I don't think I've ever had such a hard time articulating my thoughts for a post before. I don't really know where to start. So... I'm going to start somewhere. By the end of it, I hope I'll make some sense. All I ask of you is that you're gentle - with me, with yourselves, and each other. Sometimes it's the little things we say without giving much thought that can get people spiraling. I'll get to what I mean by that a little later.
For those of you who didn't know, I went to Western for my undergrad. I have so much love for my alma mater, the place responsible for bringing some of the greatest people into my life. It's thanks to Western I now call these people family. For that, I'll always be grateful.
First year was amazing. The universe did me quite the solid when it came to finding me a great group of friends. I never experienced homesickness, I enjoyed most of my classes (except math heh), and I knew I wanted to get involved with a leadership role at some point or another. Back in high school, I never had the desire to try out for stuff. The only thing I was remotely involved in was the prom committee. So even before undergrad started, I knew I wanted things to be different. I wanted to get involved. At the end of first year, I decided to apply for a residence advisor position.
For those of you who aren't familiar, a residence advisor (RA) is basically a peer leader who supervises first year students living in a residence hall. Some schools, refer to them as Dons. As an RA, you live with the first year students all year long and help with their transition into campus life!
My RA philosophy was something I learned from my own residence advisor. It went something like this: I knew my students would be drinking. I knew they'd be doing things they technically weren't suppose to be doing. Hovering over them like a helicopter parent wasn't going to stop them from engaging in these activities. If anything were to happen, I wanted them to know that I was someone they could turn to. I wanted them to know that they didn't have to hide anything, ever. I wanted them to look out for one another, and if anything were to happen, there was help, no matter the circumstance.
As an RA, I was constantly telling my students to ask for help. I kept telling them they weren't going to be judged and they were in a safe space. How come it was so hard for me, and others in this role to take our own advice? As an RA you're balancing lectures, labs, exams, your social life, all the while doing a job that requires you 24/7. God forbid you find yourself struggling. How could you support first year students when you're barely holding it together yourself? Although these things were never outwardly said, they were things a lot of us in this role were thinking. The university was mostly definitely thinking it.
If frosh (first years) ever disclosed their mental health struggles, they'd potentially be asked to leave residence (depending on how "severe" things were). It was always a liability issue with these institutions. How does kicking out a student and asking them to find another place to live, set them up for success? How is taking a student away from their friends and eliminating that one positive constant (their floor community) an approach that is fair and beneficial for their well being? It's not. We all know it's not. Yet, it's something I've witnessed being done. I could go on and on about the lack of resources available for students living on residence but I'll save that for another day.
If students were getting kicked out of residence for disclosing their mental health challenges, what was to say the same thing wouldn't happen to a residence advisor? There is stigma within the residence life community. I don't think anyone wants to admit it, but it's true. I don't think it's intentional, but when liability is the main concern, not all situations are handled the way they should be.
It wasn't until my second year of residence life (my 3rd year of uni), when I started to experience full blown anxiety. I can't quite pinpoint when they started, but because of it, I started avoiding people. Going out and being social after classes became a chore. Staying indoors and burying myself in hours and hours of TV was a lot easier than being around people and pretending like everything was ok. When my friends living off campus would ask me to come out, I would use my job as an excuse to stay in. "I'm on duty" was my go-to line. I'm an extrovert through and through, and every time I spent less time with other people, I was afraid someone would notice. I wasn't ready to have that conversation. So, I kept pretending. From the outside looking in, nothing was wrong with me. I was getting up every morning, going to classes, studying for exams, checking in on my frosh. I was so good at pretending like everything was fine, that at times, even I believed it. High functioning depression and anxiety are a real thing. At the time, I didn't realize they were.
To my friends, I was a flake. I was someone who would make plans, and flop on them last minute. I was lucky that my friends never actually called me out on this. I'm not sure how I would have reacted. What I did know was that they deserved better. The less and less I went out, the more depressed I got. I had a lot of guilt because of this, so I would make plans, trying to overcompensate for my absence. But, like usual, once they day rolled around, I'd find another excuse not to go.
It was harder to avoid the people living in the same building as me. But, I still tried. Sometimes I would get a knock at my door and pretend I wasn't there. I spent a lot of weekends when I wasn't on duty, visiting J at Laurier. I don't think he really knew what was going on at first, but after a few stressful months, I started to open up. I knew that if I didn't start talking, I would destroy some of the greatest relationships I've ever had.
Looking back on it, this period is a blur. I remember telling Jay that I felt sad and overwhelmed, and had no "real" reason to feel this way. He didn't know how to help me (of course he didn't, he's not a professional, that is not his job), so he encouraged me to talk to someone who could. I should have taken his advice, but I didn't. I thought I had everything under control. For the better half of third year, I kept telling myself this was the new normal. "Maybe I'm an introvert now"... "maybe I just like being indoors"... "humans are exhausting" ... anything and everything to help make sense of what I was feeling.
No matter what I did or how "happy" I was , it was like these irrational fears were etched into everything I was doing, following me everywhere I went. I had this constant pressure in my chest. The weight of my blanket on top of me was the only thing that helped alleviate the pressure .. because of that, I'd lay in bed for hours. I remember watching a lot of CTFxC videos..it was the one thing I really looked forward to. For a few minutes everyday, I didn't feel like I was hiding from anyone. I was just Nero, a third year uni student, watching YouTube videos that made her happy.
When I went home on weekends, I avoided driving. Driving made me so anxious, I have no idea why. I avoided seeing my friends from home, I started becoming a homebody. When I was back at Western, I stopped going to my psych stats classes altogether. I probably would have skipped more courses, but I had friends in the other ones, and they'd notice if I wasn't there.
