I wrote a long and involved timeline of my collegiate experience and struggle with mental illness, but as the woman on the other side of graduation, the journey isn't about what happened. It has and will always be about the people along the way [and what I learned from them] and the whirlwind inside me. But let me ruin the ending for you: I live. And I rise. I rise from the ashes of, well, the last five and a half years of my life. I rise from the days in bed and the white knuckles of holding the fuck on and the lifeless girl I once was.
Relevant trigger warnings, even though you are on a mental health blog: recreational drug use, topic of suicide, graphic descriptions of suicidal ideation.
In hindsight, maybe there were signs. Maybe there weren't. But in high school, before my mental health really took a turn for the worse, I wasn't in touch with any professionals who could have seen the signs for me. So I applied for college and went into my first day at Villanova University without any warning about my (most likely latent) depressive, anxious and executive dysfunctional tendencies.
I graduated from high school a naïve and excited little girl. Not street smart, not very “worldly," but I excelled in academics and had a strong group of friends [there are people who will accept me no matter who or what I become]. I had a first love boyfriend [I must have standards for the way others treat me, and I must assert these standards], and our relationship has been a major component of my coming of age story: he taught me a lot about the world and myself over the 5 year non- and platonic tangle we found ourselves in.
As a teenager, I didn’t act out or rebel much, and was pretty ready to grow up into the kind of people my parents [the truth is more important than saying what I think other people want to hear] are and probably expected me to be. I thought that the private, Catholic, suburban college experience was going to fit me well and that I would fit it well. But who really knows at 17? Who really knows what kind of environment is going to help them grow into the person they want to be, and truly who knows what kind of person they want to be at 17? Not me. And as it turns out, the clouds, the loneliness, and the boredom that I found at Villanova pushed me into a shadow of my former self.
Let me explain – I am from Colorado, where it is sunny about 300 days of the year. I’ve lived here since I was 10, and didn’t quite understand what people meant when they said Philadelphia would be cloudy and rainy. My group of friends from high school were scattered across the country and as all my relationships turned into long distance ones, including my boyfriend, I was a little lost and more than a little lonely. I spent a lot of time on the fourth floor of the library in silence by myself. And I had to take classes I’d already taken in high school, and the anticipated “college will be intellectually challenging and academically rigorous” thing did not pan out at all.
I did gain a handful of quality friends over the course of my freshman year through a cappella [I love supporting women and girl time is important] and my dorm [being open will invite openness], and they will always be important to me in a way I’m not sure they would ever understand. Maybe I couldn’t talk about how messed up I felt, but at least there were kind people to distract me and sit in the library with and knock on my door asking if I wanted to get smoothies late at night.
By the end of freshman year, I wasn’t… sold on the Villanovan college experience, but I wasn’t rejecting it, either. I’d had a couple great professors [if I respect you, I will do your homework], and one professor [I want to pursue water resources and treatment engineering] who helped me see an alternative path to the one I was on, even if it wasn’t one I could pursue at Villanova. But the way forward was clear: drag myself to class and try to stay awake, stop cancelling plans with my friends, get through the week to get to a cappella rehearsal.
And that summer… well, I could tell you the censored story, but that’s not what we’re about here. My high school friends (including the boyfriend) invited me to smoke weed with them when we went camping. I had just gotten my wisdom teeth out (yes, I went camping two days after getting my wisdom teeth out, idgaf) so I was on Percocet and didn’t join, but everyone else smoked. And that night I saw something true. I saw my friends be un-inhibited, free, honest. And oh, I joined them. I let go of whatever had been burdening me and relaxed into a group of people I love and who love me (this group is still deeply important in my life).
In a flash, it all came crashing down on me. I realized that the person I had tried to be at Villanova wasn’t my true self: I wasn’t the person I wanted to be, nor was I true to the person I was. And suddenly, the idea of going back, of committing to denying my *self* again… for three more years?? It was a hard no, if anything ever has been. I had a minor meltdown and my mom threw out the idea of taking a semester off or transferring.
