BY REBECCA HEILWEIL
Sitting in a football field on my freshman orientation weekend, I found myself surrounded by my soon-to-be classmates, cheering an alma mater we were all still learning. Carried by the overly-enthusiastic marching band, as we fumbled along with the lyrics, I digested that everyone was just as much of a stranger to me as I was to them.
Incited by a burst of improvisation, I began screaming and singing along, displaying an athletic pride that was anything but in-character. But no one knew that I had never attended a high school sports game, or that the “ra-ra-ra” school spirit scene had never quite been my thing.
In that moment, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Nothing could really be ordinary yet.
College provides us a unique chance to experiment with ourselves and our mentalities. With all the controls of parents, home, and high school friends suddenly gone, freshmen are given the opportunity to see what the space in their minds actually feels like.
Everything that’s normal suddenly isn’t. We’re surrounded by new people and new places. Our immediate authority figures are a lot farther away, and we can construct our personalities with more freedom than ever.
Our schedules are our own. Our friends are our own. Our time is our own.
And that can be really scary.
Saturated with feelings of liberation and youthful spirit, I thought my freshman year was going to be awesome from the start. In a lot of ways, it was. I was going to a university I loved, my new friends were both intelligent and entertaining, and the dining hall food wasn’t as terrible as I thought it would be. (And, I could even use my meal card at the local Starbucks).
But with the sudden abundance of free time (not time unspent, but time I could manage myself), coming to college also forced me to come to terms with the overwhelming, irrational anxiety I had learned to ignore throughout my life.
With this opportunity comes a sort of personal and mental blank slate. While emptying my mind in pursuit of my “new college self,” I discovered that underneath all the stress and history of my teenage years, I probably had a mental illness.
Throughout high school, I had simply called it “stress,” justified by my heavy academic workload. I was just high-strung, diligent, ambitious.
But when I tried – really tried – to embark on the classic coming-of-age journey (you know, “finding out who I really am” and all that), I discovered that my “stress” wasn’t me. Trying new things was emotionally exhausting, and I dreaded any pocket of time left unscheduled. Being inside my own head – for what felt like the first time in years – was torture.
The anxiety I felt wasn’t stress. It wasn’t productive. It was incapacitating, stifling my ability to actually enjoy my first semester.
The definition of mental illness is often confusing, and can refer to a lot of different things. But with such broad categorization, the line between one’s personality and a possible mental illness is blurry. Often, the two diffuse into each other, which makes identifying mental illness in yourself, or others, challenging.
My only experience with mental illness before college involved my high school boyfriend. Diagnosed with anxiety disorder in middle school, he had taken multiple medications and been in therapy over the course of his teenage years.
As a girlfriend, I wasn’t sure how to articulate how much I cared without being condescending or cliché. I worried that pressuring him to talk to me would just encourage discussions about problems for which I didn’t have solutions. Asking him to open up, especially in a way that felt futile, seemed awkward and somewhat inappropriate, even if he was relatively open.
That summer, in a lot of ways, was bittersweet. Following evenings in Central Park were discussions about the future, going to college, and what it meant to become adults (if that was even possible). We had long concluded that life was essentially an optimization problem from calculus, requiring a balance between the maximization of varied experiences and the accumulation of impressive accomplishments. I didn’t want to avoid talking about mental health because there was stigma or fear. It was simply emotional heavy and upsetting, and not the way I wanted to spend what felt like my last few months of freedom.
When the topic came up, which he was fairly willing to talk about, he explained it as an irrational panic, an equally inexplicable and forceful desire to “get home.” Walking up the West Side’s Seventh Avenue after a date, he spoke of being nervous for the coming fall in a way I found difficult to understand.
I was sure he would be fine.
Though I cared about him, I didn’t have anything I could say other than articulations of “I’m sorry” and “I’m always here to listen.” I wasn’t sure what else I could do other than simply be there, with no idea what that even meant. I had faith that he was prepared, and it wasn’t my job to play therapist.
Besides, I was excited for my freshman year. I was entranced by my university’s urban-collegiate vibe. I daydreamed about following intellectual seminars with dinners in the city, exploring museums and concerts, and cultivating a new sense of fashion. College was going to be great.
And if his brain was sick, mine certainly wasn’t.
I made my first appointment at counseling because I wasn’t eating. In the first few weeks, I had lost about ten pounds, an unfortunate beginning to a reverse freshman fifteen.
I wasn’t anorexic, I wasn’t depressed, and I certainly wasn’t suicidal. Not eating was simply a way to keep myself empty when anxiety felt all-consuming. In a lot of ways, I was really excited. I had spent high school stressing out about getting into a good college, and here I was, finally ready and able to do what I wanted.
I was happy.
But on random evenings, I would walk back to my dorm in tears. It happened often and sporadically; the lack of logic to my distress only exacerbated my frustration.
