Students on Mental Health Part 4/4: Learning it’s okay not to be okay

It was the dead of winter and both of my dorm room windows were wide open. Still, I was sweating, and breathing was difficult. I was confused, and wondering what the hell my body was doing, not yet realising that my inner demons had finally taken over.

Since the beginning of high-school, I have struggled with mental health. I used to run out of chemistry class crying because I was overwhelmed, or I’d call my mom telling her I was sick so I could go home and no longer have to face my peers for awhile.

I used to sit in my room with a pair of manicure scissors, wishing I had something sharper to do better damage. I was reluctant to hurt myself, not wanting to draw attention to my already erratic behavior, so I resorted to less-visible areas.

Over time, coping became easier. I told myself it was just a phase. I learned to control overwhelming thoughts and I forced myself out of bed in the morning for school — telling myself I’d soon be out of my high-school hell.

After graduation, I started my first year of university and it was full of ups-and-downs. I made new friends, I was enjoying my classes, and I finally felt like I belonged. However, I wasn’t equipped to cope with the stress of an increased workload. Soon, I was having frequent mental breakdowns, but I just kept telling myself, “at least you’re happier than you were in high-school.”

When I returned home for the summer, my downhill spiral began. I returned to an old job, with people who had watched me grow since the age of 15. Nearly every shift I was a train-wreck — be it yelling, crying, shaking, or general moodiness. I couldn’t handle the slightest thing going wrong.

I embarked on a semester-long journey, the following fall, in Saint Pierre and Miquelon. I was participating in the Frecker Programme, which I had dreamed of doing since my first visit there in 2009.

I had dropped from being an A student to a B student the previous year, which was something I could live with, considering it was just my first year. But, I found the Frecker program so stressful. I felt like I was a lost-cause who wasn’t capable of learning French. Often, I would plot ways to drop out and move home, just show up at my doorstep so my parents couldn’t try to convince me otherwise. But, just as I did in high school, I slapped a smile on my face and persevered.

Next came the winter 2015 semester. I moved back into my old dorm, and I lucked into a single room. I’m not really one to show a lot of emotion, but suddenly I found myself crying when I moved back into residence, leaving the safety provided by my family home over the holidays. I spent every weekend that semester travelling from town to back home with the local hockey team. I spent only four weekends in St. John’s over the entire semester. I cried for over an hour each and every weekend when I left my mom and dad. My weeks were usually comprised of sleepless nights and bad days, holding out for Friday evening so I could go back home again.

Then one Wednesday night, I was laying in bed with a tight chest, breathing painfully, and sweating while wearing shorts and a tank-top with the windows open. I couldn’t control my tears or my emotions. The next morning, I ran to student health, fearing that I was having a heart-attack. The doctor sent me to the counselling center immediately. I sat there trembling, barely able to fill out the in-take questionnaire. I sat across from the counsellor, as she introduced me to the box method, but honestly I was more focused on the grammatical errors she had made than what she had said. I felt horrible about that, so I never returned.

The next day, Friday, I managed to find an earlier ride to my hometown. I look dragged out and was running on four—cumulative—hours of sleep over the past five nights. I was having trouble going to class without overwhelming sensations taking over. I couldn’t even ask a question.

When I got home that weekend, my mom and I decided to go to Walmart. I was gripping onto her arm like a young child shying away from strangers. I kept repeating, “no mommy, no I can’t stay here, please mommy, let’s go, please.” Yes, at nineteen years old, I was trembling, clenched onto my mother, crying, and begging to leave the Walmart in my hometown.

That same weekend, the hockey team I travelled with throughout the semester won the Herder Memorial Championship. This was the trophy they had been battling for since the start of the season. I had been hoping they would win so I could have another night at home. The game went into overtime, as I wept silently, knowing I wouldn’t be able to handle returning to St. John’s if they lost. We won.

Anyone who knows me personally knows I love to party. There is nothing better than a great celebration, but I couldn’t do it. My mom bought me an eight pack of beer, hoping to convince me to go out and have fun. Instead, I went home and curled up in her lap.

The bus back to St. John’s was set to leave at 7:30 the next morning. I spent the whole night pacing and crying. When my mom dropped me off at my friend’s place before she went to work at 6AM, I was crying to break my heart. I called her and begged her to let me stay, promising to talk to my local doctor. Reluctantly, she agreed. After some rest, I went to see my doctor.
I was visibly anxious, crying, shaking, and children were staring at me. After some questioning, I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or GAD. Suddenly, everything made sense. She even offered to give me a medical note to be excused from that semester. A little later, she added a diagnosis of depression.

— Flash forward two years and it’s almost my two year anniversary with Zoloft —

At first, I was so ashamed of having to take medication, and I felt like a mental illness statistic. I have since learned to embrace it. I still have bad days, and I still struggle, but I have learned that I am not alone. Between medication, therapy, and an occasional clonazepam for anxiety-attacks, my symptoms are under control. I have learned my triggers, my coping mechanisms, and most of all I’ve learned that it is okay not to be okay.

Memorial offers a great system, and they encourage students to talk about mental illness. All registered students can be seen at the Counselling Centre, on the fifth floor of the University Centre, either very quickly during walk-ins, or relatively quickly by booking an appointment. It’s a really valuable resource for students considering the wait times to see psychiatrists and psychologists in St. John’s. There’s also a new app where you can talk to a “listener,” and sometimes that’s all you need—to be listened to, validated, and not judged.

I still struggle to open up at times, especially to people who actually know how to help me. I am always terrified that they will judge me. Thankfully, the people around me have shown me that I’m never alone.