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MIT blogger CJ Q. '23

had i known how to save a life by CJ Q. '23

on self-care

content warning: multiple mentions of suicide.



the friday before the last one, i received some bad news. one of my close friends from the philippines died from suicide, and it’s been troubling me ever since. the past week and a half has been truly bad. and a lot of it has been trying to get back up on my feet.

i like to think i’ve been through some really bad stuff in my life. in the scale of things, it’s probably not a lot, and i’ve had friends who’ve gone through more. but i like to think that i’ve been strengthened by these things nonetheless. that i’ve developed the strength to cope when really bad things happen.

and yet, what happened that friday was beyond my capacity to cope.


i didn’t feel it, not immediately. friday night went normally. then saturday was the putnam,01 an undergraduate math contest which went fine; i did a little better than i expected to do. saturday night, i helped host an event the filipino student association was running. it was all well and good. sure, there was this doubt lingering on the back of my mind. there was a small, soft voice reminding me of what happened and making me feel guilty about it. but at the time, i could distract myself; i had things to do, i had people around me, whose voices were louder and were more present than the guilt.

but on sunday, i was alone. i couldn’t find the motivation to get out of bed that morning, partly because i didn’t have anything scheduled, partly because i didn’t have the energy to do things. i missed going to an hmmt social event, which i planned to go to, because i was too tired. i spent the time in bed instead. i spent eighteen hours that day in bed, not all asleep, listening to sad music, rolling the guilt i felt around and around in my head.

sunday night, i had enough energy to go to a holiday party our floor had. we ate food and watched how the grinch stole christmas, that 2000 movie, which was horrible, and amusing only when we cracked witticisms about it. and then i went back to bed. the holiday party was the only reason i left my room that sunday.

on monday, i missed my 11 am class. after being unable to focus in my 2 pm and 3 pm classes, i knew that i was going through too much. i decided to go to mental health’s walk-in hours.

i found myself on the ground floor of the building, pretending to be lost in the hallways and hoping that no one would notice, because some part of me didn’t want to go. i’ve never been to counseling or therapy before. i grew up with the impression that the people who sought mental health were fundamentally broken, or psychotic, in some way, or that it was only for people who were going through real depression, but not me; not me.

i walk down the hallway leading to the mental health and counseling wing. there is a huge front desk. i walk up to it. i couldn’t figure out what to say, for a couple seconds. what was i supposed to say? hi, i’m not really sure why i’m here. or hi, one of my friends killed himself, and i don’t know how to deal with all this guilt. or hi, i think i’m crazy, can i talk to someone?

i opted for the more conservative hi, i’m here for walk-in hours. she asks to see my id, and asks me if i’ve ever been to counseling before. no, i reply, i haven’t. she asks me to take a seat.

a few minutes later, someone walks up and asks me if i’m cj. i say yes. she leads me to her office, and she listens to me talk about my problems for fifteen minutes. she reassures me. she tells me it’s not my fault, but she also says she doesn’t expect anything she says to make me feel better. she’s right; it doesn’t. she schedules me an appointment for thursday. i thank her for her time.


self-care always seemed like something those millennials do with yoga mats and meditation apps, but i knew, in this case, that i needed it. i tried to spend more time with friends this week.

on tuesday night, i went to tech squares,02 mit’s square dancing club and then afterward, i hung out with two friends and work on our last pset together, and talk about a bunch of random stuff until 3 am.

on wednesday night, i hang out with people from esp. it was a worksession, but i couldn’t get any work done anyway, so i just use the time to talk to people. then i watch an episode of his dark materials with some friends. then i watch roadkill buffet, mit’s improv comedy group. i spend the rest of the night hanging out in our floor’s lounge, watching people play baba is you and playing drawful and other games until 4 am.

on thursday, i go to mit mental health for my appointment. we talk for a little less than an hour about how i was doing. i’m doing better today than i was on monday. he asks me a lot about my history with mental health. he asks me what i’m doing to take care of myself. i talk about how spending time with my friends makes me feel better. he tells me that it’s okay if i couldn’t really be productive right now. that it’s okay if a lot of my time is going to taking care of myself.

my senses tell me he’s right, but my head refuses to believe him.

that night, i watch the asian dance team perform. i celebrate the end of classes with people from esp. i spend the rest of the night playing overcooked and drawful in the floor lounge. i start watching neon genesis evangelion, which i’ve been putting off for a while because i was busy. i sleep at 3 am again.

