Mental health. This is something that we are constantly advised to take care of, though few ever know the best ways to do so. Some rare teens may be on top of everything, already having the answer to this question. Others brush it off, claiming that they are fine.
Fine… that’s a funny word, isn’t it? It may even be one that we as teenagers use most often. But when we say we’re fine, that may be a sign that perhaps we aren’t. At least, not as much as we like to think we are.
In this article, I will be discussing my experiences with overworking myself and neglecting my mental health in favour of being “productive.” I feel that for the number of people that procrastinate, there is also a large number of teenagers who feel the need to constantly keep working in order to feel valuable. I suffer from this, and this often leads to me falling ill. There are many lessons I have learned from this that I can share, as well as strategies to manage mental health better to avoid this occurring again in the future.
I’ve always been a workaholic – pretty much anyone who knows me can easily attest to this fact. Perhaps it stems from growing up in an Indian household, where I was raised to believe that everything was a competition. If you weren’t the best, weren’t constantly doing as much as you could and then doing more, then there was little chance of ever amounting to anything. Of course, living in America for as long as we did, my parents lost that strict mindset within a year or two, far more concerned with ensuring that I had a stress-free and happy childhood, letting me know constantly that no matter what I did, they would always be proud of me.
But just because they didn’t feel like it was healthy to constantly push me to the edge (which I can sure you definitely isn’t) didn’t mean that I didn’t still retain that attitude. Unfortunately, that’s how I’ve always been. People may find it annoying when I’m not satisfied with a 97% or with the number of clubs I’m doing or even the amount of awards I’ve won for writing. For me, though, I constantly have this gnawing feeling in the back of my mind that I’m not doing enough.
The “No TV” Lifestyle
I don’t have enough knowledge to say whether it is actually anxiety or some other deal such as that, but what I do know is that this mentality had taken over my life. It had come to a point where I didn’t enjoy watching TV and just relaxing and never did anything without a purpose that would make me feel like I was getting some form of work done. It made it hard for me to spend time with my family and friends, getting an immense sense of guilt when I spent a second away from doing something productive.
It was unhealthy, and definitely taking a toll on my mental health. At this point, everyone around me had noticed, and I had even been referred to a guidance counselor to speak about my stress levels and constant state of work. But you can’t help someone who didn’t want to be helped. Or in my case, who wasn’t even aware that what they were doing might be a problem. I viewed everyone’s warnings of me doing too much as them saying I wasn’t doing enough.
I wanted to make my parents, everyone around me proud – the only way I knew to do that was by pushing them away to let me work in peace. I shut myself up in my room, eating only when necessary and staying up at night due to a case of insomnia. All of it, stress-related. I figured that although they were upset with me for not spending time with them, I would make up for it all by making them proud in the future. It’s good to plan ahead, but when it reaches the point where you forget about your present, then it’s time for someone – or something – to interfere.
For me, it was a trip abroad and to the hospital that finally knocked some sense into me. Normally, I’m no stranger to pain. Having a weak immune system since I was a kid, I’ve been falling sick every couple weeks. It’s because of this that I’ve built up my pain tolerance, working through stomach cramps and headaches and colds. For me, every second spent in bed rest was a second wasted, and if there was one thing I hated, it was wasting my own time.
However, a couple years ago, my family took a trip that forced me to rethink my choices. We had traveled to India to visit some relatives, and it was meant to be a relaxing trip. A break from the stress of our daily lives in a way. Everyone but me seemed to get the memo. Being in the middle of the school year, I was more stressed out about the supposedly fun trip than I should have been. I tried to complete every homework assignment while being on vacation. Even though I had gotten reassurance from teachers to enjoy myself and not worry about school work, I continued to try (key word: try) to keep up with everything.
I didn’t go out to travel the tourist sites with my family, instead choosing to remain at our house in India with my iPad propped open and notebooks scattered across the table. I texted all of my friends who were in classes with me, emailed my teachers, turned in assignments – all while my family, friends, and teachers begged me to take a break. It had gotten to the point where a teacher directly stopped responding to me, letting one of my classmates know to tell me to stop working and take a break.
Usually, when a teacher tells you to to stop working on your homework, it’s a pretty good sign to take it easy, isn’t it? Unfortunately, I had learned to tune out everyone telling me to stop. I continued to work, missing out on all the fun my family had on vacation. But that’s not what knocked some sense into me. No, it was right after that trip that a trip to the hospital began to wake me up from my workaholic haze.
When we got back to the U.S., I was so eager to go back to school and resume my work that I didn’t even think about jet-lag. It takes a couple days for a normal person (me especially) to re-adjust after traveling abroad. I assured my concerned parents that I was fine. As you can probably guess, I was not.
Just a day later, I felt ill at school. I had to call my mother to come pick me up. Sure enough, I had a burning fever that kept me in bed for the next week. I couldn’t work, I couldn’t go to school – I had truly wasted a week of my time, all because I didn’t want to spend one day at home allowing my body to re-adjust. I wish I could say that that time was the height of my stupidity. Sadly, I repeated this mistake over and over again.
The next summer, it had been particularly hot. I’m known to get headaches, painful, throbbing ones in the back of my head, when it is far too hot, or during a slight shift in barometric pressure. Most often, I get them from stress. That entire summer, I had a nonstop headache that lasted for all of three months. The worst part was, if I had just taken my parents’ (and my doctors’) advice and relaxed for a couple days, I would have been healed.
