Unlearning Pressure: Why I’m Done with School

Cover photo from 2017 Sony World Photography Awards Nominations List, link here

On this rainy afternoon, let me take a break from the hours and hours of finals preparations that I’m enduring to share a short post with you. I’m graduating from college in about 35 days, and I’m wrestling lately with the desire and compulsion to continue my education at graduate school. I won’t sugarcoat things– I’ve been very successful academically all my life, and will be graduating summa cum laude from a top university. It’s not surprising that all of my advisors, professors, and family members are pushing me to consider graduate school. Think about it– research! Publishing papers! Tenureship! Why wouldn’t I go?

Maybe one day I will want to go to graduate school. For the time being, however, I certainly will not be going. Here’s why: since I was young (maybe about nine or ten years old), I’ve mindlessly followed the societal compulsion to endure the sometimes intense stress of getting an education, because it’s just what you’re supposed to do. If you’re a good student, as I have been since I was in kindergarten, you take advanced classes (even though your anorexia is preventing you from focusing during placement tests), you go to a top college (even if the thought of going to school sends you into months of constant panic attacks), you write a senior thesis (even if you can barely stand the thought of finishing your degree), you get a competitive job, and you go to graduate school. I’m somewhere between graduation and getting a competitive job, and realizing that my pursuit of the expected path has done me very little good in my life.

I’m graduating summa cum laude. I’m also graduating with very few friends and personal connections, with lots of scars on my arms, an eating disorder, and a dependence on alcohol. Excluding my earlier education for a moment, which fits neatly in with this pattern, college alone has been a rotten experience for me, and I can say confidently that never before and never again will I allow myself to endure four straight years of crippling depression, anxiety, and maddening mental illnesses. Is it because I’ve pushed myself academically, taken difficult classes, and kept an eye relentlessly on the goal of academic achievement? I don’t think so, but it definitely hasn’t helped.

Looking back over my life so far– my accomplishments (lots of awards, and very few happy memories)– I’m left to contemplate the next step. And as much as I’m struggling to do so, I’m beginning to recognize that I can’t continue on this path. Do I really need an uber-competitive job (because I should), when I know it will continue me down a path of poor physical and mental health? Do I really need a PhD, when the last several years have demonstrated to me what happens when I dedicate myself to academia?

I am terribly guilty of this admission. Guilty that I’m not grateful enough for my academic awards, and guilty that I’m not going to push myself as hard in the future. But here’s what I keep asking myself: when I’m on my deathbed, will I look back and feel grateful that I got a bunch of advanced degrees, and no doubt a prestigious fellowship, or will I regret the resultant depression and isolation? I want to die knowing that I spent my life enjoying family, friends, and cultivating a rich social, mental, and physical lifestyle– not academic or career advancement. I just need to keep reminding myself of this, day in and day out. Maybe it’s not very glamorous to have a happy, slower-paced life, especially in modern America– but I’ve never been one for glamor.

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