In the midst of all this pretending, my two friends and I decided to take a break from residence life and live off-campus together for our last year of undergrad. I knew it wasn't fair to next year's frosh to have such a checked out RA. I knew it was the right thing to do. Plus, I needed the break. Before I knew it, third year was over and I was packing my stuff out of Saugeen-Maitland, and going home for the summer. Two days into my summer vacation, I opened up my final grade and saw a big fat F beside psych stats . I remember e-mailing my professor, pleading with him to round up my final grade. Unfortunately, two days later, I was packing my stuff up and moving into my London home. Without successfully completing this course, I wouldn't be able to take any of my 4th year psych courses. I thought I'd be more upset about going back and living alone in the summer. But, part of me was happy. I wouldn't have to pretend like everything was fine or make plans with the people at home.
Spending that summer alone was the most eye opening time of my life. Those late nights I spent alone was when I realized my anxiety wasn't "normal". I knew I needed professional help and that my fake it till you make it attitude just wasn't going to cut it. I know it's weird to say, but I think Kevin Hart saved my life. I would stay up for hours, watching his stand-up comedy on Netflix. It became my coping mechanism. His videos gave me that tiny bit of happy, just enough for me to periodically get out of bed and do the things I needed to do. I knew Kevin Hart alone couldn't help me forever, so I finally made an appointment to see a psychiatrist. I learned effective coping techniques, and started facing my triggers head on.
Even when all this was going on, my friends didn't really know... I never bothered going much into detail. It wasn't a fear of judgement that kept me from sharing all this. Not at all. I think what kept me from telling them is how far I'd let it go without telling anyone. How many lies and excuses I made just to avoid them. There was a lot of guilt, and I wanted to "fix" myself and integrate myself back into everyone's life as if nothing ever happened. Till this day, I don't think many of my friends really know what went on during the last two years of my undergrad. I want to add that not all days were terrible or anxiety provoking. Going to Nicaragua, hanging with my favourite girls, and going to see J were times when I felt temporary relief. Not all days were bad.
Once I stopped pretending everything was fine, I started to work through my anxiety. Work alongside it, if you will. I started pushing myself to try things despite the pressure in my chest. I started driving more, going out more, swimming, and writing out my fears down on paper. Some days were harder than others, but I finally began to put strategies into action. This wouldn't have been possible if I didn't find a professional I really connected with. Slowly, I started attending all my psych stats classes, inviting friends over to my place, going to a bunch of interviews and guess what... I passed my course and got a job at Apple! The progress that I made that summer wouldn't have been possible if I didn't learn long term coping tools that worked for me. In a way, I'm really glad that professor didn't round up my grade, because if I wasn't forced to live alone, I'm not sure how much longer I would have pretended like everything was fine. The quote below is one I try really hard to carry with me everywhere I go, especially as an educator, when I don't always get a glimpse of a child's home life.
When my roommates moved in at the end of August, I remember feeling really happy. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I didn't have to avoid the things I enjoyed. The cloud had started to lift so to speak, and I was ready to start senior year on a more positive note. In early September, while walking home from the mall, I remember telling my roommates that I wished school wasn't starting so soon because I was drained from my summer classes. To that, my friend carelessly replied ... "well you shouldn't have failed that class then". I remember my face flushing, tears rolling down my cheeks almost instantly. I knew she didn't mean for it to come off so harsh, but I was so hurt that someone I really cared about could be so careless with their words. I wanna say that experience at the mall didn't change the overall course of our friendship, but it kinda did. Maybe it was my own insecurities at the time that let it, but hurt turns into anger sometimes, and it really changes things.
I started noticing the bad listeners in my life, the relationships that drained me, and the people I just had to let go of. Fourth year was a busy time between school, work, and TC applications. I was pretty preoccupied for the most of it. I was doing really really well by the end of fourth year, that I thought anxiety was a distant memory. That is what I thought until my first practicum of teachers college, when another wave of anxiety hit me. This was the first time my parents got a glimpse of things. I stopped eating, I lost weight... My mom would cut lemons and make me sniff them to help with my nauseousness. I completely isolated myself in the basement and threw myself into endless hours of lesson planning. I had a friend who experienced my horrendous first practicum first-hand, and I thank my lucky stars everyday for her presence. That's when I realized recovery is ongoing, and these things don't just magically disappear, you just get better at managing it. During my second and third practicum I started doing all my prep work at my local Starbucks. It felt nice being surrounded by people, even if it just meant sharing a table with strangers.
I'm so grateful for the friends who've never stopped inviting me out despite the endless times I've cancelled on them. I'm so proud of the circle I have fostered, and the people I've left behind. Sometimes you gotta take care of yourself, and realize that you can't always be the one to teach others how to filter their words or their actions. It's the unconditional friendships I've been chasing lately. I changed my number a few months ago, and it felt nice reaching out to the people who've made me a better person. I use to feel the need to hold on to half-ass relationships. But we all get to a point when we realize it's just not worth it anymore. The older we get, and the more commitments we have, it teaches us about the people we want to have in our corner when things hit the fan.
If you've made it this far into my post, wow. Thank-you! Thank-you for reading my experience, and I hope through this endless rambling, I've made some sort of sense. I guess I just want you to know that you're not alone. You're never alone. Things aren't always what they seem from the outside, and it's never too late to get help. We need to be mindful of the words we use, because we won't always know the whole story. In August 2015, I saw Kevin Hart live at his What Now? tour and I remember laughing so hard that I started to cry. I just want to be surrounded by people and experiences that make me as happy as Kevin does. You should too. If that means finally making that appointment you've been putting off, letting go of the toxic people in your life, or finding coping tools that work for you, I encourage you to take that first step. It's never too late — I promise you.
A 24 year old Canadian living (& teaching) in Shenzhen, China.