Life isn’t much more than a series of expectations and surprises. For a lot of my life, I didn’t think I would make it this far: to the age of twenty-two and earning my Bachelor’s degree.
For those of us who have faced discrimination, mental health issues, neurodivergence, disability, or chronic illness, passing a milestone such as graduating with a university degree can feel like a dream regrettably mistaken for reality. Our expectations for our lives can be so different from our realities that we find ourselves doused in grief for a younger self that projected a much less successful future.
My graduation was a very emotional day—where I saw other people with giant grins on their faces as they accepted their degrees, I held back tears. I simply could not contain the cacophony of emotions that bubbled to the surface that day: fear, regret, uncertainty, and an abundance of gratitude.
The strange mix of pride and melancholy I experienced was something that crept up on me. I didn’t know it was there until I stood over my toaster, crying, the morning of my graduation. I had outdone any expectations my younger self had for me, not because I was particularly successful at my studies, but because little me had no faith in herself at all.
The only word that comes close to describing this feeling is bittersweet, but even that feels like a shallow representation of the grief and wonder that hit me the morning of my graduation.
I spent my degree half expecting the rug to be pulled out from under me by some unknown force only to be told that none of the work I’d done was real. I worried I’d struggled against myself only to find that I had made a wrong turn in the maze that is life and come to stare at a dead end. While my peers seemed to be enjoying the fruits of their labour and looking forward to the future, albeit with some uncertainty, all I could do was get through the day. There’s a difference between turning a corner to find the end of a maze has crept up on you and finally making it out of one you were sure had no exit. Even better yet, you find your closest friends and family waiting for you at the end, cheering you on.
In the midst of my grief, I still found pockets of love and joy in the people that came to celebrate with me. As I stood out the front of the stadium in which I graduated, hugging the friends and family that had taken time out of their day to attend the ceremony, I felt loved and so grateful for the life I had allowed myself to pursue in spite of the circumstances holding me back.
Maybe success is the best form of revenge, even when your greatest enemy is yourself.
Failure to Maintain Momentum
Since being diagnosed with ADHD at the beginning of the final year of my degree, I had finally started to find ways to be productive that didn’t involve waiting until I had a panic attack to start an assignment. Through a combination of choosing subjects I was genuinely interested to learn about, to experimenting with ways to manage my time effectively, and strategically-timed caffeine/sugar consumption to release dopamine, I was able to be the most consistently productive I’d ever been. I wanted to maintain the momentum I had built over the past semester because I was afraid if I lost it, I would never be able to get back to that state. However, in failing to allow myself to rest after a busy semester of creative work and socialising, I burned myself out severely.
Accepting that I could not constantly occupy myself with demanding activities was something forced upon me by both my brain and body. Now that I had learned how to be productive, I had to learn how to take a break. I had to relearn how to enjoy the hobbies I had neglected and find activities that would let my brain genuinely rest. My anger at my inability to be productive soon subsided when I let myself enjoy baking choc chip cookies and eating half the dough, or buying trinkets I don’t need at op shops just because they’re pretty.
It pays to remind ourselves that genuine rest is productive, and to actually feel refreshed after a period of rest, we need to let ourselves enjoy it.
As I watched my friends walk on stage to collect their diplomas, a fear I knew very well crept in. With big life changes such as moving schools, graduating, or getting a new job comes the fear that we will lose touch with the friends we’ve made once our environment has changed. I have always struggled to make and keep friends, and now that I won’t see my friends on campus or have classes to bond over, I worry that my new friends and I will drift apart.
The thing is, as I was reminded by my close friend Laura, drifting is sometimes inevitable and necessary. Friendship is a two-way street, and if the pressure is only on me to maintain a relationship, then that relationship is probably not worth the effort. Additionally, many of my closest friends have drifted in and out of my life at various times, and it’s the act of drifting back in, again and again, that matters to me.
Luckily for me, over the past few years, the friendships that I have managed to maintain have only grown stronger, and in times like these when I fear losing friends, I am more grateful for the close friends that do stick around. The relationships I value the most are the ones I have spent years building, and if my new university friends are worth their salt (which I believe many of them are) they will still be invited on my epic pub crawls in a few years’ time.
Moving from one chapter of your life to the next is daunting even for the most secure and confident people. Anticipating what you might feel during a big change might help you prepare for those emotions, but there will always be surprises, and that’s okay too. Sometimes the things you least expect are the ones that hit you the hardest and change you for the better.