I’ve been debating writing about this experience (a huge part of my life) for over a year and a half.
Since August 2014, I’ve written draft after draft and each time I convinced myself it wasn’t meant for the public eye. Now I see that it has just been my fear getting in the way of my truth. I’m ready to tell my story, I don’t care who sees.
Two years ago on this day there was a breaking point, fueled by the catalyst of college, that I consider the lowest point in my 21 years of living.
To be honest I’m not sure where to or how to start. There are so many things I want to say, but the first one is a quote. I think it best explains why I’m writing what I’m writing today.
Maya Angelou is 100% right. This story has gnawed away at me in ways both good and bad. Part of it haunts me as the hardest months of my life and reminds me of things I almost wish I could forget.
But if I forgot about my freshman year Fall and Winter quarters, I wouldn’t have the bevy of knowledge that I do, I wouldn’t have experienced immense self-growth, and I wouldn’t be who I am now.
It all started in my first journalism class, JOUR 203. This is the class that almost all journalism freshmen take their first quarter at Cal Poly. It consists of writing stories about news on Cal Poly’s campus. Sounds simple right?
That’s what I thought, too.
On day one of class my professor, Doctor Loving, told us that not everyone would pass the class. He said it was a rigorous, demanding course and that, “every quarter there are a few students who do not pass.”
I’m not kidding you, I laughed. My high school academic record boasted mostly A’s with a few B’s thrown in. B’s that I (literally) cried about when I received them because even SLIGHT imperfection had never been in my vocabulary.
And this was not something instilled in me by my parents. For as long as I can remember (about 4th grade) I have been 10x harder on myself and expected more from myself than anyone else.
I’m talking first place, team captain, teacher’s favorite, A+ standards. Standards that I inherently felt the need to measure up to. Immense pressure that I, and I alone, put on myself.
Accomplishments became a part of my identity, which I always thought was a good thing up until it came shattering apart… but I’m getting to that later.
Doctor Loving’s warning and JOUR 203 did not scare me because at the time, the idea of failure was genuinely humorous.
A week later we were assigned “beats.” If you’re confused what that means, here’s Wikipedia’s definition:
“Beat reporting, also known as specialized reporting, is a genre of journalism that can be described as the craft of in-depth reporting on a particular issue, sector, organization or institution over time.”
Each student had a major assigned to them and that was their beat and lucky me got Aerospace Engineering. I was not stoked.
Doctor Loving explained the story process to our class… research your beat, find a story idea, do research, pitch story idea to him. IF he likes it then go choose three potential sources and write out 20 questions that you would ask your primary source, get those questions checked. IF they are approved then start scheduling interviews, do all of the interviews, write first draft, go on “the walk” with him and discuss your story angle and the information. IF he says no information is missing and you don’t need to conduct more interviews then he edits your draft, then you go back and redraft, meet with him again and again and draft and redraft until he determines that your article is publication-ready, but know that publication-ready does NOT equal an A.
Yeah. We were told we’d have to do five of these.
This is about the time I started sh*tting myself.
For the first time in my entire life I felt a genuine, scared nervousness that brought me physical discomfort and essentially froze my confidence and motivation in its tracks. The entire thing seemed impossible and my fear didn’t wake me up, it shut me down.
While all this was going on I was also going through sorority recruitment, running for dorm Hall Council, adjusting to dorm/college life, experiencing major homesickness, and dealing with my other three classes and the Honors Program.
I told myself I would get to the first story soon.
Week two came and went with me avoiding the AERO building and any work related to the stories. I did the rest of the required class readings and pop quizzes and did well, but the stories still loomed over me like suffocating fog that followed me everywhere.
Week three passed and I had done nothing but think about the possibility of me trying and horribly, horribly failing to get an A in the class. Somehow it made more sense to cower and hide than to face it.
Week four is when I started to hate myself for being so afraid.
This was not me. So, Week 5, I used every bit of courage and confidence I could manage to step up to the plate and try.
But I was scared. And I hated how different it was from high school. Why the hell couldn’t I approach this with ease? Why wasn’t I succeeding immediately?
I was so discouraged, so behind. I was facing the biggest mental block of my life. My emotions were all over the place. Things weren’t looking good for me, but, somehow, I stayed convinced I could make it. I had to.
This is when the compulsive all-nighters began.
