About a week ago I needed to write a final history essay on a chapter from a book I didn’t own, so I borrowed one from a classmate. I went to the library meaning to photocopy the 60 pages I needed when the librarian suggested a new machine that takes photos of the pages, turns them into pdf files, which you can then send to your email via the machine. He warned me the files may be too large to send, but I didn’t understand him at first, so I photographed all the pages and when I went to email them, the machine alerted me the file size was too large. I had to start all over again, take 10-12 pages at a time, and send each batch to myself so in the end I’d have about 5 pdf files. Undaunted, I revved up the machine again, finished the job and left the library with my 60 pages safe in my email. The entire thing took about 20 minutes.
I called my mom later to chat and when I mentioned this story she said something that really blew my mind.
“Pre-Gap Year Camille would never have reacted like that.”
I was shocked. She, as usual, was absolutely right.
For you to understand the extent of my shock at this observation, I need to tell you the story of my junior year of high school when everything went wrong. Those of you who know me personally are definitely all too familiar with this story.
Junior year of high school sucked. It was horrible. It was “that year” most teenagers go through. My high school was fairly renowned, we had a brand new shiny building for all these upper middle class rich white kids to go to and come out Harvard-bound. Proud parents always boasted that their teens were pushed to the limit at this school, and went to college extremely prepared (this is a fact- college is so much easier than high school for sure, but at what cost?).
Junior year happened to be the toughest year for us because everyone had a “junior thesis” to complete in their history class. I made the unfortunate and frankly stupid decision to take AP U.S. History, one of the toughest AP courses (for non-Americans reading this: Advanced Placement courses were university level courses meant to be used for university credit later), therefore not only was I looking forward to writing a junior thesis, but an AP thesis at that. All year I never did well in that class, and I felt like the teacher really despised me. She always complained that I brought her class averages down (I mean…she wasn’t wrong, but that wasn’t a very motivational thing to tell me), and suggested I drop out ASAP. I kept saying “no, I really think I can do this…”
Looking back I should have swallowed my pride and dropped out to the normal level, but I thought I was giving myself a challenge. You see to me, living in this privileged suburb of Boston alongside high-achieving students made me think “challenging myself” meant forgetting personal, mental, and physical health in order to push myself to my limits to achieve some silly goal meant to impress or intimidate others. Now I know challenges should be worked towards in a positive way that promotes self-growth and empowerment, for a goal that satisfies YOURSELF. Why did I care so much to stay in that AP course? (It didn’t even pay off in the end at all, I didn’t get a high enough grade on the AP exam to gain college credit!)
So I had that going for me. Then in October of the start of that year my friend’s sister took her own life. She was only a year older than me. It was a very publicized ordeal and it hit the community hard. Later, two more students from the other high school committed suicide as well. People blamed it on the “culture” of our town; the social and academic pressures on students from peers and parents, depression, stress, etc…
In January, exactly a week before my own birthday, my American grandpa passed away of Parkinson’s disease. It took him a whole week to actually die. I couldn’t recognize his person by the end. He was basically a skeleton. I can still remember his piercing blue eyes staring up at me the last time I saw him.
During this time I was also involved in a musical theater production. Again, as always, our high-achieving high school was proud of its theater productions, “13 shows a year!” And it was true, our shows were exceptionally good. It demanded a lot of work for such an impressive outcome. And it demanded effort to put up with many of the people working alongside me. So here I was, juggling AP History, a thesis, two personal deaths, thinking about university, and staying after school until 11pm every night for two weeks before opening night. I was exhausted. I was stressed out. I was fed up. And I eventually became depressed.
I started having more anxiety. I couldn’t fall asleep. My mind would keep me awake with evil voices inside my head telling me I wasn’t good enough, I wasn’t worth anything, I wasn’t deserving of achievement or happiness. I’d be better off dead.
Thankfully I had one great friend who noticed I was starting to say dangerous things, and she notified the administration. I was taken out of school and sent to a therapist. I was given prescription medication. Honestly, I was upset at first, but looking back if it weren’t for that friend I probably wouldn’t be here today.
So now you sort of understand the mindset I was in, what I was dealing with. Everyday was an effort. I don’t mean to sound dramatic, but when this is all you’ve known your teenage life, you expect all life to be this way: Unhappy, stressful, and useless. The littlest things made me upset and stressed out. Missing my bus home, even when the walk was only about a half-hour, was the end of the world. Getting dressed in the morning, thinking I looked ugly and stupid in whatever I was wearing, getting anxious at the slightest hints that someone was disappointed in me, I was like a ticking time bomb of self-loathing.
So imagine pre-gap year Camille trying to photograph 60 pages for an essay, and then having to do it all over again.
You see now just how correct my mother was.
Going abroad for a year, away from my town and everybody in it, never having to see my peers ever again if I wished, was a breath of fresh air to me. Granted, I experienced tough situations there too, but I experienced them with a different lens. I could be myself, and I learned that people loved me just the was I was. My new real friends are worth more than 1000 fake ones. I’m appreciated. I’m free. Post-gap year Camille reacts differently. She is positive, independent and thriving.
So give me 150 pages to photocopy. Give me 200. Have me screw it up and have to redo it.
I won’t mind. I can always start over and try again.
All photos by Thacher Andrae