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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Breaking the silence: a first-year’s experience with mental health at Carleton

<arkest moment this year, I was still. It was a Saturday night during winter term, and I was on my friend’s bed—she and her roommate had gone out, as the rest of my friends had, and offered me her room when I told her I had to take a phone call. In truth, I was barely sitting upright against the wall. My cheeks were damp, and my nose runny, but I was stuck, and the tissues were too far away. The echoes of laughter and party music seeping in through the windows seemed to come from a world apart from mine. I felt numb, hollow, and lifeless.

The only thing I could think about was my parents. What do I tell them? How would they react if they saw me, right here, right now?


Serotonin, or, Fall Term

Back in September, I was just a wide-eyed first-year. I felt the best I had felt in years, which is how, in my family, we think about time.
I was first diagnosed with depression and anxiety when I was 10 years old. That first appointment with the local child psychiatrist marked the beginning of a turbulent adolescence: over seven years of grueling medication trials, counseling sessions, and–the most embarrassing part–school changes. But I never wanted my character to be defined by some jargon from the DSM–that’s not who I am.

I just wanted to be known for my personality and favorite things, independent of my bad days. Dry humor, loyalty, and a strong moral compass. Always up to talk about politics. Voracious news reader. Lover of museums. Skier and swimmer. Good food. Soft rock and indie pop (whatever that means). Talkative, friendly, thoughtful.

So, for years, I answered the dreaded “How are you?” with honesty only to my closest friends, parents, and doctors. I didn’t know how to explain it all to my fraternal twin brother, and can’t even imagine what it was like on his end. Acquaintances, teachers, and even some family members were not in the loop, and I didn’t want them to be. And that’s because the stigma is real.

I went into remission two years before I started at Carleton. At 17, I had just emerged from a major relapse, after which I repeated my junior year of high school–arguably the best decision ever, and one for which I am eternally grateful. That didn’t mean that my incessant worrying suddenly disappeared. It meant that I could get out of bed in the morning, function normally, smile, and confidently talk myself through bad days. Above all, it meant that I could be myself.

In September, I thought I had nothing to lose. Soon enough, however, “nothing” became “my dignity.” Throughout fall term, I was regularly happy, but pretty overwhelmed, too. I wasn’t sure if I could handle Carleton’s academic rigor, let alone the pace of the trimester system, but I never wanted to let those fears stop me from getting the liberal arts education I had wanted for so long.

It took some time before I felt comfortable participating in my classes. And even then, I would try to scribble each comment in my notebook before raising my hand, just to avoid the possibility of sounding shaky. Every moment in public felt embarrassing.

It’s hard enough as it is to put yourself out there in a brand new community of 2,000 insanely smart people. And when worrying is your norm, every interaction in that high-intensity community seems to carry the weight of the world.

Over and over again, I would ask myself, “What do they think of me?” More concerning were the slip-ups: the little human things, like running a minute late to class here and there, or seeming nervous at parties, made me wonder whether my peers would be judging me. “Do they see it?”

Fall term is when I learned that nobody wants to look like a hot mess at Carleton College. One of the most frightening pieces of advice that I’d heard time and time again from upperclassmen was the notion that, at Carleton, “everybody’s faking it.” “It’s just a façade,” I’ve been told. “No one really has their shit together.”

I can’t help but wonder if this is what it’s like at all of our peer schools, or if it’s just a Carleton phenomenon. I can’t help but worry that, according to this seemingly popular advice, I’m not supposed to show people that I’m worried.

“Just fake it ‘til you make it. That’s what we do.” As a first-year, faking it at Carleton seems impossible. And as a student with a history of depression and anxiety, faking it at Carleton is impossible.

Trying to process this mentality, coupled with a student suicide, was chilling to the bone. I wondered if there was something about this place so subliminally toxic that I would be driven into a relapse.


Norepinephrine, or, Winter Term

I don’t think I’ll ever forget the pangs of unease that I felt during my plane’s final descent to MSP on that gray January afternoon. I had just had an incredible winter break back home, and it was time to start winter term.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) was nothing new to me–I had used one of those almost-blinding lamps for several years, and, so the record goes, I’d been used to increasing my antidepressant dose in the winter, and then decreasing it in the spring. The trouble, this time, was my optimism.

“Cold weather, warm people.” It’s good advertising on the college’s part, because that’s the line I used to explain to my friends and family back home why on Earth I voluntarily enrolled myself for Minnesota winters. After the first few days of winter term, the sun disappeared.

Too little, too late. This time around, my doctor and I decided against increasing my medication before the start of winter, and SAD hit me like a truck. My energy level dwindled. I needed to take more naps. My alarm clock was the bane of my existence. And worst of all, that heavy feeling in my chest–the physical manifestation of my depression–returned.

With the help of my doctor, I made necessary medication adjustments, but didn’t feel a response for a few weeks. What I did feel, though, was a whole host of side effects that are just so difficult to explain to professors. My blood pressure would plummet upon standing. I felt irritable during the day and muted at night. Worst of all, or, most incompatible with Carleton, was the brain fog: an intense mental haze, tantamount to a bad caffeine crash, made it harder to think clearly.

