I’ve spent some of the past four days reading a story (fanfic, if you want to know; holler for a link if interested) about someone coming down with severe depression at university and struggling with that, with the usual crap that comes with first realizing you’re not completely sane, and with deciding what to do next: drop out? Take a break? Try to stick it through?
I talk a lot about my mental illness for many reasons. Some are long-term activist reasons, and some are more practical, immediate ones. Some are selfish, wanting to get the pain out of my head and maybe reach for support, and some are selfless. I want people to know they’re not the only ones going through it; I want to make it easier to talk about it; I want people to know there’s nothing embarrassing about having anxiety or depression or any other mental illness, that it’s a real illness like any physical one would be. I want people to know they have various options for treatment and not one of them is morally better than the others. That meds can help, and they don’t make you into a zombie most of the time. That there are ways to harm yourself that aren’t as publicly advertised as cutting but should be taken seriously, too. I want to — I want to speak up because I want other people to speak up because I want people suffering from these invisible illness to be able to tell a friend, a parent, a doctor without fear of being dismissed. And I want the professional treatment that is out there to be better. I want it to be more accessible, and I want it to be better suited for the people who need it.
But this is not a post about how I missed two cognitive behavioral therapy appointments meant to treat my major sleep schedule issues this summer by sleeping through them, and was summarily dismissed.
This is a post about my college experience. The first time round.
I moved to Madrid at the last possible minute, a rainy afternoon on the first of October in 2007. I was seventeen. I’m a November baby. I’d been on my first trip abroad just before then, on a scholarship the ministry gave out to promote ESL immersion learning. It had been my first time in London. I’d fucked up my foot badly, and barely eaten anything because I had limited funds and clothes took priority and my living arrangement, which the school I booked a course with — a scholarship requirement — had set up for me, included breakfast and dinner, but I hated the food the family liked, and I hadn’t cooked in my life myself. I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t know how dishwashers worked. I probably sprained my ankle or worse taking twenty-minute walks to the Bounds Green tube station wearing a pair of flimsy golden flats I’d bought in Valencia when I went to my cousin’s wedding in 2006.
I fell in love with the city. I fell in love with the weather, the architecture, the language, the parks. I fell in love with the tube and I fell in love with long walks going nowhere. I fell a little bit more in love with books.
And then I came home, on the 28th of September because I’d booked my trip for the last possible date that wouldn’t overlap with the beginning of university so I could catch a Millais exhibit at the Tate Britain. I got to see my favorite painting of all time in person, so I don’t regret it, even though the day I went to the exhibit, there was an evacuation at the museum for reasons I forget.
My point is, I went home to Ciudad Real, had two days to regroup, and repacked for Madrid. To live in a dorm. My father came with me, carried my suitcase. My relationship with him was already fairly strained, so it wasn’t the nicest trip of all time. It wasn’t awful, either. He’s always come through when I really needed it. He certainly saved my ass a year later when I missed my flight back from Heathrow.
So I went to Madrid, I found my dorm — the only one I’d been able to get a place in as I’d assumed people would start looking after they got their Selectividad grades, not before. It wasn’t a bad dorm. It was on a nice street. Busy, rainy. Wide road. It was a co-ed dorm, and the first thing I heard when I came down to the lobby after my father had left was a chant they’d made up to haze first-time students.
That wasn’t a very auspicious start, but I’m not going to blame my dropout on hazing. I think it’s bullshit, and I know a lot of first-years take it on like a badge of pride and there’s some sort of Stockholm Syndrome thing going on there that’s very concerning. But it wasn’t bad. It wasn’t aggressive, anyway. I was able to do my thing and be left alone. Eventually, I actually said: you know what, I’ve got tachycardia issues — I didn’t know it was mental health yet — and I can’t handle this. I can’t participate in this.
And they did respect my wishes. It did feel a bit like I’d be ostracized, or maybe I was told that. It didn’t feel like it made that much of a difference with my social anxiety generally keeping me from making friends anyway.
I met a girl in my first ever Philosophy class. Her name was Nuria and she was doing Philosophy at the same time as her last year of Art History. We talked and I bumped into a wall because of social anxiety and she had a car and she drove me to the tube station at one point. She had tennis courts somewhere. She said I should go up to her house to play. I’ve always wanted to play tennis.
I didn’t make it to a whole lot of classes, after that. I saw her again, a few times, but she’d got a proper group of friends who were actually around and I was awkward and I wasn’t making it to class all that often. I didn’t want to spend so long on the tube and then walking all the way from the Ciudad Universitaria station to the Philosophy building. I didn’t want to get up.
