“You’re a failure.”
That was a thought that I absolutely despised hearing – I was mortified by the prospect of failure. The everlasting fear of failure, being unable to live up to my hopes and aspirations, stayed with me wherever I went and with whatever I did. However, towards the end of my last year in high school, all I felt was the fruition of my worst nightmare.
It was the crunch season of the 12th grade. All my college applications were being finalized, my standardized test scores were being returned, and my final exams were approaching quickly. My academic performance at school had long deteriorated: I had failed an internal exam for the first time ever, my grades were below average in most subjects, and I was far behind all my peers when it came to completion of the syllabus. I know what you’re probably thinking: students fail exams all the time, so what? In retrospect, this wasn’t a big deal whatsoever. However, back then, it was an unfamiliar and awful feeling. I was a straight-A student prior to the 12th grade, and I felt the perpetual pressure to perform. I have always maintained lofty ambitions – the ability to supplement those ambitions with hard work and dedication is something I have a little less of. Therefore, in my depressive state, I felt no urge to work hard. In other words, I had given up.
Overcome by the powerful gusts of inadequacy stirred up by the storm of failure, I had unknowingly succumbed to the ghastly entity that had always been my kryptonite. Though I knew I had to start putting in the effort required for my good grades and hopefully college admissions as well, when it came down to finally sitting at the table and opening my books, I’d falter.
Despite all this, deep within, there was another dream that I had not told many about. I had always dreamt of studying at a prestigious university in the US – Stanford, the Ivy Leagues, and the like were my targets. Much of my life, I had worked hard with this goal in my mind, and being born and brought up in India, I was cognizant of how important college admissions were in determining just how special a child was (note the persiflage). However, with my pervading spirit of pessimism and despair, I feared that I had sufficiently ruined my chances of making my dream come to reality. Which Ivy League would accept someone who failed their exams? Why would any good college accept someone like me? Instantly, I internally began to rip apart everything I had accomplished across my life – be it personal, academic, or professional – suddenly, none of it mattered.
This behavioral pattern was similar to what happened the first night I harmed myself, but it was less devastating, more subtle, and quite intricately engrained into my depressive psyche. This way of thinking that I was only something if I had credentials that warranted respect and admiration, and if I didn’t have the necessary accolades, I was nothing was beyond unhealthy and far from accurate. Alas, that is how I felt most days, and ultimately, I would suffer the ramifications.
My final examinations had begun. This period characterized by pressure, stress, anxiety, and sleepless nights was particularly horrendous for me. Why was it any different than what most students were experiencing? Primarily because I was studying a lot of this material for the first time ever, and somehow, I was expecting myself to excel during these exams. Nevertheless, although I started studying very close to my exams, I worked my ass off. I did not stop studying until I could complete the maximum portion, and I pushed myself by remembering my responsibilities – I had to do well in my finals for college, for my family, to prove those who doubted me wrong, and for myself. So, I worked and worked, sleeping fewer than four hours every night (I do not recommend any of these practices before an exam), and I took each exam as it came. Furthermore, after additional stress and a few more difficult weeks, my college applications had been submitted, and I was now anxiously awaiting results from my exams as well as admissions decisions from colleges.
Soon after the hubbub of my final examination, college decisions had slowly started rolling in. I had faced a fair amount of rejection in my life, so I was not too afraid of how I would deal with it this time round. Externally, I would downplay my chances of getting into any of these colleges, and I would always tell people that I have zero expectations about my admission chances. However, internally, there was a flicker of hope that exuded an optimism that had become almost foreign to me; it gave me the freedom to fantasize a little, and I continued to feel as if I had a minuscule chance of getting into one of these elite universities.
All the anticipation was drawing to a close as decisions week rolled around, and my friends and I were all eagerly awaiting our fate. I stayed up extremely late that night with my mother sleeping next to me and waking up periodically to ask, “Any news?” At last, I refreshed the page, and it said, “There was an update posted to your admission portal.” I held my breath, my heartbeat quickened, and my entire life flashed before my eyes – all those years (save the last year and a half) of hard work, dedication, blood, sweat and tears. It all culminated into this very moment. I clicked on the link, and alas, I had been rejected. “No matter.” I said as I immediately began to console myself. I didn’t wake my mother up to tell her the decision; “I’ll wake her up when I have good news,” I thought. With the aspiration of receiving a premium education at one of the US’ finest institutions, I eagerly checked other decisions too. Much to my dismay, there were no acceptances. Rejection after rejection. “I regret to inform you that you will not be admitted to…” had slowly started to entrench itself firmly in my mind. Finally, my mother woke up and asked me what had happened, and I held back tears and told her that I had been rejected by all the schools that released their decisions that night.
Day after day, more rejections rolled in, and it was the final day of decisions – Stanford. I had always dreamt of attending school in California, and just like many others, I had aspired of going to school at Stanford. The previous rejections had invariably taken a gargantuan toll on me, and the flicker of hope that had sustained me during that period had been all but extinguished. Notwithstanding the events that had transpired, my family was still buoyant while my spirit was sinking. They said that they’d open the last decision letter, and I obliged, unwilling to go through the same torture again. Anxiously they opened the letter, and I scanned their faces for any signs of joy or despair. A simple shake of the head was enough for me to know that I hadn’t gotten into any of my dream colleges.
Crestfallen. Devastated. Anguished.