One night, when my roommate was away for the weekend, I found myself shaking and weeping uncontrollably for hours, desperately dialing the numbers of high school friends until someone could coach me back to feeling better.
A couple months into college, I attended a professional meet-and-greet downtown hosted by a professor for whom I do research work (who, ironically, is writing a book on mental health policy), and I broke down in the women’s restroom. At the least, it was super inconvenient. The event was a really nice restaurant with mood lighting and expensive cheeses with names I couldn’t pronounce. And despite the bathroom’s fancy soap and floral scent, I wanted to spend the evening in the dining room, talking to impressive writer-people I could probably spend a lifetime idolizing.
But inside my head, my thoughts felt like nails screeching against an unending chalkboard.
It was the same reaction I had experienced in high school. This grinding, irking sort of nausea in my mind that prevented thought. What I had called “stress” but was honestly much more.
When my friends asked me why I hyped myself up over nothing, I wanted to scream, for treating me like a child.
There usually isn’t a why. That’s what makes it suck so much.
I didn’t think my anxiety was a mental illness until I really started working with a psychologist. Even now, saying it aloud still gives me a weird feeling in my stomach.
It took me a while to get used to therapy. At first, I felt like sessions were about putting on a show. I panicked when I tried to explain how I felt; my stories spilled out without cohesion or coherence. I was concerned my therapist would get bored of me, or that I came off as self-centered. Each second of silence in our sessions was an opportunity for panic and concern; I worried about not using the time properly, awkward gaps in conversation, and even my emotional stuttering. I couldn’t get my brain to empty itself. I wondered if she thought I was vapid for talking about boy-troubles with as much passion as my 18-year-old existential crises. I regularly worried that she judged me for being a whiny-Ivy-League-white-girl who just “couldn’t handle the pressure.”
But these “worries,” as my therapist would title my stressors, exemplified my very problem. She was getting paid to help me deal with my anxiety, and I was freaking out about properly entertaining her.
In many ways, an hour felt too short and too long at the same time. I felt like the minutes would pass by with me saying nothing, and everything, simultaneously. I couldn’t figure out what was important or if anything was making me feel better.
Explaining my situation to friends, I found, was a relatively easier task.
I spoke about what was happening in my head. My bouts of aggressive social awkwardness were not a product of ambivalence or apathy, but a small peek into what was going on in my mind. When I was being needlessly loud, commanding conversations or working myself up, I wasn’t simply demanding attention for its own sake. I was searching for some validating feeling that I was there, there, and that I wasn’t drowning in my brain.
After time, I learned to identify what mental illness felt like physically. Panic manifested as a strange amalgam of migraines and accelerating sounds in my head. Not quite “voices,” but an incessant recycling of my own thoughts. A prickly web of mental “stuff,” sticky like glue, yet simultaneously foggy and incapacitating.
As I progressed, I also started taking a daily dosage of an SSRI. The medication helped, and I sensed my brain was slowly winding down to a more reasonable pace. In addition to limiting my coffee drinking and finding more opportunities for exercise, I felt healthier. I felt better.
My weekly counseling sessions became a reprieve. As I grew more comfortable, and my therapist and I discussed home, life at college, and the pressure their juxtaposition had created. Talking forced me to spend time combing and separating the thoughts plaguing my head.
I learned to create a helpful mental binary for myself: Healthy stress has reason, logic. Anxiety doesn’t. With a vocabulary to identify and distinguish rational and irrational panic, I felt relieved.
But sometimes, I fear giving up what has made me so mentally sick is also what made me me. Anxiety and stress both drive me. They make me tick. I didn’t want to lose my determination.
I am constantly re-teaching myself that emotionally debilitating stress can make anyone unhealthy.
After all this time, I still don’t know all the ins-and-outs of mental illness. I’m still figuring it all out, and I still screw up.
When a boy walking me home after a party confessed, “You know, I’ve struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts in the past.”
I responded, “I could never kill myself. I’m not afraid of anything more than my mortality.”
“Me neither,” he replied curtly. “That’s what made the feelings so scary.”
Only later that night, while falling asleep, did I realize how inappropriate my response was.
Coming to college, I planned to start fresh. But forced to contemplate so many unknowns and what-ifs, I realized I wasn’t the blank slate I thought I was. Freshman fall turned into spring cleaning for my brain.
My high school boyfriend discovered his anxiety disorder when he was twelve and went to summer camp. For me, I needed to wait until college.
But if I entered my first year, as so many of us do, attempting to find a new me, I’ve at least started on my way. An opportunity to expand outwards, my first few months were also a chance to look inwards.
Life before freshman year is the control for learning who we are. College is the experiment.
Rebecca Heilweil is the editor-in-chief of Beautiful Minds Magazine. A shorter version of this piece appeared in 34th Street Magazine last spring. Photography by Sarah Neukrug.