and was, as usual, barely justified. It was a panic attack about mental health, my mental health, everyone’s mental health. It was a panic attack about knowing my enemy, and still feeling overwhelmed. While my family tried to pull me into conversation, I felt the familiar painful tingling in my head, tumbling in my brain that denoted returning anxiety.
I’d been off medication for half the summer. A stupid decision, I remind myself now. My counselor never called to see if I was fulfilling the prescription, how I was doing over the summer, so I ran out of medication, and never continued.
The idea of pursuing more seemed mentally exhausting. It wasn’t quite experimentation, and wasn’t quite general passivity. Rather, I simply justified ambivalence with things I thought more important. Sometimes, I didn’t want to walk to the bathroom to get a cup of water. At others, I promised myself I would take it when I got home. Every day, as I headed to work, I simply took a glance at the now empty small, orange container on the table by my bed, and moved on. Eventually, all the pills had found their way elsewhere. Still, the ghost of the medication remained on my desk, an empty capsule.
My social relationships were weighing on me, too.
On a vacation to Canada with my best friend, I lost my loose hold on remaining in control. Over the course of a few objectively happy hours, I convinced myself that she hated me, and that our trip had been part of an elaborate plan to “get me.” Despite her protests that she wasn’t upset with me, I only believed my taunting worries more. Finally, on a quiet Montreal subway car, I began to internalize that all nervousness in my mind was returning. I hadn’t escaped as well as I had hoped.
Thinking about mental health had seemed too clinical a task while I was off-campus, despite its necessity. Still, the uncomfortable memory of anxiety invited the recall of a slew of other moments from the past few months. These were problems I ignored, in a failed attempt to get time-off from my brain.
In reality, I was having bad stress dreams, and was often short of breath for no reason other than intense nervousness. Earlier in the summer, I had to call a friend because walking across a bridge had brought me to inexplicable tears. I remember describing the feeling as ” the world being too big to fit into my head.”
I’d also gotten a nervous twitch, one that followed me to bed. I’d had multiple private, crying episodes at work. Long hours had thrown me off from my normal routine of thought, and were anxiety-inducing in their own way. Staying still and reading a book, a favorite past-time, required a quietude in my brain I simply could not retain. Getting excited about my coursework was emotionally draining.
And in that moment with my family, I felt trapped and scared. I thought of anyway to leave the situation– I wanted to walk, I wanted to do something that would make me feel like I was doing something productive.
In many ways, my mind was on fire. I told my father I was having an anxiety attack, and he pleaded that I walked right home, rather than walk around. It was late.
Still, pacing around the neighborhood had always been therapeutic. I could blast sad music. Being Alive. Vienna. Clarity. I could start crying and even that was a release, serving as a physical confirmation that I wasn’t okay. And if I was moving, perhaps I could speed my body to same pace as my mind. Normally, however, I tired myself enough to fall asleep. I wondered if the plan would work for this year. And then I worried.
I took the long route home, a compromise, walking with an uncomfortable gait, paranoid of all my surroundings. I worried about where I would have to walk, coming back to college.
My own institution has recently been subject to lot of critique for its mental health environment. But the coverage has pointed out an important trait of students at my school, our sense that we’re supposed to be simultaneously stressed, but also doing fine. We maintain (or perhaps just advertise) booming social lives, full of friends and romances and hook-ups, while also easily pursuing our destinies. But the sentiment seems to be present elsewhere. A longtime friend, who went to school states away, recently said, “It’s like we can only express emotional distress when it’s quantifiable.”
We are told that college, with its bucolic fall leaves, University-gear, and lattes from alternative coffee-shops, is supposed to be enchanting. We’re supposed to be dazed and confused and in love, whisked into institutions saturated in history and happiness. Tradition, good-times, and a warm student body, a cheery youth collective, await us.
The way we are told to consume the college experience differs starkly from how we talk about middle school, high school, and the twenty-something struggle in the necessitated big city. Disenchantment with these institutions is “normal.” We’re allowed to feel awkward and uncomfortable when we’re eleven. In high school, hating everything seems to be normal, expected. And after university, young people are allowed, and encouraged, to mess up, to explore, and to be unhappy.
We don’t know what unhappiness looks like in the best years of lives. Tonight, I am scared of going back to college, and scared of staying still.
Rebecca Heilweil is the editor-in-chief of Beautiful Minds, and a undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania.