Words by Frances Leones
TRIGGER WARNING: Mentions of suicide
Growing up, I was always told by my parents to do my best in whatever I set out to do. If I failed, it was okay. Just do better next time and try harder. And I think I followed their advice. I made it to the Top 10 of my section every quarter and was an awardee at the end of nearly every school year. When I started college, that’s when I started getting really competitive. College was different from grade school and high school. You had to work harder, work smarter, and forge your own path. And I really threw myself into acads, wanting to get high grades despite all of the stress it was causing me.
And as a Creative Writing major, I knew what I wanted to do: get my work published. Joining a writing org was going to be the first step to achieving that goal. I had block mates who joined the same orgs I was in and they’re all really talented people. It was always fun to read their works during workshops. But I still wanted to get published so I really pushed myself to write just as well as they did.
But the more workshops I attended, either for orgs or official course work, the more it seemed to me that everybody was getting better at writing… except for me. Which wasn’t true because I was improving – bit by bit.
But to me, improving bit by bit wasn’t enough. I had to improve my writing by leaps and bounds. My stories had to pull more positive reactions from the readers than the others to be considered good. If they didn’t, I had failed.
Without realizing it, I had become over-competitive… and it was making me depressed.
In our world today, where everybody is wired to social media, where just about everything has become fast-paced, anything can trigger depression. In my case, it was not getting one of my short stories published in a school zine during my sophomore year. It was one of the longest short stories I had written and I was very proud of it because I had worked so hard to complete it while already juggling orgs, majors, and core classes on top of everything else. I’d turned it in, confident that it would have a spot in the org’s zine. Fast forward a few months later, the list of contributors for the zine came out. And my name wasn’t in it. One of my block mates had gotten one of her works published in the zine, though. She was an amazing writer and I was happy for her, really, but I couldn’t help but feel so disappointed in myself.
“What did I do wrong?” was the question I had asked myself that day. I tried to apply everything I had learned in my fiction-writing classes. I listened to the critiques and did my best to improve my story based on the suggestions I had received.
What did I do wrong to not get published?
Everything started going downhill after that. I began to doubt my skills as a writer. Workshops now seemed like events where every bad thing about my writing was pointed out to the entire class. I would leave every workshop feeling like a deflated balloon and dreading the next writing assignment, where I had already pre-conceived the idea that whatever I was going to write for that assignment was going to suck before I had even started it.
My negative thinking on writing soon spread to what I thought about my work in other subjects. All of a sudden, I started thinking that I was going to fail every single class. My stress levels skyrocketed and I lost my appetite thanks to the anxiety brought about my negative intrusive thoughts.
I felt like I hadn’t done as well as my blockmates. They were out there already getting their works published in college, hanging out and going to all sorts of places. I was just the introverted girl whose work hadn’t been published anywhere and didn’t have a barkada to go on fun trips with.
In short, compared to my friends at school, I saw myself as a failure.
I started thinking about self-harming as a form of punishment for failing. Self-harm thoughts soon morphed into suicidal thoughts. I felt like there was no point in continuing since I would inevitably fail at whatever I was going to do. But whenever I tried to go through with any of my plans to off myself, a voice inside my head would tell me to stop and think. If I committed suicide, I was going to subject my family to so much grief. I didn’t want to do that to my parents and my brother, so I stopped every time I came close to doing the unthinkable.
The problem was that, later, I would hate myself for trying to kill myself. It was a vicious cycle of thinking of hurting myself, coming close to doing so, then stopping myself followed by heaps of self-loathing that just made things worse.
I was already having meltdowns in my freshman year when the stress over academics became too much for me and I would end up crying. But the worst one happened while I was at a restaurant with both of my parents, just about a week or two before the start of the second semester of my junior year. I still remember how I cried over my bowl of ramen and my parents asking me if I wanted to take a Leave of Absence (LOA) for the semester. I said no because the next semester was already drawing so near, it would be pointless to file for an LOA so late.
