How my depression and college plans collided, crashed and burned

I medically withdrew from college my freshman year.

Some of it was possibly due to physical stress (my undiagnosed POTS), but the primary reason was due to my depression and anxiety.

This is the full, gritty, unabridged version of my experience that I have never really gotten into. But because it’s Mental Health Month and graduation season and because it’s been four years since I left and because I imagine there are so many others out there just like me who feel as alone as I have felt–I want to put this out there.

*

At the beginning of my senior year of high school, I was completely disinterested with the idea of college. I’d say flighty things like, “I don’t even want to go to college, I just want to move to New York City and BE there.” At the same time, my depression was beginning to slip slowly but surely. I had a major meds change over winter break which led to a massive depressive episode.

I missed about a month of school because of my depression—my social life was the only thing that suffered more than my academics.

College still didn’t seem appealing, but I knew I had to go. It’s what 18-year-olds did. It’s what I was going to do, come hell or high water.

*

After a month of agonizing, I chose my college by flipping a coin in a shopping mall parking lot. It was either VCU or “making an informed decision.” Sure, the informed decision could have ended up being VCU, but I thought it might’ve been Marymount—close to home with a $15,000 scholarship. I had gotten into a bunch of schools in New York City as well, but I knew that wasn’t going to happen, not after the events of January. And February. And March.

learning how to be a VCU ram with apprehension (my natural state of being)
learning how to be a VCU ram with apprehension (my natural state of being)

*

After all sorts of threats from my school administrators (“you need to get your act together!” and “you might not graduate!”) I graduated with a 3.7 GPA for the year and with a special letter in my diploma packet marking me an AP Scholar with Distinction. I had a smug smile when I shook my guidance counselor’s and assistant principal’s hands at graduation—it was never my intelligence or competence that should be called into question, it was always the depression.

My high school graduation, one of the happiest days of my life
My high school graduation, one of the happiest days of my life

*

I left for VCU on August 20, 2011. I was placed in disability student housing which got me my own room in an apartment style suite with one other girl who was nice but we didn’t really click.

I got a job my first week on campus as webmaster of the college newspaper. It was practically my dream job, it was the same sort of stuff I did in high school. I wandered around campus and tried to find things to do but was overwhelmed by my social anxiety. I tried. I tried so, so hard. But I wasn’t interested in partying and my dorm didn’t lend itself to open door policies where you could wander in a room and make friends. I was asleep, in bed every night by 11.

the school activities fair was larger than the newspaper conventions I attended in high school; it was easy to feel overwhelmed
the school activities fair was larger than the newspaper conventions I attended in high school; it was easy to feel overwhelmed

*

I was close to a perfect student. I never skipped class. I did homework on weekends. I even joined study groups with random classmates around midterms.

But it was impossible to make friends.

I finally ran into two people I knew from high school—I was close with each of them at different times and they quickly became my favorite people in the world. We got meals together frequently and when I was with them, I felt like maybe I was getting a hang of this college thing after all.

a typical dinner: mixing up weird things at Panera and daring each other to drink it
a typical dinner: mixing up weird things at Panera and daring each other to drink it

*

My heart ached in ways I didn’t think possible when I talked to friends at other schools. They went on about how much they were loving college life and about all of the friends they were making. They’d ask me about the people I was meeting, they all expected me to have dozens of new friends and new experiences because I was pretty social at home. I didn’t know what to tell them.

I felt ashamed and embarrassed—I wasn’t good at the college thing, I needed to try harder, do better. I kept putting more on myself. But at the end of every class I was exhausted and wanted to pull into myself like a hermit.

*

I went to group therapy provided by the college counseling center. I kept in touch with people. I had a couple of friends. But it was never enough. I was never enough.

I went home as often as my parents were willing to pick me up. I’d blame it on things like, “I miss my dogs!” or “I need to do laundry” but that was never it. I just didn’t want to be alone, in my dorm, on a Saturday night at college.

At home, I still cried myself to sleep. It didn’t matter where I was, I couldn’t escape my depression and the feeling that I was failing at college, failing at being 19, failing at young adulthood.

*

Things didn’t go so smoothly when I went back for spring semester. I started skipping classes. I started getting headaches that altered my ability to walk, see and keep my balance. I started procrastinating and blowing off assignments.

I started to say things like “do you ever wish you could screw up in a really permanent and irreversible way?” often. It might’ve seemed out of the blue to the people I said them to, but it was on my mind constantly.

I needed something to change in a major way because I felt like I was going to explode at any given moment.

I remember one session in group therapy where I felt so unbearably low that I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to come back up for air again. I cried to myself the rest of the session.

