Madison Polkowitz / Gavel Media

Authentic Eagles: Patrick Gregorek on Labels

“What’s your major?”

It’s a question every college student is painfully familiar with, and probably one of my least favorite questions to be asked. When I tell people that I study theology, it’s always followed by a second, more dreaded question: “What do you plan to do with that?” How am I supposed to respond when I don’t really know what one does with a theology degree? Maybe I should just tell people that I look forward to being gainfully unemployed after college. Each semester, I spend hours mulling over the course offerings, fixated on the idea of a schedule that will both pique my interest and strengthen my resume. In reality, a college major has just been one more illusion to overcome.

There was a time when I was able to successfully integrate my college major into my identity—at least superficially. I justified my interest in theology with my religious zeal. I joined every Christian group I could find on campus expecting to find something I could obsess over and never tire of. Ironically, theology ended up feeding my ego. I was proud of the fact that I had aligned myself with an understanding of piety which I learned from people in my life. “Roman Catholic” became a label which I was able to cling to while forming my identity. Suddenly the teaching of humility that initially drew me to explore my spirituality was replaced by the sense of identity that being a “Jesus freak” gave me.

While I began allowing religion to dominate every aspect of my life, I adopted another word into my everyday vocabulary which made me feel less self-conscious around others: anxiety. It’s something I’ve struggled with my whole life, and it seemed to escalate upon going to college. What seemed to help more than anything, though, was labelling myself as an anxious person. It was legitimized in my mind by frequent visits to a psychologist, and a prescription for 50 milligrams of an anti-anxiety medication. These treatments made me feel less accountable for the awkward pauses in conversation and some of the things I’ve said and done in the past. I even decided to commute to college the first semester of my sophomore year, because I decided that my anxiety was a real part of my identity that had to be acknowledged, like any other physical ailment. And so, for a while, I felt safe in my life, protected from all the intricacies that dominate relationships, conversations, and self-understanding. Eventually, I grew tired of these labels and I began searching for new ones.

Triggered by deficient sleep and stress that I struggled to cope with, I started having panic attacks towards the end of my sophomore year. As a result, I started commuting again for the last few weeks of class. The summer that followed was long and frightening. I spent most days dormant in my house, pondering what was wrong with me. My primary care physician diagnosed me with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and was excited to prescribe me Fluvoxamine, a medication that she was confident would ameliorate just what it was that was preventing me from being happy.

I was as excited as she was. Every day, taking my Fluvoxamine gave me hope that with each passing day I would feel better. In fact, that was just what I spent most of my day doing: waiting for life to get better. “Only a few more days until I don’t have OCD anymore!” I remember thinking to myself. But my wishful thinking was to no avail, and I grew sick of waiting. I lost faith in the three letter acronym that I thought captured all the emotional turmoil in my life.

Summer couldn’t have ended sooner. I spend most of it lying on a couch, staring at a screen. Needless to say, I was desperate for a fresh start. When I returned to BC in the fall, I was eager to start anew. One more chance to reinvent my social life—that was all I needed. Then I would be “normal” and have the typical college experience that all my classmates were used to. For a time, I felt as though I had everything under control. I went into the semester certain that I could have a perfect college experience. I was motivated to join new clubs and take advantage of leadership opportunities. But then, I began to do poorly in my classes. I was nearly failing three classes and was doing the worst academically that I’ve done while at Boston College. One loud phone call with my parents later, and I decided I had to withdraw from a course—something I’ve never had to do in college. I heard back from clubs and retreat leading opportunities that I had applied for, but was disappointed when they told me they could not offer me a spot.

It seemed like I would never escape defeat. For some reason, the people around me didn’t seem to struggle with that. Instead of trying to change that, I finally decided to accept it. Maybe my friends don’t have to worry about being told that they’re not perfect; not because they see themselves as perfect, but because they don’t need to be. I could never know what they were really feeling, so I tried to worry less about it. All I could do, I realized, was tell myself that nothing good ever comes of worrying about what other people think about me. That wouldn’t solve life’s problems, or get me accepted into every club and position I applied for, but it would make it hurt less when life didn’t go the way I wanted it. Since then, my days feel a little bit brighter. Everyday, I find it easier to breathe, and letting go of labels has brought me newfound happiness. For once in my life, I don’t mind if people can’t tell that about me.