I was that kid in your high school. You know, the one that coasted through classes, hardly studied for exams and took “You can’t start this paper the night before” to mean “Challenge accepted.”
You may be rolling your eyes now, but relax. I’m here to deliver that juicy bit of schadenfreude you expected when you opened this page. All of that ease, that self-assurance and lack of actual effort? It got tanked— hard— two weeks into my freshman year.
Going to college was a revelation in a lot of ways. I had a schedule that let me sleep past 8 a.m., new people to meet every single day and finally the opportunity to take all the English classes I wanted—even on a subject as bizarre as the role of monsters in medieval literature. I thought, despite my shaky knowledge of this new place, I knew what I wanted to do with my life, what I was here for, what I was. Sy first semester of my freshman year, I decided to be proactive and get some general education requirements over with. I took physics, statistics and my first English class, in hopes of completing the first step to absolutely killing it in my major.
It was, in short, an unmitigated disaster. I’d taken Physics 101 thinking, “Whatever. I took this last year, I know it.” Except the whole thing was calculus-based and the only calculus I actually knew was the derivative equations they covered as “review” on the very first day. I quickly realized I was in some deep shit. Statistics was just an extended nightmare, as math is the natural enemy of the wild English major.
But the English class was by far the worst. The first paper I received back was a mess of pen marks all over the page. “Your essays have a lot of maturing to do,” it said diplomatically above a neat little C. My terrified anxiety-ridden rabbit brain immediately translated that to, “You are a failure in your chosen field and you do not belong here.”
Maybe I was being dramatic—Cs get degrees, after all. But at my core, I am a high-strung overachiever who’d never received so little as a B in her life. To me, this was failure, and failure was something so terrifying I couldn’t even look it in its blue ink. My anxiety wouldn’t let me forget it, either. Every time I sat in class, I cringed under the teacher’s gaze thinking, she knows…. she knows I’m not good enough. I felt like an imposter. My stress and self-hatred were overwhelming, to the point where I could only curl up in bed while my mind ran in self-recriminating hamster wheels. Like it did during my ill-fated attempts at sports and drawing, my brain dismayed of my body’s rebellion, becoming even more anxious when it remembered the work I still had that I couldn’t make myself do. Rinse. Repeat.
I lost three months of my freshman year to this. I showed up to class and handed in my work, but not much else. My brain only had the energy to follow a schedule. I stopped going out and barely glanced at the emails for the clubs I’d signed up for at the beginning of the year. I missed a lot of meals. Like, a lot. And even though I spent most of the day in bed, I couldn’t sleep more than four or five hours a night. I felt miserable, tired and then numb.
I wish I could tell you that a ray of light broke through the fog, or some other visually-precise metaphor, but there really wasn’t. Thankfully, I was lucky I eventually bounced back. But the root cause, my own anxiety, is not something that just went away. Instead, I had to learn to manage it. I had to learn what I could handle and when to step away. I’m still working on that.
College isn’t the same as high school, and my involuntary check-out messed up a lot of plans. It could have ruined even more if things had been a little different. But, I’m still going, and I’m all right. I made friends, joined clubs and experienced being 4 a.m. drunk at Wawa on a Friday morning—arguably the best part of the college experience. I took classes that I loved, or learned to love. Beyond that, I even got to study abroad in Spain. I dragged my GPA back up— kicking and screaming. Sometimes, I’m the living embodiment of the dog on fire meme, but most of the time I’m actually doing fine.
“I’m surviving,” I joke to my mom on the phone, three years later. She doesn’t know just how bad that semester was my freshman year, but she knows enough.
“No,” she says. “You’re thriving.”