If I could say one thing to my 18-year-old self just entering college, it would be something like: Taking care of yourself is not a weakness. It will make you so much stronger.
I didn't know when I was 18 that I was an introvert, or that people would still like me if I skipped parties sometimes. Seriously, there will be so many more parties.
I’ve always had trouble taking my own feelings seriously. Some combination of insecurity, impatience, and growing up female in a society all too ready to call me “hysterical” has left me reluctant to treat my emotions as valid or worthwhile, much less expect that of others. So when I was young and started getting terrified about incredibly mundane things (or sometimes nothing at all), it was easy to assume that it happened to everyone, that I was just weak for letting it affect me.
A lot of mental illnesses and mood disorders first present in late adolescence and early adulthood, a period of life when it can already be hard to sort out what’s normal. Are you just trying to balance more work than you ever have before, or could it be an anxiety disorder? Are you sleep-deprived and homesick, or is it clinical depression? Out on your own for the first time, forming a new social network from scratch, it’s tempting to push these questions under the rug, to project a self that’s both “fun” and “mature” at all times.
I can’t say exactly when my anxiety began to rear its ugly little head, but I do know there was a significant gap before I even acknowledged that there might be something unusual going on in my brain. I had no idea that it wasn’t normal to face a low-stakes quiz with acid in my veins and writhing snakes in my stomach. I assumed everyone hyperventilated with panic before job interviews, shoulders hunched up to their ears for days beforehand. Over and over again, I kicked myself for being so pathetic as to let this (stupid, irrational) fear hold so much power over me. I never talked about it, because I figured everyone else experienced something similar and would look down on me for my obvious weakness.
So I forced myself to blend in. I went to shitty parties, maintained a full-time course load, worked at the barn. I pulled all-nighters with friends, even though I knew I wouldn’t be physically able to make up the lost sleep. I strained friendships by getting pissy and demanding when the pressure in my head got to be too much to ignore.
It wasn’t until shortly after graduation that I gave in and found myself a therapist. And part of me still thought she’d laugh me out of her office to make room for people with real problems. But she didn’t, and in fact helped me wrangle my brain-monsters into a much more manageable state. I wish I’d found someone like her sooner; I’d thought I was being strong, but in fact I was getting more brittle by the day, putting all my energy into maintaining a hard shell that kept cracking despite my best efforts.
My anxiety will never go away, but I’ve learned to manage it much better and factor it realistically into my plans. If you’re a young person entering college, you’ll benefit from being more proactive about your mental health than I was. Whether it’s anxiety or something else entirely, here are a few things I wish I’d known and internalized much earlier:
• Know yourself and be yourself, as deeply as possible. I’m not talking about saying everything that passes through your head or admitting you love Pokémon. I mean pay attention to what really makes you happy, what helps you sleep, how much social interaction is too much. Honor these preferences, even when it feels uncool.
• Surround yourself with people who Get It. These days I have a great group of friends who understand if I say, “Hey, sorry I have to cancel dinner tonight because my jerkbrain is acting up.” Their support makes it so much easier to care for myself without guilt.
• Know your options and ask for help. If you’re a college student, your campus health center will be a great resource for mental as well as physical health. In addition, the National Institute of Mental Health provides advice, service locators, and more at nimh.nih.gov. And anyone in an immediate crisis should call the suicide prevention line at 1-800-273-8255, 24 hours a day. There is no minimum level of crisis you have to be in to call this hotline. If you feel like you're lost, or drowning, or lonely, they will always be ready to listen and help however they can.
Becoming an adult isn’t just about shouldering more responsibility and gaining more privileges. It’s also about learning to take care of yourself in the long term, and that takes practice. College is an excellent time to start learning, so take advantage of the resources you have available and set yourself up for success.