However, I was so used to working through the pain that I continued to sit at my desk for hours at a time, staring at a laptop screen trying to be as “productive” as possible. The constant stress of feeling like I wasn’t doing enough due to my headache ended up increasing my headache, causing a cycle that didn’t seem to end. Staring at a device’s screen for hours on end didn’t exactly help.
It was only after the summer ended and I managed to go to school and take small breaks in between my work that my headaches subsided. I still get them occasionally, and I know I’m far more prone to them than any other kid at my age should be. It’s all just a result of my unhealthy working habits.
The Reality of My Mental Health
Finally, we come to this year, the year of Corona. And no, I didn’t end up getting Corona from overworking myself, but that didn’t mean I was immune to other illnesses. I had plans to make the most of this summer, being as productive as possible. I made schedules, planned everything ahead of time, and organized all that I could. One thing I couldn’t plan for was falling ill.
Now, actually getting sick wasn’t through any fault of mine. However, it was due to my mistakes that my recovery was delayed as much as it had been. I didn’t take a break, even when sick. For the first 2 weeks, I took painkillers and plugged in my headphones, distracting myself to the best of my ability with my work. I almost forgot about it too, getting closer to my normal schedule – until it got infinitely worse.
With the second wave of my sickness, I was admitted to the hospital. The very day I felt just a little bit better, I requested my parents to bring me something I can use to get some work done. Even though I stayed in the hospital for a few more days, I continued to work there, fully convinced that I had recovered.
After arriving back home, I was desperate to throw myself back into my usual schedule, despite my parents’ warnings to take it easy for a couple days due to the strain I went under. I didn’t listen. As a result, I relapsed multiple times. Just when I thought I had recovered and started to return to my normal routine, I’d fall ill again.
It continued for a couple more weeks. In the end, a sickness that should have taken at most 3 weeks to fully recover from ended up stretching out over the span of almost a month and a half. I could have done double the amount of work if only I hadn’t been so stubborn. Multiple of my friends had tried to convince me that what I was doing was unhealthy, but of course, I was convinced (as always) that I was right.
It took my best friend giving me an in-depth explanation of how exactly it was unhealthy and how it had been taking both a mental and physical toll on me since the years I’ve known her for me to finally get it through my head. I realized that my stubbornness was not only hurting me, but it was also hurting the people I cared about – the people who cared about me. I decided to put my pride aside and give everything they were saying a try. I was going to take a well-needed break.
My parents went all out to finally make me relax. They took away my things to work on and gave me the certified parent ‘look’ every time I was caught with my laptop in my lap. With all of their efforts, I was forced to sit where they could see me and watch movies all day. In the beginning, it was pure torture. My hand kept reaching for something to do so I felt productive. I didn’t know that taking the time to heal my body and mind was productive in the long run.
I began to feel happier, even carving out time for the things I enjoyed, such as drawing, dancing, and writing. I laughed and joked with my friends more, and spent time with my family. All in all, I felt like a different person. A better person.
I learned that not everything in life needs to be part of a plan. I don’t have to control each and every aspect of something to feel like I’m worth something. As a teenager, I am entitled to just be myself – a kid. Each thing I do doesn’t have to contribute in some way to a successful future. Some things I can do just for fun. Just because I want to do them. There doesn’t have to be an ulterior motive for it to be important.
I learned that even though people would assume I would know myself best, as a workaholic, I really don’t. I can assume I’m fine when in reality, I’m on the verge of collapse. Thus, to be able to take care of myself, I have to trust that my family and friends only want the best for me and are looking out for me the only way they know how. They can only advise me based on what they see (and they are normally right). In the end, it’s me who has to make the conscious decision to listen to them, both for my betterment, and theirs. When I am suffering, I’m not the only one.
Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. This was a quote by John Lennon, and all of my experiences have only proved how right he was. It’s much easier to enjoy the world around you when you’re not constantly hung up on everything you could be doing in your moment of peace.
I’m still not past this issue. After all, it takes more than a couple weeks to fully change from a mindset you’ve had for years. I still make plans on a daily basis. However, I’m learning to be kinder to myself when the plans change, or when I don’t achieve everything I wanted to. To help relieve the constant itch of needing to be productive to feel useful, I’ve started turning things I enjoy (and things that were originally meant to be relaxing) into a chore, just to trick my mind into thinking that I am working and thus, being productive while having fun. It’s not ideal, I know. But it’s a step in the right direction.
I set deadlines now for when to stop working, making sure to set aside some time for myself every day to do something I genuinely enjoy – not just because it will help me in something in my future. I am certain to spend time with my little sister every day, just enjoying her company. I set up Zoom meetings with my friends to spend an hour or so talking about anything and everything.
I go on walks every day, listening to the music filling my earbuds and just letting my mind…be. I even started to meditate before bed, something I never wanted to even try before, claiming it was far too much of a time waster. I guess I’m doing a lot of things I previously didn’t think I would. Due to my ambitious personality and my anxiety, I don’t believe I will ever truly get over this mindset completely.
Perhaps it is simply ingrained into my nature to keep pushing my own limits. I don’t know that I won’t end up working myself sick again. After all, college applications haven’t even started yet. But what I do know is that the consequences of these destructive behaviours far outweigh the results if I were to just listen to those around me who love me and only want to see me happy and healthy. I’ll continue to keep these lessons in mind, and can only hope that anyone else suffering through these same problems heeds my advice, coming from someone who has made the same stupid mistakes far too many times.
As everyone reminds me, all the success in the world is nothing without a healthy mind.
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Devanshi Bhargava is a high school sophomore, who loves anything to do with art. However, creative writing is her true passion and she has had 9 books published at a local library, as well as 2 short stories included in anthologies on Amazon.