I settled into my new life in the fall of my sophomore year at a co-ed boarding school in Western Massachusetts and was convinced that my problems would quickly resolve themselves. I was sure that it was my environment, not I, that needed realigning. Because the only times I’d been told I was mentally ill in the previous year were when I was in my psychiatrist’s office back home, I no longer had to think about it on a regular basis, as I had assured my parents that it was absolutely unnecessary to continue in treatment on a long-distance basis. They consented, and the bipolar diagnosis and subsequent medicating faded into the far recesses of my mind.
This respite from the world of psychiatry did not provide me relief from my emotional struggles, however. Convinced that my perfectionism wasn’t really who I was but rather who the external forces in my life wanted me to be, I abandoned my obsession with being the ‘best’ as swiftly as I had thrown away my old hunter-green school uniform on my last day at the school I’d been at since pre-kindergarten in Greenwich– it was there and had been my identity for over a decade, and then suddenly it wasn’t, with the snap of a finger.
My thoughts raced about in a cloud of confusion and I felt in such disequilibrium that I found myself wondering whether excelling in something actually meant that I was selling my soul. I thought that lowering my standards would make me feel less artificial, less of an actor on the stage, and more of a genuine person. I began to settle for B+’s and A-’s instead of A’s and A+’s. I ignored the varsity field hockey coach’s request that we run regularly on our own and instead spent my free time in the evenings chain-smoking cigarettes with my friends at our secret spots on campus. I was consequently cut from the varsity lineup, and told myself I didn’t care.
Whenever I found myself alone, I was stuck in the realm of the cerebral, not emotionally connecting to these drastic self-imposed changes in my life but rather analyzing, intellectualizing, and rationalizing everything I was doing until I’d convinced myself things made sense. I saw my ‘self’ as a puzzle that had all its pieces present but out of order. If I shifted things around in just the right way, everything in my world would click into place and suddenly be right. I was expending all my mental energy on creating happiness for myself, and in the process ended up moving myself further and further away from my emotions and deeper and deeper into my head.
Things weren’t all dark during my first year away, however. I felt genuinely connected to my friends, and this gave me many moments in which I felt alive, integrated and even at peace. Our close-knit clan went on nightly adventures to the river that wound its way along the periphery of campus to smoke cigarettes and listen to music on our headphones, sprinting away as fast as possible when we’d see the yellow headlights of the security guard’s golf-cart on its twice hourly rounds and bursting minutes later into the student grille with cheeks flushed and hearts pumping with exhilaration. We’d scale to the top of the athletic complex to lie on the roof and look at the stars on clear nights. We hiked through the woods on Sunday afternoons and spent hours sitting in our favorite graveyard, our backs against trees and journals in hand, thinking, ‘It doesn’t get better than this’. I was able to appreciate the subtleties of life around me, pausing from the chaos of being a sophomore in high school to exist in the moment in a way I’d never known back home.
It was experiences like these that kept my inner momentum going. When I’d catch myself alone in my room after curfew, my head churning with thoughts about who I was and what I truly wanted in life, I wasn’t entirely trapped. I knew I’d have an adventure the next day to propel me out of the depths of my mind and bring me closer to the people around me. I knew I had my best friend living in the room next door, just feet away should I need someone to talk to. Connections to others kept me out of myself.
After a slight dip in grades during my sophomore fall and winter and some much-too-narrow escapes from security guards and dorm-heads after rule-breaking activities, I awakened to the realization that the numerous forms of self-sabotage I’d been engaging in on a daily basis could potentially ruin this ‘second chance’ I’d been given. I decided to get my act together and instill more self-discipline when I returned for my junior fall. I decided to re-embrace the perfectionism I’d so abruptly run away from, unaware that it would quickly swallow me whole. I had unknowingly set myself on a path that was to lead me so far back into the woods, so deep into the realm of labels, illness and pills, that I’d forget there was a way out.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.
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