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.

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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.

Happy Mental Health Awareness Month

Happy Mental Health Month! And I do mean happy, because it’s an awareness month, and awareness should always be celebrated.

This blog is all about dysautonomia but I want to focus on topics relating to mental health this month. Dysautonomia does not necessarily mean you will experience a mental health crisis, but mood can be disrupted by the autonomic nervous system, as can life with a chronic illness.

Regardless of dysautonomia’s role or presence, mental health is worth talking about because the more we talk, the less stigma exists. Let’s take the stigma, examine it closely and then completely destroy it. Smash it into a billion tiny pieces. I don’t like it.

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I try to write the words “I have depression” as much as possible on this blog.

I’m making up for all of the times I had the opportunity to say it in real life but felt too scared to open my mouth and say the words.

I was afraid that people would think me weak.
I was afraid that people wouldn’t believe me.
I was afraid that people wouldn’t understand.
I was afraid that people wouldn’t care.

I did say these words in doctors’ offices. I said them in hushed tones to new teachers so my classmates couldn’t hear. “I have depression and health issues, so this is a note from my mom explaining some of my problems,” I’d say at the beginning of every year to my teachers because my school refused to give me a Section 504.

But I rarely said those words, “I have depression,” to my friends and peers. A few times I wrote them out in a letter because opening my mouth to let them linger in the air was too scary.

I wasn’t as afraid to say the words “I have chronic anxiety” and “I have ADHD.” It was hard to hide those elements of me—I was a loud, sarcastic teenager whose nerves ran high and whose attention wavered. Those traits were readily demonstrative, I almost didn’t need to speak the explanation, but I did anyway. “This presentation is making me feel like I’m going to be sick, I’m so nervous, I can’t handle this anxiety,” and “I had to re-read the chapter three times because I couldn’t focus and couldn’t retain anything I was learning.”

Part of the reason the words “I have depression” and the associated explanations were so hard was because it didn’t fit my image. It didn’t fit the girl who would do anything to get the first and last laugh. It didn’t fit the girl who could recite episodes of The Office and The Colbert Report verbatim. It didn’t fit the girl who was a little more than power hungry on her high school newspaper.

The face of chronic depression. (Photo by Miranda Leung)
Age 17. The face of chronic depression. (Photo by Miranda Leung)

Additionally, hiding depression to my peers came naturally for me.

I have a headache. I’m tired. Today’s just a bad day. (The “just a bad day” was the closest to the truth as I got in my excuses for a lot of people.)

I put on the brave face outside and broke down at home and in safe spaces.

The depression got to a point in high school where hiding things was no longer an option. I couldn’t keep up the charade. People could tell something was very wrong because my spark was gone and I was openly sad–I didn’t have the energy to fake it. I’d gone through depressive episodes before (pretty much one a year), but the episode my senior year of high school was more powerful and harsher than I’d felt before.

A friend from school was giving me a ride home one day and she asked when “the real Shannon was coming back.” I paused and said I didn’t know. It caught me off guard, in that moment I thought I was acting like Real Shannon. Turns out, during depressive episodes, I wasn’t fooling anyone.

This was the first time in my life that I had to face the reality of living an open and honest life… and it was terrifying.

*

I want to take the power back. I don’t want to feel like I have to hide because I’m afraid.

I want to be able to talk about all of my mental health conditions. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I will, but I want the option. Hiding yourself in fear is no way to live.

*

This post’s banner is from National Alliance on Mental Health

See you later, doc

I started seeing my cardiologist in the spring of 2014.

When we first started working together, he wanted to see me ALL the time.

I was in there every two weeks for the first summer. He loved taking my blood (and my pee!), tinkering with my meds, giving me EKGs, doing all sorts of autonomic tests and watching what happened to the blood in my body when I stood for different periods of time.

Dr. A is the most thorough doctor I’ve ever had.

Over the last two years, we’ve changed the frequency of our appointments. I’ve never gone more than 3 months without seeing him or his wife, another cardiologist (They’re married and they practice highly specialized cardiology together and living the dream together? DOES IT GET MORE ROMANTIC?!) —

ANYWAYS.

Since the initial “we need to learn everything about your body” intake period that lasted a full summer, I’ve seen them every six weeks. We’ve talked about my POTS, my EDS, how it interacts with my depression, my daily routines, my goals, my failures, my triumphs, everything. Their nurses and physicians assistants take the most extensive notes and patient histories that I’m fearful of how many gigabytes of data their servers are storing.

