One sleepless night during the fall semester of my sophomore year at Columbia University, I told my then-girlfriend that all my friends were better than me. I was just a boring guy, and they were all cool. My response: shave my beard (which I grew to update my identity post-high school) down to a mustache using her leg razor. I cried while doing it.
If I couldn’t be good at anything, I was at least going to be the guy with a damn mustache. When she and I broke up about a month later, the mustache stayed.
I can laugh at myself three years later, but that night was the breaking point I needed. Even though I felt weak, giving in to myself was the strongest thing I could have done. That semester I took a course called The History of the State of Israel with about 400 pages of reading a week; this was one of five classes, the university’s unofficial norm. That load was a big reason why I couldn’t keep up as I had in my first year, and my anxiety built steadily. What would happen to me? Surely I’d have to drop out. Everyone would know. This was the end. That anxiety metastasized into depression. I was always hungry, but I wouldn’t eat. My joints ached constantly, which made getting in and out of bed a task. My girlfriend and I both were careening into existential crises, helpless to help the other. Feeling awful about school made me feel awful about everything else. The Ivy League, so often scorned as a refuge for legacy brats and coddled alpha-nerds, turned out to be a fucking crucible.