But, secretly, I was already considering taking an LOA prior to my senior year, which was thesis year and the most stressful part of college life. But I wasn’t sure yet. If I could make it through the second semester of junior year, maybe I didn’t need to take a Leave of Absence.
January to May of 2018 was the last half of my junior year, and it was one of the hardest periods of my life. I would get into really bad bouts of depression where I would still try to commit suicide, which scared my parents so much to the point of making them cry. And seeing them cry made me feel like the worst daughter in the world. I knew I needed help, and fast.
In February of that year, I started taking the necessary steps to get better. I started seeing a guidance counselor on campus where I could safely vent all of my frustrations without being judged. My counselor was very kind and understanding, she was like my safe place in college, someone I could go to whenever I felt like I needed someone outside of my family to just listen. She later recommended me to a psychiatrist, who formally diagnosed me with severe clinical depression and assisted me in identifying the trigger for my depression – which was that moment in my sophomore year where I didn’t get published and one of my block mates did instead.
Slowly, I began to realize that, in my need for validation amongst my peers, I’d forgotten what I wanted for myself. I had gotten so caught up in competing against my friends and comparing myself to them that I had failed to acknowledge how I was also improving, just at a different pace. My psychiatrist helped me put things back in perspective and, more or less, told me that I didn’t have to compare myself to others and to stop setting such high standards for myself. That was another reason for my depression – being a perfectionist. I’d set the bar too high for myself and wanted everything I did to be perfect. It was only when I started attending sessions with my psychiatrist did it dawn on me that perfection – both in writing and life in general – was unattainable. I shouldn’t fear failure because, at some point, everybody is going to fail at something.
As for my writing, I learned how to stop comparing my works to others. I realized that I had my own style, as did my blockmates. We had different writing styles, different ideas, and different stories to tell. The only thing I can do is to keep learning and keep trying, writing what I love no matter what others think about my stories because they are mine. And, as an artist, I should be proud of what I’ve made.
In the end, I did end up taking a Leave of Absence after the end of my junior year. That meant I wouldn’t graduate on time, but it was a small price to pay for my mental and physical health. During my LOA, I focused on doing things that I liked such as reading, playing the guitar, playing video games, and watching TV and YouTube shows. I even learned how to cook, bake, and how to drive, all essential life skills. Most of all, I celebrated the small victories like getting out of bed in the morning and having a good meal with my family, just enjoying spending time with the people I love.
I got back into writing again and, this time, I wrote at my own pace and without thinking about how others would critique it. I fell in love with writing all over again, and that was probably one of the best parts of my LOA. I supported my blockmates as they entered their fourth and final year in college, sending them encouraging messages on Twitter and FB. But I no longer felt the urge or the need to compare myself to others, because I already knew that we were all writing different things that were unique to each of us.
When I came back to school in January 2019, most of my blockmates were already graduating. It was a little sad, but that didn’t bring me down. I would graduate soon. There was no need to rush. And thanks to my new perspective on myself, I went into the second semester of A.Y. 2018-2019 with a lighter heart and just focused on learning as much as I could. And everything really paid off, ending with me getting an A in nearly every subject at the end of the semester.
In August, I will officially enter my Fifth Year and become a Super Senior. It will be my thesis year and, while I’ve officially been considered by my psychiatrist as no longer needing medication, I know that there will be times when I feel like my writing is bad. But, as long as I remember everything I’ve learned from my previous experiences with depression, I think I’ll be okay.
Competitions are okay to have as they’re way to exercise all that you’ve learned and to see how far you’ve come in your journey. But if it gets to the point where you feel like winning is everything and you start comparing yourself to others without acknowledging your own improvement, then that can be dangerous and may lead to depression.
My experience has taught me that life isn’t a race where you have to be better than everybody else. Live life at your own pace. Celebrate those people who have accomplished something, but don’t think that you’ll never have a chance to show the world what you’re made of.
Your time to shine will come.