Skipping Class: When You Fail at Mental Health, You Can’t Pass Class

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When I transferred to Florida State University from a community college in Orlando, Florida, I felt akin to the many students leaving the nest for the first time. I had spent my first two years of college surrounded by my family and alongside friends I’d known for years. I’d never been to Tallahassee and didn’t know anyone, but that nervousness couldn’t hold a candle to my excitement. I felt ready for new experiences and eager to be on my own. In my head, I was going to leave Orlando for a while, complete my time at the university with minimal drawbacks and come back flawless and victorious. I would hold the title of first in my family to get a degree.

No one prepared me for the stress that the next few years had in store.

The first couple months went quickly. I met people, attended a few parties, and got accustomed to classes—all average stuff. Then, in a single week, I took a zero on an essay I forgot to write and bombed a test. Those two things, paired with my noticing old friends failing out of school on social media, pushed me over the edge. I felt scared as hell.

The work at the university turned out harder than the general courses I’d taken in community college. There was no way I could keep making these kinds of mistakes and still make it out alive. I needed my family to see me succeed. I didn’t want to become a stereotype or statistic—to become an African American dropout. At the time, my burst of motivation felt right. The bad part: I took it to an unhealthy height. I stopped going out and neglected to put time into making friends. Any friends I had started to make, I slowly lost contact with. I forgot about plans I’d been forming to join a sorority, and started beating myself up if I wasn’t working on something class related.

This all came to a head around my third semester after transferring. I woke up to a call from the university’s health and wellness center a couple hours before class. I’d paid a visit to the center the day before, and the nurse that had examined me told me through the phone as sensitively as possible that I might have lymphoma cancer. She paused. No doubt she was waiting for me to explode into emotion. When I didn’t respond, she slowly went on to explain that it was unlikely, but I should get a second opinion. I thanked her, we hung up and I got up to get ready for class.

It was strange—more than strange, it was insane—but immediately after the call, I just went through the motions of getting ready like it was any other day. My most panicked thought: I didn’t have time for this kind of thing when I had the due dates of two final projects coming up. By this point in my college career, I’d become really good at compartmentalizing and stomping down any emotions. It hadn’t even occurred to me that maybe I should slow down to think about what I’d just been told. Instead, I hurried to class, telling myself that I’d deal with it later.

In class, with the teacher slowly droning on, I did find it harder to pay attention than usual. I fidgeted. The realization slowly dawned on me while I was trying to pay attention to discussion, but I still tried to play it off and take notes. My phone rang for a second time, and I recognized the number as the school’s health center again. Answering as I walked out of class, this time I spoke to the doctor from the day before, and she informed me that she’d examined the x-rays again, and she felt pretty positive I did not have cancer. She apologized for what the nurse had told me. I forced a laugh, and we said goodbye.

Still feeling shaky despite the good news, I went back to class. And then to my next class. And my next. In the last class of the day, my professor explained that we were to make a portfolio of work that we’d done while in college to show off any experience we’d accumulated. We could then use our portfolios to search for internships. To my dismay, I hadn’t gathered very much experience in my future career field. With a quiet horror, I realized that most of the students around me had already at least dipped a toe in the water of their future careers.

After class, as everyone else rushed out, I asked the professor for pointers on what I might use to bulk up my cover letter and resume, and we sat down to brainstorm fluff to go into them. At once, and to his shock, I burst into tears. I couldn’t focus on the advice he steadily tried to give me. Mortification overtook me. My breakdown had nothing to do with what had happened with the assignment or any other assignments or finals I had coming up.

After a few minutes of trying not to hyperventilate, I finally explained to my professor a little of what had happened with my doctor, and he calmly told me about the university’s counseling center. If I hadn’t been so clearly unhinged, I might’ve scoffed at him. He wanted me to talk about my feelings? Absolutely not. And, as the doctor had said, I didn’t even have anything wrong with me. Except for the average finals mania, I should’ve felt okay. But, walking away from the classroom, I thought more about it. I was still fighting tears as I walked down the street to the bus stop, but I had hope I’d just get over it.

The whole way home on the university’s shuttle, I felt like a leaky faucet and still wondered why my distress persisted. I didn’t have time for this. I had projects to do. And, I had a mock script due at the end of the week and a presentation to put together for Monday. Not to mention I needed to get a head start on studying for a final. But the drama with the health center had ripped a seal off. Every piece of anxiety I’d clamped down on since coming to the university came bubbling up and tried to make its way out of me in sobs. I managed to keep it all together until I got into my room at home.

There I lost it. My thoughts swirled around the fact that I couldn’t think of even one person I could speak to honestly about anything. I also thought obsessively of not failing, which, besides the obvious irrationality, didn’t make sense. I wasn’t really in danger of failing anything. That night and the next day went on in the same way. I constantly felt myself only a few depressing thoughts away from breaking down it all over again. Whatever hole had opened up, I was having a hard time closing it again. The more I thought it over, the more I realized what I needed to do. I also knew I couldn’t wait much longer to get it done.

The next morning, I skipped class for the first time and went to the counseling center. The help I got there, just letting myself talk to someone, couldn’t have come at more crucial time. I only wish I had gone sooner.

Breanna Cummings is a senior at Florida State University working as a staff writer with College Magazine. As an aspiring book editor, she can be found reading or making forts out of piles of old rough drafts. In her free time, she likes watching old movies with family and cooking with friends.

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