Forgiveness, can you imagine?

WhatsApp Image 2018-05-04 at 2.18.54 PM
There aren’t too many pictures of me from graduation, but I think this one – overwhelmed, holding way too many things, but so happy – is a pretty good summary of both graduation and my college life in general.

As of May 4th, 2018, I am the proud owner of a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and International Affairs. If you’ve been following this blog since its very inception in 2010, then this might be tripping you up as much as it tripped me up. I still have vivid memories of giving college acceptance updates when this blog was still Neiha Thinks This. To be done, to have crossed out the erstwhile biggest item in the To-Do List of my life seems bizarre.

Of course, in the process, comparatively smaller items on my micro to-do list fell by the wayside (including my plans to put up a blog post every month), but it’s hard to give myself too much of a hard time about it when I am in possession of the most expensive piece of paper I will ever hold. It wouldn’t be very poetic to let my graduation month pass without a blog post reflecting, properly, on at least some facet of the past five years. (NOTE: It is now June 3rd. I let May slip by without finishing this blog. Ha ha.)

I’ve been afraid of my last semester of college since I first stepped foot in Northeastern’s campus and realized I was home. Which is weird – being afraid of a milestone seems absurd. I couldn’t wait for my high school graduation so that I could be done with that chapter of my life but at the same time, those two milestones aren’t even worth comparing. My high school experience was not great. I had friends, many of whom I’m still close to, and saw some successes but I was always held back either by teachers who called me “too passionate” or resource crunches. I could never pursue knowledge to the extent that I wanted to, short of fighting my way into taking an independent study A  Level. My interests were belittled. And when I tried to leave high school behind in favor of greener pastures, I had my character, intelligence, and values attacked by the one teacher I was still in contact with and looked up to. I have no qualms about discussing this now: that messed me up. After working through this with my therapist, it has been concluded that most of my impostor syndrome and self-flagellation can be attributed to That One Teacher. Which is upsetting, because said teacher is why this blog exists in the first place.

I guess that’s a good transition into what aspect of my college life I want to reflect on this time: forgiveness. Specifically, learning how to forgive myself. While at therapy the other day, talking about some or the other requisite self-image issues I still have, we hit upon a bit of a revelation. I still hold on to the naive belief that, at 23, I shouldn’t have body image issues anymore. It was a hope that persisted throughout my teenage years. With age, all of this would go away. And of course it doesn’t. In my particular case, we noted that a lot of my issues that have roots in childhood often get triggered by specific events. None of my issues are ever in isolation, and if they flare up, it’s because something else has flared up concurrently that exacerbates the former. And then the revelation: I immediately realized that these issues aren’t just disparate, they’re parts – “tendrils” is how I described them – of the same large behemoth: how I see myself in relation to where I want to be. Each tendril is situational, variables that act up and inform the central question: am I on my way to becoming the person I want to be? It seems silly, but after months and months of working through each tendril in isolation, having a larger framework to work against was a pretty major breakthrough.

And, of course, it all goes back to ambition. Sometimes I think mine has gone stale or has paled in comparison to the people around me. That’s not the case; my ambition is stronger than it’s ever been. The two biggest driving forces behind my ambition have always been service and spite. The former is decidedly more noble than the latter and will always be more important – nothing I do matters if it doesn’t help in some capacity. The latter grew in size and force over the years, reaching its peak in college, but it has always been there. It’s always played a bit of a tempering role to the complacent, afraid side of me. My successes in high school despite the odds? Spite: if I can’t succeed despite the odds, what’s the point? Fighting my way back from a D in economics? Spite: “he looked at me like I was stupid, I’m not stupid.” Deciding, once and for all, that I will get a PhD? Spite: no one ever gets to call me a pseudointellectual again. And I don’t get to believe it.

And here’s the thing, a lot of my spite is intrinsic too. I live to spite myself because at the end of the day, I’m my worst enemy for these things. I treat myself like absolute trash. I’m the one that allows myself to listen to people who want to put me down because in my heart, I believe that part of service is taking all criticism on face value and becoming “better” for it. The roots of that are in the one trait I fear most in myself, arrogance. A “trait” that came out of insecure teenage bravado – forgivable! And yet, unforgiven. If arrogance is self-assurance without limits, then I would strive to be the opposite of that.

