Going into the Fall semester of my first year of college, I did not expect to lose ten pounds rather than gain fifteen. I did not expect to find several favorite spots in the library (mostly because, prior to college, I avoided libraries like the Plague). And I certainly did not expect to question everything that I believed defined who I was.
When my parents left after hours of unpacking the life that I had uprooted, I cried. I cried more than either of my parents did combined. I cried again when we spoke on the phone that night, separated by 75 minutes and a mountain of tissues, and continued to do so for the next few nights.
Orientation Week ended shortly thereafter, classes began, and I received my first set of real syllabi (because let’s be honest, syllabi distribution in middle and high school is more of a formality than anything else). I remember arranging the packets around me in a semicircle on the floor of my suite’s common room and sitting in front of them. Each class had its own pen color in my Lilly Pulitzer agenda as I scheduled assignments and exams because if you know me, you know I can’t live a day without my color-coding. But after those first few “ease into college” days, my classes picked up the pace and I settled into a routine.
It wasn’t until a month or two into the semester when I noticed another type of routine. Each night, I found myself drained to the point of sheer exhaustion. Where I had in the past been able to stay awake well beyond midnight, I now had begun to tuck myself in at ten o’clock almost every night. I sectioned myself off from most people, preferring to stay in or go to the library to spend hours in a study room rather than go out to school functions. Granted, I’ve never been one for overwhelmingly attended events, but this was drastic: I wasn’t doing anything. My days followed the same pattern: wake up, maybe eat some semblance of a breakfast before heading to class, grab lunch, head back to my room, study/take notes/read/write papers on said readings, go to sleep. Repeat.
I’d heard from family friends and Orientation speakers alike that depression hit many college students hard. In 2011, 30 percent of college students reported feeling “so depressed that it was difficult to function.” I hadn’t expected to become part of that statistic, but as it turns out, my physical responses were the least of my worries.
I was blessed enough to have a wonderful, tough, supportive English professor my first semester. After leaving high school with only one research paper under my belt, I, a self-labeled and proud writer, was intimidated. My first few papers felt like grinding stone against stone, and despite my professor’s time and advice, I spiraled into a tizzy of overwhelm and self-doubt. (Remember our friend, Doubt? Yep, he was my unofficial third roommate.)
Suddenly I was questioning the one thing that mattered to me: my writing. If I can’t even write a paper, how can I expect to write a novel? Was everyone lying to me? Am I really an awful writer others felt they had to pity-compliment? I’ve already changed my major twice (from English Literature to Creative Writing). What if I have to change it again?
Nothing eased my anxiety. No amount of talks with my parents or best friends helped. I’d already unintentionally cut back on eating (bye-bye, ten pounds!), so food wasn’t a comfort. I hit a block in my writing that, if I’m being honest, I haven’t recovered from yet.
I’ve always been a Fixer, so when something is wrong, even if I’m frazzled or sad (or both), I’ll do whatever I need to do to resolve the issue. (This is a result of my strongest coping mechanism: buckling down, doing what I need to do to succeed in whatever way possible and nothing more.) I sought help from the counseling services at my school, a resource I continue to recommend to everyone, and began to work through the jumbled mess that was my head.
By the time Winter Break rolled around, I was ready to be done. I was ready to jump in the car with my parents and dogs and head to our family cabin. I was ready to again explore the town in which the cabin was nestled. I was ready to just breathe for the first time in months. I’d spent so long struggling to maintain some degree of sanity amidst my stress and sadness that I was just done.
I returned in January for the Spring semester renewed, ready and excited for my classes. This time around, I knew I had to make myself stretch beyond my comfort zone. My school is incredible and has given me so much in terms of new experiences and other blessings. It offers so many opportunities for its students (I mean, c’mon, they serve us donuts during Finals), but I hadn’t taken advantage of most of them because of my internal struggles. I realized that I was the only one holding myself back from everyone and everything else. With this realization, I made an effort to talk to more people, to go to more events, to even help out with the set-up of the events. It’s actually at the set-up for our Spring Formal where I really connected with most of the people who made me feel whole again after the Fall debacle. I ended what is probably the most challenging period of my life to date on a good note, happy and inspired, feeling connected to something larger than myself, to other people.
I learned that it’s important to do things that scare you or make you uncomfortable (within reason, of course – safety is the number one priority). But I also learned that sometimes you just have to back away, say “no thanks,” and pass on something if it’s too much.
I learned that it’s beautiful to talk about your struggles, but most importantly, that in doing so, it is not your responsibility to make others feel comfortable about your uncomfortable experiences. Don’t sugarcoat yourself or your truth.
I learned that it’s crucial to seek help when you need it because there are plenty of Todays, but not necessarily so many Tomorrows.
I learned that building relationships with people is more difficult in college, but not impossible, and that these people with whom you’ve connected will lift you when you’re down, even if they don’t realize it.
I learned that sometimes it’s okay to let go of what no longer lifts your spirits and feeds your soul. In fact, it’s probably the best thing to do at that point.
Looking back at those nine months, I realize that I lived them exactly the way I needed to in order to grow. I now see the beauty in how I spent my first year in college, over a month removed from it. I had the support of my family and friends, which I know is something that some are not so lucky to have, as I embarked on this new part of my journey. My path wasn’t, and still isn’t, free of rocks that trip me up or rattlesnakes that scare the ever-living heck out of me, and I’m grateful that it is that way. If I hadn’t had the experience that I did, I wouldn’t have learned to appreciate sunsets and the particular shade of brown of my dog’s eyes and the nonsensical sound of silence. So thank you, freshman year, for teaching me a little bit more about life than I’d known before, and for proving to me the miraculousness of the present and the so-far-unbroken promise of tomorrow.
Join me next week for an unboxing and review of the 2015-2016 Erin Condren Life Planner!
This post is not sponsored by or affiliated with Lilly Pulitzer or Erin Condren.