I enrolled in the Liberal Arts College in 2012, after two weeks of Art History and Film studies and two semesters of very scattered courses, ranging from HIV and AIDS to Existentialism. The reason behind my choice to apply has two different versions: the one I tell my family and the one I tell my close friends. The version I tell my family—like my surprisingly opinionated grandmother—sounds something like “I was drawn in by the fact that the College combined my love of reading with an interdisciplinary approach to academia. I have a lot of different interests and I feel that this is the best way to nurture them and keep my options open while I grow as a writer.” Does it sound rehearsed? It is. While it’s not a lie, the honest truth is that I felt comforted by the LAC’s existence because I could then give myself permission for feeling lost and indecisive—so long as my degree was specifically designed to cover as much ground as possible. In other words, “I really like books, and I don’t know what I want or who I am, but maybe if I read enough I will find the answer on a page.” If I felt scattered in my choices, crushed under the pressure of making the decisions that I believed would forge my fate, at least I could point to something like the Major in Western Society and Culture and say, “See? It’s not just me.”
Although I didn’t know it for the first few days of class at the LAC, issues of mine from my past that I had neglected would only be magnified once I started thinking of the sorts of questions the books forced me to face.
I can now break my character down into a series of fundamental flaws that always seem to screw me over. I am a perfectionist, especially when it comes to my writing. I will take three times as long to write my reflection papers because I want to make sure that the words flow together in a rhythmic musicality that somehow makes me feel more confident in my arguments. I am also the laziest person I know, despite how happy it makes me to do the things that I love. I am more stubborn with myself than with anyone else. I’m obsessive. I’m paranoid. I’m chronically dissatisfied.
If it sounds exhausting, it is. I’m tired. I’m always tired. I’m anxious and obsessive and I procrastinate like it’s an Olympic sport. Even though my physical health is something I am dedicated to maintaining, my mental state in my first year was no longer something that a kale salad, a workout or a good night’s sleep could repair. Exhaustion quickly escalated into burnout. Burnout turned into defeat. Defeat led me to numbness, which actually helped me function and follow the routine of academia so long as I could imitate the habits of my peers.
One night, after shutting myself away from my roommates for the fifth time that week, I started to realize how unhappy I was. Identifying the fact that my numbness had been replaced by a sense of mourning was strange and disturbing. I realized that I was mourning the loss of my well-being, which was devastating. I wondered if I had made a huge mistake in going to university because I started to feel more and more disconnected from my peers when they told me what they were planning on doing after graduation. I wondered if I should have listened to my childhood dreams of making music for a living and actually learned how to produce it.
Shortly thereafter, I went to Concordia Health Services to request a referral to a psychiatrist. It was a long and grueling process, but I eventually was granted the privilege of sitting in a room for thirty minutes while a woman wrote me two prescriptions: I told her I was open to medication, but first wanted to explore other courses of action in order to find the therapy I needed.
Identifying my depression was what helped me face it and begin my healing process. Out of curiosity, I visited my mother’s spiritual healer whose joint meditation techniques were incredibly comforting and validating. She helped me to identify some of the emotional blocks that were making it difficult for me to process my feelings. When I left, she placed a piece of hematite in my left palm, promising that it would keep me grounded as long as I carried it with me. Whether or not it’s true that minerals carry healing vibrations that correspond with different chakras, the stone was a symbol of the steps I was taking to end my sadness and begin living my life in a healthier, more fulfilling way.
Over the next year, things did improve. I knew when to recognize that certain choices I was tempted to make—like stay in bed or skip my readings—was the depression talking. I was not a zombie. I was someone who had passions and dreams. I loved writing music and collaborating with creative types. I loved writing poetry. I loved watching my pen dance across the paper as my thoughts suddenly became concrete and I rediscovered the seductive power of words and the place they held in my life.
All of these things were helping my optimism, but I still could not supply myself with a straight answer that justified my presence at the L.A.C. The more I collaborated with Toronto-based artists and composed the scores for student films, the more I realized that I wanted to focus on growing as a composer. Somehow, Moby Dick did not seem to fit in with this goal. After a brutal case of writer’s block for my final second year Modes paper, I met with Ivana Djordjevic in the hopes that I would gain some ideas on a topic to pursue. I confessed to her that I was struggling with my motivation because I would rather be playing music, and that my heart really wasn’t where it had been in past papers, which I had written thoughtfully and passionately. I told her I was considering dropping out of university. To my surprise, she did not tell me anything along the lines of how I needed to get over myself and work harder. Instead, she cocked her head, smiled and said, “I think it’s wonderful that you’ve figured it out. I think it’s wonderful that you know what makes you happy. Listen to what calls to you. You’ve come so far. Finish your undergrad, never stop reading, and go make some music.” We then went on to have a lovely conversation about Dostoyevsky and the Romantic cliché of rescuing the prostitute.
To this day, I can’t believe how refreshing it was to hear someone say that. Even though no one really has anything “figured out”, I feel like I’ve gotten pretty damn close. And even if my circumstances change, I feel like the support I have received at the L.A.C. has made me make peace with the uncertainty and to embrace the unknown. My conversation with Ivana Djordjevic allowed me to believe and accept that I was exactly where I needed to be.
I will always be thankful for having the privilege of being part of an intellectual community that provides its students with the support that it does. For instance, Katharine Kretler was incredibly understanding and patient with me when I had to “out” myself as suffering from anxiety and depression.
Students are at a very high risk for mental health problems, and the fact that my professors at the L.A.C. were so patient and showed me such kindness is something that brings tears to my eyes. If I had realized this upon walking up the steps to my first class in 2012, I might not have slipped as low as I did. One thing that I do know is that I sleep better now.
By Nathalie Smith