A version of this article originally appeared in New Voices.
When I was in first grade, my family set high academic standards. From day one, my father told me I was going to Harvard, despite my learning barriers. For years, that belief was instilled in me, and I made sure to fit his dream, skeptical of whose passions drove me. To get the grades, I pushed myself hard. I sacrificed my friendships and personal pleasure. In eleventh grade, I became sick with bipolar disorder, an illness that would shake my basic beliefs, my happiness, and my religious foundations, which I had spent years cultivating.
But you don’t appreciate what you have until it’s gone. When I was placed on sedatives and other medications, they affected my academic performance. I no longer had the eidetic memory, concentration and basic recollection that one needs to attain success. It appeared to me at the time that my sole happiness was to acquire the grades that I needed, probably because it felt like instant gratification. Bipolar disorder stripped away my one and only goal in life –- to go to Harvard and make a successful career for myself.
What I did not realize at the time was that I was using my academics as a crutch to escape other problems, like emotional hurt. At first, I was not aware that I was numbing my emotions. It felt good and safe. I was bombarded with a myriad of side effects that caused me a lot of pain, which I tried my best to hide from my classmates, though I’m sure it was pretty noticeable. I felt so alone and like my pain was invisible.
But pain was ultimately a blessing for me because it taught me how to be thankful for the short moments I felt good. Pain helped me shift my beliefs and expectations and helped me see the light in my illness. In a way, I am indebted to G-d for placing this challenge in my life.
For the longest time, I felt myself walking around aimlessly without a real sense of purpose. Plants may need light to grow, but people do not typically grow in the light, rather the darkness. Without challenge, we would stagnate. Pain was a friend to me because, instead of numbing my feelings, I finally started feeling the deepest levels of joy and sadness. I learned it was better to be emotional than indifferent.
When I started to see improvement, it strengthened my belief in G-d. It is not about seeing drastic changes, rather small increments of growth. Change and progress are miracles, something we should all cherish. My new purpose is to channel my negative emotions into something positive, to assist people with their struggles. I learned that there is more to life than my academics, contrary to the narrowness of my upbringing. I try to eternalize life in all its joy and pain together, not as separate entities. That is to live, to feel.
Like my pain, my Judaism was also a blessing. Being Jewish has taught me what it means to be a unique individual, different from the norm, but still be embraced by a community. My religion teaches that every person has a piece of G-d within and the ability to accomplish something great. (It sounds cliché, but it’s true.)
People with mental illness are some of the strongest people I know. Their urges, emotions, and symptoms are challenging to deal with, and they don’t necessarily receive credit for their constant work. They are the warriors, the strong ones that fight to learn the coping skills they need to help themselves, no matter how difficult.
If I told you I was close to death last year and now I am back in college, you probably would have raised an eyebrow or two. But the beauty of progress is that the starting point looks nothing light the end product. I am not sure where life will take me, but I know I have the strength and opportunity to succeed, despite my barriers. My hope for you is to see mental illness as a sign of strength, not weakness – to look at your fellow students struggling with mental health with admiration and awe, because they are the real heroes.
The author is a student at Queens College.