In junior and senior high school I would have an anxiety attack every time I would travel away from my hometown. These attacks got worse if I wasn’t around my one of my closest friends and my parents. A ski trip to North Carolina almost got ruined by my anxieties except for having two good friends who helped me refocus on the skiing, one of my favorite things to do. A dance competition to New Orleans the following year was pure torture as I had no friends on the trip and no “trusted” adults.
So imagine me going off to college by myself fall of 1993. The happy picture of me above was taken at Troy State University winter quarter of 1994. I started fall semester at Montevallo University in North Central Alabama. A teeny tiny liberal arts college about 30 minutes outside of Birmingham, AL and about 4 hours away from home.
No friends. No one I was close to. Just me and some of my stuff. No car, just a phone and some stamps (yeah, this is pre-internet/pre-email). I found myself knocking on the door of our residence assistant’s dorm room one too many evenings. I was having panic attacks and not knowing what they heck they were. Really horrible panic attacks. I could barely leave my dorm room much less do much of anything else like getting involved with campus activities. I actually had a panic attack for a new friend because she and her sorority sisters were going to the beach – a three hour drive from school – as part of a welcome to the new sorority sisters.
My parents came to see me a few times and I would beg them to let me come home. I was truly afraid of living at Montevallo. I just knew something horrible was going to happen to me and I was going to die in that backwoods teeny town that was so small it didn’t even have a Wal-Mart. What small Alabama town doesn’t have a Wal-Mart? And if it didn’t have a Wal-Mart it sure as heck didn’t have a hospital, much less a doctor that might understand what in the world was going on with me. The college nurse would give me cough syrup and allergy medicine. It didn’t matter what I would say but panic attacks were just not something that anyone thought of.
The part about mental illness that makes things worse for the person who is sick is the part where we feel ashamed for causing everybody so much trouble. Every time I had a panic attack I relied on other people to help me feel better. I didn’t have a single tool to help myself – I hadn’t been taught them yet – and my sanity depended on other people. The constant crying, the panic attacks, the dependency wears not just on the person with the illness but on the people around her as well. There is a lot of shame associated with having a mental illness especially if it’s undiagnosed and untreated.
I ended up leaving after finals. I transferred to another school closer to home. Being able to be close to the people I trusted helped me feel safe. I was able to enjoy being a college student, to enjoy life away from home. I learned independence. I had my safety – my family were close by in case of emergencies, but I had also gotten well enough to create a new family with the theater students.
This is an unpopular opinion. Not everyone needs to or is ready to go to college upon graduation. Our society forces it – go to college or you won’t get a good job. Go to college or you’re not socially accepted. Much like trade high schools, trade schools, schools close to home, places where the 18, 19-year-old student can feel comfortable stepping out into the world for the first time should be just as accepted as the kids who run off to school half way around the country.
There are so many students I’ve met who are just not ready to be in school but yet they have been told they HAVE to be in school. Have to be. Who says? Is there a law? Sometimes students or college aged people need to just work for awhile, figure out who they are before going to college.
If your student is struggling and is asking to come home just listen to them. Listen to their worries and help them find a place where they can find the strength to get up and get out on their own. Don’t force it on them. And don’t tell them, “This is what you said you wanted.” Don’t make them anymore ashamed than they already are or feel. Find a professional therapist to help too. They can teach everyone – the student and the parents – the tools they need to grow.