Last August, right before the school year, my mom told me she had cancer. I started fall term of my third year at college full of fear. I would want to call home but also not want to, anxious about the what sort of news I’d get. She was doing worse. She was going into surgery. When I came home for Thanksgiving break, she was so thin my arms clasped around her waist when we hugged.
And my dad fell ill, too.
At school, I became depressed. I avoided friends and classmates and hardly attended campus events. I would eat ramen alone in my room with the blinds closed. I was doing terribly in my classes but couldn’t muster the energy to do anything about it. I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t tell anyone out of shame, feeling like I should know how to deal.
By finals week, I’d go to the library to write an essay and spend the whole night there doing nothing. I’d wander the library hallways intermittently, thinking exercise would motivate me. Echoing footsteps, fluorescent lights. Sometimes, I’d laid lay my forehead against a cool wall and just try to untangle the knot in my chest. This ritual went on until early morning, when I’d get kicked out of the study room by a custodian. I’d walk out of the library into the liquid blue dawn feeling numb. It was the worst kind of purgatory: Nights cycling past, no sleep, poor diet, nothing ever done, heart and head a wreck. Underneath it all, a deep gaping hurt, like a lake into which my life was slowly being subsumed.
Then, winter break: I was home, close to my parents and away from campus, and calm unfurled suddenly, like a leaf in the sun. Being home was what I needed, not this limbo of winter break, but an actual stay at home. Was that even an option? I spoke to my school advisor, someone I hardly knew, and told her my story. If anyone could give an answer to my question, it would be her. She told me I could take time off from school and that, in fact, doing so was much more common that I thought. The new term would begin within days but she would help me arrange it. I could take my sorely-needed break. I learned an important lesson: Reach out to people, because they can surprise you with their kindness.
Before that conversation, I hadn’t known that leaving last-minute was even possible. Part of me still thought maybe I should grit my teeth and just soldier through another term, that going on leave would mean I was weak. Campus culture had a lot to do with my doubt. Students participate in “stress Olympics,” in which the workload, lack of sleep, and consumed Red Bull cans you can tough out are worn as a badge. Almost no one ever talked about being on leave.
But I did it. It was easier to decide away from campus, the soft yellow walls of my room at home gave me perspective. I left campus quietly, saying goodbye to a few people. I’d felt like a ghost while there and I left like a ghost. Goodbye, empty hallways.
Now, nearing the end of a term off, I realize it was exactly what I needed: A season of stillness, so that I could finally emerge from the dark of myself. I learned to breathe again in my quiet life at home where birds sat in the trees, and the grass on the front lawn caught my eye one morning for how it shone under the rising yellow sun with an exultant green. That square of green so celebrated itself. It said to me, you can cultivate your own beauty. It said to me, you can learn peace in spite of what’s going on around you.
I looked after my parents. I washed dishes. I read Walt Whitman every night and dreamed well. I went into the backyard with my little brother and a green wheelbarrow and picked up all the fallen branches shaken from the old trees surrounding us. We’d make a campfire with them in the summer. When it was about to rain, I went outside and took in the sheets and clothes hanging outside. Sometimes I just stood in the doorway and inhaled as a bright and crisp wind blew past, thinking about how air moving from high to low pressure could become something about which we write poetry.
Before my leave, I felt as if I was in a cottony fog. I couldn’t concentrate even when I was doing something as mundane as laundry because I felt like I was wasting time, like I should be doing something productive — anything productive, with momentum—should be going, going, going like everyone else on campus. And when I did try to do work, I thought about my parents and felt helpless.
It was easy to subscribe to that campus culture and behave as if there was an objective urgency to the classes I took and the events I attended and projects I organized, as if everyone was racing toward an invisible finish line. Now I realize there really isn’t one. I’d forgotten that. It was important for me to understand that doing nothing was OK, too. Not only OK, but a triumph. A tiny revolution, but seismic. Enough to make a difference. Taking a break meant I wouldn’t—didn’t—run myself to blisters in that constant movement. It meant I wouldn’t lose myself to it. It was a statement: I chose home, and my parents, as my priority. That choice wasn’t a defeat but a victory.
Taking time off didn’t mean I had to be productive in a different way, either. I didn’t need to seize the day or backpack across the country or read a hundred books just because I had more time. I rested more, slept more, and ate dinner with my parents every night. That’s already something. I learned the clean, simple peace of taking care of a home and taking care of myself. My mother’s health improved. I started pursuing goals again, not under a flimsy sticker of “productivity” but with a bright-eyed, renewed will. I was writing again, crystallizing summer plans, figuring out what I wanted out of the next term.
Other than Whitman, I also read—again and again—an essay by Joan Didion called “On Self-Respect.” This line spoke to me: “People with self-respect exhibit a certain toughness, a kind of moral nerve to give us back to ourselves.” I came back to myself, and all it took was what, at first, seemed like going away. ♦
Karen is a college student majoring in feelings. You can find her work in Bustle, the Toast, the Daily Beast, Thought Catalog, and other internet places. You can find her person on Twitter.