I had too many late nights during winter term. They’re not healthy. But I needed to get my work done–that’s why I’m here, right? And so began a snowball effect of falling behind on my work, remaining behind on my work for the rest of the term, and getting mad at myself for having fallen behind on my work.

The short-term answer seemed to be self-blame. “This is my fault. I’m pathetic. Everyone else is keeping up.” I wondered if my professors thought I was pathetic, too. And I wondered if my classmates noticed when I wasn’t among the majority of students getting papers and homework assignments back on the same day. It was mortifying.

I tried to do what I could to keep my head aboveground. I swam laps at Cowling several nights per week. I set small goals. I scaled back on extracurriculars in order to give myself even more time to do my work, or, to try to perform as best I could without full functionality.

I started to feel better, little by little, but getting out of bed in the morning remained a challenge. Above all, I still felt inadequate at Carleton. Was I giving in to the trimester monster? To my state of mind? To both?

Mental health aside, academics at this school are brutal. Transformative and eye-opening, too,  but it’s harder to see that in darkness. And talking about the rigor always feels messy: we don’t want to sound ungrateful for this unparalleled education, and we want to sound like we’re on top of this unparalleled education, but can we ever be on top of this unparalleled education? (And have a healthy sleep schedule and an active social life. The trifecta!)

What’s more damaging to the psyche is the constant fear that everyone else is doing better. Call me crazy, but I’ve definitely experienced this, and, to be honest, I’m still not over it. Maybe that’s because we sneakily perpetuate this fear in everyday conversations:

“Ugh, I’m dying this week. I have to finish a problem set, a few hundred pages of reading, and a paper, all in the next two days! What about you?”

“Oh micro’s easy, you have nothing to worry about–I did fine in that class.”

“I’m only taking 200-level classes this term. I’m so over 100-levels.”

“I could never get below an 87 on a quiz.”

My personal favorite, though, was when a senior asked me how I was doing in terms of stress, only to follow up, “Oh, child. That’s nothing. I have comps.”

And don’t forget: Carleton’s not competitive! We’re collaborative. We help other Carls. We’re all in this together…but are we? To me, remarks like these sounded, and will continue to sound, like nails on a chalkboard. They make my heart rate double, my head hurt, and my confidence shake.

And God forbid anyone find that out.

During winter term, remarks like these made me wonder if I was really meant to be here. They made me lose trust in my peers and in myself. And then I caved. I had a little extra caffeine here and there, took an extra deep breath or two, and tried, so hard, to fake a smile. To answer, “I’m good! How are you?”

I continue to wish for a campus culture that doesn’t coat itself in a thin, disappointing veneer of fool’s gold. Are you also stressed, panicked, and tired? Are you not one hundred percent right now? Cool, me too. Let’s talk about it.

Dopamine, or, Spring Term

Spring break was pretty restorative. Toward the end, it seemed that my rough patch was a distant memory, and that I was ready to figure out what “spring term, no rules” was all about. Most importantly, I thought that I knew what measures to take in order to avoid another slip-up. I was so naive.

A few weeks into the term, something wasn’t sitting right. Everyone around me seemed so happy, yet I wasn’t happy. But with all the hype surrounding spring term, telling anyone that I wasn’t happy would have been an injustice. I felt my drive slipping away from me. A bad day or two (or three or four) set me back in my work.

I wondered if my classmates noticed when my Moodle posts were late. I wondered if they were judging me, or worse, using me as the low bar to which no Carl wants to stoop. Maybe they think, “at least I’m not doing as bad as Ross.”

It became harder to look my professors in the eye. I was ashamed of myself, and wondered if my profs were disappointed in me, too. But, just like the last term, I started feeling better. Much quicker than last time, actually. And I think the “no rules” part of “spring term, no rules” began to set in.

For me, “no rules” has meant drastically redefining my understanding of the Carleton experience. “No rules” means that, in academic and social situations that used to make me feel shame, I now shrug my shoulders and move onto the next day, reminding myself that I’m near the end of a major transition year. It means I do what I need to do for my well-being, which might mean closing the books a little earlier in order to get a good night’s sleep. It means that I talk more honestly about how I’m doing. It might even mean trying to break the silence surrounding mental health and perfectionism at Carleton by sharing my story with you.

The way we talk about mental health at Carleton is deplorable. This entire year, I’ve only had one genuine conversation about mental health with another student–a conversation that went beyond the phrase “mental health.”

I’m tired of being in the dark about this stuff. I’m tired of looking around and feeling detached from my own school. I’m tired of thinking that everyone around me is a Carl, but there’s no way that I’m a Carl. I’m tired of suffocating from a truly toxic silence about our invisible struggles.

Earlier this week, on my way back from class, I slipped in some mud and fell flat on my ass–in front of some of my classmates, no less. It was too metaphorical. I often forget that, for most, happiness, contentment, and calm are the norm for most people. But whether it’s mental health issues, perfectionism, insecurities, or some combination of the three, we all slip in some mud at one point or another.

It’s on all of us–not just the administration–to foster authentic, raw conversations about how we’re really doing, and, in doing so, to create a more compassionate campus community. I’m breaking the silence, and I hope that you will, too.

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