Illustration by Maria Vogel.

My Journey Coping with Mental Illness in a World Obsessed with Productivity

In many ways, I’m learning that I probably won’t get better. Depression is always going to be the unwanted guest at my house — it’ll just be easier to deal with on some days than others.

Content Warning: This article discusses what it's like to live with depression and anxiety.
I failed two classes while studying away in New York; I’ve failed three in total. I’ve gotten more Cs and Bs in the span of four years than I have As. My GPA is an abysmal 2.9 a semester before I graduate. I’m not stupid or a slacker. I’m depressed.
I’ve worked four years to unlearn the idea that my GPA is what matters most, and to learn that the importance of education lies not in academic success but personal growth and curiosity. But when I graduate and search for further opportunities, I’m afraid that graduate schools won’t even consider me because my GPA doesn’t reach the minimum threshold and work experiences will evade me because nobody wants an absentee on the team. I really wish my commitment, passion and effort would count for something. But it's hard to make a case for them in a world so pressed for constant gratification and deliverables.
The world around me thrives on constant planning and having life figured out. When I’m unable to produce the way people around me do, I’m shrouded in shame and self-doubt. It’s exhausting to not know when I will feel better again, and it’s more exhausting to ask for help in those moments. Giving space to my feelings and letting my body emote the way it needs to has been very helpful in my healing process. Sometimes that just means taking time off, both from work and social spaces. But taking time off also means having to catch up, and that whole ordeal is often more tiring than just pushing through until a breakdown. In many ways, I’m learning that I probably won’t get better. Depression is always going to be the unwanted guest at my house — it’ll just be easier to deal with on some days and not others.
I know my depression and anxiety will never let me have it easy, especially in academic spaces. I try to communicate with my professors as early in the semester as I can about my Moses Center accommodations and other aspects of class that I may need to adjust as the semester progresses. Most of my professors have been very understanding, and I think a large part of that comes from the fact that I’m in the Arts and Humanities, where adjustability is a cornerstone of our practice. We work together to find alternatives to projects that may trigger my social anxiety or come up with extra credit assignments to make up for my absences. I mapped out a plan with Chuck Grim to give myself the time I needed to complete my requirements this semester without overwhelming myself.
Having said that, I’ve had multiple occasions where I couldn’t help but feel that my mental illness is the reason I couldn’t succeed. A year ago a professor told me turning off my camera during class would count as an absence. Even when I explained that I would only do so when my anxiety acted up and it wouldn’t affect my participation or any other aspect of class, the professor showed no empathy or flexibility on their part, forcing me to switch out of a class I’d been wanting to take since my first year. When I was doing intensive actors training in New York, my instructors had so many great things to say about my performances and work in class, but I got a C solely because my grades got deducted for my absences. I would need to find a doctor to verify that I was in fact too depressed to get out of bed for each time I missed class if I didn’t want my grade to drop from an A to a C.
I sometimes feel like there’s a lot of space for me to say I’m not okay, but there isn’t space for me to actually not be okay. When I want nothing more than to cease existence and get away for a brief moment, a thousand pending tasks follow me around. You need to be constantly moving; it's very difficult to take a break. If it's not academics, it's extracurricular projects, social life, securing internships for summers or planning post grad life perfectly.
This semester is much easier, though: I am doing capstone work at my own pace and because I am genuinely curious, rather than to meet deadlines. I am taking care of myself. I really am. I’m doing everything “right”. I have a fairly steady sleep routine. I exercise or move my body everyday. I take walks outdoors. I focus on mindful breathing. I eat fairly well, or at least I try to. I communicate with my friends on a regular basis about how they can support me and how I am feeling. I now go to therapy every two weeks because we agreed that I am doing better than before. I tried medication, stopped medication, am trying new medication and regularly follow up with my psychiatrist to see what works best.
Even with all this help, I constantly feel like I am struggling because I never know what is coming next. A lot of support systems at NYU Abu Dhabi are oriented towards problem solving. We focus on “how do I make you feel better in order to maintain productivity” rather than “what do you need to just survive and be.” On some days, I feel like I have a grasp on life; but on most days, I am simply floating. My thoughts are so loud, there’s so many things happening in my brain, but nothing comes out in a coherent sentence. I stare at my laptop, zoning out for hours on a regular basis. On some days I am asleep more than I am awake, sleep being the only time I feel relief from discomfort in my chest, confusion, haziness and utter pain. When my mental health is declining, you can see it in the dirty dishes and laundry piling up in my room. I struggle to do the most menial of tasks, my to-do list becoming longer by the hour.
In trying to create space for myself, I’ve realized that I am probably not easy to be friends with. A lot of people, especially those who have not dealt with mental illness, often struggle to understand the extent to which I overthink, why my triggers are what they are and how some days I am okay with something and the next day it gives me a panic attack. The unpredictability forces me to take life one moment at a time. I go to sleep not fully knowing whether pain will find a sweet little corner on my chest tomorrow or not. You have to be extremely patient: I’m most likely to cancel plans five minutes ahead or I won’t show my face for a week straight. I’ve sent so many apology texts and emails that starting sentences with “sorry” has become second nature. I am always feeling guilty about not being there for my friends and spending more time with them during their last semester. That, coupled with fear of missing out, is far worse than the reason I couldn’t in the first place.
For the most part, I’ve been trying to communicate how I feel on a given day and what I’d like from my friends. And truly, I mean it when I say my biggest success at NYUAD are the friendships that I have found. I will always be grateful to my friends for listening to me and allowing me to cry on their beds, sing out my feelings, holding their hand and cancelling plans when I’m not in the right headspace. On days when I don’t have energy, just letting me exist and float in their presence has been the biggest blessing.
My parents are also beginning to understand my context better. I had a two-hour conversation with them this month about what I’ve learnt about my mental health and how I’ve coped with depression. I felt so much lighter just being able to tell them that their daughter feels sad and that is in no way a reflection on them or what is happening in my life. I also see them actively trying to educate themselves about mental illness.
Asking me how I can be supported is so important, but sometimes I’m just not in a position to respond. When the people around me educate themselves, read about my diagnosis and other people’s experiences on the internet, it not only warms my heart but also validates my experiences. I’m terrified to go back home and have conversations with my relatives asking questions I am not ready to answer. But knowing that my family is trying to understand me helps that process — I know that I am not screaming into an empty void. Putting effort into knowing my mental illness as much as you’d put into knowing me helps my overthinking, insecure self know that you care.
Each day I feel myself waking up with more strength and self-awareness. I care about my education, my friends, my family, myself, but often, because of my depression and anxiety, it doesn’t come across. Things are often unpredictable and there is always an overwhelming sense of helplessness. But it’s not a lost cause and I’m not a shipwreck: I just want the world to help and allow me to take it one moment at a time.
Anushka Malla Upadhyay is a contributing writer. Email her at
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