My experience with anxiety and depression started in early childhood. A number of factors, from genetics to trauma, play into the development of issues like mine. No matter the cause, I struggled with my mental health for a long time, but it was never really disabling. I excelled all through grade school, graduated high school with a 4.0 GPA and in the fall of 2014, left home to pursue a vocal music degree at a small school in North Carolina.
I started college assuming everything would be just as easy.
But that’s not how things panned out. While other freshmen overcame the initial shock, I never fully adjusted. I had trouble making friends and I couldn’t sleep. I tried my best to be a good student but I frequently missed class and found it harder and harder to get out of bed. My grades at the time didn’t suffer too much, but I deeply lacked a sense of belonging and I felt increasingly lonelier and more anxious.
Then, in January of 2016, I transferred to the University of Kentucky. I wanted more academic options and a better voice program. So I applied elsewhere, got in and shipped myself off to Lexington. Shortly after arriving a snowstorm hit, basically shutting everyone inside for days. On top of that isolation, I didn’t know a single soul. Mentally and emotionally, my big move changed nothing. I felt in the months leading up that I was careening toward a breakdown, but it finally happened. Two weeks later I found myself on a voluntary two-day stint at the psych ward. I ended up filing for an emergency withdrawal before spring break and moving back home. In the summer, I lived with family in Florida and attended an outpatient therapy program until fall. It seemed promising. Afterward, I considered myself all patched up and ready to head back into the world.
I wanted to believe I was better.
I told my high school music teachers all about my progress in lessons, I tried being a more cheerful and sociable person. I also attempted to stay on top of eighteen credits and my first-ever job. I thought I could muscle my way through my intense self-consciousness and sadness. But the harder I tried, the worse everything got. All my time talking to therapist after therapist proved inadequate. I felt hopeless. Just like my freshman year, every week I skipped class, stayed home and hid my deterioration. Eventually I came to a decision I never wanted to make, but knew I needed to: I decided to take the whole upcoming year off.
I avoided taking a medical leave for so long because, on some level, I felt that I would seem weak or that I would never succeed if I couldn’t get a grip on things. Sometimes, people did make me feel that way. Some of the most frequent comments during that time were, “No matter what you do, go back and finish!” or “Just don’t let it turn into a five-year gap!” (Thanks for the vote of confidence, Karen.)
But I just couldn’t avoid it any longer.
I needed to spend the year learning the skills required for emotional wellbeing, skills I never devoted time to learning before. Over that year, I spent countless hours doing cognitive behavioral therapy worksheets and practicing mindfulness. But I also made the most of my time off, nestling myself into my community through UK Feminist Alliance meetings, feeding the hungry through Food Not Bombs, getting into local politics and working at a small coffee shop, all of which were as integral to my healing as therapy. I finished that year much healthier, with a much clearer picture of who I am.
Many students I talk to about my gap year congratulate me on taking the plunge and tell me that they want to take time off too – and then give me their reasons not to. Most are completely valid concerns, like how a leave might affect their scholarships. But I want you to know that if you truly need a break, it will be more than worth it. It’s not a sign of weakness or that you’ll never finish school and it shouldn’t seem a shameful thing to put yourself and your health first. You will emerge on the other side stronger and better prepared for all that college will bring.
I’m still in therapy, but these days, I’m doing much better. My GPA stands at a solid 3.3 and I’m set to graduate (finally!) in May. Though it’s been a long journey from start to finish, I am incredibly grateful for my time off. I don’t regret it one bit.