The Ugly Duckling

I was reading the New York Times’ piece on campus suicide here and this analogy was presented about the proverbial happy face many of us put:

“A duck appears to glide calmly across the water, while beneath the surface it frantically, relentlessly paddles.”

And that analogy just blew my mind because it so perfectly fits. Ducks are quite literally gliding on a surface, but what’s “below the surface”? A frantically paddling duck. Likewise, especially in the age of social media, the torment of social comparison is more pronounced than ever and allows us to more readily put on that selective happy face for our followers across the platforms.

This is what we do to make it through life, though. We sometimes have to put the social mask on in order to hide the personal despair. It’s about survival. And in some ways, it’s somewhat normal to do; we wear different masks. And in some cases, as in the aforementioned article when people are dealing with anxiety and depression, it can have devastating consequences.

I, of course, am not immune to the mask or the duck analogy here. Of course, I live a pretty privileged life. I’m white. I’m male. Those are two heavy factors in my favor before you even get into my middle class status, my two parents, and all that flows from those factors. So, yes, on the surface I look like I have a lot going for me.

Which I do: I’m in a good house, I have a dog, I’m attending a university with a good position on the student newspaper and I just had the good fortune to attend an internship in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

All of which is to say, it always makes me uncomfortable to write about these types of things because it clashes with that perception of my privilege. Oh, he must just be exaggerating or being dramatic for the sake of writing or whatever the case is. But it’s not like that and I’m not out here to prove it. The writing speaks to the feelings and that’s all I can speak to. They’re authentic as far as I know them.

So, I learned about the possibility of the summer internship in early May. Then didn’t hear anything for three weeks. Then I pestered the editor out there if was going to consider me or not. Whelp, he wanted me and I wanted to go — of course, me being me, it was a whimsical thing, I hadn’t actually thought through the logistics of getting all the way out there for an unpaid internship. After coming to terms with that reality, I had to go back and decline going out West for the internship; it was going to cost too much money.

In that intervening period of about two weeks where I didn’t think I was going, I was in a really dark place and space in my head. Before me was a summer of nothingness, another internship and opportunity squandered and all of it was perpetuated by the folly of social comparison; look at all my peers doing these amazing things and here I am, with nothing ahead of me. That’s the problem with social comparison — I’m cognizant that it’s a “folly,” but that doesn’t stop me from partaking. Not to mention, I then had school to return to in late August and before school, which now is less than two weeks away, I always get down for a myriad of reasons, primarily again the social comparison and the feeling of individual failure.

Suffice it to say, taking all of that into one mangled mind mess, I was having a difficult envisioning myself making it past August. Like as a breathing human being, to be clear. And again, as I write that, it makes seem like I’m being overly dramatic, but that’s where my head space was in those two weeks. In the previously linked NYT piece, the main subject talks about buying razor blades and writing goodbye letters and even cutting to get used to the sensation. It’s hard for me to fathom ever taking those real-world steps to, well, leave the real world, but the overwhelming thought was there that I wouldn’t allow myself to get to the end of August.

It’s hard to say what this summer would be like had I not gone to Colorado and had I arrived at the doorstep of September. I really can’t fathom myself taking such drastic steps, but again, I’m just speaking to what my mindset was in late May and early June. Which is why I like to think my journalism professor at Miami that stepped up and got me the financial assistance needed to make the trip and internship to Colorado happen, in a real sense, not only saved my life, but changed it in immeasurable ways. I now have under my belt this wonderful experience with a newspaper that’ll look good in the future, as well as just the individual confidence that accrued in knowing I could make it all the way out West and thrive in something I wasn’t sure I could thrive in.

Keep in mind, I went out there as a philosophy major, having only taken three journalism courses and written three straight up news stories in my life against another intern that not only was a journalism major, but had way more news writing experience than me. I’m not saying that as a humble brag or anything like that — I’m saying that to explain how terrified I was to jump into the deep end in Colorado. But I knew once I had the financial means to do, that I had to do it. I needed the opportunity, not just for my sanity and mental health, but for my future.

I hope one day I can repay that professor and that’s again what I mean about the seemingly privileged status I enjoy. I’m sure there are a plethora of other wonderful, amazing students at Miami and elsewhere that, if just given such an opportunity, would excel, but they don’t have the fortune of being under the umbrella of a good professor with connections.

All of that being said, there were some dark moments even in Colorado. I had moments of self-doubt and moments where I felt like I had merely up and moved my mental baggage to Colorado. I was still in the same mindset, but in merely in a more beautiful place. Part of that is the cruel domain of the writer; the cycle that writers talk about between the high of a produced story and the low of “what’s next?” And part of that was that mental baggage, unfortunately cares not for a change of scenery.

And there are still dark moments now. Remember, I said the impending school year always brings those about. But, perhaps, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. If all goes smoothly, I should graduate by May, 2017 and with the help of this professor, I now have more possibilities post-graduation.

I guess sometimes you gotta keep gliding even when it’s hard because, who knows, there might be someone out there tossing you a piece of bread. I’m stretching the metaphor, but you get it.

I try to talk about these experiences not only because I find them personally carthartic, but because I hope somewhere someone out there may be able to relate and keep pushing on, keep pushing against the overwhelming pressure of life. Sometimes at night, life feels like it’s piling bricks on my chest and I literally get a physical feeling of intense pressure in my chest and stomach, which seems like anxiety, but yeah, it’s a shitty feeling, but then I wake up and I keep going. Some days are easier than others. All the privilege in the world can’t change the tricks the mind plays.

Keep pushing. It’s corny, I know, but there’s, as Coates would say, immense reward innately in the struggle itself. And that’s what life is, ain’t it? A constant struggle and an act of resistance against the impossible.

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