As a high school student, I out-achieved most of my peers on paper. My senior year was an exhausting marathon of six AP courses, two-thirds of which were either math or science oriented, and I ended up earning one of the highest GPAs in our class of 530 or so kids with eleven total AP courses under my belt.
By November or so of that year, I was deep in the process of applying to schools — staying sane by lying to myself about what I wanted and where I actually wanted to go. I could entertain the idea of film school, but I only really told myself to apply to BFA programs because if I didn’t — then what? Like most 17 year olds, I had no clue what I really wanted, and I didn’t yet have the resolve to consider life without a degree.
In April, an acceptance letter to McGill engineering arrived in the mail. “That’s cool I guess, but I’m definitely still going to film school”, I assured everyone. Four weeks later I submitted my deposit to McGill.
I should’ve felt relieved. In four years time, I’d have an engineering degree from a well-respected university for about a quarter of the price my friends pay in the states. But I had a ton of baggage to take with me to Montreal: a growing disdain for traditional education, unhealed regret, major depression, anxiety, and OCD.
Week 1 at McGill, and I already knew I was done. As the year carried on, I never grew more optimistic about school or satisfied with the experience. I was taking classes for the grades, somehow managed to catch both mono and sinusitis, and fell madly in love with the most loving person I know — needless to say, my heart wasn’t in it. Nevertheless, I tried to absorb what I could from McGill. I bartered with the engineering faculty about taking courses I didn’t have the prerequisites to take, and then took those courses against their advice. I even took classes that overlapped with one another. I continued my old habits of overachieving, all the while suffering from the same unbridled sadness that burdened me during high school.
The year was winding down, and I made an appointment with the head of the computer/electrical eng. department. “I need to take some time off”, I told her. “Not sure for how long”. Her response: “Your GPA’s fine though”.
What? Not only was my GPA a failure by my standards, but hearing that was a whole separate slap in the face. A powerful woman at a world class university made the glaring implication that one’s GPA (and its strength) is the only thing to consider when deciding whether to stick around.
I had no plan B. No goals, no ambition, no willingness to even try. The number of times I answered “but what do you want?” I never knew, and every time I admitted that to someone, I lost hope. My new clean slate was wasted on myself.
At the end of the summer, I officially withdrew from McGill and, with the money I would’ve spent on tuition, booked a flight to South Africa.
Africa was a pretty exceptional experience, but I got physically sick again there too. I came home and needed surgery.
Post surgery, I fell into a dark place. I had a lot of time — too much time — to think about what the hell I was going to do next.
What began as emptiness unraveled into psychosomatic mayhem. It was a time of what I can only describe as utter despair, and I feared for my life. Not only was I in no shape to be in school, I wasn’t fit to be doing much of anything at all.
That time in my life was far different than my high school experience. As a HS student, I was indescribably sad. I quit everything I loved. I walked out of final exams crying. My school’s guidance office often checked in with my teachers to make sure I was alright. I felt unrelenting sadness all the time, and after awhile, I started to actually like being sad. Yet, despite my depression snowballing and self-worth degenerating, the professionals around me expected me to carry on as normal and continue to perform at the highest level. There was no option to quit.
After McGill, that all changed. I was forced into a world confused by dropouts and even more so by mental illness. By leaving university, I made a bonafide decision to cut ties with a direct source of unhappiness — commencing a chain reaction of “opting out”. After not too long, I began opting out of everything, and gradually stopped feeling things altogether.
No one wants to invest in a person treading the line between life and death, even if that’s exactly what he or she needs. One of my favorite pieces of writing is a post on Thought Catalog titled Procrastination Is Not Laziness. In the piece, author David Cain remarks how he is “resoundingly unproductive” for what he’s capable of. He explains:
To the fear center of your brain, by acting without guarantees of success you really are facing annihilation. You feel like you must do something and can’t do that thing simultaneously, which can only lead to a burning resentment of the people or forces that put you in that impossible place — your employer, your society, or yourself. A victim mentality emerges.
Too many people mistake psychological impediments for laziness.
In the months after my surgery, I discovered Dale Stephens — a pioneer of the education revolution and founder of UnCollege. He was launching the gap year program and looking for his first 10 fellows. By what feels like sheer luck, I was chosen, and I had a reason to last until September.
The idea of a place to be myself, to believe in alternative ed. alongside other believers, was promising. I had high hopes that San Francisco and UnCollege would lead me to wherever it was I might need to go. Like most of my co-fellows from that cohort, I gained a ton of insight from the people I met and the things I experienced. I felt like, if I wanted to, I could show up anywhere in the world and start a life for myself without a degree. I had already believed I didn’t want or need the full college experience, but to students who are unsure, a gap year like UnCollege’s might be exactly what you need to feel empowered the way I did.
The end of UnCollege marked the end of my time to soul-search. My parents and friends made it pretty clear I’d need to actually figure out a plan at some point. The prospect of real life seemed utterly miserable, and I buried myself in unhappiness to prove it.
