Another Depressed College Student
August 28, 2010 1:55 AM   Subscribe

I am a 21-year-old college student who is battling depression and social anxiety despite previous achievements.

I somewhat grew up as a 'golden child'. I transitioned from foster care to adoption rather quickly. My religious parents raised me to be god-fearing, intolerant of abnormal ideas, and passive. They were--and still are--the only foster house in my city. Their unique position has enabled them to take in over 200 foster children commencing in my childhood. I served as the babysitter and secondary mother following school each day. I hardly had friends. I was not allowed to hang out, sleepover, or talk on the phone. My weekends were booked for family time, as well.

At 15, I was determined to make friends outside of my home (my closest sibling in age is 6 years my junior) through employment. I convinced my mother that it was an excellent way for me to save for school clothes. I used the extra money to participate in high school conferences, compete in pageants, and secure gas money. I became fiercely independent and attempted to pad my resume like other students in my magnet high school. I desperately wanted to go to college and get out of the inner-city. My mother refused to aid me in the process, so I often snuck out to go on college tours. I studied for the SATs at Barnes & Noble on my lunch breaks while working two full-time jobs. At 19, I was accepted to attend a prestigious university on a full-scholarship.

I thought college would be a blessing, but I have felt like wasted space upon moving to campus. I did everything right freshman year. I stayed in touch with my advisor, selected a manageable course load, and secured leadership positions. Sophomore year, however, things fell apart. I had been going to school for six quarters without a break and I felt tired. I developed a drinking habit with some friends back home over spring break. I passed out one night outside of my car in the next town and woke up at 4 a.m. surrounded by my parents. It was devastating, to say the least.

My grades dropped when I went back to school and I began to sleep for 12-16 hours each day. I stopped talking to my friends--cold turkey. I don't know why. I later consulted with a school therapist, who told me I was just acting out and needed some friends. Upon request, I enrolled in a transfer term in CA. I began to have panic attacks and I was later hit by a car. I felt so defeated that I came crawling back home.

I'm returning to school next month and I would like to cushion the depressive blow, so to speak. I want to be the first in my family to finish college. I feel pressured to exceed the expectations that my community has placed upon me. Most importantly, I want my friends back.

Thanks for listening to my story. Any suggestions, feedback, and similar experiences are welcome.
posted by nikayla_luv to Health & Fitness (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
See a physician about meds and find a different therapist.
posted by Wordwoman at 2:02 AM on August 28, 2010 [3 favorites]

Seems like you are viewing your life as this huge rise and fall. Instead of living with these peaks and valleys, focus on just being even keeled for a while. Ignore other people's expectations and just do what feel comfortable.

Sounds like you are struggling with some mild anxiety (panic attacks), which almost always leads people into depression. You need some professional help to help remind you that:
1) You're not crazy
2) Your life is yours to live, not others
3) The less extreme ups and downs we have, the more normal we feel
posted by WhiteWhale at 2:39 AM on August 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Between now and the beginning of the semester, seek out a good therapist with whom you can have some rapport. Tell her or him about your struggles, and see if there's a way you can find some balance.

Open up to your friends about what's been happening with you. Most friends are very forgiving (that's why they're friends, right?) and just want to see you happy.

And forgive yourself. Your question sounds like you're being entirely too hard on yourself. Everybody has good times and hard times, so don't beat yourself up too much for your perceived mistakes.
posted by xingcat at 3:38 AM on August 28, 2010

Have you considered succeeding less? Aim for B's. You'll get the same college degree.

This is a metaphor for other things in life.
posted by vitabellosi at 4:19 AM on August 28, 2010

It sounds like you feel the weight of the world on your shoulders. Do you?
Listen; college kids fuck up all the time. It's sort of the best time to do so.
It's not easy being the golden child and the first to graduate college (I've been there), but ultimately, your life is your own, and the sooner you get used to that notion, the sooner you'll start to live the way to wish.
Do get a different therapist. Do stop seeing yourself how you imagine others might perceive you. And make it a goal to call or e-mail one friend a week. I'm sure they would be glad to hear from you.
posted by Gilbert at 4:51 AM on August 28, 2010

I hope you read this:


Get meds and therapy. You will probably not need to be on meds forever, but they will tide you over until you fix the underlying emotional issues. Please, I am serious. This is the most important thing - that you are able to function, that you do not crash and "lose everything".

