The week of February 8th, 2016 marks the peak of her worst moments of senior year.
On Monday afternoon, she cuts her thumb during a biology lab and is sent to the nurse’s office. As the nurse wraps up her thumb, she breaks down, crying, refusing to go into her counselor’s office, refusing to tell him why she’s crying in his chair, refusing to talk until she’s on the phone with her mother. She pulls another tissue from the box, breathes one more time, refocuses blankly at a random object. She breathes again. She calms down, goes to the ER, goes home, emails her Differential Equations professor to let him know that she can’t make it to class tonight. She remembers having a quiz for class on Tuesday, but she simply can’t study with the overwhelming amount of work she has to do (yes, she still does some work as a senior.) She slips into the brief moment of peace sleep offered.
On Tuesday morning, she blearily stares at her paper as her teacher continues the test questions. As luck would have it for her, she’s assigned to the seat closest to his desk and his stool from where he lectured and surveilled the class. She pathetically tries to cover her paper, not out of concern that someone would cheat off of her, but so that he couldn’t see her paper and come over to inspect her answers (or lack thereof). However, at some point, he looks over at her paper to see what she writes down for a question. Pressured, she lamely scribbles down the most educated guess she could make.
She soon learns that her most educated guess is not the correct answer.
“19th amendment? Are you serious?” he openly asks. Turning to the class, he announces, “Guys, here’s a hint: IT’S NOT THE 19TH AMENDMENT. I’m mildly insulted.”
The room stands still, and she slowly scratches out her answer. He moves on to the next question, but none of it registers in her brain. She can’t see her paper clearly anymore as tears blur her vision. She bows her head down and tries her best to keep herself under control. However, the tears won’t stop. She grits her teeth, desperately trying to stop this ugly monster in her that won’t stop erratically breathing. It sounds like a broken machine stuck on repeat, hhf, hhf. Stop, stop. Why, why.
At some point, damage control requires two hands. She puts down her pen, officially giving up on this quiz and accepting her F, and runs her fingers through her hair, shielding herself from the other, oblivious universe that continues on. When she gets a chance to wipe her tears away, to her disgust and horror, snot had saturated parts of her paper.
I can’t turn in a paper like this. This is so disgusting. I’m disgusting. I’m a mess. Would I accept a paper like this? I would probably throw it away in the trash can.
Which is what she does. Without thinking too much about it, she abruptly stands up with the paper crumpled in her fist, throws her paper into the trash can, and escapes to the bathroom.
In the bathroom, she continues damage control, trying to stop the crying, the erratic breathing, the screeching banshee of thoughts that attacks her mind. The bathroom amplifies every hitch in her breathing, every sob from her chest, and every crinkling of paper towels, making her afraid that someone would find her. She didn’t want anyone to see her in such a pathetic state. She didn’t want anyone’s pity or sympathy.
The bell for the end of class rings. The sound of students swells as they move in and out of the hallway. Soon, the bell for the next class rings. Silence soon blankets the hallway and her heart as she stares at the red bathroom stall door.
She unlocks the door and walks to the mirror, looking at the stranger in the reflection. Who is this girl? When did she become like this? Why is she like this?
I don’t know her. I don’t know how to help her. I don’t know what she needed. She seems so foreign, distant, lost. I turn away from the girl in the mirror and leave the bathroom, fearful of the hollow emptiness that rang echoes of an elegy.
I walk outside to breathe in the chilly air, calming my heart of its shaky rhythm. I stop. I close my eyes, letting the streams of sunlight caress my dried cheeks. But I feel rattled, unstable. Fragile enough to break down if I walk back to class as if everything is normal, seamless, natural.
I take the opposite direction and nervously walk to the main office, realizing that I am officially skipping class for the first time. I knock on my counselor’s open door to let him know I’m here. He looks at me, slightly surprised, but welcomes me in. I joke with him about how I’m skipping class for the first time and laugh. That laugh breaks off, a rock thrown off a cliff and plunging into a chasm. I break down for the second time that day, for the third time in a two day period. After using an entire tissue box, staying for an extra period, and having my belongings dropped off to the office, I enter back into the real world, my face neutral except for my puffy, red eyes. For the rest of the school day, a few of my friends ask me if I’m okay, that they heard about my exit. The way they make it sound dramatic surprises me; the abnormality for them was a coherent piece of my life.
The next day, I don’t come to school because of a field trip for a science competition, which I’m thankful for. I don’t know what I would tell the teacher. Hell, I don’t even know what to tell myself. That doesn’t last for long, and I go back to class. I think that my episode will go by unnoticed and am immensely grateful as the bell for the end of class rings. Then, my teacher asks me to stay after class out loud. I freeze, running through the different scenarios of what he could say to me.
None of the scenarios include a scene where he coldly asks me if I have anything to say for myself. I quietly tell him that I don’t. He’s incredulous and angry. He tells me how I openly disrespected him, how I had no consideration for him, how concerned he was as he sent students out to find where I disappeared to, how inconsiderate it was that I couldn’t let him know about my situation, how he would write me up for a referral which would go on my permanent record (which means I would have to explain to the colleges that I applied to why I have a disciplinary record) except for the fact that I’m Jaewon Moon, how if it was anyone else, he wouldn’t show mercy, how this conversation will not be brought up again or mentioned to anyone. I silently take this in, express my sincerest apologies of how I should’ve contacted him earlier, promise how this won’t happen again.
“I’m Jaewon Moon.” What does that mean, to be me? There were so many high expectations for me; people thought I was on a pedestal and I was not. I couldn’t bear all the responsibility anymore. It was so much, and it was overwhelming and daunting and scary. Someone told me a few days ago that I’m a mystery. I find that fascinating, because I’m just about as average as you get.
Audre Lorde stated that “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare,” which continues to resonate with me deeply after addressing my state of mental health during my senior year. Self-care is a radical act in a world that frames selflessness in a particularly moralistic framework and in a dichotomy where the other option, selfishness, is a moral evil because producing emotional and physical labor is important for a system that thrives off of exploited, exhausted, micromanaged bodies. Rejecting the dichotomy, prioritizing myself gives me time to heal and to recollect. I had this plate that was overflowing, and I’ve realized that it was partly my fault because my personality was always being the first to volunteer, always trying to help, always trying to do, and I needed to learn to step back, to take care of myself first. Listening to music. Not going out to every event that’s happening. Doing my laundry and cleaning my room. Not taking responsibility for every task in group activities. Learning to say no more. This way, I can give back to the communities that I care about and dedicate myself to with more strength and power.