Yesterday, I went in for an appointment and my numbers are great. I still get splotchy and sweaty and thirsty and complain “GET ME A CHAIR” after two minutes of standing, but my heart rate no longer spikes 40 BPM from getting up. It only rises 20 BPM.

I got to go off of one of my meds. I didn’t ask to change anything else and my doctor reinforced, “yes, you definitely need to stay on Midodrine, you really need it” because of my blood’s propensity for pooling in my limbs.

But as she left (I saw Dr. A’s wife yesterday) (and not before ordering a 24-hour Holter Monitor, just because it’s good to do them), she said she’d see me in six months.

Half a year from now.

Even though feeling well should be the indicator of progress, not arbitrary numbers—that “see you in six months” was the arbitrary number that felt like the marker of growth.

I’m far from recovered, but I’m at a place where I can take care of myself, independent of my doctor. I’m stable. My aches and pains are unpredictable, yes, but they’re not out of control to the point where I feel like I need to go to a hospital. My nausea pops up a lot, sure, but I haven’t puked in a while. I get dizzy a lot, but I haven’t felt like I’ve been stuck in spinning teacups for quite some time.

And that is great.

I’m not in too much pain to the point where I can’t sleep. I’m not choking on food when I eat. And some days I have enough energy to put my laundry away.

So knock on wood, pray I don’t jinx anything, do all of those things to ensure that this doesn’t change.

Because seeing numbers change like that is pretty cool.

30ish thoughts I have while exercising

I’ve been working my way up to 30 minutes of exercising for nearly three years. I’ve started and stopped exercising regularly dozens of times, but I have finally worked my way up to 30 minutes regularly.

They say that exercise is usually a feat of mind over matter, and in many ways that’s true–because you’re forcing yourself to engage in physical torture.

These are 30 thoughts I regularly have when I exercise on my recumbent bicycle (five days a week!)

  1. Let’s do this. Let’s get this done.
  2. Oh my gosh, my throat is on fire. Drink some water ASAP.
  3. Big mistake, I feel like I’m going to vomit.
  4. At least I’m wearing these cute shoes. Mom really shelled out for ‘em.
  5. Mom’s great, but exercising sure isn’t. Exercising is the worst. Why do I keep doing it? (re-think this thought x15)
  6. Because the doctor said so.
  7. Ugh, why do I keep giving into that master manipulator? (re-think this thought x15)
  8. More like that team of master manipulators… all of them are convinced this is good for me. They’re all evil. Them and their medical degrees. And books. And journal articles. And presentations. And scientific trials.
  9. Hey, am I done yet?
  10. FIVE MINUTES? I’VE ONLY DONE FIVE MINUTES OF THIS?!?!
  11. OK, calm down. Turn on the TV. Find something good.
  12. Ooh, trashy daytime TV. Is E! always running a Keeping Up With the Kardashians marathon?
  13. Looks like it.
  14. Uh oh, here comes the dizziness. Hang on to the bike handlebars.
  15. I’m like Liza Minnelli in Arrested Development. Or just Liza Minnelli period.
  16. Oh cool, blurry vision. That’s a nice bonus.
  17. I wonder what shape the sweat on my back is making. Maybe I can make a Rorshach test out of it.
  18. Nah, too much work. Too many creative endeavors. I’m a busy girl.
  19. I need something, but I don’t know what.
  20. No, I know. The battle cry of my people: Must. Consume. Salt.
  21. Chips and salsa are an excellent source of salt. Dr. L said so. I should go eat that when this is over.
  22. Is this over yet?
  23. I’ll take a Snapchat to see.
  24. WOAH, BAD IDEA. DO NOT SEND THAT TO ANYONE. They don’t need to have their day ruined.
  25. I’ll be done with this so soon. This will be over so soon. Just hold on. Keep going. Keep breathing. Because THIS IS NEVER GOING TO END.
  26. NOPE. ROGUE THOUGHTS. WATCH THE TRASHY TELEVISION. DON’T PAY ATTENTION TO THE TIME.
  27. KEEP UP WITH THOSE KARDASHIANS, SHANNON. Or better yet, watch something outrageously delicious and unhealthy The Pioneer Woman makes and dream of how yummy it is. That’s what daytime television is for.
  28. YOU CAN DO THIS I SWEAR YOU CAN YOU’VE DONE IT BEFORE.
  29. Hey, I wonder if I can get my mom to buy me some new yoga pants?
  30. AND DONE. DONE. NOW I HAVE 23.5 HOURS OF FREEDOM. Time to lay down and chill.

