By Cathy Li
Discussed: Mental Illness
This feeling will stay with me for a while, but I am satisfied with where I am with it.
At seven years old, all I wanted to be was eighteen. Eighteen enticed me: the voting eligibility, and the freedom to explore the next chapters of my life as a full-fledged adult. Eighteen was when it would finally come together, when I would finally find my truest self.
At seven, I had already conjured a roadmap to success. I was going to attend Princeton University, study political science, become a lawyer, and figure out the rest as I went along. This vivid dream bubbled inside of me and projected upon every surface that I laid my eyes upon. This path would be difficult, and so I geared myself for the long journey ahead. In high school, I worked tirelessly towards my academic aspirations. Instead of going out with friends, I led extracurriculars and revised for assignments weeks before the deadline. This fearful attitude further fortified my strengths; I was an excellent student, driven, and ambitious. I went above and beyond. In a way, I had achieved a part of what seven-year-old Cathy wanted, to grow up fast.
But plans fall through. Mine clashed with the rough and tough course of life. Indeed, my hard work paid off. Looking back, I am proud of my dedication to my goals, but I did not end up at Princeton University. I was rejected. Even after pouring my soul into the application, selecting the best parts of myself to showcase, I did not get in. Instead, I landed at the University of Pennsylvania, a school with equal prestige and caliber of education.
The day I turned eighteen, I estactically pulled together a Spotify playlist that mirrored my roller-coaster of emotions. I remember the cake I ate; the cream-filled, chiffon pastry that melted in my mouth. Every year I made the same wish: that everything would work out, that it would be okay. But now, at eighteen, these words had more weight. Finally, at eighteen, everything would come together.
I was wrong. Eighteen became the year where I knew nothing. First semester was rough. I lived with a roommate for the first time, whom I had no compatibility in terms of lifestyle with. I had friends, but these relationships did not fulfill me the way my friendships back home did. I was deeply questioning my major — after a memorable conversation with my political science TA, for the first time I realized maybe law wasn’t for me. It was a huge pivot from my plan before. I had applied to Penn writing about how after zealously watching Legally Blonde as a child, it was my dream to succeed in law, despite all odds. But now I did not know if law was where I would end up.
At eighteen, my thirst for freedom became a detriment. In my quest to speed up to eighteen, I had neglected the things that really mattered. It was when I was left to my own devices that I realized I had many issues that I had yet to resolve. My mental health, for example, was steadily declining over the years, and living alone without my close circle of friends and family to support me was very difficult. I had neglected that important aspect of my life in order to pursue things that I thought mattered more.
Second semester did not provide any more clarity. After a strenuous winter break, I came back exhausted and more disoriented than ever. February was the worst month of my life. As my friends eased into the rest of the school year, I fell behind in my courses. I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. I knew at that point I needed to do something. So I did. For the first time, I stepped away from my plan and took a leave of absence from school.
That was the hardest decision I ever had to make in my life. But it was definitely an important one, and it taught me many lessons.
Firstly, taking a break is okay. Not knowing what you want to do is okay. Making plans is important, but if you have followed the roadmap until its corner, what do you do when you run out of room?
Secondly, life is not linear. Trying to force yourself into that path is harmful. We believe that we need to fit into a right timeline, and only readjust our molds once we get older. Once you accept that you don’t need to do that, that’s when you get to grow and actually find yourself.
Everything that I thought I was working towards, was wrong. But being where I am is okay.
I’m turning nineteen in a couple of days as I am writing this, but I know that no matter what age I reach, I’ll probably encounter moments where I feel seven again. It is a funny thing, at eighteen, I have never felt more like a little girl in my life. But I am emboldened by this sudden ambiguity. I can’t wait to approach my life with a more open mind.
I developed this piece after an Industry Workshop relating to identity. I am currently going through a very perplexing time in my life, and writing this piece has been a really cathartic experience and inspired me to get into writing again. I learned a lot about myself throughout this process. I learned about how I approach writing as a writer, as well as my thought process in general as a human being. It was a beautiful experience to share this piece with my mentor, combing through paragraphs and tweaking lines into gorgeous sentences.
Cathy Li is fascinated by the arts. From singing and writing to painting and debate, there are an unlimited number of art forms that hold a special place in her heart. When she feels down, there is nothing better than cuddling up with a book to ride those feelings out. Cathy is eager to delve deeper into writing this year; she anticipates editing a lot of messy drafts (which has always been her favorite part of the writing process!) and improving her writer’s voice.