Content warning: anxiety, depression
Every November since 2019, I can’t help but reflect on how dramatically my life has changed since my senior year of high school. My sister starts blasting Tyler, the Creator’s song “November” the day after Halloween. “Take me back to November,” he sings, while reflecting on nostalgic moments of past Novembers. I personally reflect on the month because November 2019 was the start to one of the most difficult and disheartening periods in my life.
At the time, I was an anxious, scared, overworked and stressed 17-year old. As a top student and the student body president of my high school, I had a lot of pressure on me to exceed everyone’s expectations. I also hated my school — as a mixed Japanese and Dominican individual, I felt out of place at my charter school with an overwhelming white and upper-class demographic that I had been attending for the past five years. Most importantly, I was struggling because I lacked support from friends. I was friends with someone who was abusive towards me: She subjected me to constant sl— shaming, filling me with feelings of fear and worthlessness.
In mid-November of that year, I began to develop severe agoraphobia. Every time I returned to school after a few days off, my classmates would ridicule me for my absences, some even joking that they would never see me again. At times, I would get so overwhelmed by anxiety on the walk towards the entrance of my school that I had to turn back home. Consequently, my parents encouraged me to take a week off of school and work at home for “independent study.” I stayed at home for most of the week, but I came to school for a Mock Trial team practice. As I was walking through the hallways of school, I ran into the school dean.
Initially, I thought I was in trouble for breaking my independent study, but she approached me to ask if I would vouch for the school’s new “diversity plan” at the county’s office of education. Caught up in nerves and hesitation, I accidentally blurted out to her that I had recently suffered from an agoraphobia-induced mental breakdown.
“Mental breakdown. … OK. Mental breakdown, mental breakdown,” she said repeatedly, nodding her head and thinking about what to say next.
It was extremely triggering to me that she kept saying “mental breakdown,” but thinking about all the people I would disappoint if I missed out on this important event, I agreed to speak at it. Looking back, I can’t believe I sacrificed my mental health to vouch for my school’s sh—y diversity plan.
But more importantly, I couldn’t believe everyone who knew my health was rapidly deteriorating, let me do it.
The situation with the dean wasn’t the only time my school’s administration showed utter and complete neglect for my health. After telling the vice principal that the toxic environment at my school had taken this toll on my mental health and self-esteem, he noted that in the future, I should have my anxiety attacks in his office to avoid missing classes.
The next day, I spoke on the phone to a friend, who told me that at the very least, I needed to “break up” with my abusive friend. I did so the next week; my former “friend” was exasperated, but deep down, I knew leaving the friendship was the right idea. I recall a peer who heard about the situation telling me that it was a great decision because we were “both toxic for each other,” even though there was a clear abuser in the relationship.
I didn’t attend school for the rest of the week.
I kept my struggles to myself. Even though I was visibly suffering and in an abusive friendship, it seemed like no one could understand me, nor would they invest any time and energy in recognizing why I was so ill. Rather, people like my vice principal took the easy route: He saw a perfectionist student struggling with her health, and blamed her for it, yet refused to examine the toxic environment of the school that made such illness possible.
A couple months later, as we are all undoubtedly aware of, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. In an atypical turn of events, remote learning at the end of my senior year contributed to a significant improvement in my mental health. Now, I was no longer forced to attend school in-person and was only tasked with finishing my assignments and balancing my own responsibilities. By the time I had graduated, I spent ample time working on myself and taking things one step at a time. Because of social distancing, I prioritized only spending time with those who brought me joy and supported me. I made the difficult decision to let some former friends who were unsupportive during my mental health struggles go. Now, I wasn’t completely healed, but I had exited the depressive episode that I had been suffering from for most of my senior year.
When my first year at UC Berkeley began, I was determined to continue on this upward trajectory my health had been taking. Because of the pandemic, I stayed home and continued to prioritize taking care of myself, exercise and sleep. I began to try new self-care practices, such as stress-reducing breathing techniques, drinking tea, giving myself actual breaks between studying and talking to friends on the phone. Weirdly, I had never been this busy, yet I was also practicing more self-care than I ever did before.
But I’m not going to sit here and pretend that self-care was the only factor that contributed to my road to recovery.
My failing health in my senior year largely resulted from a systemic issue at my school — that I didn’t have anyone to talk to who would understand my unique experiences without letting their privileges dictate how I should’ve approached my struggles. In college, there is no doubt I’ve had my ups and downs with my well-being. After all, I am still a recovering agoraphobic with anxiety and depression. Yet still, I’ve been able to seek help from a diverse group of counselors and peers who come from similar backgrounds as me, understand my needs and are committed to supporting me.
For a long time, I looked back at my depressive episode during my senior year and was angry that I felt like I didn’t learn anything from it. But just recently, I was journaling to reflect about some things that I am proud of myself for accomplishing over the past few years.
“Standing up for myself and setting boundaries,” I wrote in black ink in my favorite red and black stationary.
I’ve come to realize that standing up for myself and setting boundaries has saved my life, whether that meant avoiding visiting locations that bring me PTSD, or simply telling someone that I don’t have the bandwidth to take on another project. It’s not always easy; in fact, I struggle to stand up for myself to this day, but it’s necessary, and after deep reflection and support from others, I have learned to love and celebrate myself for doing so everyday.
Contact Rina Rossi at [email protected].