My parents encouraged me to “see someone” at Villanova because “maybe [my] perception isn’t true”. These words, four and a half years later… still sting. I deeply believe that my perception is all that I have, that how I process and understand my experience may be the only truth I can ever reach. I went to the counseling center and started therapy – let’s call it what it is – with an incredible therapist [my feelings are valid data for decision making]. Instead of convincing me to not transfer (I think this is what my parents intended), he encouraged me to think of my best interest. About what would be good for *me*. He reminded me weekly that as an 18-year-old out of the house, I knew more about my experience at Villanova and what would be good for me than my parents did. He reminded me weekly that I should listen to these feelings, that my rejection of Villanova was important, that whatever I felt was valid. His lasting remark on me? “Pay attention to yourself”.
So I did. I paid attention to the desperation inside of me, got the necessary recommendation letters, got accepted to CU, and put their acceptance letter up in my dorm room as a promise to myself – one semester, and then I can go home.
Feet on the ground in Boulder that January was spectacular. I was in classes that re-ignited my desire to learn, filled up the empty pit that boredom had been digging in my chest. The loneliness was still there even though I had a couple people I knew from high school and my best friend at Villanova [no one can be sunshine for me, but they can provide some of the gentling I need] became my new long-distance boyfriend. I knew that in the fall I would have to join some sort of extracurricular activity to make friends and get myself out of my dorm room, but I was okay. I thought.
Truly, what is it with me and going back to school? That fall, I moved into my new single dorm room and a couple days before class started I felt… weird. Unlike I had ever felt before. Like I didn’t want to keep being a person. Like I wanted to die. I started having “imaginings” of what would happen, of blood running down my arms, of ropes hung from shower rods, of my funeral, of whoever found me in my dorm room bathroom (yeah, I had a kitchen and a bathroom in my room, it was pretty fancy). I know now that this is called suicidal ideation, and that I was right to walk myself directly over to the counseling center at CU. Mainly I was confused – my previous therapist and I had talked about me being situationally depressed, but I had (naively) believed that transferring would solve that by taking me out of the environment contributing to my depression. But life doesn’t work like that, one thing will never change everything, and the intrusive suicidal thoughts and ideation were with me for my entire junior year. Eventually, I found the only way to deal with them was to keep going to therapy and try to cut the cognitive dissonance and tell myself that suicide was okay. That it wasn’t okay today, or tomorrow, but eventually I would die by my own hand and that would be okay.
I did get myself to the freshman activity fair, and the why-the-hell-not risk of becoming a coxswain for the rowing team gave me a place to grow as a leader, to be surrounded by tall boys [there are people who will stand up for me when I can’t] who accepted me and encouraged me to be as aggressive and competitive as I am, to breathe a little bit of confidence back into my lungs. I got to see the sunrise, I got to get out of bed and do something with people who would notice if I didn’t show up because I was, you know, dead. And learning the new skills of steering a 60-foot long boat and managing eight rowers on the water satisfied this restless brain.
I stayed on the team for two years, learned from a good coach [under good guidance I can learn and flourish], made friends with one [laughter and tears make strong friendships], two [being adopted is a part of my chosen identity], three [relationships based on giving and getting gentleness will last] other coxswains, and learned life lessons about management, leadership, teamwork, and friendship.
By the start of senior year, I had been accepted to do a combined bachelor’s/master’s program, my boyfriend had broken up with me (imagine being in a long-distance relationship with a listless suicidal girl, I don’t blame him at all), I had done a summer job at a small environmental consulting firm, and gone on Lexapro under the care of my GP. She helped me get a third therapist [I will reject anyone who tells me how to feel], who helped me get a psychiatrist [I don’t have to suffer]. The suicidal thoughts finally left me, and I moved into an apartment with one of my best friends from high school [other people have the same consuming curiosity that I do].
