Avoiding perfection — how to navigate life as a mentally ill student

Me, age 9 — cute, but already a mess

My brain is kind of broken. That’s how I usually describe it to people, and that’s what gets the most laughs, but it’s true. My brain doesn’t do some of the things it’s supposed to! I have issues concentrating, issues prioritizing, and I’m never able to turn in work on time. I’ve gone through many diagnoses, including OCD, depression, OCPD, ADHD, and anxiety. (Personally, I think all of those might be true to some degree, but that’s up to my therapist to decide.)

My situation might seem extreme, but I’m far from alone — over 25% of college students have been diagnosed with or treated for mental illness. More and more, people are able to talk openly about mental health issues, and that’s a really good thing! Public dialogue has been shifting in a far more positive direction the last few years, but the stigma still remains. I want to help destigmatize mental illness by examining how my brain got this way in the first place — and how I can still succeed and thrive in the exact areas where I’m supposed to fail.

This surprises a lot of my friends nowadays, but I used to be known as the smart kid. I was, in every sense, the perfect studious Asian stereotype. Piano lessons? Check. Advanced classes? Check. Spelling bees, gifted programs, extra credit, you name it. To this day, my first grade teacher still has some elements in her curriculum that I originally suggested because I thought they would make class more fun. I loved school! And school loved me (until it didn’t).

The fact that I was smart ended up being my biggest weakness. I was always able to learn new concepts very quickly, so I never had to spend any effort studying or reviewing. As a quiet, lonely kid, I spent a lot of time reading — there’s a good chance I already knew most of this stuff. So, since I had so much extra time on my hands, I was free to pour all of my energy into making my work The Absolute Best.

It wasn’t enough to me that my book report was done early — I might as well copy it down in perfect handwriting and add an illustration to make sure my teacher would love it. At first this was a fun way to take pride in my work, but it eventually became an unspoken rule for me:

If you didn’t give it your best effort, it’s not really done.

Of course my teachers loved all the hard work I put into my projects. I was always the kid whose work they would use as an example. I had the best dioramas, the best models, the best posters, because I would spend hours trying to make it look as perfect as possible. As the work got harder, I started becoming more stressed without realizing it, because my impossibly high standards had to raise as well.

It doesn’t matter that the essay is done — if it’s not perfect, I shouldn’t even bother submitting it. I was a victim of my own harsh criticism. My teachers had no idea I was holding myself to these standards. Work in elementary school is supposed to be easy, but around 4th grade I started waking up at 5 AM so I could frantically work on my projects before I left for school.

The tipping point, the incident that made my parents realize something was wrong, happened in 5th grade. We had a simple assignment: draw the floor plan of a house in colonial New England. That was all well and good, but I had a better idea! I would make a three-dimensional SCALE MODEL from a shoebox, sparing no expense and making it as historically accurate as possible. I went into my room to start modeling and didn’t emerge for a few hours. Everything was going great.

At 11 PM, my mom found me in my room crying because the project was due tomorrow and I couldn’t finish gluing every individual brick to the outside of the house.

There were hundreds of little paper bricks! Even for a professional, the project would have taken weeks to finish. I felt like a letdown, not because I was running late, but because I wouldn’t be able to meet my own standards. My mom, bless her heart, told me to print out a brick pattern and paste it on the wall, but I felt like I was committing some horrible sin even as I did it.

I’m not supposed to take shortcuts. I’m not supposed to compromise my vision.

The guilt I felt in that moment was so much worse than how I felt not turning in the project the next day, because I felt like I had betrayed my teachers and let them down. That was the first big project I ever turned in late.

My grades started declining as soon as I hit middle school. Teachers weren’t sure what to do with me. I participated in class discussions, I did well on tests, and it was clear that I loved to learn, but I would never turn in any homework. My gradebook was split evenly between A’s and F’s. My ideas for projects grew more and more elaborate, but only a few actually made it to a final product. Most of my concepts languished in my head as reminders of what I failed to accomplish.

I finally started encountering material that I was unfamiliar with, and I didn’t know how to go about learning it — I never learned how to study! While I had breezed by in elementary school, the other kids my age spent years learning how to do flash cards, readings, repetition, and time management. To make a long story short, this shortcoming still haunts me now, even in college. I love the material, I love to learn, but I’m never quite sure how to go about doing it. I’m a C student at best.

I don’t want to leave this on a downer, even though I’m already approaching my intended word count for this piece. Things do get better. I’ve found a support group of other individuals with similar issues, and we all benefit from being open and honest about our mental health.

I am mentally ill! I don’t mind admitting that. I am mentally ill, but that shouldn’t stop me from being able to accomplish things. The important thing is admitting to myself that I can’t always do things the same way as everyone else.

I’ve often applied this perfectionist mindset to my own mental health progress, as silly as that sounds. It’s not enough that I slowly recover — I must become a perfect student now, and I must overcome my mental illness as fast as possible! I started to hate myself because I couldn’t just sit down and write an essay the same way most “normal” kids could. I started to demand unrealistic things of myself.

Recovery isn’t always perfect. Self-improvement is messy, and complicated, and not always linear. You might have bad days even after you thought you were doing well for a while. The most important thing is to acknowledge that you do have shortcomings.

I am mentally ill, and I can’t focus on work the same way as everyone else. That’s okay! I need to give myself extra time, and set reminders for myself, and I shouldn’t pretend that work is going to be easy. Maybe there are people who can sit down and force themselves to do work, but that’s not me. It might never be me. But you know what? That’s okay.

Nobody’s perfect.