I spent the majority of my junior year in and out of the hospital, focusing on health and recovery. Planning for my future was put in the periphery as I was completely distracted by my circumstances. Senior year, in the midst of college planning, my doctor suggested the idea of taking a gap year.

As a senior in high school, navigating my way through college admissions, I was overwhelmed to say the least. Six months prior I had been diagnosed with Acute Promyleoid Leukemia (APML), and my life seemed to do a complete 180. 

What do people even do on gap years?

A gap year had never crossed my mind. They veered too far off of the college track I had planned out. I imagined they could end in one of two ways: a time filled with adventure and exploration, or a time to eat chips on the couch while watching Keeping up with the Kardashians.

Although nothing sounded more incredible than the first outcome, I knew that health wise, I was restricted to how long I could be away from my doctors, rendering the second outcome the more likely possibility.

Deciding to take a gap year

As the pressure of applying to schools combined with maintaining my mental and physical health became too much, I decided to follow the doctor’s advice and take a year off.

This decision was far more intimidating than anything I faced while having cancer. When I was sick, I wasn’t given as much say in what happened. I assumed everything that the doctors did was in my best interests, so naturally, I complied. For the first time in what felt like eternity, I was forced to make a decision about my future, where I controlled the outcome.

Now what?

As my friends all went their separate ways in September, I chose to move to the East Coast. I was fortunate enough to have family in both Boston and New York, who had both invited me to stay with them.

I planned to bounce between cities according to my whims, and explore during the day while my family worked, or went to school. I had been to both places before, but I had never experienced either on my own.

Exploring these cities was somewhat intimidating, but also very liberating. I could wake up every morning and essentially do whatever I wanted, which was so foreign to me. Boston and New York have so much to offer, and I developed a love for the people, food, and character that both are bustling with.

At times though, the year was lonely. I rarely spent time with people my own age, and I often yearned to share the experience with others.

Short lived exploration

Haley Mellen

About half way through the year, a few health scares forced me to move back home. Where the earlier stint of my year was filled with a version of the exploration and adventure I had hoped for, it slowly transitioned into the other half of the binary that I had feared.

I had finished applying for colleges in the fall, so my time was spent chauffeuring my brother to hockey practice, going to the gym, and watching ample amounts of reality TV. I judged myself, as my life seemed to have no direction, and I was genuinely bored.

I had way too much time to think. I watched as my friends were having the time of their lives in college, like I had planned to. I wasn’t jealous, but more than anything, I wanted to feel that I was doing something meaningful with my time.

Reflecting on the year

In hindsight, I never gave enough credit to the fact that this time, although not backpacking through Europe or climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, was meaningful.

For the first time in 19 years, I took a break. I woke up every day and I could choose what I wanted to do with it. I wasn’t constantly concerned with schedules and grades. I focused on myself, and although thoroughly confused and aimless at times, I developed a greater appreciation for everything in my life. College transformed into a place where I wanted to be, not just another step in my plan.

I didn’t “find myself” during my gap year, and honestly, I didn’t gain that much clarity on what I wanted to do or be later in life. However, I did learn that it is so important to take care of myself and do what is right for me, and my life. Most importantly, it taught me that there isn’t a right way of doing things and there's value in simply trusting myself.