Lately, I’ve become increasingly aware of how impossible it is to understand someone else’s brain. This is a tragic epiphany.
If you’ve met me, you might know that I’m a big fan of “deep talks.” Whether it’s bonding with my roommates or with strangers at a frat party, I have a weird habit of staring people earnestly in the eyes and asking them: “What’s your biggest dream in life? What are you afraid of? Tell me about your childhood.” (Yes, I’m not even kidding. Now you know to steer clear of me at frat parties.)
If we’re friends, you might also know that my mom’s a therapist, and I’m a member of A Place to Talk (the University’s peer listening group), and I will smite you if you denigrate the importance of mental health.
But putting all of this aside, I’ve come to realize lately that even the best listeners can’t take a dip into someone else’s consciousness. We’re all living our own personal narratives; we’re all the protagonists of our own coming-of-age indie films. No one knows exactly what anyone else around them is feeling or experiencing.
This became relevant to me as, in my past three years at Hopkins, I’ve slowly come to understand and cope with my own mental health.
These days, I am lucky enough to have an extremely strong support system. My friends at Hopkins are some of the most big-hearted, empathetic people I know, and they will always, without fail, listen to my haphazard ramblings and validate my feelings.
Despite this, I still sometimes feel a profound lack of openness on this campus. I see people sprinting from one class to the next, sweat dripping down their foreheads, looking like an apocalypse-fearing Tom Cruise in War of the Worlds; I see people on C-level at 2 a.m. hunched over their laptops, their eyes Etch-a-Sketched with red.
I ask these people (often my friends) how they’re doing, and they either lie and say “okay” or parrot the Hopkins catch-all response “I’m stressed.”
News flash: Stress is not an emotion. I know school here can wring the life out of you until you’re like a dry sponge, but sometimes I’m convinced that all people need is a little honesty. We waste so much time pretending like sleep deprivation is okay. We waste so much time pretending like we’re okay rather than asking for what we need or addressing what’s going on in our brains in the first place.
So I guess, to create the culture I’d like to live in, I’m using this article as an experiment of full disclosure. I’m an angsty 21 year old, and here’s what happens in my brain:
For me, anxiety is mood swings: highs and lows. Energy and drive during the day tells me I can accomplish anything I set my mind to. I can write a screenplay, I can take 18 credits, I can perform a TED Talk about love on a national stage, I can create a successful nonprofit initiative inspiring young girls to gain confidence through theater and improv games.
These hypothetical accomplishments imbue my brain with color — images of a smiling Lily on a stage in front of hundreds, shaking the hand of George Clooney as he hands off a Nobel Peace Prize (Why is George Clooney there? I’m not sure. Just go with it) — and I strut through my day with confidence and poise as Frank Ocean’s “Futura Free” provides an optimistic soundtrack to my cinematic life.
But then hours pass, and the day isn’t as cinematic as I’d planned. I get distracted.
I spend 45 minutes getting sidetracked in a deep talk with that friend I haven’t seen for months. I’m late to class. I spend $4 on iced coffee from Brody to hashtag treat myself and then later curse myself for lavishness.
I do four unnecessary favors for distant acquaintances, because I’m incapable of saying no. I cram in an hour at the gym to eradicate the adrenaline. I type frantically until I’ve finally finished all tomorrow’s work at 1:39 a.m., and when I finally crash in bed, I’m utterly spent. Exhausted. Depleted. As I lie awake in the approximately 17 uneasy minutes before consciousness gives way for sleep, that’s when the low hits.
And when I say hit, I mean kamikaze into my skull. In the darkness and solitude, my mind allows itself to entertain all the worst thoughts it has been so kindly suppressing during my waking hours.
Thoughts like: You aren’t good enough, and you’re wasting your parents’ money, and you’ll never be as kind or giving or influential as you want to be. You’re lazy, you’re screwing up, it’s too late to change, nothing’s ever gonna go your way, nothing’s ever gonna live up to your expectations.
My mind is so talented at torture. It stings me where I’m weakest, and even when I know wholeheartedly that these awful things aren’t reality — I’m hardworking and determined and kind, I whisper back to myself in the 1:43 a.m. haze — my mind does an excellent job at convincing me otherwise.
So I lie there and I breathe and I contradict the self-deprecations until calm-Lily overcomes anxiety-Lily and sleep pulls me in ungracefully. Sometimes I don’t catch the anxiety in time, and I dream of a vengeful God, feuding parents or public disgrace.
But if all goes well (I remember to meditate, I listen to smooth jazz, I turn off my phone at 11:45 p.m. and I paint the insides of my eyelids with the faces of my loved ones), then — then, unconsciousness is bliss. I’m anxiety-free.
I dream of lush meadows and European streets and summer camp, of ballroom dancing and music festivals and forehead kisses. It’s lovely. Lucky for me, these nights far outweigh the nightmarish ones. Despite it all, sleep is still one of my top five favorite activities.
Yes this is a very upsetting description, but I promise you, I am doing wonderfully. In my opinion (and I know, as a mental health-obsessed, therapist’s daughter, I am biased), understanding your brain’s virtues and vices is the bravest and most powerful thing you can do. Self-disclosure is not everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s my best mug of Earl Grey in the morning, so from now on, I’m going to be as honest as possible.
But I promise, if you pass me on Gilman Quad and throw me a perfunctory, “How are you?” I’ll do my best not to make you late for class.