How My Depression Ruined My College Experience

And other lighthearted cautionary tales

I was twelve years old when I wanted to kill myself for the first time. Before I ever came up with a decent plan, I discovered masturbation, and that got me through the next several years.

In college, the ever present suicidal fantasies blended in with the background noise, and other dangerous inclinations showed themselves. If I had to put any effort into getting ready for class, I’d usually give up before I got out of bed. Sometimes I’d look in my closet and “I have nothing to wear!” would be my excuse for skipping class and meals. My friends, thank god for them, would bully me out of my dimly lit room and force me to take care of myself, physically and socially. I’d often get manic on these outings, and drive everyone around me insane with my outbursts, but, again thank god, this didn’t deter them.

My depression was not the blue blob of angst and woe that I was used to seeing portrayed on TV. It was not, as my mom described hers to me, tears pricking my eyes constantly, threatening to overflow at any startling noise or mildly upsetting event. My depression was ugly and jealous and violent. It was a puke-yellow, spiky mass of slime that choked me when I tried to be funny or friendly, poisoned me with self doubt and cruel thoughts. I didn’t just roll over and take it from my depression though, oh no. I fought back, with the healthiest coping mechanism imaginable: aggressive narcissism. When I fucked up, I blamed everyone but me, retreated to isolation, and boiled alone with fantasies of physical violence and catharsis as I stared up at the twinkling fairy lights in my dorm, completely paralyzed.

Doodles I drew during that time. You can find more sketches like this at my art insta, @jamieartwarren.

And so while I was wrestling with depression to develop a sense of self, which at this point was nonexistent for me, I was extremely susceptible to the influence of others. That, paired with a toxic lack of motivation, led me to make a lot of important decisions in my life without the necessary rationality and passion required. I went where people complimented me most, where I had to work the least, and with no goals other than fame and recognition in mind.

This mindset is why I never switched my major when I was halfway through my Sophomore and realized how stale it was quickly becoming. Instead of leaving my comfort zone and pushing myself to pursue something I wasn’t sure I was good at, I stayed in the field where I didn’t need to study or pay attention in class, where I didn’t need to collaborate with others, where I didn’t need to spend more than a few days on an assignment. I stayed in the major where I would always receive more compliments than criticism, and where I knew I could stand out from the crowd.

When I was finally diagnosed with and treated for depression (a path with involved a lot of advocating for myself), things seemed to change immediately. I was able to be charismatic, to joke without going overboard and making people uncomfortable, and I had an easier time showering, getting dressed, and not skipping meals. I stopped spending so much money, because now I wasn’t shopping to find myself or ordering take-out to make up for missing the pre-paid cafeteria meals. My grades stayed pretty much the same — school had never been an issue for me — but my teachers and peers could tell I was actually engaged and no longer just doing the bare minimum for an A. I felt passionate about the things I created and got involved in extra-curricular activities that my friends weren’t in, motivated solely by what I wanted to do. Not just what was convenient. By this point I was in my Junior year, and while I longed to take more film classes, I’d already completed my credits for the minor and needed to focus on creative writing if I wanted to graduate on time.

There were a few slips (when I missed medication, when menstrual hormones interfered with my medication, during times of great stress) but pretty much all was solved by talking to a doctor and upping my dosage.

I graduated in May of 2017 with a BFA in Creative Writing and a minor in Digital Filmmaking. That’s a sentence I’ve written over and over again in hundreds of cover letters.

Almost a year after graduating, I realized how bad I had fucked up. I would catch myself explaining to people on dates and at parties that if only I could do it again, I would have majored in film, or psychology, or even theatre. Something less introverted, less safe. I loved writing, sure, but why had I spent four years and tens of thousands of my family’s money to study it? I have nothing to show for all that time and money and energy except for several unfinished drafts, publications in a literary magazine I had helped publish, and networking opportunities with people outside of my field who would never have use for my work, or more likely, would never even remember my name.

This is not to say I learned nothing. My writing improved plenty, but I’m not closer to finding my voice than I was when I started. The thing about getting a degree in creative writing is that you end up writing to impress your professors and the fellow students in your workshops. You learn how to imitate a voice that they find acceptable, not necessarily a genuine or original voice that is sustainable outside of the classroom.

I say all this to conclude that my biggest regret is not changing my major when I had the chance.

I realized during that year after graduating that no one wanted a creative writing major with no out of college experience. I applied for job after job, flaunting my awards and publications, but none of them were worth anything since they hadn’t existed outside the protective bubble of school. The best I could do in terms of employment was a couple service industry jobs and an offer from a badly disguised multi-level marketing scheme.

Now I find myself in Chicago, in grad school studying clinical social work. I am in love with the assignments, the instructors, the field work I do. For the first time I am following my passion, not being lured by flattery into lukewarm waters again. I’m also going to have student loan debt for the first time in my life. A great scholarship and affluent grandparents saved me at the undergraduate level, but this time I’m doing pretty much everything myself.

I try not to spend my nights, aching with regret, and remind myself I’m only twenty-two years old and (hopefully) have a lot of life left to live. I don’t know where we got the idea that once we start along one path, it’s impossible to change direction, but that’s just bullshit. Yes, I am paying for my mistake now, but there are still plenty of paths ahead of me where I pay off those loans and live a fulfilling life, be it in the field I’ve chosen or not.

Sometimes I’m afraid of the future. Most of the time I’m not, thanks to my good ol’ pal, Lexapro. And on rare occasions like tonight, I’m absolutely petrified. That doesn’t mean I’m going to give up. I’m still working on coping in heathy ways, in ways that don’t involve sex, drugs, or dropping out of school. So I hope you realize, dear reader, if you’ve gotten this far, that I didn’t write this for you. I had to write it for myself.