A few months after UnCollege, I was in worse shape than I’d ever been before. I was going to bed at 8 or 9am, waking up for dinner, avoiding people and sunlight, and clinging to life the only way I knew how. As a reference, I usually point to Elizabeth Wurtzel — a wizard of words who details her way of outlasting misery in the memoir More, Now, Again. Wurtzel survived on coke. I found a game online and made it my life.
But that wasn’t sustainable. I was delusional, stubborn, trapped. Asking me to think about the future only drove me deeper into mania. I was 21, afraid to live, in the worst place mentally a privileged kid could be, and something had to give.
My mother, bless her heart, was essential in keeping me stable. For a woman forced to watch her kid suffer from the life she so diligently provided, my mom remarkably never lost faith. She remained supportive as I wasted away behind a screen in a bedroom.
That was, until late 2014 — when she and my father threatened to cut me off (the only thing really left to do). I fought, I resisted, I dreamt up every excuse under the sun but ultimately, I had no choice, and I looked for what might be the least painful career. I decided I could be a software engineer after all, sans McGill’s overkill curriculum. So I applied to some bootcamps.
Half a year ago, I met Nimit Maru — co-founder of Fullstack Academy. In a way, he saved my life. To Nimit, our conversation may have meant nothing, but when I was honest with him about how I had spent the past few years, it didn’t really phase him. He knew at least some of the truth, and he still wanted me to come to Fullstack. For the first time since the coddled microcosm of high school, I felt like it was fine to try the real-life-thing despite the state I was in. He saw what I couldn’t see, and gave me the chance to see it for myself.
So I went to Fullstack, and it was the best. I was happy. And I built something I’m proud of with friends I adore. That project is called Splyt.
Splyt is a music platform for Google Chrome — half extension, half web app. The extension checks the pages you visit for songs and lets you add them to playlists housed in the web app. Inside of the web app, you can organize your music, listen to your playlists, and follow your friends to see what they’re adding. You can also search for Soundcloud and Youtube songs to add to your lists from directly within the app. Our player supports audio hosted on Soundcloud, Youtube, and Tumblr so for indie EDM junkies like me, Splyt is perfect. I always had a ton of tabs open in my browser and now all of those tabs live in one place.
After graduating with Splyt under my belt, I felt totally confident in my ability to get shit done, to prove that to any employer, and to parlay that success going forward. Thanks to some real talk from David Yang (Nimit’s co-founder) and my unmatched refusal to settle, I stumbled my way to a job I can only describe as the dream.
For so long, I was terrified of living, and now the life I thought could never, ever be has magically become my own. The me of two years ago cowers in disbelief.
Thinking back to who I was before moving to NY, I wonder where I’d be had I never met Nimit — an exception in a culture against dropouts, deviants and troubled young adults. So many schools and companies want deeply passionate candidates; it’s easy to forget about the people who don’t (/can’t) feel much of anything at all, or went against the grain for reasons you might not understand. Having been one of those people, I know it’s hard to feel/appear worthy while you hide the life you’ve really been living. In our culture, why do so many people at war with themselves have to cover up the truth? Some people need to be cut some slack, but that doesn’t make them any less incredible or capable.
There’s a story that went somewhat viral online a little over a year ago. A beautiful, talented, intelligent runner for UPenn ended her own life to the shock and dismay of those who knew her well. When I first read her story, my heart sunk. I didn’t know her so of course, I cannot and do not want to make assumptions about what drove her to that decision. I only know what I’ve read and feel deeply for her and her loved ones. Her name was Madison Holleran.
I’m forced to wonder what role our culture played in Madison’s life, especially the months leading up to her death. In a recent story on ESPN, the author writes:
She [Madison] was a deep thinker, someone who was aware of the image she presented to the world, and someone who often struggled with what that image conveyed about her, with how people superficially read who she was, what her life was like.
I gather that Madison — a girl who lost the war with herself — was crippled under the pressure of living that lie. Seemingly, Madison could no longer bear the weight of what she was feeling — even with therapy, supportive friends and family, a life full of promise and opportunity. Would meds have saved her? Time off from school? In-patient treatment? How would a less cutthroat, more empathetic culture have changed Madison’s fate? These are questions I once asked about myself. I only wish she too could have found a way to keep on keeping on.
So here’s what I think. The world needs more people like Nimit. We need a culture (especially professionally) that understands better, is willing to hear and not judge, and even help. A society that can take the pressure off people struggling the way Madison struggled, and can embrace those who deviate from the norm. If you’re suffering, I understand. I hate hearing “it will work out”. The only thing I can say that I know is true: life can surprise you. Hopefully you can stick around long enough to let it. College is okay, but if you can (and want to) get shit done, you’ll do it with or without college. If you’re clueless, start with what seems least terrible. Sometimes, what you want in life isn’t necessarily a career, or a goal, but a place, or a routine, or the last thing you’d expect. Don’t close a door before you’ve even looked inside.