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How my Struggle With Mental Illness Helped Me Realize What Truly Makes Me Happy

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Teenagers are not told “do what makes you happy” nearly enough. We are forced to focus on academic achievement, getting into college and finding a spot on the competitive social hierarchy of high school, often at the expense of our happiness. Ever since fifth grade I had carefully calculated what I wanted my future in middle school and high school to look like. I knew what clubs I wanted to be president of and what classes I needed to strive towards to enhance my  transcript for competitive universities.

Throughout middle school and high school I carefully followed these plans. I joined the debate team and a bunch of other clubs in school. I went to football games and did sports. I was the typical overachieving high school student. At the end of my freshman year I made an incredible discovery: USY (United Synagogue Youth). My involvement in my Jewish community was something I did not expect or plan for going into high school. But I soon realized that USY was a community that was welcoming, meaningful and warm.

Despite my increasing involvement in USY, I was determined to “do it all” and stay involved in the clubs and extracurriculars I was a part of at my high school. But I found that debate did not make me feel the same way that USY did. While I stayed up the night before a USY Shabbaton (weekend conference) due to excitement, I stayed up the night before a debate tournament due to anxiety and stress.

In my junior year of high school, I faced a difficult period of depression. Even though I busied myself with all of my social and extracurricular obligations, I felt completely empty and hopeless inside. I felt like I was just “going through the motions’’ of life, and that it had little meaning. However, when I was at USY or at my synagogue, I lit up. Judaism brought me happiness when happiness felt impossible.

Even though it was clear that my mental health demanded it of me, it felt incredibly difficult to lighten my load of obligations. All of my friends were involved in clubs at school so I thought that it was the only way to be successful. This voice kept telling me, “You won’t get into college” or “You are a failure if you quit.” But finally I made the decision to stop my involvement in some of my high school clubs that I had dreamed of since elementary school and focus on USY. I realized that it is impossible to plan out your future because you never know what interests you will find or what opportunities will come your way.

Most importantly, though, I learned that when you focus on things that make you the happiest, you will feel the best and be the best person you can be. In focusing my time on USY, I wanted to give back to the organization that gave me so much; I served on the International Executive Board. I did it not because it was a plan I had for years that I needed to live out. Actually, I could have never dreamed of serving on any board of USY. I did it because it was meaningful for me and gave me a chance to make a difference in my community.

My experience with depression and anxiety eventually helped me realize that I can be in control of the situations I want to be in. Football games and big parties are not required of all high school students. I realized that there were so many other things that I loved to do like read, go on bike rides, and hang out with small groups of friends. It is important to take risks and try new things, but it is equally important to listen to yourself and your body and make decisions that will make you feel like the best you.

Choosing to prioritize what made me happy did not come at the expense of achieving any of my goals. I now attend my first choice university, and still have a group of close friends that I love and keep in contact with from high school even though we are totally different from each other. If I was told “do you what makes you happy” more when I was younger, maybe my high school experience would have been easier. Let my story be a reminder that what makes you feel happy and good is always worth your time.

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