*

I went home for spring break and saw my psychiatrist for a meds check.

I was blind to how awful things were at the time and I felt like he had punched me in the gut when he told me he wanted to pull me out of school for two weeks.

Panic shot through my body and I looked to my mom thinking, “can you believe this guy?”

I couldn’t believe that he was doing this NOW. I had begged him hundreds of times to pull me out of school as a teenager and he had never relented but now, now when my education mattered the most, he was finally doing it?

As I cried, he and my mom discussed whether or not medically withdrawing for the rest of the semester would be a better option.

I cried for hours that day because I couldn’t admit how bad things were.

*

I finally decided to medically withdraw for the semester after talking to my parents.

While I was home, they had both said “we support you whatever you choose” and “we want you to do what’s best” in as many different ways as they could think of. But when the three of us sat down together, they both said it with tears in their eyes.

I spent my entire childhood and teenage years sick in different ways–physically and emotionally. My parents were always worried and concerned, but I rarely ever saw them cry over me. They always kept their composures strong so I didn’t have to worry.

But this time, they couldn’t hold it together. They were in pain watching me struggle. It was like a bucket of cold water informing me, “this is serious.”

*

I went back to working with my regular therapist. We covered some topics that were painful to talk about but it was a relief to be back in my safe space.

My psychiatrist started changing my medications around in the hopes we could find a new combination that worked. In the meantime, my eating and sleeping were erratic despite my best efforts. My stomach acted up frequently. I cried all the time. But I knew things were going to change. It wasn’t like they were at school—I had my team of doctors and a constant support system with me this time.

I never made a formal announcement to friends that I had medically withdrawn—I considered it a need-to-know basis. I got nervous each time I said those words, “I medically withdrew” but it got a little bit easier each time. People were either kind or indifferent each time I said them.

I kept on going. I got a job. I tried to get over the pain of feeling like I’d failed not only at school but also at being young, being social, being alive.

*

Four years later, it still stings, but I’m feeling a little better. I know without a shadow of a doubt that I did the right thing but I’m sad that I couldn’t have done “the college thing” the way I had so stubbornly planned.

College has so many expectations tied to it. This is where you find yourself. This is where you make your lifelong friends. This is where you discover your passions.

I didn’t care about any of it at first, but once it was being torn from me, it felt like my entire world and my entire future were shattering and I’d never get it back.

I have thought about going back to school full time but it hasn’t been in the cards for me. Since I left, I’ve tried my hand at a bunch of different options. Working, going to school part-time, being a chronically ill patient full time.

Depression won this particular battle but that doesn’t make me weak. Leaving was necessary. Had I stayed, things only could have gotten worse. I left and got the help I so desperately needed. I left and realized that college was not right for me at that point in my life, even though I grew to want it so, badly.

The most important thing I learned is from my therapist who told me to give myself permission to mourn the loss of what was and what could be. She reminded me to not let it consume me, but it’s so important to acknowledge the loss—it’s OK to be sad over that. It’s natural to be sad over that.

I’ve used that in so many different areas of my life.

It’s a reasonable sadness. It’s OK to mourn the days, months and years of your life lost to depression as long as you don’t let it destroy you and you don’t hold yourself responsible for it.

I didn’t choose depression. I make choices every day that will create an environment where happiness and stable mood have the best chance at succeeding. But I also acknowledge that depression has taken a lot from me, all beyond my control. If depression wins some battles here and there, it doesn’t mean I didn’t put up a good fight.

I’m doing the best I can.

My path won’t be the traditional one I wanted, but it can still be great.

5 Replies to “How my depression and college plans collided, crashed and burned”

  1. Shannon, I know you have heard this a lot, and maybe, just maybe because there is some truth to it….everything happens for a reason and The Big Guy up there loves you every bit as your Mom and Dad do. So…..you are going to have an amazing life; you just are, that’s a given. So try to get comfortable with whatever form that takes, because it will be perfect….for you. One size rarely fits all, so it’s OK if college happens in a better way for you. Because it will happen, you want it, badly, so allow your education come in the form, place and time He has for you. XO Audrey Hanson. (First college grad in my family. My mom didn’t even finish high school.). It’ll happen and it will rock!

  2. Shannon-you are a courageous and talented young woman. Wow, what an amazing writer you are! I’m sorry we did not know what you were going through and couldn’t be of help to you. I loved when you would hang out with Megan at our house. Please come back to us. We miss you. Btw, there has been some depression in my family so I am quite familiar. And open to talking about it. Keep writing–you will change lives! Love you!

  3. Shannon, you are a warrior and destined for greatness. You might consider writing for a living–bet there’s a lot more where that came from!

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