How Opening Up Saved my University Experience

I made it one of my resolutions this year to get involved in the fight for mental health. This #BellLetsTalk day just happens to come a few weeks after I finished four and a half years of school. I decided it would be appropriate for me to share my story of how I got through it. The problems I went through are ones most people experience at some point in their life. I used to think that meant my story wasn’t worth sharing, but I’ve changed my mind. I now believe more strongly than ever that no matter how common or trivial you think your struggles are, you deserve to be heard.

I used to keep my feelings strictly to myself. If something bothered me, I’d find ways to distract myself until these feelings went away. This was an easy thing to do in high school. My friends and I never had serious conversations, most of the time we joked around and messed with each other. It always did the trick. I thought my ability to deal with my problems without having to talk about them was what made me strong as a person.

Not a lot of friends from my high school ended up going to my university. I was a little concerned about this, especially when summer was wrapping up, but I stayed optimistic. Heck, this was my dream school and I figured it’d be easy for me to make friends. I’d be seeing these people at least once every couple of months anyway.

Things worked out the first few months. There wasn’t a whole lot for me to be upset about, but when I was stressed out, I’d hit them up on Skype or text. Things were more or less the same. We never talked about school problems, we usually shared dumb YouTube videos or made fun of each other’s hockey teams. For the first little while, I was able to carry my old mindset into university.

Then school started to get a lot harder. I had this sense of entitlement coming from high school where I needed things to always go my way. I wasn’t used to underachieving. My grades were falling and I felt like I was having trouble fitting in. I hadn’t really formed a group of friends there. My method of dealing with problems was constantly being put to the test, and it reached its peak just before reading week.

Like many Queen’s students, I applied to be a frosh week leader. This was something I had my eye on since week one. Roughly half of the students who applied got the gig. I was part of the other half. I found out as I was entering my car the first day of reading week, about to head to a 90’s party one of my good friends from high school was throwing for his birthday. I was livid. I cussed loudly to myself the entire way there (thankfully I was the only one in the car). It ended up being good timing, since when I got into the party, catching up with my high school friends had made me temporarily forget about what just happened.
I had a blast that party and it saved my reading week. It even provided me with a bit of a boost the next month, where while things didn’t improve, the downward trend had slowed a bit. Things were still okay as I was going home for Easter weekend.

I then woke up on Good Friday to the news that one of my good friends and his family had just passed away. It was my friend who threw the 90’s party. I remember lying in bed looking at Twitter and Facebook, not believing what had happened. I tried to reach out to some of my friends and unsurprisingly everyone was shaken up. That night, we all got together for a candlelight vigil. We told stories, cried and laughed together. There were plenty of great memories, it helped that he and his family were all really funny. Being with everyone was the one bright spot of the weekend, and it helped ease the pain.

I had a lot of trouble facing the reality of what had just happened. I really didn’t know how things would be moving forward. This was especially true at school, where nobody really knew what had happened. It felt like a different world, people would casually ask how my long weekend was and I didn’t know how to answer. I avoided bringing it up because I didn’t want to be a downer. I specifically remember coming back to Queen’s from the funeral a week later and the shock hadn’t worn off. I was on a committee that was running a social the next day. Instead of showing up early to help, like I was supposed to, I showed up late and wasted. I didn’t realise this at the time but this was when my drinking started to become a real problem.

As part of a high school novel study, I read A Prayer for Owen Meany, and one of the only passages I remember talked about how when you lose someone unexpectedly, you don’t lose them all at once. You lose them in pieces over a long period of time. That summer the loss hit harder every week. It bugged me a bit more every time whenever I was at an event he could’ve been at. Our friendship was built on pop culture references and it’d sting every time those were brought up. Songs were the worst. Drops of Jupiter and any 80’s or 90’s hits are forever linked to my fondest memories of him. If those came on I’d be a mess the rest of the day. I felt vulnerable because of how unpredictable it was, I never had time to brace myself.

Hanging out back home on the weekends made it all bearable. I guess it was the solidarity that helped. I still didn’t open up about how I felt, but it was nice being around people who were going through the same thing. It was very much the same as before where we would temporarily take each other’s minds off of it through laughter and light-hearted conversation. The weekends were my saving grace. I dreaded going back to university by summer’s end.

When things went wrong for me, they tended to align and occur at the same time. Not being a frosh week leader meant I supposedly missed out on one of the best weeks of university. I retaliated by drinking too much and getting my friends at school both annoyed and worried at the same time. The first week of school I hated all of my classes and failed an assignment. It wasn’t a great start.

Those first few weeks were probably the loneliest I’d ever felt. Memories of my friend who passed triggered frequently at parties through music or conversation. Instantly I’d go from being somewhat happy to being terribly depressed, and my drinking only amplified the feeling. Sometimes I’d be lucky enough to make it home before breaking down and crying, but others I’d do it outside and cause a scene. I dealt with my grief alone and no longer had the benefit of looking forward to weekends. Being at least five hours away from my back home friends going through the same thing made everything ten times worse.

I was too stubborn to talk to anyone about them my problems. I thought it’d make me weaker because it meant I could no longer distract myself from them. It worked great for most of my life up until that point, so I figured I just had to give it some time. Plus, what would my friends think of me after? To them, I was the happy go lucky person who never let anything bother me. I didn’t want that to change.

It also felt selfish to me. I knew that my grief and depression could be triggered by the most subtle reminders. I didn’t want to call my high school friends and catch them off guard, potentially triggering them. I had a few friends in university but didn’t think I we were close enough for me to share my problems. I also didn’t think they were happy with me from the weeks before. In my head, I’d think of the people going through worse things and figured I wasn’t as deserving of counsel.
 
