UW Honors Graduation Address

by Reem Sabha, Honors class of 2016-17

Reem Sabha addresses the graduating Honors class of 2016-17. Video credit: Honors Staff.
Reem Sabha, '17
Reem Sabha, '17

I am honored to follow Mr. Purcell in speaking today. Mr. Purcell is an alumnus of not only the illustrious Honors program, but also of the Economics Department, where I have spent the last three years drawing ever more intricate supply and demand graphs. I think people have this idea that economics majors all aspire to be Wolves of Wall Street or white collar criminals or something like that, but Mr. Purcell proves that not all econ majors have sold their souls to Lehman Brothers in exchange for the opportunity to sell subprime mortgages.

I’ve been asked to speak today at the Celebration of Distinction presumably to impart some profound wisdom on my fellow graduates. But before I do, I want to mention to all the non-graduating Honors students in the room that the Honors Student in Residence position is now vacant and in need of a replacement. What is the Student in Residence position, you ask? Quite simply, it’s the best unpaid job on campus. The only requirements are to hang out in the Honors suite a minimum of 15 hrs./week, hold the fort down when everybody else is in a staff meeting, and occasionally rearrange the furniture. If you’re interested in this position, all you need to do is fill it out and submit your transcripts and a portfolio of Honors-themed memes. Best of luck.

Alright, now that’s out of the way, I want to get down to business and talk about what I have never wanted to acknowledge, let alone talk about, in public: my struggles with OCD, otherwise known as Obsessive Corgi Disorder. Just kidding. Although, if you know me at all, you’d know that I am hopelessly and incurably obsessed with corgis. OCD, or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, is a “potentially disabling illness that traps people in endless cycles of repetitive thoughts and behaviors,” according to WebMD, which is also the website that tells you that your dry cough is a sign of a rare and terminal form of kidney cancer. So, while I mean no offense to the authors of such impersonal online diagnostic articles, here’s what having OCD is really like:

Living with OCD is like living with an alarm that never turns off. It reminds you to check that the door is locked, and then reminds you again. And again. And again. And again. And pretty soon, you’ve spent twenty minutes just checking that the door is locked. And just as you begin to walk away from the door, the alarm in your mind rings again and you are compelled to check that the door really is locked. And then on your way to class, all you can think about is whether or not you locked the door and no matter how many times you remind yourself that you really did lock the door, you keep questioning whether or not you locked the door. And then you start to worry about what could happen if you didn’t lock the door. Maybe your roommate’s laptop would get stolen. And she’d lose that term paper she was working on. And then she’d flunk out of college. And it would all be your fault. You would have single handedly have ruined your roommate’s life by not locking that door. OCD operates by scaring the living daylights out of you with extremely unlikely worst-case scenarios. And you follow OCD’s commands because, well, do you really want to take that risk?

Since the age of seven, there have been numerous moments when my OCD ran my life, but none as prominently or as epically as the 2015-2016 academic year, which I will refer to henceforth as “The Year I Lost My Mind.” I lived in a cluster with eleven other roommates, which I quickly realized was about nine roommates too many. Over the course of fall quarter, a combination of genetic predisposition, perfectionism, stress, and the spectrum of dysfunction my living situation provided added up to a major OCD-induced breakdown, which occurred on Monday, January 18th, 2016. That was the day I found myself sitting outside on a bench in the frigid air, calling home, absolutely convinced that I could not function normally anymore. I would find myself in that same situation on various benches around campus throughout the year, dangerously close to giving up all my goals because it felt like someone else was running my mind.

Something just broke inside of me that day—whatever thin piece of grit that was keeping me together snapped mercilessly, and in its place an intense amount of shame and stigma lodged in my core. I lived in a state of perpetual dread, constantly wondering what fresh horrors my living situation was going to drag me through. I wanted nothing more than to rid myself of this demon that had the audacity to burrow into the deepest folds of my brain and stay there—uninvited, unwanted. Part of the reason I struggled so profoundly during those dismal days was my refusal to label OCD what it really is: a mental health illness. I had always harbored this belief that OCD was a personality quirk or a character flaw. The reality is that OCD is a mental health issue that affects around four million individuals nationally. And it took me until college—specifically that winter quarter when my OCD peaked—to accept that OCD is not my personal failure as an individual, but rather a fact of life outside of my control.

During that quarter I happened to be taking Professor Jon Herron’s “Evolution and Human Behavior” course. Registering for this course, incidentally, is the closest thing I’ve encountered to the real life version of The Hunger Games. In Prof. Herron’s course, I undertook a quest for knowledge regarding the reason for my OCD—whether it was a character flaw as I had feared or whether there was an underlying scientific reason. My research revealed that OCD is in essence an evolutionary phenomena gone awry. You see, back when we were cave-dwelling, mammoth-hunting people, individuals who were slightly more germophobic than the rest tended to survive longer and hence produce more offspring: these people had discovered the radical notion that washing your hands every now and then can literally save your life. But somewhere along the spectrum of human history, this the obsessions and compulsions that once conferred an evolutionary advantage outlived their usefulness, and became a liability. Too much of a thing—even a good thing—can become your worst demon.

