It was supposed to work out this time, I thought, tears welling up in my eyes. After nearly a year away from school, during which I’d been receiving treatment for bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and complex PTSD, I really believed I was ready to go back. In those twelve months, I bounced from medication to medication with various psychiatrists and saw a handful of therapists, each trying their best to figure out what would work for me. Nine medications, three intensive therapy programs, and months of individual psychotherapy later, I still hadn’t found the solution I was so desperately hoping for. Despite not feeling any better, I went back to school because everything up until this point in my life had been propelling me in the direction of graduating from college. I have spent my entire life shaping my identity and even my self-esteem around being smart, taking all honors, accelerated, and AP classes, even graduating high school early with enough AP credits to graduate from college early. There was never a doubt in my mind that I would finish school easily and on time.
I arrived back for the spring quarter of my senior year anxious but determined. It felt really exciting and comforting to be back in my apartment, reunited with my friends, and spending time in all my favorite places from the past three years of my college career. Everything was going well until I ended up in the emergency room after a frantic call to the after-hours on-call psychiatrist explaining the symptoms I was experiencing. After four hours in the emergency room, they determined my blood work was fine and sent me home, and I was relieved but on edge. Things seemed okay until my second day of classes. I had trouble sleeping the night before and didn’t wake up on time for class. Immediately, the panic set in. I wondered, Can I really do this? Will I be able to pull myself together to finish this quarter? I was determined not to sleep through my alarm and miss another class again—that is, until I started experiencing extreme nausea and eventually threw up, leaving me unable to attend class. I ended up back in the emergency room again, this time for six hours. Once again, I was discharged after they determined my blood work was still fine. I received a call from my psychiatrist, who told me to stop taking the medication. I went into withdrawal, alternating between my bed and the bathroom to throw up for three days.
After the withdrawal passed, I somehow found myself in an even worse place: unmedicated and feeling more depressed than I had been in months. I was back at square one, hysterically crying to my parents over the phone about how I wanted to die—the same phone calls I had made almost a year before. I realized that staying at school unmedicated would inevitably lead me down the path to suicide. Despite my desire to finish school, I knew I couldn’t let this happen. Days later, I packed up my apartment and said goodbye to the city I had called home for the past almost four years. At the time it was extremely difficult, but I knew it was the right choice for my own safety and well-being. Two months later, I still feel that way, but that hasn’t stopped the shame of struggling to finish college from creeping in. It’s been difficult and at times painful to see so many of my friends graduating, while I’m still at home suffering. It hurts even worse because I never once thought I wouldn’t be finishing school alongside my friends. I was the “smart girl,” after all. It turns out that regardless of how smart you are, mental illness doesn’t discriminate, and I begrudgingly accept that now.
In the face of my own insecurities surrounding not finishing school on time, I realized that being away from school has taught me so much more than I would have learned in school. During this time away, I’ve channeled my shame into creating and have found solace in sharing my struggles with my mental illness through my art. In doing so, I’ve learned that vulnerability is one of the hardest things in the world. I have been praised for my openness and vulnerability through my work, but the truth is that I am terrified. It took me almost a year to get to the point of letting myself cry in therapy, because my walls were so high up that even I didn’t know how to tear them down. As I slowly start to chip away at them and let people in, I know I will continue to learn even more about myself. I’m still undoubtedly determined to receive my degree because I value my education and feel strongly about finishing what I started, but in taking time off to get treatment, I realized that learning to put myself first is not selfish at all, like I convinced myself it was, but absolutely necessary. The most important thing that I have learned through this difficult experience is that taking care of my health is infinitely more valuable than any degree.
Ting Ting Chen