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This Is How You Lose Your Mind

Illustration by Homestead Studio

Dani Fleischer | Longreads | November 2019 | 11 minutes (2,731 words)

There’s no single answer to the question of why I lose my mind at the beginning of my sophomore year of college. There are just things that happen over the years, and those things accumulate over time, and those accumulations finally break me. Like the crack of a whip, it’s loud and startling, and it feels like it comes out of nowhere.

It doesn’t.

***

I spend my whole life aiming for academic perfection, starting when I am 10 — the year my father tanks another job and my parents move me and my older sisters down to New Jersey from upstate New York. It’s the second time in a decade they’ve made that particular move, under eerily similar conditions: a lost job, a desperate reach, an uprooted family.

But there’s another condition too — a preexisting one that comes before anything else I can remember: this strange suspicion I have that I am somehow deficient. Being the new kid in 5th grade only exacerbates this vague and amorphous feeling of not-enoughness. It makes me painfully quiet at school and slow to make friends.

Each morning, during journal-writing time, I ask for the blue laminated bathroom pass and go to the bathroom, to the last stall on the right, and I cry. I’m not even sure why I’m crying but I know it has something to do with the sadness that’s bundled up inside me. Nobody ever told me it would be this lonely, I keep thinking. Then, after a few minutes, I pick the blue index card off the dirty tile floor, splash some water on my face, and return to class. It’s a secret ritual that goes on for months.

Then this happens: I become the first 5th grader who can properly fill out a map of all 50 states, and something temporarily replaces that not-enoughness. I don’t even know what it is exactly, but the urge to steal away to a bathroom subsides for the week, and I spend the rest of the year chasing that feeling. State capitals, vocabulary words like doldrums and oxymoron, letters to Elie Wiesel: there’s so much to try to be the best at, and that pursuit carries me straight into summer. It turns out to be a good year for me. I adapt. I make friends, get straight A’s, and begin to feel comfortable in Jersey.

A few days before 6th grade starts, I find out that we’re moving back upstate again. The reasoning my parents give is muddled: the house upstate never sold, and Mom doesn’t like living so close to her mother. I begin to wonder about how the decisions shaping my life are being made.

I return upstate and bring with me the comfort of academic perfection. School becomes the perfect closed system, a way to quantify my worth, and for a long time that system serves me well. I’m good at it and it seems as good as anything else by which to define myself; it’s rigid and unforgiving, and it doesn’t account for my own humanity. The perfect vehicle for self-destruction: something that feels like control, but isn’t. A car speeding down an icy highway late at night.

I spend high school grinding away at perfection and show myself no mercy when I graduate second in my class. I still get to make a speech at graduation, which is nice. I quote Rilke and people congratulate me and I feel smart, even as I continue to eviscerate myself for not being first.

I get into a good college.
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