Bummer of a decision making process

pro con list

I got a really exciting text message last week.

One of my best friends got free tickets to see Fall Out Boy at her college. I was envious and called her names—that’s how we roll—and then she said “so are you free on Friday?”

I took back all of the names I called her immediately.

I was excited and my 7th grade soul started singing all of my favorite Fall Out Boy songs. Because AAAAAAM I MORE THAN YOU BARGAINED FOR YEEEEEEEEEET?

I told her I had to talk to my mom, which also felt very 7th grade, but it was true—I needed a sounding board for figuring out if I could handle going to a concert. I started going through all of the logistics.

Could I handle the travel?

I would have to travel about two hours to get to my friend’s place. Even if someone drove me there and I could sleep in the car, travel takes a lot out of me. It’s disorienting and draining. There aren’t many positions in a car I can get in to maximize blood flow. I can’t stop and jump up and down every now and then if I need to help get blood moving around to my body.

Could I handle the social stress?

I love my best friends more than anything and my closest friends and I have gotten to the point where we can communicate in grunts and sighs and TV quotes. However, she’s not the only person I’d probably encounter. She has roommates, who are super nice, but I don’t have an established rapport with them. That’s a stressor when you have anxiety, especially that of the social variety.

In addition to that, we’d be at a concert. We’d be two people surrounded by a crowd full of humans. We wouldn’t necessarily have to talk to them, but they’d be all around us. That’s enough to make anyone want to pull inward.

Could I handle a night away from home?

I am the princess from The Princess and the Pea. I wish I could be super chill and easy going, but I am the pickiest person in the world when it comes to beds. I get terrible hip pain when I sleep on any bed that isn’t mine and have to load up on ibuprofen to dull the ache the morning after.

I had to consider if I’d have enough energy over the weekend to handle the pain of sleeping in a bed that wasn’t mine because coping with pain requires a tremendous amount of energy.

(Side note: my friends are angels. They will give up their beds so I can have the comfy ones and sleep on floors for me if their couches aren’t available. I want to cry thinking about it because I am the luckiest.)

Could I handle a concert? (the biggest question)

I haven’t been to a concert in maybe a year.

When I’ve been at my healthiest and most fit, I have thought that concerts were going to be the end of me. It’s a strange dichotomy to be in heaven in the presence of the musicians who are your idols as they performing the songs that are the soundtrack to your favorite memories while your body feels like it’s going into shutdown; but that’s just how it goes. You’re smiling, in awe of how you can be in so much bliss and so much agony at the same time.

Most of the concerts/shows I’ve been to are smaller ones. I’ve been familiar with the venues and have known that they have seating available. They’ve been close to home, close to a safe place to rest. And what comforts me most is that if something happened to me—maybe if I fainted or had an incident—I’d be close to my doctors.

This is where I had to think hardest. I couldn’t even remember the last concert I’d been to. If I went to this particular concert, this would be jumping into a BIG one. I’d be putting a lot of responsibility on my friend to look after me: if someone went wrong, it’d be all on her to take care of me until my parents could get me. I also considered the fact that I might even have to leave her during parts of the show to rest, which is a huge bummer—when you bring a friend, you want to be with them the whole time.

I would be standing for hours. That could mean sweating for hours, aching for hours, cramping for hours. It would turn into a psychological game as most pain does—can you force yourself to keep enduring it? Can you ignore the pain to get through to the fun? Or will the pain win out?

*

I came to the conclusion that I should stay home. Jumping into this would be too much—currently, I’m not at a good health level to take this type of adventure on. If the circumstances were different—if I didn’t have to travel to the show, maybe I could do it. If it was a band with low key music rather than the upbeat dance-y music that makes everyone want to jump up and down for three hours, maybe I could handle it. But this wasn’t the right one. It wasn’t the right time.

It totally broke my heart, especially the 7th grade heart that will always beat inside me ferociously. But I had to make the decision that was best for my health, even if was a huge bummer.

There will be other shows, there will be other opportunities. But what matters most is I have a super sweet friend who understands why I had to say no and that I can feel good about my decision making process because I know it’s in my best interest.