During the summer of 2012, I suffered a nervous breakdown. My life had fallen out of balance, eclipsed by severe waves of anxiety, resentment, and emptiness.

At the time, I had finished three years of a six-year Doctor of Pharmacy program and was about to begin rotations at a nearby hospital. Although I was doing fine academically, I found myself at odds with my peers, who seemed to accept their future, while I still struggled to believe that pharmacy was the right career path for me. I kept telling myself everything would be better after graduation, but the sentiment only grew worse when I tried to suppress it.

As a result, I continued to internalize my frustration so much so that it manifested physically in the form of weight loss, stomach ulcers, and panic attacks. I had become so anxious that I would arrive to class half an hour early and avoided walking on main roads because I feared drivers in traffic were watching.

On the day of rotations, instead of going to the hospital, I made an appointment with the campus’s Wellness Center. After diagnosing me with social anxiety, my counselor said something interesting, “Ansel, you need to find your voice.”

My voice? For me as an introvert, my voice was the quiet space I often turned to in times of reflection and pensiveness. But with the help of cognitive behavioral therapy, I learned that I had stopped being proactive about what I wanted— I had stifled my narrative. Somewhere along the way of trying to reflect the aspirations and ideals of those around me, I stopped giving credence to my own. And because of that, my voice had faded into a whisper— unheard by others.

On the first week of my fourth year in pharmacy, I changed majors. In the process, I transitioned from a program of around 300 students to one with only eight. All of a sudden, I was forced to relearn how to venture out into the world.

During this critical period, I discovered both the university greenhouse and organic garden. It was exciting to find other individuals who shared my love of gardening and nature, and I became actively involved in a student organization for the first time. Because of my extensive knowledge of plants and insects, I acted as a consultant for both students and faculty, educating them about invasives, medicinal plants, and butterfly life cycles. In fact, I even published a few articles in gardening magazines.

Once I found my niche, my anxiety began to subside. The garden was tranquil, like an extension of my mind, and yet, it was also bustling with activity. I encountered students from diverse majors and was able to forge a keen sense of kinship, collaborating with them for months on the annual Earth Day garden sale. For two years, in conjunction with the sale, I held live butterfly exhibits from black swallowtail caterpillars reared from the garden.

For someone who experienced much tension from public speaking, it was effortless conveying my passion—about pollinators and butterflies in particular. Whether connecting with one individual or a small group, I was able to change their perspective on a topic that may not have been important to them.

And just like the black swallowtail caterpillars, I had undergone my own metamorphosis. I had found my voice at last.

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