‘At Berkeley,’ but not in spirit

Natalia-Reyes-full

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I sat in the Pacific Film Archive Theater, waiting to experience the Frederick Wiseman documentary “At Berkeley.” Though some have decried Wiseman’s examination as uneven and others have commented on the film’s excessive length, nothing could deter me from watching “At Berkeley” at Berkeley.

The film began. The audience witnessed Wiseman’s juxtapositions of tranquil campus scenes with administrative hand-wringing and heated classroom discussions. As I sat in a sea of UC Berkeley students, I felt as if I was experiencing my university for the very first time.

In a way, I was. I had never perceived the excitement and pride I imagine every other newly minted UC Berkeley student feels until more than two years into my college education. I had never called Berkeley my home. To me, the school was socially and academically hostile.

My transcript reflected my attitude. During the fall of 2012, I passed one single class. Over the years, I have failed the majority of the 17.5 pass/no pass units I’ve taken. In May 2013, I became ineligible for financial aid due to unsatisfactory academic progress. Rather than appeal, I decided to return to Southern California. It was apparent to me that I was not Berkeley material.

I kept busy by ruminating on what was amiss. I found faults in and placed blame on everyone, especially myself, for the chronic dread and anxiety that had characterized my university experience. I enrolled in community college classes, staffed a zoo cafe and by sheer dumb luck landed an internship at an economic development organization. I was working toward an uncertain future, however. There was nothing, at the time, that said I belonged at Berkeley and should return. My grades and the bridges I’d burned were a testament to that.

I stopped placing blame on Berkeley when, in the middle of an economics class, I had a panic attack triggered by an offhand comment about my assignments. The feeling of overwhelming panic was familiar: This had happened on more than one occasion at UC Berkeley.

Except this wasn’t UC Berkeley. This was community college. I wasn’t in a foreign, hostile environment. I was home. I could not blame my roommates, my classes or the gloomy bay weather.

What was wrong was inside of me.

More than two years after a sense of doom and worthlessness had settled into me, I finally accepted that I was mentally unwell. The long stretches spent in bed, the irregular sleep patterns, the constant irritability, the habitual fleeing from anxiety-inducing situations, the loss of more than 20 pounds in the span of a few months, the superhuman control I learned to exercise over my diet because I couldn’t control anything else: I was undeniably depressed.

Part of me had known it. It wasn’t for a lack of information or resources that I let the depression and anxiety take their course. I made the conscious decision not to seek help. Despite the fact that my family has a history of mental illness, I had been a long-time stigmatizer. Not even my own depression would convince me that such an illness wasn’t the result of a weak will.  And, as the mind of a depressed person might surmise, what did it matter anyway?

But I could no longer delude myself into believing that, if I fought hard enough or pretended it wasn’t happening, I could make it go away. I conceded to treatment — in fact, I begged for it — and was thus thrust into our convoluted bureaucratic health care system. Unsurprisingly, attaining health insurance as an under-21-year-old dependent on undocumented parents was not easy; I filed applications thrice to the same county office for a lesser version of Medi-Cal. The card arrived at my door as I was packing my things to return to school. By then, I’d already paid a large sum for psychiatric visits.

Fortunately, I’m in treatment now and am taking Berkeley one day at a time. My classes are engaging. My housemates are welcoming and kind. When I walk on campus, fear doesn’t grip me as it did before. I look forward to the next day, the next week, the next month, the time I have left at Berkeley.

“You are not like a freak or an imposter; you are supposed to be here,” one student says in the Wiseman documentary.  “(UC Berkeley) will kick your ass and make you feel like nothing — then they build you back up again.”

I recognized my fears — of not being worth much, of having swindled my way into a place I didn’t belong — in “At Berkeley” and felt comforted. Others, it said, doubt just as you do, but you belong here still. The process of building myself back up again is not easy but I’m eager to continue. For the very first time, I’m happy to be at Berkeley.

“Off the Beat” guest columns will be written by Daily Cal staff members until the spring semester’s regular opinion writers are selected.