As cliched and cheesy as it may sound, the best piece of advice I ever received was to be myself. But it didn’t feel cliched and cheesy because it came with context; it came from a clinical psychiatrist; it came after a torrent of tear-fall went down in his presence.
I was six months away from my final exams, one month away from my thesis submission, and I felt I couldn’t possibly get through either. I recounted my fears to him – how I always got through things through sheer dumb luck, how I never put in the necessary effort, and how it was not going to work this time.
“Has it worked before?”
“When I got through the entrance exam and got into medicine. Every one of my exams at college. When I got through the entrance exam and got into the post-graduate course here.”
“And you do not see a pattern?”
Of course, I saw a pattern. I saw myself getting past things because luck favoured me, and living in fear of the day when I would be found out. It was a fluke, every time. It had happened before every exam, the fear of that moment of disappointment in everyone’s eyes when they realized I wasn’t who they thought I was. And it was happening again. The last-minute panic, overnight scrumming and getting through with good-enough results that always made me wonder why I hadn’t started earlier and done better. Reached my potential. If I had done that, I might have gotten into the college at Trivandrum. I might have procured better marks at every exam. I wouldn’t have to cringe during viva at the external examiner’s remarks.
“But you always did get through?”
“If it worked every other time, what makes you think it won’t work this time?”
I was stumped. “Because luck runs out?”
He proceeded to tell me, with perhaps just the slightest shadow of grudge in his voice, about how he had always worked really hard at everything, but he had friends who would not put in half the effort and still scored better than he did. That not everyone works in the same pattern, and the same rules do not apply to everyone, and if something worked for me, perhaps I should acknowledge that it was simply the way it was supposed to. That it was okay to not have a routine or a schedule, that it was okay to panic, or to while time away; it was okay to do anything as long it worked for me and it got me results. And the fact of the matter is, he said, the wonderful counterfactual where you never procrastinated and consistently pushed forward with all you had and got brilliant results to the best of your capability was probably a myth. Perhaps this really is your entire potential and you should stop berating yourself for it, and start accepting that this might simply be how you function. It may not be how you are expected to do things, but that too, was okay. All you need to do is be yourself.
Such a simple idea and yet it put to rest decades worth of anxiety. I did finish my thesis on time, and I scored highest in my batch in the theory exams (which, to be fair, served largely as a testimony to my writing skills coupled with the lousy handwriting of my batchmates than to my expertise on the subject), and for once, I did not feel like I had fallen short. The counterfactual did not exist. I would never have done it differently if I had a million different chances to go back in time. And that was okay.
Something similar came from Mr Beloved yesterday as I lay next to him, teary-eyed, speaking of everything that I never did, of the person I never became, of this idea of myself that I wished to project and always, consistently, fell short of. Of being brave, strong, independent and stunning and not timid, self-conscious and afraid of taking chances. Of the girl in my office who worked at an NGO like I wanted to do, of a random email with a call for youth leaders that I never responded to, and how I always blamed my incapability to be this ideal person on those around me. He listened quietly, and when he spoke, his voice was firm.
“You are not the girl in your office. You are not needed in a distant village. If you wish to help people, why don’t you don a PPE kit and walk to the COVID wards right now? Instead of romanticizing the idea of doing something extraordinary, work with who you are, what you have. Acknowledge where you stand, and start your journey from there.”
He was right, of course. I was struggling to get past something without any real idea of why I needed to do it in the first place. Struggling to morph myself into someone else, or perhaps be someone who they wanted. Everyone has a different story, and I needed to be willing to own up to the one I have woven for myself, instead of chasing a fantasy. And once I do that, perhaps I will finally be on my way to becoming the brave, strong, independent and stunning woman I have always dreaming of being.
Here’s to another new beginning. Journeying from myself, to myself.