Copyright ©2017 by Baheya Zeitoun. All rights reserved.
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Darkness Lay Ahead
Phase 1: The Acceptance Letter
After years of strife, she finally got accepted to graduate school. The letter glared at her tauntingly, egging her on, drawing her in with promises of a glamourous future, but she was repelled by its fallacious claims and frightened by the looming threat ahead. Mentally calculating her upcoming expenses, she realized that the tuition was manageable, the living expenses were bearable and the trip as a whole was somewhat feasible, yet the experience ceased to excite her. And what she had once longed for became the very source of her anxiety. Confused and stunned, she continued to stare at her computer screen for the remainder of the afternoon and tried to ignore her initial reaction while attempting to make a rational decision.
I will accept the offer. I should. It’s the right thing to do. I have to. I’ve worked so hard for this. It the right thing to do. It’s what I’m supposed to do. It’s the next step. I have no job, no responsibilities, and no reason to withdraw. Right?
But this year was hell! And I would have to cancel my vacation. I really need my vacation. I need it more than school and work. But I’ve been saving for graduate school since graduation. I tolerated a job I didn’t care for and gave up many opportunities for this. So why do I still feel like I should withdraw?
Maybe because this was my backup program, because I got rejected from every school that offered the program I actually desired. Or maybe because I just quit a job that has burnt me out and I don’t wish to replace it with another more stressful experience. Or maybe because I don’t want to drain my entire savings account. Or maybe because I don’t really need another degree in the humanities. I also desperately need a vacation! It seems frivolous, but I do. What am I going to do?
As her thoughts clawed their way into her dreams, she struggled to sleep. Tossing and turning until her morning alarm shocked her back to reality, and forced her to begin a new day. Her final work week was a blur, sleeping-walking through it with this life-altering decision strapped to her ankle.
Phase 2: Guilt
“Mum, I got accepted,” she said.
“Congratulations, honey! I had a feeling you’d get in this time,” said her mother, hugging her tightly.
“I don’t want to go.”
“What?! But why?”
She tried to explain to her mother that without funding the endeavor would be rather costly, however her mother wouldn’t hear it.
“You’ve saved up most of the money and I’ll help you with the rest, we’ve talked about this before. So why is it suddenly a concern?”
She stood silently before her mother, unable to explain her guilt. The guilt of being a burden on her mother, the woman who sacrificed everything to raise her and her sister. Being a single mother in an unforgiving society, she had to battle the challenges of everyday life while providing for two teenagers. She taught them to work hard and value education above all else; ‘it is an investment in yourself’, she would always say. But with college debts repaid and their financial situation stable for the first time in over a decade, did she really want to take their family back to those days for a degree that wasn’t essential to her future?
Furthermore, she and her mother were the only two left. Her sister, the most ambitious in the family, got a partial scholarship to study in a highly prestigious school abroad. Knowing how hard she had worked for it and how much she deserved it, her mother supported her in every way until she got settled in. Always the over-achiever, her sister made them proud. But when the time came for her to step out of the comfort of her home, she became overwhelmed by guilt, anxiety and an inexplicable sense that she was making a grave mistake.
Dreams of travel, freedom, adventure and exploration were washed away by daunting societal expectations and job-market requirements. And beliefs that once dominated her every thought quickly became nonsensical, as fear slowly blinded her judgement.
Phase 3: People
Plagued with indecisiveness and self-doubt, she consulted her friends and family in the hopes that their views might assist her with her predicament.
“This is an excellent opportunity. Don’t worry about the money, as I said before it will be taken care of. You’ve wanted this and have been working towards it for years, and you know it will open a few doors in the future. Plus living alone will give you a great degree of independence and help you mature.”
“You finally got in. Now you have the chance to leave. More importantly you know, as well as I do, that a bachelor’s degree is no better than high school diploma these days. You need an edge to compete in the job market. And a few years of work experience doesn’t cut it anymore.”
“Do whatever feels right for you, but don’t overwhelm yourself. If you really feel that you can’t handle it, then you probably can’t. This isn’t a joke or a decision you can make on a whim. It’s very difficult and you need to be up for it.”
“Are you insane?! What do you mean you don’t want to go? Have you completely lost your mind? You’ve been pursing and talking about graduate school since you graduated and now you’re going to let fear get in the way of your future?”
“You owe it to yourself to go. Opportunities like these don’t come around every day.”
“Don’t do it. If you’re having such a strong negative reaction towards it, then it’s certainly wrong for you. In hind-sight, I wouldn’t have gone through with my own degree, had I known how things would turn out. It’s a cheat I’m telling you, wasn’t worth the effort or the money. Plus you can’t start a stressful phase in your life, when you’re already burnt out. It would ruin you.”