I got through senior year. I enjoyed parts of it, too. I went on lithium to help my anxiety, and school was alright, my senior capstone design team [my hard work is valued and appreciated] became my colleagues and then my friends. Spent several months involved with a guy [people are worthy of my trust until they show me they are not] which was fun, even though it ended poorly. And when I doubted myself as a student, as a coxswain, as a friend, there were shining stars – people who wanted to go to lunch with me, who invited me to parties I actually showed up to, who let me be sad sometimes, who let me roll around on their floor asking for advice.
As I went through my grad year-and-a-half, I reconnected with that first love and walked the well-worn patterns of our relationship: the highs were high, and the lows brought me to my knees with self-doubt, insecurity, and perceived inferiority. We went from an hour’s drive, to eight hours’ drive, to an hour’s drive away from each other and forgot that our relationship dynamic had to be different from when we were in high school because we were different.
I left that third therapist and found a fourth one [only practice will teach myself how to be and that I can be the person I want to be] that has fully brought out the idea of the woman I want to become out of the shell of the girl I had been. She helps me use cognitive behavioral therapy to twist some fundamentally negative things I believe(d) about myself into convictions that I am better than the thoughts in the dark of night, in moments of panic, in the face of confrontation, in the choice of being myself or being what I think others want from me.
After a year of grad school, I was not convinced I wanted to finish it out and found three people who let me wallow in that feeling for a little bit: my boss [I am different and that is a good thing], my therapist, and my psychiatrist. My psychiatrist found it especially interesting that I didn’t want to finish my last semester and had me fill out an ADHD questionnaire. Turns out I fit the profile, and she gave me a prescription for a tiny blue pill to cut in half that eased the whirlwind inside me, that relaxed me, that let me feel what it was like to be that sunny little girl that graduated high school. Medication helps me overcome my problems with motivation and executive function to actually complete things, to want to be engaged with things, and to focus on the moment I’m in instead of the chatter in my head.
Over the summer, I worked alongside my coworker [sometimes the people I work with are more important than the work we do], and with the support of my therapist, I finally cut myself free from that first love. Eventually, all the “I am not inferior” and “my gentleness is a strength, not a liability” sunk in and I found I valued myself more than I valued our relationship. This fourth therapist has truly helped me set myself free from the traps in my own mind that prevent me from doing what I want to do, what I need to do – whether that’s schoolwork or expressing my opinion openly and honestly.
And in the last five months, I finished out my last semester of school while straining towards full-time employment, worked with some great people in group projects [great colleagues are rare and invaluable], and started seeing someone new [people can see and accept me the way I am]. And in graduating, I taught myself that I am the kind of person who follows through on her commitments to herself. So here I am, in a month’s vacation between school and the rest of my life…
And I can tell you – I have no idea what’s in store. But I know now that I can handle it. I know now that building a support network and a professional treatment network are equally as important for me. I work to see myself as the woman I’m becoming, not the girl I once was – I know that I am more confident and more capable now than I ever have been, even if I’m not as confident and not as capable as I want to be. I want to work with my mental illness, and not around it – I make as many reminders and notes as I need to, and I try to focus on trying to do what I can instead of doing something perfectly. I try to give love to myself and to others, and I know that includes simple and direct honesty, giving opportunities instead of obligations, and learning patience.
Don’t get me wrong – I am still anxious, I can still get depressed, and my executive dysfunction keeps me from completing tasks way more often than I’d like. I still lay in bed with my cat for a whole day, I still hesitate to bring up what I need from people, but any progress is progress. Each day is a new opportunity to teach myself that I am the kind of person that values me. To teach that little girl inside of me that she is worthy of love, worthy of defending, worthy of sharing herself with the world.
It takes a village to raise a child. It also takes a village to raise a human, to challenge me and teach me and help guide me into the woman I will become. And I am so thankful for the village that has been with me so far.