Opinion | Columns

Self-recognition and self-help can also mean success

It’s here: At age 24, I will (barring disaster) finally finish college. I’m not sure if it’s an accomplishment, though—I leave this place feeling like a failure.

I cracked up last fall. History of depression? Check. Lack of sleep, chronic stress? Well, yeah—I was a Speccie. To a degree, though, Spectator kept me sane, and production was a welcome, comforting routine. I felt like I could control myself at Spec, if only because the paper needed it.

But Spec also let me be an idiot. “Needing” to do something more for Spec was an accessory to avoidance—a way of putting off everything from homework to medical treatment. No matter the case, I would use the same excuse: “If I have to think about this, I won’t be able to do production on Sunday—better push it away and deal with the consequences later.” 

Spec was a kind of magical thinking, a way of transforming a too-awful present.

I trained new staff members. I proposed new projects, presented to the board of trustees, pushed content, resolved conflicts. I supported editors in crises. 

I led more than 200 students. And:

Once: My mother calls to tell me my grandmother had died, and I set a timer: five minutes to cry in private before I return to production. 

Twice: My roommate catches me in a panic attack that’s spurred by seeing my rapist in Lerner. “I can’t go to counseling,” I tell her. “I’ll have to think about this all the time, and if I’m wrapped up in what happened to me, who’s going to keep the conference from falling apart?”

Again: My parents have figured out that things are bad and drag me to a doctor. I lie through my teeth—if they know how desperate I am, they won’t let me finish the semester, and Spec will have to go through the chaos of finding a new managing editor. 

Spec was where I learned who I was and what I cared about. It was the place that taught me how to edit. It was the source of valuable friendships and of a sense of belonging, a community in and of itself. It was a chance to fully indulge in the self-importance of the undergrad, to convince myself my actions had impact. 

When I’d lost faith in myself, my friends, my surroundings, my safety, Spec was a source of distraction. It let me forget. 

But Spec was also the place where, too many times, I didn’t ask for help, said I was fine, and insisted that I needed to work. It was the intersection of achievement, masochism, and self-avoidance.

And so here I am, looking back on what should be a triumph with regret.

I’m used to seeing my peers, inside and outside Spec, playing the same game as I did: appealing to an organization’s punishing hours as a “logical” means of self-abnegation, repression, or simple refusal to get help. It makes sense: Reaching for the stars is a whole lot more pleasant than staring at your own grief.

So here’s what I can do now—offer advice, pearls of wisdom if you will. Here: Take the time—leave for a year if you need to. Your peers may not know, but your shit will confront you—take the time to shovel it out of your path.

Here’s that advice more broadly: Self-recognition, self-help is more important than you let yourself think.

I’ve come back to Columbia a year too late, having watched my class graduate while I stayed behind. I feel like a ghost—I don’t know this campus. And I’ve done the unthinkable: I left, and I couldn’t do it all. I’ve failed. 

But I’m here, and I know myself now—or at least I think I’m learning how to be honest. Leaving as a failure is a relief.

Too many thank-yous are deserved, and if named, will leave someone out. So here’s what I can do: a special shoutout to the lovely old farts from 136; a congratulations to 137—you were amazing; a vote of support for 138. Everyone else: Is it enough to say you know who you are? Maybe not, but if all else fails, you can assume this thank-you’s for you.

Maggie Alden is a Columbia College senior concentrating in English. She was an associate copy editor for the 134th volume, deputy copy editor for the 135th volume, and the managing editor for the 136th corporate board.

Read the rest of this year's senior columns here.

To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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Andrea posted on

Thank you for your bravery, thank you for your endless passion, for realizing that passion mustn't come at the expense of well-being. Thank you for being a great managing editor but above all thank you for being you and for being the best friend I always wanted. This is hands-down the most beautiful senior column I've read.

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