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A small quandary

This is a peek into my experience dealing with medical and mental health issues in Princeton’s highly competitive environment. The autobiographical narrative form is used to represent my perspective and is an attempt to convey the pressures, emotional struggles, and stresses the situation brought along with it.

Chapter One: The Session 

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The chatter continues. Worries, thoughts, rationales, dreams, feelings, all mixed in one bundle that flows like a tangle of mountain streams and rivulets crisscrossing randomly. However, it’s always there, a pruritus that will not go away. It’s like the dull throbbing of numbed pain: deep, hidden somewhere in my consciousness, but still more present than any of the momentous pangs of worry or tense planning. It’s not like I’m unaware or unable to notice what dulls even the brightest of my cerebral activity — it simply isn’t acknowledged until it has to be. Besides, acknowledgement does not make the throbbing go away. 

I stare blankly at him as he tells me that I am having anxiety issues. I remember someone mentioning a certain “GAD” to me and telling me it was the possible cause of my quandary. Generalized anxiety disorder. What that means and how to get rid of it makes little sense to me, even as he explains in detail. I wish just breathing would make it go away. All I can think is how “GAD” rhymes with “dad,” and I can only laugh at how juvenile I am. I have everything the Almighty can be asked to bestow, and I should be working to use that to better my life. What am I doing sitting in this office? What am I doing wasting this man’s time and the resources of my family, earned in blood and sweat that I have seen with my own eyes? Is this even a real problem? After all, I am no stranger to stress, and every year, I hear about students of the Indian Institutes of Technology jumping off skyscrapers and bridges. This little itch is nothing compared to what many other people go through. Have I been so softened by just two years of life in the West? I always was one for needing attention, but I couldn’t possibly be more needy than this! I can do so much better, and yet I’m wasteful. Do I really need this help? 

He says something about seeing the psychiatrist and I just nod. This is the second time I have met him (after much reluctance, I might add), and in two months, I have gone from having a slight knack for letting things stress me too much to seeing a psychiatrist. I am fully convinced this is not a real problem, and because I’ve almost never felt like harming myself, it seems inconsequential. Inconvenient at most. I have too much self-love to do anything of the sort anyway. If anything, he should diagnose me with narcissistic personality disorder. I chuckle in my head again. I am doing all of this because of a little bit of worrying, and now I’m worrying about doing all of this over some worrying. The whole thing seems kind of worrying, but if I reason everything out the way I want to, there really isn’t much to worry about. Well, nothing except for the times when this ever-present dull pain suddenly becomes a constant jarring wave without warning and silences the chatter entirely, leaving an eerie, almost ominous silence. A wave that I am unable to bear sometimes. 

Chapter Two: The Imperfect Network 

Walking out of the health center, I plug in my earphones, play music that most other people probably wouldn’t be caught dead listening to, and think over what the therapist just said to me in so many words. All I remember is “Just breathe, Arnav.” His calm in the face of me weeping copiously startled me. It wasn’t the expression of alarm, concern, or even pity that I had gotten used to and was expecting. He only had rational thoughts and logical questions. “And how does that make you feel?” plays in my head from the innumerable TV shows in which I have seen the stereotypical therapist. I never did get to lie on an armchair with my arms crossed over my abdomen. 

This abrupt tangent on stereotypical therapists is a fairly accurate introduction to my brain. It refuses to stay in one place, and, despite my constant worrying, makes me laugh every so often. Maybe this is a defense mechanism against the unnecessary burdens it bears. I can not say if everyone’s top floor is like this, but with so many neurons and so many electrical charges flying around, along with some cross-wiring and interfering paths, it seems plausible. After all, even with my country’s glorious achievement of having a “power surplus,” the grid wiring can still be so faulty as to cut off the electricity to entire urban areas for hours every week. Even the brain’s miraculous three-dimensional network cannot be realistically expected to deliver perfection. 

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One begins to wonder when comparing our crass wiring of metal and rubber to this miracle of nature. What do these networks have in common? The movement of electric charges is one thing, though the comparison feels redundant by virtue of its obviousness. The ability to cause blackouts in an instant is another. A rather dark similarity, I’ll concede, and it really only exists in a manner of speaking. The brain does not have the luxury of complete blackouts so long as we live in a non-comatose state. However, in my experience and to my own disbelief, it can vacate itself of purpose and feeling when it does not want to deal with them. 

