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My Mental Health Journey From Freshman To Junior Year

This post is in honor of Mental Illness Awareness Week, which takes place from October 1 to 7 this year.

I genuinely don’t know how I survived freshman year. I was a mess.

I was a cocktail of mental illnesses — more specifically anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression. All unmedicated. All untreated. I hadn’t really opened up to my parents about how I was feeling. I was beginning to build a network of support through the friends I rapidly made at UI, but since we hadn’t known each other for very long we weren’t as close as we are now, so there were certain things I just didn’t tell them. Certain things I pretended were absolutely, positively, 100% OK.

But I wasn’t OK. I managed to make it to class and turn (most of) my assignments in on time, but I slept too much. Or too little. Or at odd hours: Think 4 a.m. bedtimes and six-hour naps in the middle of the day. I cried, isolated myself, ate too much or forgot to eat entirely, found myself curled up on the shower floor because I didn’t have the energy to get up.

Some of the best times of my life happened during freshman year. I met some people who are my very best friends today, took some incredible classes and was taught by some truly amazing professors who did (and still do) encourage me to try my best without making me break down and burst into tears. I adjusted to life A) without my family and B) with a roommate fairly smoothly, if I do say so myself. Books I read, movies and TV shows I watched, conversations I had, events I attended, music I discovered and then walked to class listening to for months on end — all these are good things that came out of freshman year.

But there were also many parts that sucked. Finally, in February 2016, I made one of the most life-changing decisions of my college years: I called University Counseling Services and set up an appointment.

I’m now a junior and I still make weekly visits to UCS. Dozens of one-on-one appointments and group therapy sessions — not to mention several sometimes-chaotic med changes — later, I’m in a much better place.

It’s not a perfect place. I still have bad days. This week, for example. It was super rough! I made it to less than a third of my classes. But through the support of my family and friends, as well as my own determination, I picked myself up and kept on going. Trying again and again.

Somedays I still forget to eat. Some nights I don’t go to bed until it’s technically morning.

That happens less and less often now, however. Whereas I used to lose track of how many times I skipped meals or spent all night on my phone feeling sad and sorry for myself, I can now count them on the fingers of… well, it would be a lie to say “on the fingers of one hand.” But being able to count them on the fingers of both hands is progress, right?

Perfection is unrealistic, I keep reminding myself, but I can always aim to do better than I did before. Now if I miss dinner or stay up late, there’s less of a feeling of “here we go again” and more of an “oops, I’ll try harder next time” mood.

Sometimes I wish I could go back in time and redo freshman year. All those firsts… I feel like I messed them up by being in such a low mood.

But I can’t go back. There aren’t any “do-overs.”

So I’m trying to make peace with that. I take my meds. I get enough sleep. I go to therapy and talk things over. I practice the techniques I was taught to calm my anxiety. I’m trying to be happy with where I am in life right now. I’m trying to make up for lost time by spending the time I have right now as well as I can.

Photos: cover, 1, 2, 3

Elizabeth Chesak is a junior at the University of Iowa. She is triple-majoring in English & Creative Writing, Journalism, and Gender, Women’s, & Sexuality Studies to prepare for her hybrid dream job of picture book author/National Geographic photojournalist/activist. When not in class, studying, or sleeping, she can usually be found befriending the neighborhood cats.
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