I remember my first anxiety attack.
It was late in the evening, probably around midnight sometime in the spring of 2013. I had been up for hours trying to study for a General Chemistry final, and my brain was refusing to retain any information. I even remember where I was sitting; nestled in the corner of a couch that seated many but was almost exclusively occupied by me most nights as I try to relax. I’m there, eyes throbbing and red with stress. Notes are everywhere because that felt right at the time, like maybe if I could look at it all at once, I could have some sort of Beautiful Mind moment where it all suddenly made sense. I stopped trying to listen to music several hours earlier, so it was dead quiet. This was my first major final of college, an event I knew to expect and prepared to be challenged by, but I didn’t anticipate how my body wanted to react. The knotting sense in my stomach that I can still feel, the scenario playing out in front of me over and over again, all of these sensory moments in time were what was being written to my long-term memory, with no room left for stoichiometry or alkene reactions.
It was specifically the moment where I realized that I was potentially going to fail a course in my second semester of college that things got serious. I started sweating, my hands were shaking, and I dropped my notes. I picked up the nearest pillow and screamed as loudly as I could into it. Usually, that helps. But then, I couldn’t help but start crying. Crying and screaming, and not the type of crying that comes from passion or strong emotions. I was crying because I realized where I was, and who I had become. No longer was I the “smart when he tries” kid in high school who only did well when he prioritized working over the incomprehensible time-consuming nonsense that occupies one’s free time at that age. I wasn’t the excited freshman being reassured by my orientation leaders that things are going to be fine, you’re going to make it through these four years. Right there, sitting cross-legged in the corner of that big, expansive couch that nobody else sits on anymore. This was just the first of many times where anxiety tried to get in the way of my success.
That evening taught me a lot about my limits and how I cope with stress. I know how anxiety manifests itself in me whenever it feels like it, I know that I cannot naturally pass any class by simply studying for a few days and skimming material last minute. Most importantly, almost failing a course that important to my future is just how things go. That’s probably the most universal takeaway that most people I ask mention after finishing college. Those four years are often misconstrued as the time where you come to accept your insignificance, but I think that’s misleading. College teaches you that life is hard and you can’t get by on minimum effort alone, sure. But so does dating, so does working, so does everything you do in between classes and studying. It pushes you to the edge of what you think is easy and comfortable, and tantalizes you with what’s beyond it. It makes you re-assess what’s important to you personally, and allows you to construct your own existence and define your own goals.
The end of high school wasn’t sad for me. I knew what I wanted to go to college for and I knew that I had the support of my family to get through it. I saw so many people use the presumed sadness that they thought everyone was feeling in the summer after high school to bond with others. Misery seeks company, but it doesn’t work when I’m not particularly miserable to be moving on to newer things. I’d listen and say “Yeah, I’m really gonna miss this” to everyone who would ask, but I was lying. The people who matter to you, the ones who text you at 2 am to apologize for not getting back to you, or who say yes to any plans and challenge you to follow through are the people who you can’t escape. That adage has proved itself true time and time again, even as I’ve been certain that friends I knew in high school would fade from my sphere of concern.
Orientation day, summer 2012. I’m scared because I’m living at home and not at school, and I feel like I’ve stumbled on the first step. It’s almost embarrassing to look back now at how concerned I was that I lived at home in college, like I was somehow robbing myself of a better experience. That’s not to say I liked living at home; the burden of your parents helping you is magnified tenfold, the commute wore me out day after day, and frankly nothing is more isolating and painful than being 18, lonely, and miles and miles away from anyone your age when you need them the most. I’m so happy I stayed at home though! Oh my goodness, no rent, fewer monetary worries, and most importantly, that loneliness actually cultivated a thirst for exciting social experiences that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. Now, any conversation with another human being is a blessing to me, and I’ve come to appreciate my family exponentially more because they supported this joy of others. I leap to almost any chance to stay out late or see other people now because I lived at home, and that made freshman year a slog worth living through.