I had experienced this partially when I was overwhelmed by stress and “blanked out” briefly during study sessions and even exams in high school. Even so, this was not a thing I thought could happen in its entirety until March 21, 2015. That was the day my world came crashing down — or rather, came floating up in a pool of blood and water that filled my lungs, my lymphatic system, multiple tissues, and possibly other areas of my anatomy that I didn’t even know of. It actually wasn’t as dramatic or sudden as it sounds. This had been building up slowly but steadily for three whole months, and I experienced one of the most common human reactions to inconvenient information: denial, followed by withdrawal. 

Chapter Three: Withdrawal 

“Withdraw! Don’t be ridiculous! Withdraw for a year, Arnav. You won’t even be able to perform academically in this state,” I hear in my head all over again. I look at Frist and remember the TV show “House,” which uses the building in the intro. My friend’s reaction to the discovery of my current health condition didn’t surprise me. In fact, I had expected exactly this reaction from most people I knew. It was also what I feared most. Here I lay, in a hospital room, being warned by my doctor that if I did not agree to dialysis immediately, I would possibly be “beyond rehabilitation to normal health,” and all I feared in that moment was a wasted year. 

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I chuckle at myself again, out loud this time. It warrants a few odd looks from strangers as I enter Frist on my way to escape the cold, even if just for a little while. I can’t blame them. If I saw a clearly sleep-deprived, disheveled student cynically laugh to himself in the middle of the road, I would turn and look too. After all, the normality of everyday life is boring. This was one of the reasons I was frantic over wasting a year: the fear of mediocrity or “normality.” We like to call it that, despite knowing that the normal distribution of human traits and conditions would not be in our favor in the slightest. Especially us at Princeton. As students who are generally highly privileged, with access to every facility and luxury to ensure the best education possible, we are not, strictly speaking, normal. In fact, there is no true normal for subjective, qualitative information. Mediocrity was the true fear I had — nothing about me could be relegated to “normal,” so how awful would it be to squander all my resources? I had to do my best and be as capable as I possibly could. My family had sacrificed too much for me to just skip off into the sunset with a year off, even if they said otherwise to me out of love. 

I chose not to withdraw, and I soon found that my friend was right about my academic performance. I already knew this very well myself — after all, getting to Princeton does require some measure of intellect and common sense, to say the least. I just ignored that looming eventuality of a dip in my performance. Much like a bug too dazzled by the blue light of a flytrap to notice that it is flying into hazardous territory, I just saw the advantages if I pushed through. “Three days a week, four hours a day. Please do not miss a session without telling us, and I hope you understand dialysis is not optional,” the nurse at the dialysis center had instructed me on my first day of having all my blood filtered by a machine, in as kind a tone as anyone can manage after repeating the same thing at least 50 times. I must be fair to the nurses though and mention that they were very efficient and incredibly supportive. One look at burgeoning kidney failure, the lack of transplant statistics, and the consequent deaths will tell you why their jobs are incredibly hard and even painful, to an extent. 

So it was, as it was to be, 12 hours a week of medical care for almost three months, along with my regular schedule at Princeton. The schedule which I hadn’t kept light by any definition, as you may have guessed from accounts of my past behavior already. Do I regret it? Yes. Would I admit to regretting it more than once, even today, even just to myself? Maybe not. This, unlike my other almost absurd qualms, is for a genuine reason. That semester was not regrettable because of my decision to stay or because of my schedule. The cause of my regret was the almost completely new feeling, or lack thereof, that was created in me. I would describe it as giving up, but I hadn’t given up at all. I ate, I laughed, I exercised and studied harder than ever before. I was surprisingly healthy, except for my major instability of dialysis, which, to me, was inconsequential, as it was beyond my control. The desire to achieve and to excel still burned in me, defiant and more determined than ever before. It was more of a feeling of withdrawal. Like a caterpillar forming a cocoon and changing its very form inside to one in which it is not even capable of recognizing itself. 

For the first time in my life, I did not know what to feel. My father had decided to give me his kidney. The man who worked day-in and day-out to send me to The Doon School and then Princeton University was now donating his own organs to me. My mother, who was also working to provide for me and had also quite literally given me life from her very own body, argued with him on how she should be the donor. Should I be petrified because I may not last on dialysis? Because I didn’t think I could ever live with requiring this from the people who were my world? Should I be glad to have such loving and caring parents? Was all of this my fault in some way? Why was God doing this to me? Too many questions and no answers to be found. A puzzle I could not solve.

So I chose, or rather happened, to feel nothing. I know it sounds bizarre. I had withdrawn after all, not physically to the shelter of my home 10,000 miles away, but to a cocoon in my brain. Or so I thought. 