I was living in a dorm with severe social anxiety and without a laptop. My entire support system up till then — and even now — was people I could only communicate with via my laptop. I spent some time in the computer room upstairs. It was really uncomfortable. I could have found a Starbucks, maybe. I wasn’t as familiar with them in Madrid. My coffeehouse renaissance didn’t happen until Oxford in 2008. I borrowed my roommate’s laptop, sometimes. I couldn’t afford my own. I felt like that was holding me back from being able to do… god, everything. Research, write, write for fun, do uni work, stay sane.
I’d taken my father’s portable DVD player with me and my Gilmore Girls DVDs and I watched a lot of that. I watched Imagine Me and You and A Cinderella Story. I bought another Gilmore Girls boxset with my small allowance from my parents — 200€ a month. I don’t know how they were making enough money back then to give me that, survive themselves, and pay for my dorm until my scholarship came through in fucking December. My dorm mates were pooling together 600€ at a time to spend on booze to pour over first years during parties.
I didn’t understand that at all.
Most of all, though, I really fucked up my eating. The dining hall had long tables and I felt like I had to ask to sit with any group, and I was so anxious about it that I only went if I caught my roommate on the way down with her friends. I walked to Burger King in Callao and ate fast food. I was weak, and at one point, I got up, I got in the shower, and I fainted.
The bruise spanned my entire thigh and changed from yellow to blue to red to purple over the course of two or three weeks until it finally went away.
I don’t know if I’d had trich before, but the first incident of it I clearly remember is writing on my Moleskine journal on my birthday, completely depressed — not in the mental health way, I didn’t think at the time, just hopelessly sad — and pulling out the hairs on my eyebrows and letting them pile up on the slope on the inside of the notebook pages.
When December rolled around, when holidays arrived, I went home for good. I packed and I ate at the same Burger King in Callao while it was raining outside and I went home. I bought myself a MacBook and an iPod for Christmas. I wasn’t going back. I was going to try going by train, commuting from Ciudad Real every day. People did that; Renfe offered monthly passes for about 200-300€ per month for people who commuted to Madrid for work every day.
I think I managed to do that twice, in February.
In May, I bought a Canon camera. It’s the same one I still have. In between the laptop and the DSLR, I got some clothes, the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants books. I don’t know why I was pretending I might stick out the year. I intended to sit my exams in June, just to keep my scholarship, and I didn’t because I could do it in September and have it amount to the same thing.
I went to my faculty for the last time on September 6, 2008, with my Canon camera, after spending three weeks in Oxford and coming back with 4GB worth of pictures — and I wasn’t shooting RAW at the time. I took a lot of pictures of my way there. It was rainy on the train there, and sunny as I walked to sit my exams.
I signed up for the first two years of English Philology at my hometown’s university. I didn’t want to lose any time. I’d already lost a year. I dropped out eventually in the middle of a vicious circle of not being able to motivate myself to do any work because I didn’t know if my parents would be able to afford tuition for the first year, which I couldn’t get out of the government again since they’d already paid for my first year at Complutense.
My father was really proud of me for getting into Complutense, and hated my hometown’s university. My mom never liked that I’d switched from Math and sciences to Humanities for Bachillerato after having to put up with an awful Math teacher my fourth year of ESO (obligatory secondary education). I hated my hometown’s university, too, and I didn’t want to study English under professors who had worse accents than I did. I was a snob, getting less snobbish by the minute, but I still wasn’t happy. But I hadn’t been proud of going to Complutense, either, because all my chosen degree required was a passing grade from high school and Selectividad. I’d got my average back up to 8/10 after a truly disastrous fourth year of high school (ESO is four years, ages 11-12 to 15-16, and then Bachillerato is two years) that took my A+ student status to nearly having to resit the year for so many absences. This is a story for another time.
I don’t remember dropping out officially. I just remember no one ever saying I should see a doctor, no one considering the possibility that my constant tachycardia wasn’t just a freak physical pattern, no one suggesting medication, no one calling my trich trich until a fanfic exchange chat two years later. I didn’t make peace with having dropped out of the path I’d been so set on having for myself — high school, university, grad school, work; I couldn’t hold on to friends, but I performed really well academically, I loved exams, and that was supposed to be enough.
No one suggested taking a gap year. I don’t know if that was a possibility. No one suggested counselling, or talking to the university about support for people with disabilities because I didn’t even know the anxiety and depression I felt were mental health conditions, let alone that they were classed as disabilities. I didn’t know they were classed as disabilities until last year when someone said I might have luck applying for disability benefits, if my anxiety and depression were getting in the way of my life — which they were.
They have been. For years. Since that fourth year of high school, probably. Since the year I dropped out of college, probably. But I didn’t put a name to them until years later, and I didn’t get treatment until years later, and I didn’t know there was any support or resources available to me to help me continue my education despite having a mental health condition. Until now, I hadn’t even thought of that period of my life as a period where I had depression.
Looking back, I don’t know what else it could have been.