Sophomore year exists in this strange but beautiful place between the exciting frontier that is freshmen year, and the comfort in a pattern that comes with being more than halfway done with undergrad. The only course I remember from this time was Organic Chemistry, and even that is only because it is infamously a challenging subject. What most non-medical students don’t understand about Orgo is that it’s difficult not because there is so much material, but because it doesn’t work like any other class. You’re telling me I need to make flashcards, take notes in class, AND develop a study plan that I can stick to, and this is all for one course? Needless to say, I retook Orgo the following summer.
Difficult science courses are not what I remember most about sophomore year, though. I already knew chemistry was hard from that aforementioned anxiety attack, so this was not the year-defining, soul-crushing experience for me that it was for my peers; It was just another one of those. The moment that defines that year is when I came to accept the invigorating nature of rejection. I asked three different people out on dates my sophomore year, a feat that was beyond even a pipe dream to High School Allen. I hesitate to even call it a feat, because that gives off the message that the process of asking another individual out on a date is somehow impressive or worthy of merit. Sure, it seems scary because everything on the periphery of a daily routine is scary. Ordering a different flavor of coffee is scary in a way. Taking a different route home can be scary. Hell, skipping a class (which I coincidentally did for the first time that year, and am glad I did) is scary. But once you get past that fear that the other person will say no to you, it’s just a matter of following through. If you think about it, why are people afraid of asking each other out on dates? Everyone spends boring classes eyeing attractive people in the classroom, imagining a relationship (be it romantic or sexual, but usually the latter) with whoever catches their eye. If you can keep in mind that these other human beings are just as sexually wound-up and existentially bored as you are, then asking someone else out feels like nothing.
Next, junior year. Late 2013/early 2014 is such a haze for me, in part because of that comfort that comes from a routine. Naturally, the most successful year for me academically was also my least memorable. Just to give a decent sample size of my experiences, highlights of junior year that immediately jump to mind are: reading comic books in Boston Common, late-night Biochemistry group study Skype calls, visiting a classmate’s apartment in Southie to film a group video project, getting to put on a suit for a fake talk show, and the numerous long hikes through Blue Hills with some buddies. Junior year is when you start to see the end, mysterious as it may be.
We arrive in the present, as I’m writing this a few days before graduating. Senior year was definitely a good time, I can say that for certain. By this point, the friends that I cared about stuck around, and we developed our own corner of the school as an inclusive, friendly space where we met new people and bonded over shared experiences. The student lounge became a place for us to exist between life events. It occupied the interludes in the narrative, somewhere adjacent to exam week and vacation time, where you don’t necessarily want to go home, but you’re fresh off of a challenging test. Everyone that came to the student lounge was coming from something, going somewhere, or trying to avoid going somewhere. In a way, the lounge was like friendships, always there but ready to get out of the way when it needed to. Classes were light enough by this point that our eyes were to the future. The two month period in there where I hurriedly applied to dental schools was certainly hectic, and I still remember both times I asked for letters of recommendation and was denied. Being face to face with someone who couldn’t possibly be bothered with your feeble request to take hours out of their time to help you is not only humbling, but almost gratifying in that it prepares you for so much more denial. Finishing applications, learning to not regret the resources I never utilized or the people I never spoke to, senior year felt like an outward admittance that yes, I did do this.
As I begin what will hopefully be a productive year of working and learning while I re-apply to dental school, I spend most of my time thinking back to what I’ve done. I met some incredible people, developed social and academic skills that I wouldn’t have otherwise, and most importantly, I learned to value myself. I know now that waiting for motivation is fruitless, and success comes from consistency and effort, not some unfathomable sense that you’re inspired to work. That first anxiety attack was my first glimpse at how scary getting older can be, and prompted a lot of late night thoughts about my anxiety and how I would slowly learn to live with it. Sit down, open up your textbook, and learn. College was the first time that I came to value learning for my own personal growth and mental health. I worried for a while that not having assigned work would lead to me not reading anymore, which has happened to plenty of people that I know. It’s times like that where I remember the greatest lesson of the last four years: inspiration, productivity, and fulfillment all come exclusively from feeling challenged and rebuffed by information. Accepting, processing, and adapting that information into something that defines you is how we keep from becoming ignorant and close-minded, and seeking those challenging opinions and facts out is something to live for.