By Week 6 I still had not completed my first story. I felt as if I was stuck, sinking in quicksand, while I watched the person I used to be disappear. My sense of self and entire perception of who I was had shifted. I was a mess.
I went home for Thanksgiving Break feeling hopeless, depressed, and worthless. I slowly drowned myself in a whirlpool of my negative, self-depricating thoughts. I eventually told my parents everything I was feeling and sobbed for hours on end. They helped me write out an email explaining to Doctor Loving why I needed to withdrawal from the class.
At the time, writing that email was the most embarrassing, painful, and difficult thing I had ever done. I thought I had hit rock bottom… but really, it was just beginning.
Break ended. I was back at Poly and feeling shitty about myself, but had a small tinge of hope that it might get better without 203 hanging over my head. When I visited Doctor Loving’s office to thank him for granting my withdrawal in person, he gave me one of the best pep talks of reassurance I have ever gotten.
I wanted nothing more than to one day prove to him that I was capable.
Unfortunately, the weeks and weeks of constant stress, crying, all-nighters, going out, freshman dorm germs, etc. got to my body and I started to feel the repercussions of my choices.
Next thing I knew I was sleeping for 16 hours at a time during the week before finals.
This, my friends, was when the mono started to set in.
I’ll let Web MD fill you in, just in case you’ve never heard of this virus from hell that was a big part in ruining my life for 3 months and my immune system for, well, honestly up to this present day. I still have an impaired immune system and get sick very easily.
“The most common symptoms of mono are a high fever, a severe sore throat, swollen lymph nodes and tonsils, and weakness and fatigue.”
Sounds fun, right? Well, I managed to survive finals and make it back home for Winter break. I felt fine my first day back and thought, “maybe it was just a stress cold or something?”
No. That first day back was just a fluke of a seemingly healthy day before I was bed-ridden for two weeks and started to fall deeper into the illness and into my own thoughts, which were dark and sad at the time after everything Fall Quarter put me through.
After two weeks of what felt like mono + strep + chronic fatigue + the flu + eternal loneliness, I pulled myself together for a pretty good Christmas. It is notable, given where this story goes later, that I started taking new birth control pills at this time. Anyways, I started to regain my physical health and was able to go back to Cal Poly for Winter Quarter.
The days when good blood work results brought me the most joy.
First class of the quarter? Monday. 8am. JOUR 203.
I was shaking on the first day when I walked in, but I had my best friend in the dorms taking the class with me and that provided a small sense of comfort. Still, I was feeling something I had never felt before in my life.
During my three weeks of laying in bed, I was so physically sick and mentally and emotionally unwell, that I had a lot of time to dwell on my failure and academic insecurities. When I returned to 203 I found myself, once again, unable to approach the class or any of my coursework without experiencing immense anxiety.
The type that you can feel in every inch of your skin, the type that lights your gut on fire. It’s the lump in your throat and your mind racing and chest pounding all at once.
It took the form of long, drawn-out anxiety attacks before, during, and after class that made me question if anything else would ever make my heart beat that fast again. It even occasionally took the form of panic attacks that snuck up on me without warning and caused me to have to leave the classroom or my dorm room at any given moment.
That tangible reality was failure, no matter how many people tried to convince me that “withdrawal is not synonymous with failing.”
Still, I tried to force myself to start researching my new beat, Kinesiology, which I was grateful for because it seemed easier to grasp that Aerospace Engineering. I managed to find a few story ideas, but couldn’t make it past that. The idea of interviewing people and then the dreaded drafting process left me paralyzed.
Two or three weeks passed and I realized that I was doing the exact. same. thing. as last quarter… letting my fear control me. Only this time, it had my anxiety by its side, too. Together, they dictated every move I made, or rather, the moves I wasn’t making.
The only bright side was that I was feeling better physically. I was so happy to have some of my health back that I took advantage of it around the time of my birthday (Jan. 21st) and started going out and partying again on the weekends.
Around this time I noticed that I was a lot moodier than usual, more sensitive, and had a harder time enjoying myself, but I chalked it up to recovering from everything I went through mentally and emotionally over the past months.
I figured it would subside. After all, it felt so good to be social after what felt like an eternity of solitude over break. In hindsight this was such a poor decision. More super late nights AND activities that inhibit your immune system from doing it’s job?? While recovering from mono?!
