An ode to my utility monster
In the summer of 2011, Eirene Wang spent three months living and working in a village in rural Sierra Leone training staff and developing curriculum for a nonprofit organization geared toward development. This essay was originally written as a blog entry for a publication at Amherst College about the implications of giving, nongiving, and nonprofit work.
Speaking: Sarah Hong and Jasper Lo
Photo by Jasper Lo
Preface: This article is written as a collective conversation to illustrate how we interact with mental health disorders and is modeled after Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl. The views, thoughts, and opinions in this text belongs to the authors. Please reach out to a professional for advice on mental health.
If you need mental health support and counseling, Columbia Counseling and Psychological Services offers short-term individual counseling, referrals for longer-term therapy, student-life support groups, medication consultation, and emergency consultation. Columbia also has a peer-listening Nightline service which you can call between 10pm-3am every day of the academic year.
For urgent medical or mental health after-hour concerns, Columbia students can call Counseling and Psychological Services at 212-854-2878 and speak with a telephone triage specialist. For immediate psychiatric care, students can call 911, or go directly to the Mt. Sinai - St. Luke's Hospital Emergency Room at 113th Street and Amsterdam Avenue (212-523-3347).
For me, the stairwell between the 4th and 6th floor is a place of anarchy.
Submit your essay to our journal! Join us for a weekend-long conference! Our student organization is having a fundraiser! Volunteer for this amazing cause! See you at our networking happy hour! Each and every poster competes for my attention, but I end up averting my eyes so I can walk away before I find myself in my personal war: anxiety.
It’s the same for me in those corners, stairwell corners are so blind. Usually when I’m in there, I’m distracted and disheveled. Inevitably, someone says hi and I feel terrible that I didn’t spot them before as we clear the corner.
When I first got my acceptance letter to Columbia, I was ready for all that New York had to offer, like amazing food, endless opportunities, diverse cultures, and the never-ending night life. Anxiety was not something I had expected.
My very first anxiety attack happened when my scholarship didn’t appear on my SSOL until far into my first semester. I was scared that I had somehow lost the scholarship, and that I would have to come up with the money that I didn’t have. I felt nauseous and dizzy. When I got home, I locked myself in the bathroom and hyperventilated on the bathroom floor by myself.
I have a playlist called “Calm Down, Breathe” on Spotify. It’s got the chillest music. Jose James, Emily King, Tracy Chapman. I think my first anxiety attack was during the final evaluation in Armor School. There were 15 of us who had to be evaluated and they put me fourth, since they wanted all the superstars to go first. I was the first to fail. When we moved into the next mission and started assembling the map board for the next guy, I remember telling everyone that I left something in my humvee. I was already heaving when I started mucking through the mud to my truck. By the time I reached it, I was convulsing. I remember taking off my balaclava and screaming into it.
At one point, I had a weird dream that a clown was watching me sleep from outside the window. I attribute it to stress and the clown-craze that was happening. My fear intensified when a stranger dressed up as a clown approached me and my friends on Halloween night. My legs weakened and I started hyperventilating again in the middle of the streets.
It’s my second year and my anxiety attacks continue. I cried in a class during the second week of school because a professor shut down my argument. I said that the United States’ “humanitarian intervention” in Cuba was partially driven by white superiority and social Darwinism. He shut me down saying that there was no race involved since Americans fought the Spanish who are also white. Something about a much older, experienced, and politically respected White man telling me, a young, inexperienced, and a political novice Asian woman, that there was “no racism”, made me uncomfortable enough to have another anxiety attack. I spent the next twenty minutes crying and hyperventilating in the bathroom. I spent the rest of the semester not saying anything in the class, because every time I tried to speak I felt like I would throw up.
Moments like this make me feel inadequate. I feel like “me”, the girl who used to be completely comfortable giving presentations in front of hundreds of people, has disappeared. I question if I belong here, or if they’ve made a mistake in admitting me into SIPA. Once in awhile, I think about taking a gap semester because sometimes I feel so smothered and I just want to run away. And most days, I walk down the stairwell thinking I’m not enough. It feels lonely because everyone at SIPA seems so...perfect.
I’m torn about that perfection. I know it’s not true. I had no problem speaking to hundreds of soldiers at once or speaking to generals. But when I ask questions in front of the student body, my heart feels like it’s about to fall off the tracks. I feel a desire to hone whatever I’m saying into something that inspires a hushed rumble of whispers. It’s exhausting to think of asking a question without judgement. Most times I just want to ask my dumb question to the smart people on the panel.
Truth is, I know I’m not the only one. On the day that I was crying at school, I came across a friend who was crying because she had a test anxiety and completely blanked out on her quiz. I also met a classmate who got an anxiety attack during class and couldn’t participate in the class debate like she wanted to. I have friends who has dysthymia (“mild depression”). I have friends who have attention-deficit disorder which makes it difficult for them to focus without taking Adderall. Behind carefree smiles and confident handshakes, we all have our demons.
After attending therapy for the first time and figuring out what helps me ground myself, things have gotten better. Once in awhile, I find myself questioning my worth, feeling smothered, or hyperventilating, though now I try to remind myself that I am doing the best I can, and that I am enough just the way I am.
It’s funny. I’ve been in therapy for three years now and in the beginning it was a shitshow unpacking the accumulated trauma of immigration and family. Then, it was chill for a while touring and examining the past. These days I find myself going into my sessions wide-eyed talking about school. There’s this urgency and a feeling of being surrounded everyday.
Mental health disorder in higher education is real, and is common. A 2015 National College Health Assessment survey by the American College Health Association reports that 58.8% of students “felt very lonely”, 56.9% of students “felt overwhelming anxiety”, and 8.9% of students “seriously considered suicide”. Graduate students are at an even greater risk of experiencing mental health disorders. Berkeley’s Graduate Student Happiness & Well-Being Report shows that 47% of doctoral students and 37% of master’s students meets the clinical criteria for depression. A 2009 American Psychology Association survey found that an overwhelming 87 percent of psychology graduate students reported experiencing anxiety.
At SIPA, we are constantly surrounded by brilliant minds all across the world. At SIPA, we are also constantly alone in battling our own mental struggles. Who knows who else we fail to see when we turn around the stairwell corners?