But then the culmination of my problems brought me to a tipping point. It was Friday, and an in-class demonstration for an assignment went horribly wrong in front of everyone. After class, I went straight to the bar. I remember thinking I was done with Queen’s and was ready to switch to a different school. Not having a lot of friends there at the time was further justification.

I ran into one of them on the way to the bar. That person was one of my better friends at Queen’s, and knew what I was doing since they had noticed my pattern of drinking the last little while. They hinted at their concern of my drinking but I interpreted it as just them being mad at me from before. I got to the bar and (again) tried to drink my problems away. When I got home, I started crying and drunkenly texted my friend, telling them they were right about me drinking to cope with things. I also told them I thought our friendship was going to fall apart. Instead of being upset, my friend replied by asked me to talk about everything I was going through and I did. After an hour or so of texting I fell asleep.

I felt terrible waking up the next morning. I checked my phone realising I drunkenly let go of thoughts I kept to myself for years. In my mind, breaking my silence meant I had conceded to my depression. I thought that I’d brought my grief onto my friend and felt really guilty about it. The hangover didn’t help. But then, in the middle of typing a text apologising, I got some texts from my friend. They thanked me for finally reaching out and told me they previously went through something similar. They also reassured me that they considered me to be a good friend and asked if I was feeling any better. I remember being so thrown off that after I thanked my friend, I cried about it for a half hour.

I didn’t realise at the time but that was the start of my long road to recovery. It took me a while to change my mindset about opening up. At first, I avoided it the best I could. When I did, it was with that same friend and usually a result of drinking. They would stay with me the whole time (often late at night) and wouldn’t hang up until they knew I was okay. Anyone who’s dealt with me after drinking knows that isn’t an easy thing to do. Whenever I said I wanted to switch schools, they’d tell me not to because of how much our friendship meant. And in the morning my friend would tell me I had nothing to apologise about. School wasn’t getting easier but having someone who was there for me helped me get through the weeks.

I tried my best improve, partly because I didn’t want my friend’s efforts to go to waste. Things did start getting a little better. One of the people I met at the end of first year was in my classes and we started hanging out. I met some other people just through that and that ended up forming a group of friends. This was one of the things previously missing from university, and it ended up making a huge difference. As a form of over-correction from my old mindset, I began opening up to some of them as well. Some weren’t as used to the subject matter or being opened up to. Regardless, they would do their best to listen and help out, even when they weren’t sure about what to say.

A few months passed and it was then the one year of my friend passing away. I was back home that day with my high school friends since I wanted to spend the day with them. By then I had finally opened up to some of them as well, and they couldn’t have been more gracious about it, despite going so many years without it. They told me how happy they were that I opened up because they really wanted to support me.

The bus ride home that morning allowed me to reflect on the previous few months. The week leading up was a particularly hard one, since I dreaded that weekend. The tragedy was on my mind constantly but my friends at school did their best to be around. One example of this was when I tried to study on campus. It was (and still is) in their best interests to maintain a good radius around me when trying to get work done since I always treated distracting others as a sport. But that week, a couple of them always sat next to me. I thought about how nice that was and how much a difference they made.

And then I got a text from my friend who I first opened up to. It said they were thinking about me and they were proud of how far I’d come. I replied saying it was all because of them, saying how much I appreciated everything they did. My friend then replied back saying it wasn’t a big deal, and that all they ever wanted was to see me happy again. That moment was really emotional for me and I had trouble keeping it together on the bus. I felt like I had finally come to terms with my depression. While the struggle was far from over, it was at that moment when I realised I had it in me to fight back. And most of all, I knew I wasn’t alone in the fight. I had the backing of an amazing support network both at school and at home. I was conflicted about switching schools up until then. That moment made me realise staying at Queen’s was the right thing to do.

Fast forward about two and a half years later and I’ve successfully graduated. I’m thankful I stayed because the last two years consisted of some of the best times of my life. The fight against mental illness continued for much of that time, and it wasn’t without its setbacks, but I can confidently say I’m now happy with my mental health. I sometimes complain about not learning anything in class, but my university experience taught me two lessons I’ll always carry with me in life.

As a young adult, you’re told how important it is to build a solid professional network. These people are the ones that’ll get you jobs, funding, or whatever you need to get your career going. I used to believe that (ask anyone how much time I spent on LinkedIn at school), but now I realise how much more important it is to build your support network. I focused on that and every year there were more people I’d consider as close friends. These are the people I battled through school with, the ones I cried and celebrated with, and I’ve graduated knowing we’ll be friends for a long time. I think all the time about what I put them through and make sure to tell them I appreciate them every now and then. Life doesn’t necessarily get easier, but having good support makes the hard parts bearable. They might be in a different field and might not directly or immediately help your career, but you never know. It’s still early on, you have no idea how much they’ll affect you long term.

The second and most important lesson I learned is that you shouldn’t fight your demons alone. Your problems aren’t too small and no matter what you tell yourself, you’re deserving of help and counsel. Part of it is finding someone that’ll make it as easy as possible, whether its family, friends, or professional help. It seems like a selfish thing to do but it’s actually the opposite. My friends were all so willing to help and rooted for me the entire way. My silence was the only thing that stood in the way of that. If I continued being stubborn to the point of making a terrible decision, I wouldn’t have done the people close to me any favours.

It took me a while to get used to opening up. I thought it meant conceding to my mental illness, exposing it, and becoming a weaker person. I was more comfortable keeping it to myself. Being educated on mental health has made me realise that this is the stigma everyone talks about. By opening up, I didn’t concede. Rather, it allowed me to accept my mental illness and start fighting it head-on. Even the last few days, I felt a little nervous about telling this story. I consider myself to be a fairly reserved person. But now that I’ve reached the end, that I’ve finished typing this out, I’ve never felt more free in my life.

#BellLetsTalk

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