AN Essay Contest HOSTED IN PARTNERSHIP WITH
DOTDASH MEREDITH & REAL SIMPLE
14 Girls Write Now mentees share mini- and mega-moments of clarity in these personal essays.
By Sanya Afsar
Discussed: mental illness
A depiction of my journey in asking for help, this essay is my reminder that I deserve peace and welfare in a battle against the uncertainties and anxieties of my mind.
One of the most colossal complications of my generation is the notion of mental health. Oftentimes, we find ourselves unable to respond to a simple “How are you feeling?” or “Are you okay?”. As a 16-year-old girl navigating a ruthless world, I’ve camouflaged my own emotions a multitude of times.
Ever since I can remember, I’ve dreaded those God-awful adolescent forms at annual doctor checkups, never knowing if I should continue playing the part of perfect daughter or surrender at last.
“Do you ever feel down, depressed, or hopeless for a period of more than two weeks?”
“Have you ever struggled with weight and body image?”
“Is there anything specific you want to talk about with the doctor?”
Yes. YES. This is my chance. YES!
Because what happens if I reveal the truth? What happens if I unveil my deepest, most profound, immeasurable secret? What happens to me?
Of course, these forms are meant to offer a place of support in a time of need—a feeble attempt at having someone to talk to. I won’t disregard it being a huge first step in seeking the proper help one needs, but it seems rather dispassionate nonetheless. Something about its directness makes it seem as if its only objective is to diagnose you and get on with life, making it impossibly difficult to open up. Nobody longs for refuge in a routine questionnaire.
I do not want to burst my bubble of sadness. There’s comfort in floating around in the air, drifting away from pesky doctors and therapists and medications stretching their arms wide open, ready to clasp their greedy hands around my heartache. I can be perfectly content with my forever promise of sorrow, with counting on a shoulder to cry on in the dark of the bathroom floor.
But not this year. This year I dove into a career in writing and found nothing more captivating to document than my own thoughts and feelings. This year I got a job at the doctor’s office, and this year I was the one handing out adolescent forms on a little brown clipboard. This year I watched referrals for psychologists and psychiatrists and therapists folded in half by the hands of parents and this year I asked for one of my own.
Giving out those papers and seeing those teenagers sigh but give back sheets indicating pristine mental conditions gave me a jolting sense of perspective. I know too many people struggling to believe that everyone scribbling “No” down those pages is fine. But the minority of people who walk in with their minds made up, answers to the questions chiseled into their brains after years spent in turmoil, gave me a new understanding of hope. Witnessing these children shove their fears aside long enough to cry for help, especially when they may have little disposition towards any sort of endeavor, shook something in me.
The constant voice in my head insists on convincing me I can fix everything myself. And it doesn’t help that opening up to a complete stranger sounds purely terrifying. Except I know I can’t do it alone. I’m fully aware of the consequences of laying back and giving up, and I’m willing to dive headfirst into a pool of healing despite the myriad of doubts swimming through my body.
Because if that exhausted 9-year-old has the courage to come in and speak up for her life on a random Tuesday afternoon, why can’t I? What could possibly go wrong?
This essay is the product of multiple different factors. Getting a job at a doctor’s office. Watching kids ask for help. Watching more kids not ask for help. Being empowered by those who did. Using their courage to strengthen my own. Talking to a doctor about my mental health issues. Spilling out the secrets I’ve held for as long as I can remember. Letting out a sigh of relief when being handed a psychiatrist referral. Attending a creative nonfiction residency by the 92nd Street Y. Being asked to write about a time I told either a truth or a lie. Combining both to narrate my experience of finally opening up after having been shut down for so long. Hiding the piece in my backpack so nobody could find it. And ultimately revisiting it three days before the Meredith contest submission deadline because of a writing works workshop with HMH.
I was drawn to the “procrastinators welcome” title, hoping that connecting with a group of writers with the same problem as mine would help me to overcome it. I had never intended for this essay to be read by anybody, making up excuses on the spot when friends asked what I wrote about in class. But when breakout rooms were announced and I had no other recent essays to show to the editors, straight back down into my backpack did my hand reach. I was terrified to read my work to them. Before that day, I had never shared my writing with anyone. It had always been a secret escape of mine, somewhere to hide away in the dark of night. Especially this piece, talking about my most vulnerable moment, something I had only told a token few about. For no reason other than not being rude and dropping out of the Zoom, I read my work to two students and two advisors with every expectation to feel humiliated. I stumbled over my words and apologized an embarrassing amount for no good reason. I received wonderful feedback that made me feel like I was on top of the world, and it filled me with a much-needed pride in my abilities. I was pleasantly surprised and came to understand that life is too short to doubt yourself, especially in something that brings you joy and comfort. I decided on the spot to throw aside my fears and submit to the contest. Uplifted by the realization that I was finally pursuing my writing dreams, I poured my heart into this piece and every piece after. This essay completely changed my life.
My Simple Realization: An Essay Contest & Story Collection
14 Girls Write Now mentees share mini- and mega-moments of clarity in these personal essays. This contest was produced in partnership with Dotdash Meredith and the team at Real Simple as part of the SeeHer Initiative.
Sanya Afsar is a Pakistani high school senior in NYC. She grew up in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, until the age of seven and now lives in the culturally rich Woodside neighborhood of Queens, NY. She is a multidisciplinary artist interested in fashion, photography and baking. Her literary taste skews toward dystopian fiction, romance and poetry novels. Sanya uses her time with Girls Write Now to explore different genres, narrowing her focus on college and career plans, to find her voice as a writer. She is particularly passionate about poetry, journaling and memoir.