Not Yours to Hold

“Last week was a week spent in denial. I feel like I haven’t had a moment to myself to not only catch a break, but to catch up with my thoughts and process how I feel.”

I can’t remember the last time I felt this perpetually tired. If I had to hazard a guess, it must’ve been 2 years ago, when I was still in Singapore. I was recently reminded that the workload I’ve had to deal with during Launch (a workload imposed by none other than myself) is unsustainable. I knew that to be true, but deep down this incessant feeling of fatigue and panic, felt normal. Worse, it doesn’t even come close to how hard I worked myself during my busiest times as a student in Singapore. I’m actually sleeping and eating regularly, exercising too. Yet for all my efforts, I feel like what I’m doing will never be enough.

The busy-ness seemed to come to an all-time high this week, as everything I’ve set up the past couple of weeks finally came together. I had signed up for multiple volunteer opportunities, a pilates class, 2 piano lessons, and even an evening venture to Oakland to see a movie and take photos and footage. All of this happened on top of my already extensive UnCollege commitments such as showing up for workshops, internship prep and even taking over the UnCollege Snapchat account for the week.

My coach, who has a tendency to mess around, starts climbing up on the banister of the conference room. When he turns to me and asks if I want to try climbing up there, I internally shrug and think why not. Maybe getting off the ground will help me put things in perspective.

Whenever I fall into an endless rush of things to do, my work ethic kicks in, my autopilot mode falls into place. And while being in autopilot does give me an almost superhuman ability to Get Shit Done, it comes at the cost of ignoring valuable, introspective me time which results in me repressing any and all emotions.

I must admit, in an almost masochistic way, I love being so busy that I nearly run myself into the ground. It means I’m on a roll, on my way to finally being productive enough that my dreams start to take concrete shape. I simply have to keep this precarious balancing act stable just enough to keep it all from collapsing. If I do burn out and end up passed out from the fatigue, I’d wear a hospital visit like a badge of honor, a sign that it makes me one of them, the truly successful, and not some cautionary tale of ambition gone too far.

“Pretend that I’m not here and this is the break you’ve been wanting to get. What are you thinking about?”

One simple question from my coach while I’m a few feet off the ground leaves me dumb-founded. I panic at first, because I realize I’m not really thinking about anything. I’m spacing out. But I pull my head out of the clouds and force myself to confront the tiny little voice I’ve been ignoring.

“Um, I think about what’s happened since I got to San Francisco, all the things I’ve done. And I’ve done a lot. I think about how much time I have left and how much I want to make the most out of it. I think about *** and how much I worry about him, even when he probably doesn’t deserve it. I think about Tina and Sidney, and how close we’ve become as friends in the span of 6 weeks, which is kind of a big deal for me. I think about how I have no idea what’s going to happen after Launch, and that scares the hell out of me.” I pause as I choke up and feel the tears roll down my cheek.

I had a lot of breakthroughs up on that banister. I voiced out deep-seated fears that I probably would’ve keep on ignoring by focusing on work.

“I’m scared that once all of this is over, I’ll undo all the progress I’ve made. I’ll go back to being the person I was before Tanzania, before UnCollege. I’m scared that once I do let myself have a break, I won’t be able to start again. That the break will be so comfortable, I won’t want to do anything else. What scares me the most, is that I kind of want to. Want to take a permanent break, because it’s easier that way. I’m just so tired. I want this all to stop.”

I am barely keeping myself together. And odd thing is, it’s not the work that is driving me onto the brink of insanity. The work is my one saving grace, the one thing forcing me to get my shit together long enough to keep on going. To stop now—not even stop but to pause now—would mean giving myself a chance to unravel.

And I can’t afford to do that right now. Not even for myself. I have other people depending on me, depending on me to keep myself together. Falling apart, even momentarily, would only mean letting them down—and that could have dire consequences.

“I have a best friend, he’s bipolar. He used to be a lot worse before I urged him to see someone. Now he’s on medication and doing a lot better. But he depends on me a lot, I’m really the only person he talks to about his issues. After the panic attack, I just felt so fragile, I wasn’t sure if I could handle his issues on top of my own. So one time I remember getting a phone call from him, picking up at 4am. He’s out of it and not making any sense. He’s crying his eyes out and he’s hallucinating too. Keeps on saying he’s hearing voices. Then he hangs up. And I’m terrified. I’m half-way across the world so I can’t even go and see if he’s okay. I call up everyone I know. They had to break down his door and he… And I know I can’t be responsible, if something did happen while his brain was… off. But I still think about it. Think about what if something did happen, worse, what if it happened because I wasn’t there, wasn’t willing to pick up the phone and be there for him. I just can’t…”

I cried in a way that I felt like I’ve never cried before. I suddenly felt this deep ache in my chest as the floodgates opened and for a moment, I feared they would never stop. Because how are you supposed to respond to this constant fear that letting someone down could mean leaving them to die by their own hand?

“It is not yours to hold.”

My coach repeats this to me several times, and each time it only elicits a new burst of tears from me. I still wonder why exactly did those words made me cry. Did I feel comforted and relieved to hear something I know to be true be confirmed by someone else? To have that sense of responsibility and guilt be absolved? Or did the confirmation ring hollow? Did hearing exactly what I wanted to hear make me realize that words, in the end, provide very little comfort, do nothing to get rid of the fear I cannot help but feel?

If I’ve learned anything these past couple of weeks, it’s that I have a very low opinion of myself. I hold no significance in my own eyes, and perhaps, in an act of desperation, I cling onto the notion that by devoting myself to the need of others, I can erase myself in a way that has purpose, in a way that at least saves someone, gives them life in my place.

It is not yours to hold.

I know it isn’t. But I don’t know what else to call mine.

—Karin Novelia, waiting for the sadness to stop but it just keeps on going

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