All of my life’s work had been for naught. It all came rushing forward in a single moment, and I was hit with the inexorable truth that I had fought to avoid all my life: I was mediocre. I was average simply because I had not received admission into a college. There are certain dreams we all possess and work towards every day of our lives: dreams that if manifested would alter our very perception of the world and everything in it; dreams that are so lofty that they could be laughable, yet within our reach and therefore, achievable. That was my dream. And it now lay shattered before my very eyes. I was not equipped to handle this disaster. The next few days are a blur to me, except one morning where I woke up rather early and just wept for hours. The pain felt in this failure was not merely because I hadn’t done well with my admissions, but it was also because my friends had done well. The green-eyed monster that does not visit me frequently had become a stubborn guest in my spirit. Whenever my friends attempted to console me or tell me that it wasn’t all that bad, I would snap at them and retort with, “You’ll never know what this feels like.” In a way, I was right: human emotions are subjective and vary from person to person, but we all have and will have our fair share of encounters with failure.
My depression had taken a turn for the worse after that. I felt so numb to everything – nothing had been going right, everything seemed to be falling apart. It was easier to dissociate from it all. After all, there was only so much pain one can withstand. I remember distinctly writing a piece shortly after the barrage of rejections to encapsulate what I was feeling. My suicidal thoughts had once again taken the forefront, however, fortunately, I did not act on them. Most days I wallowed in self-pity scrambling to decipher the apparent cause for this failure, beating myself up for it, and equating my worth to my achievements and accolades. It was just another occurrence in the aforementioned unhealthy pattern that I had adopted for my mental health.
But there was a part of me that was unwilling to give up on my dream, and I had somewhere made up my mind to try and transfer out to another school the following year. In this way, I quickly substituted my angst for hunger after being cheated out of something I had worked for my entire life. As a consequence of that monumental decision, I had to now hope that my final examinations had gone well as my grades would matter for a transfer. All the colossal expectations that had been placed on my college admissions now fell upon the final examinations.
Results day came quicker than we’d imagined – as if the whirlwind going on in our lives slows down the unrelenting and unending forward march of time.
My mother was frantically pacing about the room, my sister was mumbling prayers, and I was just sitting looking at the two of them with a placidity that most wouldn’t expect during such a tense day. I had told myself, “Whatever happens, happens.” There was nothing I could do to change my result, and that lack of control felt surprisingly good for once. The clock struck three, and the results were officially out. I quickly typed in my details, and there it was in front of me. I ended up scoring 91% for those of you curious. Initially, I was caught off guard. “How did I manage that?” I wondered. But as the texts began to pour in from various classmates, and I found out what some of my peers had scored, I was increasingly demoralized. Glimpses of self-doubt turned into stronger thoughts of unhappiness and disappointment. Gradually, I began to feel as if I had let everyone down. Those who had wanted to see me fail had gotten what they had wanted, and I had simply gifted them that satisfaction. Moreover, I felt as if I had failed all those who believed in me – my family, my friends, and my teachers. They had all maintained high hopes from me, and I had been inadequate in realizing those hopes.
Another failure had been chalked up on my scoreboard. Now, I was nothing but the f-word I had hated my entire life. I had now dedicated myself towards undoing the failures that clung onto me like superglue. I was desperate to rid myself of any association with setbacks. “I’ve had enough,” I’d think defiantly. However, those momentary flashes of renewed vigor and determination were often quashed by my desire to blame the world and everyone else for what had happened to me. It felt unfair and unjustified. Why always me? Moreover, I’d continue to reduce my worth to a minuscule amount. I was imbued with regret, and I couldn’t seem to escape it. What if I hadn’t been depressed? What if I had just worked harder? What if I had just tried more? These painful thoughts haunted me day and night.
This vortex would continue to wreak havoc until I came to terms with my depression and the events that had transpired. The period that ensued was perhaps the worst phase of my depression, but I will leave that story for another time.
I’ve learnt an immense deal about self-pity. Self-pity is comfortable. Self-pity feels good. Self-pity is easy. It is a whole lot easier than trying to confront your demons or difficult emotions. And I may sound repetitive here, but just because something is more convenient to do, it does not mean it is the right thing to do. Life has and will continue to furnish failure. There will be worse things that can happen than being rejected by a college. In retrospect, my unsuccessful venture the first-time round with college admissions and boards were just minor setbacks. They taught me the importance of hard work, persistence, and consistency. Everything happens for a reason. If I had been successful, perhaps I would have been oblivious to the vitality of these virtues. I would not have had a humbling experience, and I certainly would not have learnt the cruciality of gratitude.
This is not to say that I don’t indulge in self-pity at all. Even now, some days I find it easier to attribute mishaps to the fact that everything just sucks. But I do it (slightly) lesser than before, and I guess that’s what they call progress? Furthermore, no award, admission, or achievement will determine what I am worth and what I am capable of. Yes, I had been unable to accomplish that dream I had seen from the age of 9, but it was far from the end of the world. There is so much more I am yet to see, feel and experience, and there is so much more I have to give and that is what makes life unique and inspiring. From all this, I’ve learnt another important thing. As humans, we have an insatiable appetite for dreaming, and an equally veritable capacity for making those dreams come to reality. If you have had some dream broken, and you feel as if all is lost, I have a little advice: dream again and try again, and maybe, just maybe, life might surprise you.