As of May 9th, 2012, I officially finished my first year of college. As of May 10th, 2012, I no longer felt the crushing weight of depression. As of writing those two sentences, I realize I never quite know how to delve into serious topics, but rather waddle around them like a penguin who suppresses her emotions.
There are many ways to feel sad, or unhappy, or melancholy, or utterly depressed. They are all valid and should never be ignored. The “depression” I believe I felt may be totally unique to me, or you may completely identify. I want to tell you how I felt, but I hope my advice can be applied across the spectrum of sadness, frustration, and the all-around feeling of pure butt.
The college I go to is located in Southern California, and there is a heavy emphasis on Greek life. Freshman year, I lived in a traditional dorm, on a coed floor separated into stretches of boys’ or girls’ rooms. I had a roommate I had never met before, who stayed up late into the night on Skype or on the phone. None of this I minded. Or, really, I complained about all of it to avoid what was really unsettling me.
I have to come to realize that dorm life was not for me. It was damaging to me, mentally and emotionally. Having people to hang out with all the time, right outside my door, was like a siren song. I can’t avoid trying to hang out with people, EVEN WHEN I WANT TO BE ALONE. And I, personally, need to be alone. A lot. To decompress, recharge, regroup—whatever the right word is, I need it. I also love to cook and bake and go to the grocery store and run errands—all of which are not that easy when you live in a dorm room.
Plus, I had to use a public stall every time I peed. A very dehumanizing process.
All of this, plus the stress of school and trying to work, along with an ongoing struggle with insomnia, led to what I believe was a case of depression. Full disclosure: I never saw anyone about this, so it is not a professional diagnosis. But having lived with this sack of blood and bones for 18 years, I knew something was very, very wrong. Even if I hadn’t gotten to know my body pretty well by then, I’d consider sleeping every day until three then using heavy doses of stimulants to get through daily activities to be, frankly, not good.
When I first observed this change in my mood and behavior, I thought about seeking help. And I should have done so. Let me just say: if you are feeling depressed and think you might want to talk to someone about it—go for it! There is no shame in seeing a therapist. It does not make you narcissistic. It does not make you whiny. It does not mean you are weak. It does not make you “ugh, one of THOSE people,” or someone who shouldn’t take time and medicine away from some hypothetical person who might “need it more.” You don’t need to “get over it” because it’s “really not that bad.” (I thought all of these things.) Seeking help shows the kind of strength, self-sufficiency (you know that taking care of yourself means knowing when you need help), and courage that I could never seem to muster, even though I wanted to so badly. I’m not saying that you’re weak if you avoid therapy; I am saying that my reasons for avoiding it (“I don’t want to detract from people with ‘real’ problems”; “I don’t want to make a scene over ‘nothing’”) were stupid. My brain probably came up with those excuses because I just wasn’t ready to get professional help to deal with my (real) problems. I think a lot of people are in this position—you know there’s a problem, but you’re not ready to deal with it yet. So, while the tricks I’m about to teach you are really for people with the kinds of sadness and anxiety that everyone feels from time to time, not the kind that really needs medication to keep in check—it’s also good to have some tools to help you until you, personally, are ready to talk to someone about what’s going on.
One more caveat: none of this is a replacement for some of the other things that are crucial to every living being’s ability to get through stressful times. Those things being other people (friends/family), eating well, exercise, finding what gives you joy and doing that thing. Please find a way to include all of these things in your life. Especially if you are someone prone to sadness. These things help keep you above the murky waters.
Now that we’ve got the basics covered, there is one more thing I’d like to add to your anti-bummer arsenal: the “happy places.” Plural because you need both mental AND corporeal (I learned that word from Harry Potter!) happy places where you can retreat when things are just too much.
Guidelines for a good happy place:
This can be tricky, depending on the type of person you are. For me, being around people is at once very exciting and very draining. Therefore I knew I had to find somewhere to retreat to that would be empty most of the time. On my campus stands a place called the “Little Chapel of Silence.” It’s a one-room church with about 12 pews and a tiny altar. There are a couple of beautiful stained-glass windows on either side and a magnificent carved-wood ceiling I could stare at for hours. I frequented it at night, around midnight or 1 AM, when I couldn’t sleep, so I always had it to myself.
It was refreshing to be completely alone, with just my iPod or just my thoughts. I always gave myself a time limit (“I will stay here for AT LEAST 20 minutes”) that I increased over time, to force myself to glean the benefits I get from spending some time with just Shelby.
If it seems daunting to be completely alone with your thoughts, start small. Find a place that is filled with people but where you will not be bothered, such as a quiet floor of a library, or small coffee shop. Personally, I’m very pale and cannot sit outside for long periods of time. However, if the outdoors refresh you, find a nice park bench or tucked-away fountain where you can watch people come and go, but feel no pressure to insert yourself into any activity.
I believe the most important factor is that your happy place is YOURS—don’t invite a friend to the coffee shop or library or beautiful little garden during YOUR time. I’ve had some great talks with people in my Little Chapel, and I’ve loved letting them in on my quiet place. But the time spent with someone else didn’t act as a substitute for my own alone time. When I needed to be alone, I made sure I was.