Every Saturday morning, my mom makes her grocery list. As the aroma of freshly brewed coffee and chocolate chip muffins envelops us, my mom neatly pens what we need for the week. She spreads out flyers from ACME and Giant on our kitchen table. Bold words of “sale” and “buy one get one half off” are intermingled with vibrant pictures of ripe oranges and delicious processed sugars. Next to all of this chaos is my mom’s simple handwritten list: strawberries, sliced ham, bread, milk, and butter.
My mom is a list-maker. And I am too.
When I was in high school, making simple to-do lists developed into a ritual I’d complete every night before I went to sleep. Sometimes, my sloppy note to “bring project” or “print paper” saved my GPA. Other times, “pack lunch” or “bring snack” ensured my stomach didn’t grumble in the middle of a timed essay or an important discussion.
But my organized life slowly crumbled during my senior year of high school. The years of striving for an A+ in every course, combined with my participation in color guard, the musical, academic team, yearbook club, NHS, and several string and choral ensembles led to deterioration of my mental health.
Although I had battled depression and self-image issues in middle school, this was my worst bout of depression yet. Oftentimes, I doubted my long-term choices. Is studying civil engineering a good decision? Did I apply to the right colleges? I spent too many nights dreading going to sleep only to wake up with the same doubts. Those small reminder lists I made before bed turned into my anchor, as they gave me a way to maintain both my outward appearance of normalcy and my familiar routine.
I needed a way to pull myself together, so I turned to my list-making ways. I created a list of reminders about why I needed to keep pushing forward. I did my best to neatly pen things like “being happy takes time and practice” or “teach little girls it’s okay to love science.” Unlike my small to-do lists, I constantly added to this one. In my favorite purple pen, I wrote down my boyfriend’s thoughtful suggestion: “you can’t be sad while eating dried mangos.” After I braved my first day of college classes, I added my mom’s advice, to “just keep smiling and being kind,” in classic blue ink.
While the list didn’t help me to cure cancer or to run a marathon, it did help me to push through the heaviness of my depression. The list wasn’t an immediate fix, but it did gently remind me that things do get better over time. Today, I know that list gave me the hope and encouragement I needed—and still need today. While my depression may ebb and flow, I truly believe in the power of lists to make my life better.
Julie Bates is a sophomore at Penn State majoring in civil engineering.