Why I'm Finally Talking About the Hardest Thing I Ever Had to Do in College
My freshman year, I co-founded and led a student organization. Sophomore year, I wrote a column for our student paper, The Daily Orange. I’ve held various editing positions at a student-run magazine. My grades are OK. My social life is great.
Last semester, I started going to the counseling center.
I separate that sentence for dramatic emphasis not because I consider it different or less than everything else I’ve accomplished at Syracuse University. In fact, it may have been the hardest thing I’ve done.
I’m nervous to tell you all about this for a couple of reasons.
The first reason, ironically, relates to why I needed counseling in the first place. I didn’t think I deserved it. I was never anxious “enough.” Never depressed “enough.” Never sure what qualified as “panicky” and what qualified as a panic attack. There was this weird satisfaction that came with toughening it out, quantifying my mental state and measuring it up to others’. I’m able to do this, so therefore I don’t need help. I thought this, but didn’t do this, so therefore this isn’t bad enough. In a sick way it made me feel martyr-like — like suffering in silence was a reflection of strength. Every tragedy I was spared from was a reason I didn’t deserve help. Every tragedy I experienced was deeply internalized, saved for later.
And I wasn’t happy. First it was for a few days. Then it was for a few weeks. Then I was so good at faking it, so good at functioning, burying myself in work, putting off emotionally dealing with a breakup, putting off emotionally dealing with family issues, that it was too much.
Eventually, a friend I had opened up to physically dragged me to the counseling center. He talked me through the initial phone call. Walked me through the front door. Waited with me until my name was called. I nervously clawed at his shoes, refused to seriously fill out any forms, until finally I was in and started talking and couldn’t stop.
Getting an hour of time every week to not work on working but to work on myself was freeing. It didn’t make my problems go away but instead let them exist in a space that wasn’t my chest. It verified that what I was feeling was legitimate. That I was allowed to have feelings and allowed to feel pain.
I’m nervous to tell you about this because I don’t want to appear weak. I don’t want you to think I’m being dramatic. I’m afraid you’ll follow the same line of thinking as I do: There’s always someone worse. You just want to complain. There’s always someone worse off. You’re lucky, you’re so, so lucky.
I am lucky. There are people who have it worse. But something I’ve had to learn is that being privileged and needing help aren’t mutually exclusive elements in my life. Just because I’m blessed in many, many ways doesn’t mean that I have to accept an unhappy head.
I stopped going to counseling this semester, but there are moments when I wish I had kept my appointment. I’m having a hard time getting myself back there, but I know it’s an option — that it exists if I need it. Next time I go, though, I don’t want to tell my roommates I’m going to the gym. I don’t want to talk about mental health as an advocate while ignoring my own.
If you need it — even if you want to try it — you deserve this kind of help, too. In college, there’s a culture of acceptance around being sleep-deprived, stressed and unhappy. There’s a misconception that asking for help is a form of surrendering, proof that you can’t handle a fast-paced world. In fact, it’s the opposite —it’s a form of taking control. For me, it was harder to be honest with friends about how I was feeling. It was harder to admit I needed some help, but I feel a little healthier because of it. Although it’s not for everyone, the counseling center is on campus for a reason.
Is the counseling center on your campus working for you? Are there things you want to change? Because if we continue to hide our struggles from each other we will never receive the mental health care we deserve. There’s no way to make progress within ourselves and on a college campus if we’re all too afraid to speak up.
This post originally appeared on Syracuse University’s Active Minds blog.