As young as 12 years old, I knew something was wrong: the fogginess, the inability to concentrate, the feeling that life had no purpose, the increase of binge eating. Through lack of knowledge on the topic and an inability to understand what I was feeling, I didn’t say anything about it. I covered up my inability to feel with boys, relationships, sports, my friends, and partying. Temporary distractions. I was finally diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety when I turned 19 and came back home from college.
I had taken off my mask and told my doctor the truth. In college, something snapped in me. I moved away from my routine distractions and was slapped on the wrist by the emotions I had been avoiding. I could no longer go to my close friend for a hug — she was in Missouri — the closest I could get to her was a text telling her how shitty I felt.
College is a difficult time; the ages of 18-25 give us such miraculous growth, but also a feeling of instability.
I felt stuck between different medications and fogginess; a lack of appetite and not wanting to get out of bed because I felt that life had no purpose. In the midst of it all, I was coming alarmingly close to scary thoughts about my life that I’d never had before, ones anyone would be devastated to hear. For so long I felt like it was my fault for feeling this way. I live such a great life, right? What in the world could I be depressed about?
Throughout my freshman year of college, I did a research project and realized I wasn’t the only one dealing with this. College depression is at an all time high: 1 in 4 students have a diagnosable mental illness, 40% of them never seek help. The third leading cause of death in college youth is suicide. Although I’d been dealing with this since I was a young girl, I had to come to terms with the fact that if I wanted to live, this was not going to be manageable in college without help.
I felt as though I’d betrayed my parents. I felt that if I told anyone, they would think I faked everything I had with them. I felt like a fraud. I felt like there was tape over my mouth, and I was screaming and no one could hear it — even me. I didn’t want any of the people in my life to know I was feeling this way. When I got back from the doctor’s office, I collapsed into my father’s arms. I told him I was a failure. He told me he was proud.
I didn’t understand why he said that then, but I understand now. When I came back from that winter break, I felt different. I felt lighter. On trial with new medication and being honest with my parents about how I felt, I understood that maybe, just maybe I could survive this. Depression comes in waves, and the waves can either be gentle or they can drag you along the shoreline for miles. As cliché as it sounds, admitting that you aren’t OK is the first step to getting better.
When I feel depression coming on at college, the first thing I do is take a shower. I wash my hair. I listen to a playlist. I walk around my college town and I get my favorite cheese fries down the block from my apartment. My anxiety may be going wild and my heart may feel heavy, but I breathe. I tell my friends to watch out for me. If I’m not eating enough, my best friend (who doubles as a neighbor) will notice and make me pasta. Find your support — and if you can’t find it, find it within yourself. Cut off those who don’t believe in your story or make you feel worse than you already feel. You are only as great as the people you surround yourself with. So if you can’t tell them how you feel, ditch them. When you can’t get out of bed, play your favorite songs and feel how much they make you want to get up. Cry. Don’t suppress it. Learn ways to take off your mask and not be ashamed of it. Do your hair. Text an old friend you haven’t talked to in a minute. It can feel like moving a boulder off your back or escaping a shadow, but a shadow only lasts so long before the sun moves and shines right through it. The waves come and go, but you’re still here. Stomp in the sand. Try your hardest to play in the water.
The most important lesson I’ve learned in college is that feelings are temporary. But me and what I have to offer are not. I’ve learned that this town isn’t my home, where my parents live isn’t my home, my friends are not my home, my new apartment isn’t my home.
I am my home. And I will survive. So will you.
Photos (in order of appearance) by Villedepluie, John Nonlens, Hong Sang-soo, and Jean Amb.