Clearly, my decision-making skills were severely underdeveloped.
And old habits die hard.
But things started to look up, too. Early in the first week of February I actually conducted one interview for a story! It seems so insignificant, but at the time it was the most important and brave thing I had done in months.
I mean, it legitimately took me half an hour of pacing back and forth in front of the KINE Department and calling my mom to overcome my debilitating nerves and go find my source.
When I finished the interview and left the building the first thing I did was cry tears of joy. Everybody outside of Campus Market was staring at me, but I didn’t even care. I felt strong for the first time since September. I had hope.
The funny thing about getting sick though, is that sometimes it just waits until that moment when you’ve almost gotten your life back on track a little bit, then it strikes.
This applies to physical, mental, and emotional sickness.
The moodiness, sadness, and sensitivity I began feeling in late January had been getting worse. A few days after my interview success, I started to really feel like I was falling into a depression and, once again, stumbling back into the illness that drove me nearly insane only a month and a half earlier.
But the idea of having mono again was too much to handle. I panicked. I pushed it out of my mind. I kept dancing. I volunteered. I forced it out of my head. I pretended I was fine. I acted 99% of my day. I went out. I went to meetings. I even went to class, most of the time, but the whole time I felt like a ghost watching my body go through life from the outside.
This is where the tipping point came about.
A guy asked me to be his valentine and accompany him to a Valentines Day party. I said yes, because I had myself convinced that I was okay.
Even though I’d been consistently coughing all day, crying all night, and failing at making any progress in 203 all over again.
The night came, I got dressed up, took as much Ibuprofen as the bottle directions allowed, we went to the party, and I went home to my dorm room at the end of the night and fell asleep.
(WARNING: Graphic) I woke up from not being able to breathe. I was choking on the phlegm in my throat, coughing so hard that I spit up a little blood. My entire face and head felt heavy. I could not inhale or exhale without feeling the stickiness of my lungs and pain in my torn-up throat. I felt like my neck was swelling. I couldn’t go more than five minutes without needing to cough up into a tissue. My trash can was overflowing. And I was alone.
My roommate was out of town for the three day weekend. So was my best friend in the dorms. So was my RA. I didn’t trust anyone else to see me like this. I didn’t want anyone else to see me in such a disgusting and vulnerable state.
Once again, here I was sick and alone. Just like mono.
That’s when I finally stopped pretending. I admitted to myself how unwell I was. And I broke down. I opened a tub of mint chocolate chip ice cream, hoping its coldness would numb my throat and the softness wouldn’t hurt it, and also partially hoping that my favorite dessert would make me feel even a tiny bit better.
It didn’t. I put it away. I cried. I tried to sleep. I couldn’t. Too much coughing. Too much pain. I cried more. The crying made me cough more, which made me cry more. I bawled into my pillow and screeched from the pain in my throat. I was so embarrassed of myself and so ashamed.
I asked myself, “How the hell is this what you’ve become? You’re alone and in bed and crying. And pathetic. You’re sick again because you’re stupid. This is you’re fault. And you’re going to fail again. You’re never going to stop this cycle.”
I laid in bed for the rest of the day, wrestling with my depressive thoughts. Hours passed and I grappled with this new self, deliriously accepting my new identity– a girl full of misery, guilt, and failed attempts at almost everything. I was convinced I would drop out in the middle of the quarter. Maybe not come back at all. Clearly, I wasn’t ready for college. I needed to leave.
Every part of my being wanted to call my mom or my dad and say, “Please. Please come drive down to SLO. I need you to help me. I’m really not doing well and I can’t make it better. I don’t know what to do. Please come help me.”
But I was too ashamed and felt guilty for becoming this person who had to resort to that. I dialed so many times. I couldn’t call. I physically, mentally, and emotionally could not bring myself to call my parents and tell them what was happening. Too hard. Too humiliating.
Eventually, night time came around and I started feeling even worse. I felt like the world was getting smaller around me, like nothing existed outside of a circumference of a few feet of my body. It was dark outside. I felt dark inside. I felt dark everywhere. I grew even more scared. I knew my cycle of negative thoughts would worsen at night.
I didn’t know what would happen. So, I used what little energy I had to pick up my phone one more time. I called one of my closest friends on this Earth, and the most rational person I know, David Cordero.
I told him everything I could manage.
