In my four years of high school, I can count on my fingers the number of times I approached a teacher or classmate for help with schoolwork. This is not because I was some secret genius who never had questions or because I had other academic support, like a tutor, outside of the classroom. On the contrary, I was stubborn and juvenile about hiding my struggle. I would re-read the textbook, scour the internet and stare at problems for hours, but I would never walk up to my teacher during office hours. As a result, on more challenging assignments, I sometimes spent twice or three times as long on it as peers who seemed to be happier and more well-rested. It didn’t matter though; in my mind, I had won the game—I figured it all out on my own. This is how you earn respect, right?
You can imagine how this toxic mindset carried over to my relationships and personal life. I had a tendency to trivialize anything that bothered me; after all, I had a roof over my head, food on my table, people around me who I love, and I was getting an incredible education. What was there to be upset about? I was uncomfortable with vulnerability, so I never shared my greatest fears or emotional weights with friends.
Things changed midway through my senior year. My beautiful grandma moved in, I was deep in the college-application process, and, quite frankly, I was exhausted from closing myself off from the world. With the help of adult mentors, I realized that it simply wasn’t possible to ride solo any longer.
So, I began to open up. I was more honest with myself and others when I was confused. And I admitted to how I spent too much time on assignments and that things weren’t always perfect at home. Because I was willing to be vulnerable, I grew closer with old friends and made new ones. And I realized that I was earning more love and respect from people than I ever did pretending to be Ms. Independent. The door wasn’t fully open; I still couldn’t work up the courage to ask my math or physics teacher for help with a problem set, and my actual home life was still a mystery to the people closest to me. But the door was cracked open, and that was the start I needed going into my first year of college.
My first semester of college hit me like a Mac truck. Being so far from home put me on a roller coaster of emotions. I spent many nights crying looking at pictures of Grandma, asking myself why I had been so selfish and dumb to leave her and the rest of my family behind. I could hardly get through a Zoom call with her without crying. My math class posed particular academic challenges; I probably understood 10% of what was taught in lecture, so I stopped attending them live, and I would watch recording later at a slower speed, pausing constantly. This, combined with independent study of the content, consumed an unsustainable amount of time. If I wanted to succeed, I had to get help, and I had to get it fast.
I took a chance on attending a get-to-know-each-other Zoom meeting for the class—something the high school me would probably not attend—and I ended up hitting it off with one of my classmates. We confided in each other about not knowing what the heck was going on in lecture. Then we soaked up every opportunity to get assistance from the very patient teaching fellow and professor and we collaborated on all assignments. Without these wonderful people, I am 100% positive I would not have done well (by anyone’s standards) in the class. I am so thankful to them for not only getting me through the class, but, more importantly, for busting my antiquated idea that you should only take pride in things that you’ve done without direct assistance. They taught me the value of asking for help, and I began to apply that lesson to other areas of my life.
Outside of the classroom, I opened up more fully to some of my peers. I got to know people who were incredibly kind and supportive, who inspired and challenged me, and I felt like I had a place in the community.
My second semester of college was rocky for very different reasons. I was back at home, and my guilt, homesickness, longing for Grandma, and confusion about math were replaced with feeling overwhelmed. Fortunately, I still felt fairly connected to the Harvard community, even with all interactions being on Zoom, but by the time I hit midterm exam season, I still felt like I was spiraling. Boundaries that my father and I set between school and caregiving faded, and I was often sleep-deprived, unclean, and binging cheerios and coffee to stay alert. Even though I was spending more time with Grandma (and less time on school and extracurricular work), I still felt like I was failing her because she had very limited social interaction (outside of the family) and activities that kept her stimulated and happy.
I tried several different things to reintroduce balance into our lives, which you can read about in previous blog posts, but the most important step I took was telling someone—multiple people, in fact—that I was struggling and I needed help. Sharing more responsibilities with my father, despite how hard it was initially for me to let go, made a huge difference. And reaching out to Harvard’s Academic Resource Center and other mentors helped me make space for the things I enjoy but stopped making time for, like playing basketball and lifting weights. They also helped me create some semblance of structure and accountability, which I desperately needed, including journaling, making to-do lists, recording what I accomplish each day, and, more recently, keeping track of what I eat and when and how I exercise.
Nothing ever goes exactly to plan, but I feel better, freer. We all do. And that’s what matters. I don’t take as much pride in being Ms. Independent; I take pride in the little magical moments I have with Grandma, like having a mini food fight with green beans at the dinner table or spinning around in the wheelchair to 70’s hits, and how honest I am about not having all the answers and not being able to do it all alone. And, while I’m no expert at asking for help—all things take practice—I’m learning how to do it and when. I’m learning to lean on others and to not hold grudges or “keep score.” To me, caregiving and being a student is about building community and understanding, relentlessly forgiving yourself and others, asking lots of questions, and keeping your head up and moving forward. So what if you or someone else wasn’t as proactive before? No one is perfect! Keep pushing, telling your truth, and looping others in.
I’m so privileged to have a support network. I have a partner in caregiving in my dad, extended family who takes Grandma out for at least a few days a month, a nearby adult day center with staff who seem to genuinely care for her, and kind and loving mentors and friends who always have my back. I know not everyone has these supports, but I hope that you know, dear reader, that you don’t have to do everything alone, and that asking for help is an incredibly smart move. Reach out to family, friends, connect with the Gloria’s Way community, or local or online caregiver support groups whenever you need it, even when you don’t feel like you’re at a breaking point.