Illustration by Naeema Sageer

On Learning to Live in a World Where There’s No Grace To Pause

My kindness to myself can not be conditional on how well I do on all the metrics I have been taught that define my self-worth. These were the standards that used to define me, without them my being feels boundless but empty. But I am learning.

May 9, 2022

Over fried calamari wolfed down in five seconds and Coney Island beers at a bar a few streets down from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, my friends and I ended up talking about what it would be like to live in New York City. Not as a study away student, temporarily occupying its subways and parks and museums for a few months, but as residents. What would it be like to live here, to carve out a new, potentially daring, life? One friend said she finally understood why people who study in the US rarely go back — the anonymity of a city of multitudes who you don’t know gives you the chance to finally shape your life how you want to. As female-identifying students and queer people from South Asia, we all resonated with that hope, knowing that distance leads to fewer compromises in love and in life. Another friend agreed that she could see herself living here, being free.
I felt just as they did, but I couldn’t agree. For me, New York will always be the city where I was diagnosed with recurring depression and generalized anxiety.
Depression and Anxiety. I’ve thought about these words often, ever since I was twelve or thirteen. Ever since grade eight when there were two weeks of my life that I cannot really recall. I remember my parents’ concerned faces; the Winnie the Pooh diary I’ve had since I was six; and my old copy of Sense and Sensibility. One day, when it felt like the tightness in my chest wouldn’t end, when the world kept becoming smaller and smaller, I wrote. And I wrote that I wanted to be like Elinor, the heroine, who does exactly what she is supposed to and reaps the benefits — security and comfort — of neatly and without fight, fitting into the role laid out for her. I never truly wanted to be Elinor; it was Marianne, the passionate, rebellious, impulsive Marianne, I wanted to embody. But that day, I just wanted peace and quiet. And I thought that if I make myself smaller I will receive both, as a gift.
My parents whispered the word therapy and I pretended not to hear. It was easy; after all, whispers are only whispers. No one taught my parents how to parent a daughter like me and I cannot blame them for that. And I cannot blame them for not knowing then what it was that I needed. We never spoke about mental health — I thought of it as an abstract concept, something I intellectually advocated for but one which I never thought to apply to myself. Why would I? The counselor at our school was tucked away in a room along a dark corridor and as far as I remember, she joined the school only during my last few years.
The two weeks passed. And I made myself forget.
But, from time to time, I’ve said these words — Depression and Anxiety — obsessively, out loud and in my head, hoping that this time, with a different intonation, they would make sense. That this time, they would stop floating a few inches above my head and fall gracefully to fit themselves around my thoughts, to provide me with some understanding and clarity as to why I feel the way I feel. But whenever they came close, I would switch gears; I would push back and luckily, I have been able to. That is until my study away in New York — a city I desperately wanted to love but felt overwhelmed by as soon as I landed. New York: a city where a plate of kottu cost 20 dollars and I didn’t know how to celebrate Avurudu; a city where I never heard Sinhala walking on the streets; a city where it became easy to isolate myself.
I have been lucky. I am lucky. During some of my worst moments, when I was so far gone into the abyss that the abyss was all I knew, there were friends and family I could come back to. My therapist calls them my protective factors. At first, I hated that term. I hated that I needed protection when, for so long, I had thought of myself as the protector. I’m the eldest daughter of a brown family, born and raised in Sri Lanka. I attributed the lack of control or agency I felt in my life to external factors. And it’s that lack that led me to exercise intentional and careful control over myself, over what I could.
Now, however, I feel as though I’m constantly waiting for the next wave to crash into me, to engulf me, to drown me. Waiting for when the happy week will end. Because it feels inevitable. My thoughts used to be something I could control, but not anymore. I’m too burnt out, too drained, too tired.
And so, over time I’ve come to realize that my loved ones are my protective factors. They do protect me, as much as they can, from myself. The female friendships of my life have been my saving grace. They are the only truly safe spaces I have known in my life, where my vulnerability somehow, miraculously, coexists with loud discussions on how multiplugs are a colonial invention. My parents no longer whisper the word therapy — they ask me how it went. Some of the lightest conversations of my life were with my youngest brother. Some of my professors have been incredibly accommodating and understanding when I email them and say I simply cannot make it to class today. I am grateful.
But these are individual acts of kindness in a system that is built on productivity and a constant desire to pursue upward mobility. There is no grace to pause. Each day, each hour, each minute when I try to pause, when I try to listen to my body and what it needs, I'm constantly aware of the ticking of the clock, of the seconds wasting away. Because for so long, every moment where I was not working towards something was a moment unfinished. And now, when I’m questioning so much of my life that has to do with the present, when planning for a future that is gray and blurry feels almost impossible, I do not know how to exist. I do not know how to feel better within a system that broke me. But I also don’t know how to leave it.
My Google calendar now has slots blocked for therapy appointments. I hope I’m making progress, but there are moments where I feel with such finality that I’ve failed. And it’s these thoughts that are the hardest to fight against — that everything I have worked towards, all the sacrifices made by my family have gone to waste. There is guilt, unflinching and ever-present. And then there is guilt for feeling guilty. The world is burning, the world is being burnt, we are burning the world down and I’m crying because one day I sat in one of my favorite classes, was suddenly unable to breathe and had to rush out.
Then there is the guilt I feel for asking too much from the relationships in my life, when it feels like I have nothing to give. If I can’t guarantee a single good day, why should I allow the people I love and care for to stay in my life? Aren’t I only being selfish and weak?
Sometimes I feel like this has taken away the best parts of me.
Someone I love once told me of two stories about crying she had heard when she was younger. One was about how tears are sweet and we should not waste them. The other was that tears deserve to be let out because we can’t always hold them in and that’s okay. I like the second one better. It’s a reminder to extend kindness and compassion towards myself, not when I succeed but when I fail: when I don’t make it to class, when I submit an assignment past the deadline, when I don’t finish an app, when I get a bad grade, when I get rejected from an internship I really wanted. My kindness to myself can not be conditional on how well I do on all the metrics I have been taught that define my self-worth. These were the standards that used to define me. Without them my being feels boundless but empty. But I am learning.
I wrote this in the span of a week; a sentence one day, two hours the next. It took me four months to want it published. I’m hoping it won’t be four months next time.
Githmi Rabel is Senior Opinion Editor. Email her at
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