TERESA: It’s the summer before my freshman year at MIT. And I’m sitting down to play in the professional pit orchestra for a production. But as I watched the conductor lift his baton for us to begin, I look over at my viola, and I look down at my music, and I realize that I just physically can’t play.
And at this point, I’ve played viola for many years. And for this performance, specifically, I’ve practiced the music. I’ve listened to the recordings for hours. I should be prepared. But as I’m sitting there, as everyone’s watching me, waiting for me to play, I realize that I can’t even make a sound.
I’m no stranger to mental health issues. And even then, I knew that that moment in the pit orchestra was part of something much bigger than just stage fright. But I had always prided myself on my self-reliance. Although I knew that something was wrong, I told myself that I should just push through.
As I transition from high school to college, many people pointed at my history of accomplishments, my perfect test scores, my awards and scholarships, my being valedictorian, and then getting into somewhere like MIT as though it were proof that I was just accelerating toward greater things. One of my sisters once got a concussion. One day, she was riding her bike when she skidded on something in the road, careened into a fence, and slammed head-first into the concrete.
The way that she has described those weeks she spent trying to recover from this bike accident, the headaches, the dizziness, the heaviness, the darkness, it’s the closest thing that I found to describing the way that I felt my freshmen fall at MIT. I knew that being a student at MIT was not supposed to be easy, especially given everything that I put on my plate. But what I was feeling seemed wildly out of proportion, completely different from what I thought of as normal college stresses.
My brain felt like it was curdled in my head. My hair felt like sharp, spiky static. My skin felt like it was crawling, itching, so much so, that I felt like I was going to explode.
Nevertheless, I managed to still go through the motions of daily life. I was doing all right in my classes. I was meeting people and getting involved in activities. So on paper, everything seemed fine. But in reality, I was digging myself deeper and deeper down.
By the time that the pandemic hit in the spring, I felt like I was trying to drive a car, but somebody had taken away the wheels. I could no longer pretend that things were normal. My academic performance was taking a noticeable hit. My relationships with other people were beginning to become frayed. Everything that I had once considered effortless had now become impossible.
And when Mitt sent us home, I found myself retreating into my viola playing and music, not because it was something that I particularly enjoyed doing much anymore, more just because I wanted to prove to myself that there was still something that I was still capable of doing. One day, as I was practicing my viola, I felt a slight tingling in my left hand, but I decided to ignore it and just keep going. Well, that’s slight tingling became a sharp burning sensation. And I ended up getting an X-ray of my hand. But believe it or not, that X-ray of my hand came back completely normal, despite my left hand feeling like it was on fire.
And that’s when I realized that even if others can’t see the injury, even if it’s invisible on an X-ray scan, that doesn’t make it any less real. So I spent 2 and 1/2 months without my viola, without music resting my hand, and for the first time, truly allowing myself to press pause and let myself recover. Since then, I’ve been working on rebuilding myself little by little. I’ve been revisiting projects and friendships that I set aside during the worst of the times.
And recovery hasn’t happened overnight. There are definitely still days where I feel like I’m going to burst out of my skin or that I’m being suffocated by darkness. But there are more moments now where I feel better. The other day, I realized just out of the blue that I felt happy to be alive. And that was amazing because it had been a really long time since I had remembered feeling that way. Now, I’ve learned to really be patient with myself and to trust myself, reminding myself that I’m doing the best I can in any given moment and that that. Is enough.