I think spite is a necessary driving force. For me, it forces me to take what I judge as a failing on my part and reevaluate it. It forces me to for once in my life give myself a break, because I can actually do the things I am told I can’t do. I spite myself so as to learn to forgive myself. Arrogance is bad, yes, but I’ve never actually been arrogant, I was just called that by someone at the age of 13 and it stung enough to stick for ten whole years.

I have so much I still haven’t forgiven myself for, from the banal to the serious. The last five years I’ve been at college are pockmarked by those moments. I think back on them and my immediate urge is to rip my own skin off. To blame yourself so much that your instinct is violence towards yourself? The cruelty of it all.

I want more than anything to be of use. I don’t need to be lauded, I don’t need to be appreciated, I just want to help and create and cultivate and study. Any moment where I have been less than those things is paramount to failure in my book. And yet, I graduated and I graduated pretty dang well. I have made life-long friends, I have been a mentor, I have learned so much, and I have even been able to help in that process. More than any other time in my life, I did the best I could and now that it’s over, I’m so proud of myself.

I think that might make it easier for me to forgive myself one day.


On a lighter-ish note, what comes next after the above detailed milestone, you say? Waiting for the US government to get back to me about whether or not I can stay in this country for the next year! Finding a full-time job! I have a part-time gig as a research assistant which I am so excited for and which will help tide me over until I can get a full-time job with benefits. I’m also ~paranoid~ so I don’t want to give more details on that until I get said government approval.

Over the next year, I will be studying for and taking the GRE and applying to graduate programs in political science/international affairs with a focus on ethnic conflict and global governance…and I think most of them will be PhD programs. I’m about 80% sure on that. That’s the most sure I’ve been about anything with the letters P, H, and D in it! I will also be fine-tuning my research article on sex trafficking in the EU and hopefully getting it in front of a panel of academics to get feedback. I’ll try my best to add updates here but they might go to LinkedIn first.

If you’ve been following my blog for a while now, thank you for sticking with me despite my unreliable upload schedule. It means a lot to me!

An unqualified guide to bullet journaling for mental health

This guide was requested by a friend but in all honesty, this is something I’ve been thinking about writing for a while. This is no replacement for actual honest to god therapy, so please do seek a counselor if you struggle with some of the issues I vaguely allude to! Also, naturally, content warning for discussions of mental health and vague references self-harm and such.

To relatives who might be reading this – I promise, I’m good and well-adjusted and happy, and I’m okay weathering awkward questions if it means someone might find some use in this guide!


When I started bullet journaling last December, I didn’t realize how much it would help my anxiety and generally facilitate a more organized existence. While I was never a mess, I wasn’t necessarily organized either. Bullet journaling helped me keep track of all my deadlines, my daily tasks, weekly tasks, monthly tasks – whatever I needed from it – in a space that was as accessible as it was a creative outlet for me. Moreover, I found that it was incredibly helpful in tracking my mental health concerns; primarily my anxiety and complex PTSD.

Initially, I used it to log things I wanted to discuss with my therapist. I could only afford therapy every other week and didn’t want to forget anything important/catastrophic that happened during the days betwixt. I also started making a point of writing down important takeaways FROM therapy. I explained to my therapist what I was doing and why, and she encouraged me to write notes, doodle, scribble during our sessions. Keeping notes also helped my mindfulness and concentration. My mind tended to wander a lot – still does – but bullet journaling and my journal itself served as a focal point to remain present and not dissociate wildly.

The most destructive manifestation of my complex PTSD has been a tendency to self-harm. Proximity to a therapist was an easy way to work through what led to self-harm and how to avoid it, but upon moving to the Netherlands for a few months, I needed to find an alternative way of coping. After a few disastrous near-brushes with self-harm and anxiety attacks, I tried to look at ways I could “weaponize” my bullet journal against my mental health issues. Understanding the enemy is part of the fight, so I Googled ways that people used their bullet journal to track mental illnesses.

