Excellence

“Stanford creates a culture of excellence” my family and I read on the brochure of my Welcome to Stanford packet soon after I received my acceptance letter back in 2013, my junior year of high school. We all hovered around on my bedroom floor, flipping eagerly through the pamphlet we’d received from the admissions office just that morning. Questions about what I’d major in and what classes I’d take and what clubs I’d join swirled around in my head as the color cardinal sprawled across the carpet.  I was teeming with excitement, dreaming about the bright future I was being promised at that very moment. At the time, my young, naive, yet highly ambitious self thought that Stanford was exactly what I wanted and needed, an atmosphere to nurture my desire to strive and achieve, to help me make all the dreams I had for myself about being big and important in this life come true. I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up, but it sure as hell would be excellent.

Fast forward two years. It’s my sophomore year on a full scholarship granted by playing on the women’s field hockey team. Excellent. I’m on my forty-third, one hundred yard sprint of forty-five. I taste metal (blood) in my throat. I am nauseous. My legs burn. It’s 6:30 am on Friday, our team’s fitness training day and we are training to the point of sickness because, like it is printed on each of our individual lockers, “we take no days soft.” Almost every single member of the team had been drinking heavily the night before, because to be Excellent you need to have connections. You need to be social. I have a Biology midterm this afternoon and I need to beat the curve to get an A in the class, and I need an A in the class to get accepted to medical school, and I need to get into medical school if I want to be Excellent. 

The big, white, bold sign behind the field reads “YOU’RE EITHER GETTING BETTER OR YOU’RE GETTING WORSE; YOU NEVER STAY THE SAME.” My teammate, relapsing from an eating disorder, faints. To be Excellent you need to be skinny. Three of us cry, but know we’d rather die than let our coaches see our tears. 

All of this to be Excellent. 

None of it to be human.

The culture I found myself immersed in at a place of ‘prestigious’ higher education and among the most elite college athletes in the world seemed to insist that striving to be the best is the absolute most important thing. Oftentimes it felt like my entire world was screaming, “Slay queen! Defy the odds! Be all of the things! Here are 762,983 things successful people do before breakfast!” It maintained that doing our very most possible best and breaking records and winning awards to become all that we can in the eyes of the world is the greatest service we can offer, even if that means we ourselves fall to pieces. And still we were surprised when the National Alliance on Mental Illness released the statistic that one in five undergraduate college students in the United States suffers from a mental illness. 

Having Bipolar Disorder unknowingly while attending an institution like this obviously made enduring college an extra struggle, but in hindsight, when it came to achievement and keeping up with all of the things I had going on, the hypomanic episodes were probably the only reason I was able to stay afloat. As much as it would be my eventual downfall, hypomania might have just been my secret weapon at the time. This is why I believe so many people with Bipolar Disorder go so long undiagnosed; it conceals itself as superhuman motivation and time management skills. 

Looking back, I don’t think any single person knew just how many things I opted to be a part of during my time at Stanford, and I realize now that this was largely due to the fact that most often, my mind was working at close to the speed of light and I needed a sufficient amount of engagements to keep up with it. At one point, I found myself as a volunteer at the veterans’ hospital, a leadership team member of my sorority, a teaching assistant in Human Biology, a research assistant at the Stanford Hospital, a member of our campus’s Christian ministry, and the Communications Director of a non-profit, all on top of being a full-time student-athlete studying Human Biology and English. I’m sure if anyone was aware of how much I had on my plate at one time and how many all-nighters I pulled in order to keep up with it all, they surely would have suspected my brain was on hyperdrive, and therefore, abnormal. But alas, I got out scot-free, with a resume that didn’t particularly inspire me but one that shined on job applications. Excellent. 

Now, amidst all of these extracurriculars, I was also attempting to maintain a somewhat robust social life, attending parties and fraternity events, trying to impress my sorority sisters (yuck.), trying to do the whole networking thing that everyone tells you is so goddamn important. But eventually I hit a breaking point. Something had to give because my mental health was so clearly unwell. This is when I wish I had had the incredible examples of Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles at the time I was a college student-athlete. My celebrity examples at the time seemed to stress the importance of never giving up even when things feel impossible, and I took that a bit too literally. It took me until my Junior year on the field hockey team to realize that it was not healthy for me to be on the team, but the experience of leaving the team was almost as traumatizing as being on it. 

One day, my sophomore year, before a game I was certainly not going to play in, my coach called out to me and said “Ashley, may I have a word with you?” Never a good sign. 

She guided me away from the team who was making their way to the bus that would take us to UC Davis for our first round of conference playoff games, and sat me down in a plastic chair in front of the huge whiteboard that had all of the plays that the people who would actually see the field today were to try on our opponents.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about you, Ash. And it occurred to me that, what I’m really worried about is you in the workplace, when your time at Stanford is done.”

With all the respect I could muster, I continued to nod my head to allow her to continue with what sounded like it was going to be bad bad bad. 

She continued, “and what I’m concerned about is, is that when you’re in an office, surrounded by what is likely to be about 85% men, that you will use your looks and womanhood to propel you forward rather than the skills and intelligence you will acquire here.”

Uhm. My nineteen-year-old mind had a hard time processing the fact that my coach, the woman who I respected more than just about anyone else on this PLANET, just accused me of being the type to what? Sleep with my boss to get a promotion? I was floored. This was so unprofessional, and in hindsight I know I should have reported this immediately, but I was so young and could only do the best with what I knew, so I responded, “Coach, with all due respect, could you provide me with some examples of what I’ve done that would make you think I’d use anything other than my brain to move forward in my career some day?”

“Oh, it’s just a feeling I got.”

I should have quit right then and there. But I continued on, for fear of being perceived as a failure or quitter. 

This all came to a head my junior year, after almost 3 years of being bullied in similar ways by my head coach and my mental health slipping downhill more and more every day. When I finally realized that I had only two options, to quit or continue declining, I chose my health. And my college experience from then on out was incredible. My mental health improved. By making the hard choice to eliminate one of the things that was causing me the most turmoil, I started to thrive again. Yes, this was before medication, so I still absolutely had hypomanic episodes and my mental health was nowhere near where it is today, but it was better. And it was better because I walked away from the culprit. To me, that is Excellent.

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