In the spring semester of 2017, when I was 16, I wrote an article of tips for how to get through your first year of college sane. In the spring semester of 2018, I was admitted into 72-hour-suicide-watch in a locked hospital for wanting to die too much. I figure that pretty much makes me an authority on college students and mental health.
In the article, I had written that suicide is the third leading cause of death among college students. That is still true, and it’s a fact I can now relate to personally. If you’re entering college soon, mental illness is probably something you or someone you know will be able to relate to as well.
My first year of college was hell. That’s nothing I can change. But maybe yours could be better. So…I went back through my Google Docs folders and found the list of questions I asked interviewees for my 2017 “Self-Care Toolbox” article. There’s still one person left to interview on that story, and that’s me. So get ready to dive into the intestines of freshman year with yours truly. This is the new and improved self-care toolbox for big transitions, aptly named “How to Stay Sane in Freshman Year: a Q&A with the Girl Who Didn’t.”
What do you wish you had known about taking care of your mental health in high school?
I wish I had known that mental health comes first always no matter what. Someone told me that at a train station once, and it seemed like such a radical idea at the time, that my wholeness as a human being should come before something as foundational to one’s existence as homework. I wish I’d known that a lot of people who seemed really happy and confident were actually struggling with the same things as I did. And I wish I’d been more okay with myself in high school. The self-hatred was strong with this one back then and of course part of that is just the fact that I was in high school, but that still doesn’t make it okay. I wish someone would have told me in high school that everything, EVERYTHING is temporary. I wouldn’t have believed them, though – just this morning I left my wallet at home and it threw off my entire day and I thought I would never recover (I did). Sometimes you have to experience things for yourself, and the same epiphany will pop up and surprise you again and again.
How did your lifestyle change as you transitioned?
I got to choose my classes for the first time. I got to drive and pump gas and do lots of adult things like paying a $60 ticket for blocking the main loop. I went to my first legit party and danced like crazy (sober, I somehow feel the need to add). At some point, my parents simply stopped telling me what to do and it felt completely natural and insignificant, mostly because I had never listened to them in the first place have always been pretty mature and strong-willed for my age. The most jarring thing was that I was no longer the smartest person in every class, and that threw me for a loop I still haven’t quite recovered from. I was just as busy as I had been in high school with the dual enrollment classes, only this time I didn’t have an automatic A in every class.
How did expectations compare with reality?
I set the bar pretty low. I knew I wasn’t going to start college as a Whole New Person TM because I’ve tried that with every major transition in my life and it never worked. I actually had these daytime nightmares about what college would be like and they ended up becoming self-fulfilling prophecies. These were the days where I had zero optimism at all and argued with anyone who told me hopeful things like, “try joining a club.” So, low expectations, low outcomes.
Speaking of clubs, I imagined that I had loads of time to try everything. As it turns out, you really have to prioritize just like you did in high school. And take it slowly when you’re starting out. You’ll have time to try everything. But mental health is fun too, I promise.
Do you face any mental health challenges?
What was it like dealing with those challenges during the transition?
The transition was sort of like a detox period and by that, I don’t mean that it was like going to the spa; I mean that literally every little piece of pain and agony I had shoved down all my life came boiling to the surface at the slightest offense. The emotion of transition and the loneliness will color all your problems with this incredible intensity. Since tuition covered counseling services too, I got to see a therapist for the very first time and it helped me be more intentional about caring for myself, but it also dredged up a bunch of childhood trauma, which was, you know, great. My first year of college felt like the climax to my life where all the built-up rising action finally got too big and toppled over.
Knowing what you know now about the transition from high school to college, what would have been helpful for you to have done or known about?
In the past year, I’ve started utilizing meditations and mindfulness and deep breathing. At times slowing things down, even for just a minute, has made the difference between life and death for me. I wish I’d known about mindfulness, and I wish I hadn’t packed my schedule so tight. I had more commitments than there were hours in the week.
What’s helped me a lot in the past few months is my therapist’s train metaphor: thoughts are just trains. Not inherently good or bad. You can get on a train, you can jump in front of it, or you can sit on the platform and watch it go by. That’s your power; your choice.
I wish I had been able to see things more optimistically and know that this too shall pass. Because a lot of the things I thought I’d never see the end of have passed. I wish I had known that college is not the only way for everyone absolutely right now. And I wish I had known that what I was experiencing was so normal but so not okay but also fixable at the same time.
But if I could time travel, I don’t know if I would have listened to my future self (and not only because people rarely react rationally when confronted with twin versions of themselves). It’s just that you have to experience things sometimes, and that’s how my year was destined to unfold. It wasn’t all good, but it wasn’t all bad. But it was definitely intense.
What role did your family and friends play in helping you deal with mental illness?
My closest family were offended by the fact that I so hated the person they so loved: myself. Their being offended didn’t help much. I also didn’t have that many friends because depression and I were pretty exclusive. But I had VOX, which was unlike anything I’d ever had. At VOX, unlike anywhere else in those days, I was seen. I existed without having to fight (or even say anything) to get noticed. At VOX, people greet you at the door like you’ve just won the World Cup, no matter who you are, even if you are the person who left the camera charger and battery in the wall (sorry, y’all). And there’s no cliques. Like, really. I don’t even know how they do that. It’s abnormal.
VOX also gave me this one adult who was there even through all of my craziness to tell me something wasn’t my fault, or put her arm around my shoulder, or tell me she’d be sad if I died. She took me out to breakfast. She made sure I was seeing my therapist. She even offered to help me talk to the financial aid people about getting a scholarship to move into a dorm. She is relentlessly and exhaustingly hopeful— just having her around gives you energy. When I’m having a rough time with anything, sometimes I hear her voice in my head.
Acts of love are sticky and can follow you to even the darkest places.
What would be in your self-care toolbox?
I actually made a self-care toolbox once. It had Brene Brown (her books, not the actual person, although that would’ve been cool too), lined paper and pens, my safety plan, some stuffed animals, a coloring book by Jenny Lawson my mom got for me and colored pencils, and twinkle lights. Lots of soft and bright and expressive things. It didn’t survive an especially rigorous room-cleaning.
Any final thoughts?
Good job, past self, for ending the interview with an open-ended question. You budding journalist, you. Final thoughts are that it’s ridiculous that I have to say this, but it is not embarrassing to see a shrink or take meds or talk out loud about your mental illness.