During those dismal times, in order to avoid my dysfunctional living situation, I spent as little time as possible in my dorm, taking up residence in the Honors suite instead. Practically every day, from 9 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon, you could find me at “my desk” in the Honors suite: I left only to go to class or buy coffee. And this is how the “Student in Residence” position got started. Honors, in essence, became my home, and in that space I felt empowered to get the help I needed to manage my OCD. In the Honors space, the feeling of being alone was momentarily lifted and I came to the realize the full extent of the shame I harbored against my own struggle with mental health. In this space, I confronted my real failure—not OCD, which is not a failure at all—but refusing to open up about my profound struggle while I was in the midst of the greatest internal conflict of my life. This failure to acknowledge the issue I was struggling with only added to my sense of isolation and exacerbated the shame and stigma I felt. By not talking about my OCD, I pushed myself deeper into the mental trap OCD had set up for me and contributed to the stigma surrounding mental health—a stigma I privately railed against but continued to perpetuate with my ignoble silence.

If my OCD is something that I have avoided discussing in public, then why have I just spent the past few minutes describing it in this very public place? Well, when I spoke with Vicky about this speech, her only requirement was that it had to be real. Authenticity is something I’ve learned to embrace in the UW Honors Program, and to leave this program on an inauthentic note would be an insult to the very nature of Honors. Another reason I chose to talk about my OCD at the CoD, as this event is affectionately called, is that if you shift around the letters CoD you get OCD! It was basically a sign from the universe telling me that I had to talk about my cod…I mean, my OCD.

Most critically, though, I’ve chosen to discuss my OCD with you all today to emphasize the power of our personal stories, and to urge you to share your narratives with others. The Year I Lost My Mind was fraught with difficulties, but none as impossible as my attempt to live an externally perfect life. To say that I did not want others to know about my OCD would be a massive understatement: I burned with the fear that I would be found out, called a fraud, and hated by others as much as I hated myself in that moment. I felt that it was only a matter of time before someone tapped me on the shoulder and said “the gig is up.” So I lived a dual existence—internally miserable, externally business as usual. It was an especially distressing time because I had just gotten into my major the quarter before. The mother of all assumptions in economics is that human beings act rationally. And yet, here I was acting very irrationally because of my OCD. Was I a bad economist? If we were basing our conclusion on my grade in game theory, then, yes, I am a terrible economist, but thankfully, that’s not the criterion the econ department uses.

I learned the hard way during The Year I Lost My Mind that silence suffocates. It suffocates our spirit, our determination, our zest for life. Silence perpetuates injustice and entrenches stigma. We must speak our stories—whatever our stories may be. Reflecting back on The Year I Lost My Mind, I often wonder how much I could have helped myself by daring to discuss a subject I had built an impenetrable wall around. I also wonder how many other people I could have helped simply by acknowledging that they were not alone in their struggles, that I was struggling right along with them. So, I’ll say it right here, right now: I am with you, with whatever you are struggling with. And we will get through our struggles together. I want to thank the people who helped me get through my struggles last year: to the faculty and staff of Honors, thank you. To my incredible mother, thank you. And to my inspirational father, thank you, and may you rest in eternal peace.

As Honors students, it can be hard to admit when our lives don’t go as planned, because any detour off the carefully constructed paths we have paved for ourselves is too often viewed as failure. When we think so narrowly about our lives, though, we miss the point: struggle and success are not mutually exclusive. Success is often only built on the back of profound struggle. I’m not going to tell you what success is, partly because there is more than one definition of success, but mostly because I’m still trying to figure that out myself. But I feel that no matter what you do, or where you go in life, if you stay authentic to your sense of self, and you are brave enough to be the voice of stories yet untold, you will have achieved a threshold of success many others never will.

And I, for one, cannot wait to see what successes the future has in store for you, my dearest fellow graduates. After all, the future needs you more than ever, to stand up for justice and compassion and equality and diversity. My dearest peers—the very idea of you inspires: your passion, your kindness, your curiosity. You light up the path when it is dark with your luminous presences. My dearest Honors family: don’t let anyone tell you that we are too young or too naïve or too inexperienced to create real change. Our perspectives are relevant and important, and you must never stop confronting the most challenging injustices that remain in this world. My dearest UW Honors Class of 2017: congratulations on this momentous academic and personal achievement; congratulations on finding your sense of self and reveling in it; congratulations on surviving years of coffee-induced heartburn and all-nighters in Odegaard. As you head into your next adventure, I ask that you ask yourself one thing: everybody has a story—but how will you use your story to empower others? I wish you the best of luck with your future endeavors. It’s been one hell of a ride, Class of 2017. Congratulations. Student in Residence, out.

Reem Sabha
Bachelor of Science in Economics with Interdisciplinary Honors
Class of 2016-17