I graduate next month and lately I’ve been looking back a lot, thinking about how college has been such a mixed experience for me.
I’ve been dealing with anxiety, depression and sensory issues on and off for years — sometimes I’m almost fine, other times I can’t manage to get out of bed or eat, much less go to class. Yet, I’m graduating. It feels like such a huge accomplishment, but I can’t stop thinking about what it has cost me.
I’ve taken midterms on four hours of sleep and the adrenaline from two panic attacks. I’ve skipped classes because I can’t stop crying and shaking. I’ve stayed up until 3 in the morning again and again, not because I’m doing homework, but because I’m too anxious to sleep.
I’ve forgotten assignments and appointments and thoughts and belongings and hobbies and friendships. I’ve lost my passion for entire fields of study. I’ve considered quitting so many times, and sometimes I’ve only kept going because everything seems equally pointless.
It’s been hell, to put it mildly.
Don’t get me wrong — there have been good times too. I’ve learned so much, made wonderful friends, and had amazing experiences. But I can’t help wondering what college would have been like without my mental illness.
What if I could actually focus on homework? What if I didn’t get disoriented in grocery stores? What if my fear of failure wasn’t so paralyzing that I put off assignments until the last minute when I couldn’t possibly do my best and thus was somehow relieved of the responsibility? What if, instead, I had taken time to heal before jumping into this chaotic mass of stress?
I am worlds away from where I was four years ago, but I have learned to better handle my mental illness in spite of college, not because of it. I have had to deliberately take time and energy away from my schoolwork to pull myself out of horrible spirals and to learn how to do it more easily in the future. I have learned how to pay attention to my body, when I need to eat, when I need to stop working, when I need to call a friend or family member to help me out of a meltdown.
Out of everything I’ve studied, the most important thing I’ve learned about is myself. It sounds cheesy, but honestly I don’t mean it in a feel-good kind of way. Yes, college is what pushed me, but it was less in the sense of “strengthened me through challenge” and more like “shoved me off a cliff.” Saying it was beneficial is like saying falling out of a tree is beneficial because you found out exactly how strong your bones are when they broke.
It might have been better to never know. People always talk about limits as something you strive to overcome, but for many of us that simply isn’t true or even safe. My limits are not where I start to feel uncomfortable and have to grit my teeth and push through. My limits are the points of no return between stress and panic attack, being tired and becoming physically ill, being discouraged and frantically grappling for some way to convince myself that I have a future. Pushing through does not help me get past the limit, it just ensures that when I hit it, it will be with enough force to completely knock me over.
For so many students on this campus, college is not as accessible as it should be. It’s hard, if not impossible, to prioritize classes if you don’t feel safe, if you’re being harassed, if you’re struggling with terrifying thoughts, if you’re worried about affording food, if you’ve been assaulted, if people like you are regularly murdered, if you’re looking at the real, live, armed Nazis massing in the streets and wondering if you’ll live through this Thing that’s happening that most people won’t even name.
I wake up and block the word “Chechnya” on Twitter and try not to think about the complete strangers who want me dead. I can’t imagine what it’s like for all the people dealing with far more hate than I am. Graduation feels like an accomplishment, but it also feels like grief.
A hollow, complicated, almost indescribable kind of grief, anchored in hundreds of ways to my identity, my society, my memory, my most fundamental self. I’m not grieving “the person I could have been” without mental illness, because as far as I’m concerned I’m the exact same person. I’m grieving what I could have had. All the laughter and music and friendships and experiences I missed because I can’t do too many things in one day, or go too far from home, or stay out too late.
All the time I spent rereading and re watching because processing the emotion of a new story would take time I didn’t have. Every second I spent just taking the next breath when it felt like nothing would ever exist except that exact moment. Every melody I wrote and couldn’t hold in my chaotic brain. All the energy sapped in the wake of huge floods of adrenaline.
The sentence I was going to write just after this that escaped me a split second ago. I can’t get any of it back. I am afraid that in the celebration and congratulations we will ignore the cost, ignore the pain it takes for so many people to get here, and leave ourselves with an empty kind of inspiration that holds up one person to admonish another.
Mental health awareness education must be required for all students in health careOn March 23, Amy Bleuel, the founder of Project Semicolon and a native of Wisconsin, lost her battle with depression. For Read…
The kind that says “they did it, and you should too, and if you can’t you’re not working hard enough.” It’s not that simple. No one should be judged for not being able to get through college, or not wanting to. I don’t regret deciding to come here, but I’ll never know if it was a net gain. Even my math degree hasn’t taught me how to subtract happiness from knowledge.
The best I can tell anyone is: take care of yourself. You know best what you need. Hopefully, in some distant utopian future, schools will actually take better care of their students.
Gwynna Norton ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in mathematics.