Life is a road, a road upon which we may only journey forwards. On this road, there is no going back.
I can hardly remember how I lost my way. But I did. I somehow ended up in the ditch at the side of the road and for a long spell could not figure out how to get back on. When I hold my thoughts steady and will myself to remember, certain details come to mind. It was a hot, hot summer, but the classrooms were cool. For a short time I felt proud of myself for entering the best high school in my city. Yet that pride did not last long. I swear that I worked hard. Every day, I was first to wake up in my dorm room. I did almost all the mandatory cleaning. I smiled at everyone. I made friends. I paid attention to the teachers. I washed my socks during the lunch break and clothes during the dinner break. I enjoyed these moments, the only moments in the day when I could rest my mind and just feel the cold water running through my hands, staring at the outside through the iron bars behind the window. But even in rest, I had to remain vigilant. I could not slow my moves, not even in the public bathroom. It was crowded. So many people were in front of me. So many people were waiting behind me.
The smell of textbooks and practice books was heavy at first, but gradually grew covered by the sharp odor of ink. I glanced up and saw my classmates’ heads through the gaps between piles of books. I wished time would go faster in the studying period at night, from seven o’clock to ten forty. But I also wished time would go slower, mercifully allowing me to finish all my homework. However, time was uncooperative. It did not go as fast as I wished nor as slow as I wished. I always had to bring homework back to my dorm room. Against the pile alight from my lamp, the shadow of my pen continued to dance on the white paper. I could hear the tick tock of somebody’s watch and I knew others also did not turn off their lights before one o'clock. Time flew by so quickly that I was left behind. I went to sleep with fear. Fear that I would lose everything if I couldn’t even finish my homework. Fear that I would get caught by teachers. Once I hid my unfinished homework and successfully escaped the teachers. But this fear never went away. It was living with me every moment. It was biting me every night; sometimes I could not fall asleep till three or four o’clock. Once I got out of my bed and called my mother, hoping her voice would break this spell, but she replied, “Then go and do your homework.” I went to my bed and cried without making any noise.
By that summer, a terrible change had come over me. But I must back up and explain myself in order to explain this change. For over six years, a sound--I don’t know how else to name this-- had accompanied me. It saw what I saw. It heard what I heard. It lived with me...in me. It was strict. It told me what to do, and though I might not always agree with it, it was always morally correct. But by that summer, it was not the same anymore. My fear had driven it mad. It was depressed and upset. It could not stop talking, “Do your homework and review! You have a test tomorrow! But you did not even finish your homework yesterday!” Finally, when it found out that it could not change anything, it lost all patience. It started to shout. It distracted me so much, I could not focus. I was stuck and struggled to escape. I tried scissors, watching them scratch across my skin, but no, they were too gentle to bring me out. The sound was choking me. I tried a stapler on the thinnest skin of my hand. The staple would pierce the skin in a second, the pain would accumulate and release instantaneously, and the sound would shrink and be quiet for a fleeting moment.
I could do nothing but continue on my broken way. During sports week, we had no classes, just sports competitions between individuals and classes. I behaved actively and responsibly. I pretended that nothing had happened. But everybody around me knew that it was impossible. The weekend before I had smashed my mother’s room. I broke things, trying to get attention and convince my parents that I needed a dark and quiet place to sleep. I couldn’t stay up with my roommates any more. The week before I had been found self harming. Step by step, I had gone too far. Lights faded from me, and the abyss began to engulf me. At the end of the week, I said goodbye to my classmates, smiling, just like the director of a dilapidated amusement park turning off the last light on the last day.
The smell of hospitals is universal, or nearly universal. Disinfectant occupies the air and lights glare overwhelmingly white. For the next few months, I live in the children’s ward of a psychiatric hospital. No mirrors. Nothing I can use to hurt myself. Every day somebody else suddenly appears mad. In the morning, the nurses scurry in and check. During breakfast, I squeeze myself in the tables and chairs designed for children. Doctors come into my room and talk. I am taken to do tests. In the nights, nurses turn off the lights. Everything spins wrong and unrealistic. I cannot understand. Some days I wake up as if I’m still at school. My heart stings when I see through the window students in the street wearing school uniforms. I never thought that I should spend such a long time in this place. This was not what I wanted. This was not my way. I have been dragged out of my original life path. “You are thinking too much and too fast,” the doctors say. “We must stop it to heal you.” White pills. My memory declines. A side effect. Thinking becomes painful. I am not quick in response anymore. My brain hurts when I try to concentrate. “That’s the sign of recovery. Don’t worry,” they tell me. One night I decide to stand it no longer, so I hide the pills under my tongue. The pills burn like fire in my mouth. Some kind of punishment for disobedient patients? But I smile. The nurses move on to the next patient, and I run to the bathroom, throw the pills into the sink and check my mouth. Nothing of the fire is left in my mouth, nothing but pain and confusion about the future. I am dying inside. The medicine is killing me. I remember a conversation with my middle school Chinese teacher on my phone on one of the nights I could not fall asleep in high school.
“This is not what life should be. No. Life shouldn’t be like this.”
“Then what do you think life is supposed to be?”
I think about this conversation once again. I turn in over and over in my mind. Maybe there is no right way or wrong way. We make our own way. Day by day I gradually pick myself up. I know that I will never be the same as I once was. Some scars are irreversible.
But one day my dream came to me. I never longed for it so desperately and never saw it so clearly until that day in the children’s ward. “A physicist. I want to be a Physicist. But I fear that I am not good at what I like most of all.”
“But you will have regrets if you don’t try,” my doctor told me.
I saw then, very clearly, that life is not something we can manipulate. All we can do is to go on, with all the weight we carry. I stuck together my brokenness. I stayed home for several months after leaving the hospital. I could feel the itch of recovering, something that urged me to get out of bed and to feel, to touch, to see and to smell again. So I put my feet on the floor and took a brand new step.
After all, life is a road that allows us to travel in only one direction--onward.