So people who’ve known me for awhile know that I’ve taken a long time to finish undergrad – this spring marks my 12th quarter in my sixth year at the University of Chicago, and along the way I’ve taken two leaves of absence spanning a total of more than a year to work and figure out what’s wrong. Last year I finally admitted that there was something going on that I might not be able to handle on my own, so I started talking to a psychiatrist downtown to work through my problems. I know that there are some people who are still legitimately confused as to what’s been going on with me the past few years, so I wanted to take the opportunity, now that I think I’ve got a proper handle on what the issues are, to explain. This is going to be a long post – I’m going to be fleshing out my own thoughts as I go along, so please have patience with me.
And just a note: I want to make it clear that I’m not trying to blame anyone for anything here. Especially not my parents, who’ve sacrificed an incredible amount so that I could have all the opportunities I’ve had. Things don’t always happen the way we intend and I love the hell out of my parents for doing what they thought was right every step of the way.
To be short: on a visceral level, I don’t feel like I belong here. Well, the problem goes further than that – I think I’ve always felt distinctly out of place no matter where I’ve been, and this has weighed really heavily on me. When I was a kid growing up, I didn’t really have that much in the way of a support network at home. My parents, as first-generation Chinese immigrants, really couldn’t help me with my problems, whether they be about schoolwork or social life. My dad, as a training physician, was out pretty much all day and night, and my mother — though not for lack of trying — wasn’t able to help out with any problems I was having. I don’t think I had a substantive conversation with my parents for something like the first fifteen years of my life, after which puberty and hormones basically forced the issue.
Among the friends I made, I also felt out of place — fellow ABCs can probably relate to this. It’s kind of cliche, but at least among the Chinese people I’ve talked to there is a constant awareness that you just don’t belong in the US. My dad’s a prime example of this – even as a well-established physician, firmly in the top 1% of American families, he recognizes that if business were to go south at his hospital, as the only non-Caucasian physician in his department, he’d probably be first on the chopping block — even though his performance has been absolutely stellar. He looks different, he acts different, he speaks different, and if he’s ever disagreed with his coworkers, that just highlights how different he is. There’s a sad sort of logic to it — even though there very well may not be any conscious racism going on. So even at school, even when you’re just hanging out with your friends, you’re absolutely conscious of the fact that you’re in a very real sense on the outside looking in.
Our family history hasn’t helped this, either. We’ve moved around every four years or so for my father’s physician training, and I just had to get used to the idea that I’d only know people for a couple years before having to pack up, leave, and never look back. It slowly got to the point where I actively avoided talking to people I used to know from previous states; talking about the old days just made it all the clearer to me that I wasn’t really an important part of that world and that the place I was living now was exactly the same. If you’ve ever gone back to an old home like I have, I imagine you sort of understand what I mean – life goes on without you no matter where you were or who you are, and in a way that’s depressing to think about. So I developed this habit of just dropping everyone and everything I’d known every four years and starting from scratch. In retrospect it was really unhealthy, but it helped me cope at the time.
Fast forward to college. I matriculated wanting to pursue physics — but went through a real shock as I realised that I really didn’t know shit in many ways. I’d taken some “high level” math classes intended for graduates at the UofM in my senior year, but in reality I hadn’t learned much of substance and had spent most of it goofing off. So when my maths placement exam results came back, it shouldn’t have surprised me that I got placed into a class designed for non-maths majors. It was a huge blow to my self-confidence, though, and I immediately lobbied to be allowed to enroll in the hardest maths class I could take, Honors Calculus 16100 (IBL). I didn’t get in until after the first week of classes, but I felt pretty confident that I could catch up.
But I was wrong. Everyone in that class was clearly much smarter than me, had more background than me, was much faster than me. In retrospect this makes sense – I was doing pre-med stuff and a lot of other things, and I wasn’t able to focus on math exclusively like a lot of these other kids were — but at the time I hated myself for not being as good as my fellow students. I’d stare at assigned text for hours, struggling to parse a single sentence and feeling subhuman the entire time. It got to the point where I felt guilty just showing up to class; as if by attending I was dragging the class down and lowering the level of discourse. I fell into a downwards spiral, not doing well on exams or assignments, and this deterioration culminated in a moment that I remember pretty vividly. One of the TAs for the course asked to see me outside of class, and I went to meet him in his office in the basement of the maths building. When I sat down, he started out by mentioning that I’d fallen behind in the class, and then he straight-up asked me “Why are you in this class?”
