I’m not looking to change your mind, I am simply looking to answer your questions.
Because there will be many of them. When I don’t show up to class and sit quietly in that third row from the back like I’ve done all year, you will ask questions. When I tell you I can’t be a part of that group assignment we’ve already started planning, you will ask questions. When my status changes from “student” to the void of “unemployed”; when my blog “About” page struggles to define what I am without the comfy label of “studying at the University of Western Ontario”; when I no longer complain about class hours and essays with word counts and deadlines, you will ask questions.
Here I intend to provide you with answers.
Let’s begin with a photo.
Say hello to 2013 Erica. In April of that year I left on a six week volunteer trip to Costa Rica, and in this photo I am on a white water rafting day-trip with my group. Though I look a tad bit maniacal, I am extremely happy. This is the moment before I enter the waterfall. My clothes and hair are still partially dry, the water is cool and rushing (I still remember the sensation of it whirling around my legs), and there is nothing left to do but wade to the waterfall and move beneath it. My smile is strained with exhilaration and wild anticipation.
Here is another photo taken just after the first. I am on the left, my hair flattened to my head, laughing, my hands mid-way up to clear my eyes. I am surrounded by friends and completely unaware of the camera. I am lost in a moment of bliss under the thundering, almost painful pressure of the water. Who am I? I am no one, bodiless amidst the sunshine, water, and laughter, among the mere strangers who I learned to care so deeply about.
But, so what? Volunteer trips, especially tropical ones, are not unique to my middle class Canadian self. Plenty of eighteen-year-olds go off and have crazy Central American adventures, make friends, and take pictures laughing under waterfalls (I mean, maybe not all eighteen-year-olds, but it is certainly not unheard of). So I had a good time. Who cares? People have this kind of a good time all the time.
The difference with me is that I don’t have this sort of a good time all the time. In fact, this trip was one of the very few experiences in my adult life in which I laughed more than I cried and I felt like I actually belonged to something. The trip was in no way perfect — I spent much of my time homesick, hungry, exhausted, mosquito-bitten, and either constipated or with diarrhea. Halfway through the excursion I nearly cried while eating a hot dog, that’s how pathetic I was. Despite all this, I was entirely happy — or as happy as it is possible for me to be. The disadvantages were more than made up for by the constant sunshine and exercise, the unpredictability of each new day, and the intense relationships I developed with those in my group over a short time. I felt alive and intrigued by my own existence. I was relaxed on a soul-level.
In stark contrast to this experience stands my present life. Since that trip, I have attended two and a half years of university in the hopes of completing a degree in English and writing. Of course, I have always just wanted to be a fiction writer, no degree necessary, but I had been told so many times both implicitly and explicitly that this was near impossible to make a living from. So I went to university, deciding that, after all, getting a degree couldn’t hurt my writing, could it?
I floated through the first two years of school, getting good grades (and sometimes great grades), maintaining a slightly dismal social life, publishing a few minor works in a few extremely minor journals, and feeling altogether empty.
The pain didn’t start until year three. Although I had bad patches of mental illness during the first two years of school, nothing could compare to what I experienced during the summer of 2015. I spent that summer writing — exactly what I wanted to be doing — and yet my mood was plummeting in a way that was completely out of my control. I did what I had always done to get myself out these miserable situations: I went to the doctor, I went to therapy, I exercised often, I practiced meditation, and I took medication. With all of this underway, I entered my third year. After my first week of classes, I remember thinking to myself, “If I finish these next two terms, I will have gotten through the hardest year of my entire life.”
I wasn’t wrong in thinking this year would be the most difficult yet. Things got worse instead of better, and by the time the first week of January rolled around, I found myself planning my own death.
Oopsie, how did that happen? Hadn’t I just been on my way to successfully completing my degree? Somehow, I had failed again. I had let my mental illness take over. So, like always, I consulted my boyfriend.
“Well,” he said, “if you’re really going to kill yourself, you better make a last go at life. Drop out of school, travel the world, move into my closet, become a vegetarian, eat only steaks, I don’t care. Just give life one last chance.”
And that’s when I started thinking, perhaps I hadn’t failed at all. Perhaps “letting my mental illness take over me” was to be one of the greatest successes of my life. You see, I realized suddenly that the one thing which hadn’t changed throughout my life was school. Like most other people in first-world countries, I have been attending school since I was four years old. That is literally as long as I can remember. My life has always been defined by what grade I am in and how well I am doing in my classes. The only time my life wasn’t defined by these things was when I took a year off after high school and traveled (ahem, Costa Rica).
While I am aware that life cannot always be the tropical la-la-land of Costa Rica, I am also becoming aware that life doesn’t have to be the dreary, predictable rhythm of school. If you know me, you know I love education and learning, but I just can’t seem to handle the formal and institutionalized version of it. I don’t belong. I do well in my courses, but I’m not happy. I will never be happy in a classroom.
This was something very scary to learn about myself. This means that I physically cannot follow the path of everyone else. My mental illness will not let me; I will kill myself if I remain. This means that I have to build my own world, my own rhythms for each day, and my own personal education system. This is terrifying, but also very freeing. I can write what I want to write, do what I want to do, and be where I want to be. I will no longer have the comfortable 90% written in red on my test paper to remind me that I am good enough, but I will also no longer have the constrictions of learning only what that test wants me to learn. I can move beyond the measurable world. I can enter an educational realm which exists only in the mind and the heart.
To you, leaving school may still seem like a failure. To me, staying in school and not changing my ways is the only failure possible. This year has been difficult, but it has been difficult in a pointless, exhausting sort of way. My heart is tired. My soul is bored. I need a difficulty that is worth fighting for, that is worth conquering. What’s the point of getting through a hard time when I have accomplished nothing? I will not remain stagnant any longer. I cannot. I am not built for formal education, and I am not sorry for leaving it.
I don’t have the time to waste on what is not suited for me. I have too many monsters to hang around, idle, unhappy.
Now, I embark on a psychological journey. I’ll tell you all about it when I’m finished, but I don’t plan to be finished any time soon.
“There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me–
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads — you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved the earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
— “Ulysses,” Alfred, Lord Tennyson