I understand what it is like to be the golden child in your family, trying to be the first person to finish college. I also understand what it is like to "lose everything" due to depression and your own negative behaviors.

Do NOT fall into the trap of thinking that meds and therapy are somehow "cheating". I was convinced that I should be able to do it all myself. I convinced myself that it was sheer laziness that kept me from succeeding, and that I could succeed if I just worked harder or was more motivated. For years, I cycled between being successful and building a life only to lose it all during a down-slump... all because I REFUSED to accept that I might be "handicapped" and need medication.

Look. Everyone's on medication for something. NO ONE is perfect. And successful people are people who are smart enough to take whatever medication they need to be as functional as possible, no matter what that medication is. If you had diabetes, you would take insulin without thinking twice, right? Well, you might have a mood disorder, and if you do, you need meds. PLEASE get checked out.

I wasted so much of my life refusing to consider medication and therapy. Please don't be like me.


You're going to have to address the underlying issues here. Here's a place to start:

Ask yourself why it is so important that you be the first. Who are you trying to impress (if anyone)? What will "being the first to graduate in your family" fix? This urge to finish college and be the first in your family - where does it come from?

I discovered that MY urge to be the first came from being ashamed of my family's history of being uneducated. My family is GHETTO. Somehow, I wanted to distance myself from that "ghetto" background, or somehow bring some kind of class/dignity to the idea of my family. I also thought that if I finished, then it would "break the cycle". I would benefit my entire family and bloodline by becoming better.

But mostly, I just wanted to prove to them and myself and the world that I was better than my family.

Are any of the sentiments in there ringing any bells? One thing I learned later is that despite their lack of education, my family is a family of SURVIVORS. As ghetto as they are, my family consists of people who have the REMARKABLE ability to survive during tough times, to get out of scrapes, and to SURVIVE, damn it.

Without that ability, I would be dead. After all, my life has crashed many times due to undiagnosed and unmedicated depression - and I am STILL HERE, stronger than ever. This is the strength that my ghetto, uneducated family taught me.

Once you realize that the person that you are - the good parts, too - have been shaped by the people you've grown up around, you will see that there is good in your family. That there are many reasons that they deserve your pride and respect, even while you cringe over what they do and how they act.

The day I realized where my strength comes from, I stopped being ashamed of my family. I realized that in light of where I come from, what I have accomplished in my life is AMAZING. I hope you realize how amazing you are to have already made different decisions from what your family must've made.

In the end, this life is about doing what makes YOU happy. If you spend your life trying to somehow appease your family or prove yourself to them or escape your family's history, it will be a wasted life.

Take care of yourself. See a doctor, and stop beating yourself up. You are doing the best you can, with the tools that you were taught. You're doing better than some people who had all the advantages in the world handed to them. Don't forget that.
posted by precocious at 6:44 AM on August 28, 2010 [5 favorites]

You can not magically heal from many years of oppression just by changing your geography. You have been forced to be so self-sufficient and so crafty for so long that it's only natural for you to flounder once given a little space -- you've spend your entire live attempting to counterbalance this huge family influence/interference, and now that you've escaped some of it, that balance is all out of whack.

But at the heart of this is a very strong person whose real interests and personality traits are only beginning to be known, even by you. What helped me is:

1) Talk. Talk about what you've lived through, with friends and with professionals. It's the only way out from under that passivity and fear. When I started talking I literally became my family's worst nightmare, it's the most threatening possible action one can take. After a while you'll feel like you're a drag, that no one wants to hear your story, that even YOU are tired of hearing it. Congratulations, that's what being 21 and newly liberated is all about, you'll be in good company at college and probably still make lots of friends whose stories you may be able to relate to or learn from.

2) Stop thinking of every decision you make as life- or career-defining. College is a time to explore. People who enter very driven and hard-headed usually receive exactly the education they would have chosen for themselves -- by shutting out important lessons and experiments and insights from others. Open yourself up, follow your curiosity, imagine that you have all the time in the world, and that getting it right FOR YOU is more important than getting it right by the standards or imaginary others (or your family). I wish I had done this. Instead, when it looked like I wasn't doing so hot by objective standards I decided I was hopeless and dropped out -- of school, of friendships, almost out of the world.