If I wasn’t feeling bad beforehand, at this point I sure as hell was. It really shook me; all these feelings of failing not only the class but myself and my parents, of feeling like I didn’t belong where I was despite fighting to get there, of feeling like I couldn’t ask anybody for help and that I was a failure for not fixing things myself (I’ve had it drilled into me from childhood that self-reliance is a gold standard), coalesced and I pretty much broke down right there. It wasn’t pretty and I think the TA wasn’t expecting this. The rest of the conversation is largely a blur.
After that, I had serious problems attending classes. I mean, I’d had problems beforehand that had built up over time, but after that point things never got any better. I’d go to classes for the first week, internally fighting this feeling of not belonging and trying my hardest not to screw up, feeling like I was lying to myself and other people by pretending I was good enough to be there, and inexorably something tiny would eventually go wrong and I’d withdraw into a shell, not going to classes, not talking to anybody, not sleeping or eating for days. And then because I hadn’t eaten or slept for days, I’d eventually crack and eat and sleep for an entire day or two. There were days where I wouldn’t leave my bed for anything, or days where I’d starve myself. I think I was punishing myself for screwing up. I know it doesn’t make sense — by punishing myself I was screwing up even more — but at the time I really didn’t know what else to do, I felt so awful.
Around this time I also developed a major complex about burdening other people; I’d go way out of my way (and I still do, to some extent) to avoid making people feel obligated to do anything for me. I think my reasoning was that I was just such a shitty person that it’d be ridiculous of me to expect people to do things for me. It got in the way of everything – I’d agonize and procrastinate for hours over having to send an email to a professor asking to get into a class, or actively avoid study groups with fellow students because of course I wouldn’t have anything to contribute since everyone I knew was so much smarter than me.
It was really terrible. And I was stuck in that awful place for years. I couldn’t talk to anybody about what was going on because I was so ashamed. I couldn’t get help because I didn’t want to admit that there was something going on with me that I needed someone else’s help with. And through it all there was this feeling of being totally alone, that if I told anyone what was going on I’d be screwing up in the worst possible way since it’d be burdening them with my insignificant problems, problems I really even shouldn’t be having since I’ve been given so much by my parents already!
I mean, seriously. What did I really have to complain about? My family’s really well-off and all things considered I’ve avoided pretty much every childhood trauma aside from parents having marital problems — but marital problems are pretty common nowadays anyways. I should be sailing through life with all the opportunities I’ve been given. All the more reason to feel shitty and guilty about even having problems in the first place.
Eventually things came to a head, my parents found out, and I went home for awhile to sort things out and try to piece things back together. This actually happened twice. The first time around, my dad insisted that I just needed to find some work and spend some time away from classes – which, after a couple agonizing months of job searching while my dad guilt-tripped me for not having found a job yet, sort of worked for awhile, but when I went back to school I felt just as shitty as I had before, and the same thing happened. The second time I managed to convince my parents that I needed to talk to someone, so I met with a psychiatrist at the UofM who diagnosed me as having had pretty severe depression.
So I moved back to Chicago to work a research job for awhile and got referred to a psychiatrist downtown, and I’ve been talking with her for the past year now and taking some medication. Things haven’t always been good, but they’ve definitely gotten better; I was able to hold a job pretty consistently for a year, and last quarter I was able to finish two classes. Another thing that really helped was running; I started running outdoors over the summer, and I can’t begin to describe how much better I feel when I’ve run a couple miles.
So that’s where things are. I’m not fantastic yet. But things are getting there. I’m not really sure how I’m going to tackle this ‘not-belonging’ thing, but at least I know what it is and I’ve started to improve on the other things. Thanks for reading this far; if you’re reading this, you’re probably a friend who’s had their patience tried by my shit in the past few years and I haven’t, up until now, known how to explain it to you. I really appreciate it.