Gut- Instinct: Don’t go. Don’t go. Don’t go.
Once the lights were out and opinions stopped swimming in her mind, once rationality could no longer influence her thoughts, she heard the warning of her beating heart; a menacing drumming alerting an attack.
Phase 4: Anxiety Attacks
Faster and faster and faster her heart beat, splitting her chest and burning her inside-out. The pain she couldn’t endure and the fear she couldn’t cease. Alarms warning her of a danger to come, imploring her to stop, to think of the choice she was about to make. They urged her to reconsider, but how could she pass on an opportunity so great. Eventually her internal sirens disrupted her sleep, forcing her to lie awake every night. Later her food lost its taste, discouraging her to take another bite. Finally her stomach wrung itself, expelling the food from her body entirely. And with that she began to lose weight. Secretly she admired her slimmer form, but realistically she was concerned and so was her mother.
As the attacks continued with regularity, she lost her ability to make this monumental decision. In this constant state of fear and agitation, even the simplest daily tasks became not only a burden but an impossibility. Frazzled and on-edge or distant and aloof were her only moods for the better part of a month. And while her mental state deteriorated with every new sunrise, she was required to take every step needed to insure that she doesn’t lose her place at the university. But even though the admissions office, her friends and her family believed she was pursing this degree, she knew deep within her soul that it was all a ruse, a fallacy that cannot continue. Armed by this belief she prayed every night for the proceedings to fall apart, but to her dismay they moved along swimmingly.
I don’t want to let them down, and I don’t want to deny myself this chance. I don’t want to be ungrateful. But if it’s truly a gift, why are my heart and body rejecting it?
Make it go away. Make it go away. Make it go away.
In clusters of three she would repeat the phrases she needed to come true without any intervention on her part. But even though she knew that this practice was nonsensical and characteristic of obsessive behavior, her ability to control these thoughts became as impossible as her ability to control her escalating heart-rate and cramping stomach. The vicious cycle eventually paralyzed her mind and hindered her cognitive faculties.
Make it go away.
Make it go away.
Make it go away.
Phase 5: The Process
Though her emotions have taken over every aspect of her life, she knew that a decision had to be made. So after consulting her friends, family, logic, rationality and popular social views, she began the tedious process towards her degree. As an international student, she needed to book an appointment at the embassy, secure a room at the dorms, buy a plane ticket and exchange her local currency to that of her host country. However, these steps were much easier listed than achieved.
For starters the first appointment available at the embassy was after she was expected to arrive on campus. Therefore she had to send an appeal to the consul to ask for an earlier date. Why am I doing this? As she waited for a response, she worked on the daunting task of finding accommodation. And since the dorms had no available rooms, she was required to find an alternate situation, thus started the most exhausting aspect of the process. Drowning in an endless sea of rooms, rent prices, potential roommates, google maps, comparison tables and emails, she couldn’t shake off her lack of enthusiasm about the whole affair.
During her first round of applications, she began searching for accommodation before submitting her applications. Excited about her future studies and elated by the prospects that lay ahead, she fantasized about walking through each of those campuses and pictured herself a citizen of their cities. However, the fantasies quickly disappeared with every new rejection letter, washing away her excitement and her desire to pursue an advanced degree.
Nevertheless as her job drained the life out of her, the option appealed to her once more. Without a fraction of the enthusiasm or optimism that had filled her during her first attempt, she applied to a similar program in a different country. And since her heart was detached from the start, it brought her to her present conundrum. Torn between logic and desire, she scrolled through some housing options, as her mother watched her dig herself deeper into a hopeless situation.
So as not to influence her decision or push her away from an excellent opportunity, her mother assisted her in her search. With limited means, overwhelming options and insufficient knowledge, the two struggled to find a suitable room. Meanwhile, her appeal was accepted and she was granted an earlier appointment that would better accommodate her travel date. Thus she was expected to provide a final acceptance letter, proof of housing, and a flight ticket in the span of three weeks. While the time-frame might seem sufficient for some, she felt that every passing second was a freshly sharpened blade cutting through her flesh, bleeding her slowly but surely.
In order for the university to send her a final acceptance letter she need to pay the tuition. Simple enough? No. As the transfer had to be made in a foreign currency, she was faced with a new obstacle. The depressing state of the economy played a detrimental role in the devaluation of her local currency, and to make matters worse there was a severe shortage of hard currency in the country, thus forcing people to resort to the black market. With that phenomenon in mind, she struggled even further with her decision, as it increased the tuition by over thirty percent. Quite a significant jump when considering the initial amount. Further aggravating the situation was the fact that the devaluation was expected to continue at a rapid pace for several months to come. The numbers brought on a new wave of panic, one more disastrous than the last. Like a computer in need of rebooting her mind simply froze, putting her in a permanent state of mental paralysis for over a week. In the mean-time she expected to fully commit to her decision, the one she knew would break her down completely.