I told him to call my parents and that I couldn’t. He told me he would. I told him I needed them to come down. He told me they would. I told him I was sorry and he told me he loved me and that I needed to sleep.
I hung up. I cried myself to sleep.
February 16th, 2013.
I woke up to my phone ringing. I already had a few missed calls– from the home phone and my mom’s phone. My mom was calling and I picked up. I remember her sounding so worried, but trying to sound so reassuring. She asked if I was okay and told me that my dad was already driving down and would be with me in a couple of hours and that she would be down later that night. I could barely speak because of my throat pain and because I was holding back tears.
Everything after that blurs together a little bit. It happened so fast and I was barely a conscious, functioning human for most of it.
I fell back asleep, woke up to my dad opening the door to my room, him helping me get dressed and pack a bag, him taking me to the emergency MED STOP, and finding out I had sinusitis, bronchitis, and an upper respiratory infection all at the same time. Getting a Z-pack, going to the hotel room in Avila Beach that my parents reserved only hours earlier, my mom arriving, telling them everything, slowly falling asleep, and them promising me that I could sleep in in the morning and that we would go sit on the beach and watch the waves. That was all I wanted. I fell asleep.
They woke me up at freaking 9:00am. Because they found a highly-reccommended therapist in San Luis Obispo who had an opening at 10:00 that morning. I was beyond myself. I had agreed to get help, but not today.
But they wanted to meet him, they didn’t want to wait, so they helped me get ready, we got in the car, and I drifted in and out of the car ride from Avila to downtown SLO.
My first meeting with Ben (name changed for his privacy) did not go well at first. Mostly because I could not speak, I kept coughing and crying, and I hated that he was the reason I had to be up so early in the midst of a mental breakdown. So, my parents sat with me and explained everything.
I was not impressed with Ben until he pointed out something that no one had thought of. Remember the birth control I started at the beginning of January? Yeah, one of its most common side effects, mood swings.
Not that “mood swings” even begins to cover what I went through, but the fact that he confirmed that it was heavily contributing to the feelings of depression was enough to change my opinion of him. I realized he was really weighing all the options and wanted to get to the bottom of how I ended up in this place and how we were all going to get me out of it.
I stopped taking the pills that day. I went back to the hotel with my parents for the rest of the afternoon where they took care of me and helped me write an email to acquire an “Incomplete” in 203. Incompletes are only allowed in situations where the student has legitimate physical or mental needs/issues/concerns that prevent them from completing the coursework on time. I had both. I was given a year to complete the remaining work for 203.
Then we talked in-depth about whether or not I should stay at Poly. Obviously, I did, but I went home the next weekend for more rest and returned the following Monday with a prescription for Prozac to help me cope with my anxiety. And I swear, this helped so, so much. It helped me stay in control and on top of everything without feeling overwhelmed. When the last of the birth control pills were out of my system it felt like the colors around me were brighter and the world wasn’t so harsh anymore. The difference was extremely noticeable. And I saw Ben once a week.
February 27th, 2013
I no longer felt the need to see Ben or take Prozac after completing my remaining coursework in 203 at the end of Winter Quarter of my sophomore year. I completed two stories (interviews, drafts, and all) and finished the class with a C after a year and a half. I was so freaking proud. I still am.
Since then my GPA has done nothing but rise and my confidence in myself in what I am capable of has done nothing but soar. It’s an incredible feeling when I look back on all of this.
There have been many times that I’ve told this story in person, to different people and for different reasons, all of which have led me to finally writing it down and posting it here.
I’m putting this story, one of my many, infinite stories, on my blog because I’m not ashamed anymore. And I’m not embarrassed. I am in a place in my life where I feel comfortable and willing to sharing this with anyone. Even strangers.
Because everyone deserves to know that their struggles are not singular. That there are people out there who understand and will be there for you. Maybe someone out there needs a reminder or a push. I hope this can be that reminder or push for them.
If you need help, seek it. If you went through a rough time, don’t assume people see you as damaged. You are allowed to share whatever you want with the world. Me, personally, I don’t feel damaged. I feel strong and open and free. Writing this has helped me become even more free and I would love for it to inspire others to seek furthered freedom, as well.
Maya Angelou was right. I feel better now.
* in order to find the tweets used in this post I archived my old (now non-existent) Twitter account that I used to use frequently and as an outlet for almost every emotional experience