Are You the ‘Troubled Roommate’ at College? I Was.
Recently, I read “When A College Student Has a Troubled Roommate” in the New York Times with eerie recognition. The article offers advice to parents of college students “living with someone who has significant psychological difficulties.” The tips mostly focus on helping the student manage boundaries and prompt the troubled roommate to seek campus resources. Many of the suggestions are helpful in some situations, such as assessing safety and navigating supports available at the university. As I was reading, I imagined the parents of my college roommates consulting the article 14 years ago. Did they try to strategize over how to deal with the deeply depressed 18-year-old they believed their child had been saddled with?
I dropped out of college twice my first year. I’m embarrassed that it recently took me days of concentration to remember my first roommate’s name. Even now, confronted at a party by somebody who met me that fall, I say, “I don’t remember that time very well. I was really out of it.” I stumbled around campus in a daze of depression, mystified by my sudden habit of making uncontrollable retching noises in bed every morning.
It was probably unpleasant to listen to. I’m sure this roommate, and the next roommate for my second attempt at college, hoped to be paired with somebody less reclusive, somebody who smiled more and easily introduced herself to our dorm neighbors. I was disappointed I wasn’t this person, too. I wonder if my roommates worried about me when I disappeared for hours at a time, crossing a frozen lake high on a manic spree. I wonder if they could tell that I was lying when I said I was fine.
I read the article’s comments section with mixed feelings. Readers reflect on their own experiences, or the experiences of people close to them, with roommates living with mental illness. I agree that my mental health shouldn’t be my roommate’s responsibility. I deeply regret if my behavior put people in challenging situations. But reading the comments section felt like overhearing people talking about me in a bathroom, saying what they really believed. I was a burden. I made people uncomfortable and unhappy.
I left both campuses after a few weeks, mandated by the first university for my suicidal thoughts. My parents took me out of the second college after I had a psychotic break. I spent the rest of the year living with my parents, staying in two psychiatric hospitals at different points. I returned to school the next summer with a diagnosis and new medication. As the article recommends, getting connected with professional psychological supports, on-campus and off, helped me become more functional.
Although I was much more stable, it would be a decade, many doctors, several hospital stays, and a roster of different pills before dark depressive and manic episodes wouldn’t regularly overthrow my life. I continued being the troubled roommate throughout my years in college, alternating between spells of bedridden despair and sleepless enthusiasm.
I’m still in touch with all of my long-term college roommates, minus the first year’s failed attempts of a few weeks. We’ve kept varying levels of closeness, but I think, for all of them, we wouldn’t bullshit each other if we caught up over dinner.
If I asked my roommates whether I was a burden in college, I know they’d deny it… to my face, at least. Because they became my friends, and we took turns playing DJ while studying and waited for each other to head over to the dining hall or party. “What about when you took me to the emergency room?” I might ask them. “Stayed with me into the night, sat next to me while the doctors asked me why I needed to go into the psych ward. I know you had a paper due. I know you had to email your professor.” Should my roommates’ parents have told them to hold firm boundaries, then?
I don’t know.
I’m not sure if the hassle and stress were worth it for them. I hope it was.
When these roommates who took me to the ER gave their bridesmaid speeches at my wedding, they all cried. I didn’t cry. I laughed, because I was happy that I had good friends who’d extended generosity to me over and over when I lived with them. Who knows why we earn the grace of our friends. My life would be worse without it.
Photo by Shwa Hall on Unsplash