After paying her tuition, her brain was finally able to react and that reaction unleased the horror within. Cascading tears, uncontrollable trembling, insomnia, entrapment, complete loss of appetite and a sense of hopelessness, were all brought about simultaneously. There was nothing she could do anymore. As she prayed for relief, she realized that she was in need of professional help.
Phase 6: The Psychiatrist
Knowing that the situation has gone above and beyond her control, she took an appointment with a psychiatrist. The doctor was a family friend and agreed to speak to her immediately. On the way to the office she couldn’t believe how far she had fallen and couldn’t wrap her head around the severity of her situation, on the other hand, a part of her found her reaction to be exaggerated. Most people endure more troublesome circumstances without it gravely affecting their mental health. Nevertheless, she was unable to control the pounding in the chest, which silenced her doubts.
Feeling ridiculous and immature, she began her session. But as her defensive nature took full control of the conversation, it shielded her from displaying her anxiety to a stranger. She was thus able to make an excellent first impression by appearing balanced and poised, leaving the doctor slightly perplexed. On her way out, the doctor prescribed an anti-anxiety drug to calm her nerves and advised her to go through with her program.
“It is a rare chance that doesn’t come to many in life. I believe you are more than capable of taking care of yourself and your studies, you’ll be fine.”
Once she was back in the security of her home, her act disintegrated and her fears resurfaced, nullifying the effect of the visit entirely. She tried to make use of the prescribed medicating, hoping it might help. But upon reading its side-effects, she refused to take a single pill, thereby starting the cycle once more. She returned to the tears and the screams, which drained her and worried her mother.
Phase 7: Dread and Regret
An overwhelming feeling of dread seeped through her flesh accompanied by the familiar shrill of regret. As her inability to take concrete decisions continued to overshadow her presence in the day, she hid in the tranquil comfort of her bedroom. But to her dismay it offered her neither tranquility nor comfort, instead the events of the past two days plucked at the wires of her brain creating the most disturbing tune.
When life hands you everything you thought you desired, you should jump up and grab it. Shouldn’t you? But why am I not jumping? Why am I dying on the inside and wishing I hadn’t paid the tuition? After all, that’s what I’ve been saving towards all these years, right?
No it isn’t. That’s a lie. I’ve been saving for the program that rejected me. And now I’m wondering why I even bothered applying to this one. Am I so desperate for a change in situation that I’m willing to throw myself into shark-infested water to get there? Is my life here really that bad? And even if it is, would moving make it better?
The courses don’t interest me anymore, I’m not even vaguely familiar with the language of the country, and I can’t even find a suitable room to sleep in at the end of the day. Here, on the other hand, I have shelter, a support system, friends, connections, why am I willing to throw all of this away? For an extra line on my resume and a certificate on the wall. Two years without work, with the added mental, emotional and financial stress, why? What is the true purpose behind this move? I don’t even know anymore. And if I need convincing from so many people, doesn’t that tell me that it’s probably wrong to begin with. Also, when will I break the loop?*
As a new wave of anxiety surfaced from the depth of her mind, it brought along an unwelcomed friend: paranoia. Awake, alert and imprisoned by doubt, she sat up in her bed clutching her pillow and wish she would be awoken from this perilous nightmare. While the loop aggravated her distress and worsened her dilemma, it was the worrying about the financial burden and the years of unavoidable tension that disrupted her sleep.
*The Loop: A cycle of repeating similar events or finding oneself back in the same situation every few years, thereby creating a life of stagnation.
Phase 8: The Choice
“I will withdraw,” she told her mother one night.
Her mother nodded. She didn’t seem surprised by the news and appeared to have been waiting for it. Knowing the nature of her daughter and putting into consideration her recent psychological state, she expected her to come to that conclusion. While she had hoped that she would follow in her sister’s footsteps and forge her own path in a better place, she was relieved. Not only because it was the right decision, given the circumstances, but because she couldn’t conceive being abandoned by another one of her children. Some may have thought it selfish, but as much as she dreamed of her children’s happiness, she wished that they would always remain close.
After delivering the news to her mother and then her sister, who too wasn’t surprised by her decision, she was enveloped by a vaguely familiar sense of calm. While many might scrutinize her for her actions; calling her rash, ignorant, idiotic, shallow, or even spoiled, she knew that was her best option. And even though her situation may not seem relatable and her conundrum may appear frivolous, every person has to one day make a difficult decision and this was her choice.