Chapter Four: Disappointment 

I stop to get a Red Bull at the C-Store. I have no urgent work, nor do I need to have an energy drink for any other particular reason. It is just a habit now, and for the past 18 months or so, I have not felt like departing from my established habits. This is highly unlike me. For the present moment, as I grip this Red Bull, I feel that my life at this point is balancing a house of cards made of glass. Trying to alter it too fast will bring it crashing down, leaving only shattered remains behind. And unlike the expectations toward the fictional “son” I had studied in the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling, I may not be able to build everything back up from scratch. Besides, I don’t have much love for the proverbial “Man” the poet is trying to create in his work. 

However, toxic masculinity is far from my thoughts as I open the chilled can in negative 20 degree Celsius weather and gulp it down. It burns and then freezes my throat, but I am used it to by now. The caffeine rush will make me forget it and a lot of other things in five minutes. As I walk toward my room, you can notice the alkaloid-infused skip in my step. My thoughts can occasionally spell doom and my anxiety and insecurities may be more powerful than ever, but life is beautiful and nothing short of a gift. When I first set eyes on Princeton, I exclaimed on impulse to the student beside me, “It’s so pretty, I could be here forever.” No wonder he sometimes avoids eye contact with me in dining halls now. Or maybe I am the one who is always looking down at my phone or lost in my music unless I see someone I am at least faintly acquainted with. I have a strong feeling it is the latter most of the time, but I am also fairly certain it isn’t always that. 

The beauty of Princeton had indeed made my time on campus during my medical procedures bearable. It wasn’t the only factor, but it was a major one. When the familiar feeling of doom crept in during moments of weakness, like ants crawling out of dark crevices upon smelling a fallen sweetmeat, I went for a walk. It didn’t drive away the ever-hungering ants, but it kept them at bay — a temporary repair of the cracks, if you will. It made me confident that, no matter how monumental the struggle, I could come out of this, maybe even stronger than when I entered this void. I was to be proven right eventually, but that day was very far away. In my reality, this was the only hope I could give myself to push through that year. And that motive proved successful enough, though it was deeply flawed, as I was to discover. Those were the months that I can now confidently call the lowest point of my life, months of hopelessness alleviated by physical beauty and misjudged motives. It was a semester of disappointment. 

Chapter Five: Healing

Disappointment was not an unfamiliar feeling. It is one of those facets of life we tend to assume we won’t face but inevitably do. I had felt that sinking feeling in my gut at the end of the semester I went on dialysis. My grades were decent, and given what was going on in my life, my friend opined that they were actually pretty great. I did not share in this jovial outlook. I gave her the warm smile she deserved, but internally, I felt only sadness because I knew I could do better. I could do so much better. It wouldn’t have mattered as much if I was sitting in a dorm in an Indian college, like everyone else in my family went to. Not because Indian colleges were in any way different intrinsically, but even after incredibly substantial aid, they would be at most one-third of the cost of what my family was bearing to send me here. The non-A’s on my transcript only spelled disappointment to me, since I was disappointing those who deserved more from me, even if they did not expect it. There was little consolation that could change that feeling back then. The memory of how much weight I had placed — and, to an extent, still did, a year and a half later — on that one semester’s performance made me smile wryly. 

Nassau Street is in sight, and I am looking forward to one of the few things that make me happy even in the gloomiest times. During my high school years, the concept of stress eating and its repeated mention in popular culture always puzzled me. At that time, stress meant working with a vigor that would put trivial things like food and leisure on a backseat. It was mostly the same at Princeton. If work was weighing on me, only finishing it to my satisfaction would make that worry go away. Maybe it was just my nature to deal with stress by getting the stressors out of the way. However, when the freedom not afforded to a boarding school student due to limited food and no choices was given to me at Princeton, I discovered a new truth. Food could make the negativity go away, at least in part. Even if that food was just a piece of candy or, in extreme situations, a bottle of Nutella — which to my own surprise, I can sometimes finish in about 20 minutes if I am not careful. 

Overconsumption of food is not the only unhealthy habit that has resulted from my tumultuous mental state. Sleep has been elusive, and I like to attribute it to me working hard for a good performance in my classes, but I am fairly certain that my groggy self is much less productive than my full potential. I have mostly achieved the academic standards I was looking for this semester, but in the race to match my imagined expectations from those I cared about, I have begun experiencing anxiety at levels that have become visible in my behavior. When this visibility got to a point that one of my best friends had to threaten to drag me to Counseling and Psychological Services himself, there was no space left for negotiation. And so here I trudge back to my lonely single room after crying my heart out to a stranger. Yet despite my cynicism toward the concept of simply talking to someone to resolve my issues, there is a lighter spring in my step, and I don’t think it is just from the Red Bull can I finished in five minutes. 

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