on friday, after giving a campus tour in the morning, i take a five-hour nap in bed. after waking up, i remember that a friend asked me to watch the concert of the logs, one of mit’s a capella groups. so i force myself out of bed, and i listen to the logs with him.

and after the concert (which was great), i felt odd. while everyone was talking in the lobby of kresge auditorium, i took the stairs down and sat in one of the chairs in the corner, far from everyone else. thoughts were flooding me. i couldn’t move. i felt guilt. and it said:

why didn’t you do anything?

but i did.

why didn’t you talk to him more?

i did what i could.

he talked to you the week before he killed himself.

i know, i get it! but it’s not like i could spend all my time talking to him.

you could have prevented this.

he could still be alive, if not for you.


i have a friend, whom i’ll call dan, because that is not his name. dan is the kind of person that his friends approach when they need someone to listen to them talk about their problems. he’s a very caring, kind person. and one day, three months ago, i was talking to dan, and he was stressed. he was worried about all of his friends, about keeping up with his commitments, about doing well in his classes.

and i told dan that you don’t have to save the world. that it’s okay to put your own needs first. i think i first picked up that advice from a tumblr post i saved three years ago. i’ve told him that advice, constantly, ever since.

tumblr screenshot. the relevant part says: today my anthro professor said something kindof really beautiful: “you all have a little bit of ‘I want to save the world’ in you, that’s what you’re here, in college. I want you to know that it’s okay if you only save one person, and it’s okay if that person is you”

despite telling that to him repeatedly, i’m not sure if i believe in that advice myself.

over the past week, several people have reached out to me asking if i could talk to them about so-and-so things. and each time, i’ve had to say no, because i didn’t have the mental energy to talk or listen. it feels weird, in a sense, because it didn’t feel like me to turn down a conversation. but i’ve been so drained emotionally that i couldn’t make a lot of time for other people in my life.

it feels odd, saying no to people. especially since i’m a member of peer ears, a residence-based mental health support network. we’re trained how to listen to others, to be compassionate, to develop empathy. and right now, i don’t feel like i can be that person to others. yes, we’ve also been trained to recognize when we need help ourselves. but having to put that into practice, having to say no to people, it feels weird. it feels wrong. it feels as if i should be doing something more.

when i talked to dan about this last sunday, he reminded me of my own advice. that i don’t have to save the world. that it’s okay if i only save one person, and it’s okay if that person is me. dan tells me it would be a good time to listen to that advice. somehow, i’m not sure if i believe in it. i’m not sure if it’s okay if the only person i save is myself, if i could save other people.

is it bad if i can’t help when i can?

if i don’t have the energy to help someone, if i put my own needs first, does that make me mean, or rude, or selfish?

if something bad happens to someone, something that i could have prevented by talking them, but i chose not to because i had to put my needs first—should i feel guilty?

the answer is probably no. it’s not as if i could save everyone, not even all of my friends. i couldn’t constantly check on everyone who’s ever been close to me and ask how they’re doing. it’s not realistic to help others, if i couldn’t even help myself.

and so i tell myself: i did the best that i could, given what i knew about the situation. everything else that happened was out of my hands. it’s not my fault. it really isn’t.

the more times i repeat it, the less it feels like an assurance, and the more it feels like an admission of guilt.


i don’t really have a conclusion. i wish i could say something uplifting, that i could end the post with how i feel better now, or with how i’ve found healing, or with some advice. but i don’t feel better, at least, not completely. i’m healing, but it’s slow. and i don’t really have any advice to give.

instead, i will cop out by talking about a song. (my writing teacher said that maybe the reason i was so bad at writing conclusions was that i wrote about things that i was still experiencing, so i didn’t have enough distance to process them properly. it makes sense, but then, how does any blogging end with a conclusion?)

when i was seven years old, my favorite song was “how to save a life” by the fray. the chorus goes like this:

where did i go wrong?
i lost a friend
somewhere along in the bitterness
and i would have stayed up with you all night
had i known how to save a life

every few years or so my relationship with this song changes. at first, it was just a catchy song. later, when i dealt with a conflict with a friend that led to a falling out, the song was about that: the verses tell a story about losing a friend through a confrontation.

now, the song feels more literal. i’ve been playing it on loop for hours at a time.

i realize that i don’t really know how to save a life.

not the lives of others. especially not my own.

if i want to save others, i have to save myself first.

  1. an undergraduate math contest back to text
  2. mit’s square dancing club back to text