Picking up the Wrong Ball
By: Yasmin Mogahed
Everyone has problems. At least that’s what my 7th grade teacher told us. He asked us to imagine rolling up all our problems into a ball and throwing that ball on a pile filled with the problems of all other people. He then argued to us that-given a choice-each and every one of us would choose our own ball over all others.
Although I was too young then to understand his metaphor fully, I knew that everyone had problems. And I was no different.
Growing up, depression became a natural part of my life. Throughout middle school and into high school, I suffered from a low-grade, but persistent gloom. Sometimes it stayed in the background, other times it took center stage. But always it performed.
One day during my sophomore year of high school I started to gasp. I wasn’t sure why, but I felt that my lungs just wouldn’t fill with air. It continued that whole day, and into the next. When for weeks I couldn’t get the gasping to stop, I finally saw a doctor. She checked my lungs and my breathing and finally told me flatly, “I think you’re depressed.”
The gasping stayed with me that whole year. No matter what I did I couldn’t escape it—or the depression that caused it. More than anything I just wanted to live a normal life. Any color was better than gray. And any ball was better than sadness.
I would have given anything to pick up another ball.
In the summer before senior year, that’s exactly what I did. I stumbled, for the first time, across a different ball—one that someone else had thrown into the pile.
That year, I stumbled across fear.
During the semester, my 11th grade advanced biology teacher nominated me for the National Youth Leadership Forum on Medicine. I was able to attend—with the help of my sister who used her internship money to pay the hefty tuition.
I was as sure, at that time, about becoming a doctor as I was that this conference was a good idea. I discovered later, of course, that I was deathly wrong about both. Medicine wasn’t for me and the conference didn’t turn out to be such a great idea. In fact, had I known at that time what would happen after the conference, I may have encouraged my sister to instead buy stock—or maybe I would’ve just pretended to take my pulse.
It should’ve been nothing more than a passing comment. But it wasn’t. You see, the mind is a delicate place, and retains a balance so fragile, it’s best left untouched. On that summer day in June, I disturbed that balance and didn’t even know what I’d done.
During a session about how wonderful it is to be a doctor of osteopathic medicine, we were asked to take our pulse. I had trouble counting mine, so the medical student helped me.
“It’s over 100,” the student said. She looked worried. “That’s a little high for a resting pulse.”
It was just a simple comment—simple enough to haunt me for the rest of that year.
When I got home I rushed to take my pulse. It was still high. I began to panic. I wondered what was wrong. What would happen to my heart if it continued this way? How could I expect it to keep going at this rate? “I’m killing myself slowly,” I thought. “And there’s nothing I can do.”
My mind kept going. Would it wear? Would it tire? Would it stop? With each disturbing thought, my pulse got higher. Louder. Stronger.
I had to lie down.
But nothing helped. I remembered the relaxation techniques my high school counselor had taught. I breathed in. Then out. In again. There was no escape.
That night—and each night that year—I went to sleep with my heart pounding. In the mornings I enjoyed a brief moment of freedom. But before I could begin to function, my unconscious mind caught up, and hit me like a freight train. Again I was prisoner.
While other thoughts came and went, this single worry became a permanent resident of my mind. It was like a bad song lyric, or a dull ringing in the ears. No matter what I did, it was with me.
I decided that I would do everything I could to get my “resting” pulse—if one still existed—back to normal. I signed up to take a breathing class to help me relax. When I walked in, I was the only person under 75 who wasn’t on a breathing machine and suffered from emphysema.
I realized quickly that, like many problems, the more I tried to solve it, the worse it got. Ironically, it was my own consciousness of the problem that created it—then wouldn’t let it die.
So I decided to focus on not focusing on my pulse at all. I opened a book of calculus, desperate for something to absorb my obsession. There, I found integrals. And it worked—at least at first. But somewhere in the midst of solving for x, I’d remember my heart. And the horror returned.
I was only 17. And somehow I had become a prisoner of my own making. This irrational, all-consuming dread had overtaken me so suddenly and yet so completely. Until now I still wonder how.
Maybe it was my temperament. Maybe just my genes. Or maybe it was simply a lesson I had to learn. We all struggle with something. But, that summer I picked up someone else’s ball. And I realized-I’d choose sadness any day.