This was a huge preamble, I know, but I wanted to make a convincing argument! Here are the strategies I use to aid my mental health (also this guide assumes you know the basics of bullet journaling):

  • Mood tracking: Granted, I’m not great at this and I often fall asleep without filling in my mood tracker – but for the two months that I did religiously, it was really interesting to see my mood throughout a given month at a glance. With my monthly calendar filled in, and by referencing the daily tasks associated with any day I was curious about, I began to make associations e.g., dealing with finances was an immediate downgrade to my mood, as a general rule of thumb I was a distinctly happy person but days that started off as being coded “mixed” would often be coded “anxiety” during the latter part of the day – and days that started anxious ended up turning into angry days. The codes I used were: anxious, happy, sad, hyped, angry, mixed, and meh. You can use whatever codes you’d like. I fully intend to get back to mood tracking starting November and I’m considering switching to mood tracking as part of checking off my tasks at the end of the day instead of flipping back through to the mood tracking page.
  • Master-list of symptoms and manifestations of anxiety: Another really frustrating manifestation of my complex PTSD is a reduced capacity for memory. While this is annoying on a day-to-day level, let alone as a tie-in to dissociative amnesia, it’s really hard to learn anything about your mental illness when you can’t remember you learnt anything. This is a bit vague, so I’ll give an example: in the first few weeks of realizing what CPTSD was, I read pretty widely about it and the symptoms associated with it. In the months after, I would often forget that something I was doing persistently was a symptom of my CPTSD and would get really afraid and concerned, only to rediscover or be told by a friend that I had already identified action x as a symptom of CPTSD. Cue feeling really stupid and being upset that my memory had gotten so bad – which, incidentally, has triggered self-harm before. You see the utility of this. So in order to alleviate this feeling, I’ve identified all the symptoms of CPTSD that I’ve experienced before in order to have a single point of reference (eg., emotional flashbacks, hypervigilance, concentration issues, trouble breathing). Everything is a bit more palatable, once written down.
  • Master-list of tried and true self-care or preventative strategies: This is pretty self-explanatory. I tend to forget everything in my rush of panic, including what strategies calm me down. Listed self-care techniques include: watching make-up tutorials, taking a shower, drawing something beautiful and then destroying it (very therapeutic), working out (nothing like burpees to distract you!), grounding strategies including meditation, deep breathing, being mindful of my body, counting off sensory triggers, etc. Preventative strategies include: covering my arms and legs as soon as possible, getting fresh air, drinking or feeling something cold, turning off my phone, calling someone.
  • Self-harm tracking: This is a two-part tracker. The first part of the tracker is tracking days without any self-harm. For every two weeks I go without self-harming, I make a conscious effort to treat myself – whether to a smoothie or something decadent I wouldn’t normally let myself get, or a new piece of make up, whatever you want. It’s something to look back at and be proud of accomplishing. I’m a bit prideful, so seeing the tally end suddenly because I’ve self-harmed bruises my ego. This works in my favor; often, right at the cusp of self-harming, I’ll think to myself but you were doing so well! You had just a few days to go before the next two-week bench mark! and it honest to god works (for me). I’ve also written right at the top of my tracker “no shame, just move on” for if I do self-harm. You can adjust this for panic attacks or whatever you want, and have the benchmark be as long or short of a timespan as you’d like. The second part to this is logging instances of self-harm. I took this template from Lindsay Braman and if I do self-harm, I list events that transpired before the breakdown and identified symptoms/emotions leading up to it as well. Hopefully you won’t have to fill this out, but if you do, it’s a good way to foster awareness of yourself. Eventually, I would like to create a similar log for emotional flashbacks. I will say, I don’t create a monthly log for self-harm tracking, mostly because I (on average) self-harm once a month so I don’t personally find utility in that.

I hope all of that makes sense and that you can see some value in tracking your mental health. Some other points to note – please make time TO update your bullet journal! Whether it’s five minutes a night or in one big chunk at the end of the week, you get out of your bullet journal what you put into it. You don’t have to make it look excessively creative or pretty. The aesthetics of my bullet journal have deteriorated significantly since I started it (I’m on my second bullet journal now) but I absolutely love it still, and I’m not lying when I say it helps keep me sane. Also, your bullet journal doesn’t just have to be geared towards mental health! I use it as a commonplace notebook for literally everything, including books I want to read, research interests, goals for the year, plans for the future (grad school, etc), assignments for the semester my measurements/sizes because I always forget – whatever you want! The most important thing is to not make your bullet journal a burden on yourself. Don’t overtax your bullet journal, and don’t overtax yourself. Good luck!