I hope you will keep talking, to us and to everyone.
posted by hermitosis at 9:55 AM on August 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

Normally I fully believe in keeping things going when depressed so that you have a motivation in general but in your case, I wonder if you've considered the possibility of taking a term off.

Have you thought about just working for a little while? It might take the pressure off of things and let you decide what you want to do later on in life. You don't mention in your post what your long term goals are except being the first to finish college. Well, when you do, what will you do afterwards? Have you considered the possibility that you are tanking college so that it delays making the decision of what to do next? If you took a term or two off you could ease up on the accelerator without any academic penalty to pay for afterwards.

The one thing in your post that popped out the most was sleeping 12 to 16 hours a day. If that's still happening you should talk to a doctor about that.

Good luck.
posted by fantasticninety at 10:08 AM on August 28, 2010

The Australian Department of Health have some excellent free self-study materials on Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy techniques for dealing with depression and social anxiety (among other things). They have been a great help to me, I think they are certainly worth looking into.

I hope it helps, and wish you strength, wisdom and luck.
posted by IndenturedSavant at 10:29 AM on August 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

I feel very strongly that your suffering is inevitable at this time in your life because of your childhood. No person can live through the loss of both parents, as you must have before you went into foster care, without getting a little banged up. It sounds like you are doing an outstanding job. I think you need a therapist who will help you with the psychological issues you are dealing with. I think medication will not be as important as a good talk therapist who will see that your depression and anxiety are coming from old injuries and childhood trauma. I found a great therapist through NYUs Psychoanalytic Institute. You fill out an application where you tell your story and they connect you with someone suitable to you. I've been working with a counselor from there for about a year and am making better progress than ever before. I wish had found them when I was your age. When I was your age I dropped out of college completely due to lack of support from my parents. I have since finished undergrad and graduate school on my own. I took an anti-anxiety and anti-drpressant medication for years. I find that time of my life to be hazy in my memory. I cannot remember things vividly from that time. I really do not recommend meds for someone like you who has clearly experienced trauma at a young age. You need talk therapy. You need someone you can trust who you can talk to maybe a couple of times a week.

It sounds like your adoptive parents are generous people, but I do not understand why any mother would not want her daughter to go to college and become the best person she can possibly become. Everyone deserves someone in their life, ideally a parent, who wants really good things for them. You have been acting as this person for yourself; that's what it sounds like to me. And you're a little worn out by it. Who wouldn't be? But you're doing an amazing job, against the odds. Please get back on the track you so beautifully laid for yourself at the university -- do your work, honor yourself, find a good and empathetic therapist, eat well.
posted by turtlewithoutashell at 11:51 AM on August 28, 2010

Yeah, it sounds like you survived an extremely traumatic childhood (though it probably never seemed like that to you because it was just normal for you) and often, when that happens, people freak out a little when they begin to feel safe. I definitely recommend therapy as well-- but make sure you see someone who really knows what they are doing with regard to trauma because harm can be done by therapists who force you to try to deal with stuff when you aren't ready. If you feel safe and comfortable with someone, that's most important.

Given the complexity of your story, seeing someone affiliated with a university who studies trauma might be a good idea. Columbia/ New York State Psychiatric has a sliding scale service -- and some of the leading experts in the field are there. Rachel Yehuda, who is also a major expert on trauma, is at Mt. Sinai-- don't know about their clinical services, but might be worth checking out.

I disagree with turtle on meds-- for people with complex trauma issues, they can be helpful, too. Basically, in some cases, both are needed and both work together better than either alone. Do agree that meds alone probably don't make sense, though.

You should give yourself serious props for having made it to where you are and don't feel bad about seeking help-- it's not doing so when it's needed that really reflects weakness, not seeking it. And you will learn lots that will help you in general-- particularly in being a good friend when you get back in touch with your friends. Friends will be a key part of your recovery, too-- you are right be be psyched to get back in touch with them.

You never got a chance to do the "normal" rebellious teen stuff or to take time to just have fun-- it's hardly surprising that you partied a bit. Don't pathologize yourself-- just get the help you need for the depression and get back to school. And, as others have said, if you need to take a little time off, that's not the worst thing in the world either. It doesn't mean you're a failure or that you won't complete school or succeed in life.
posted by Maias at 1:18 PM on August 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

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