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I am in my first year of college and really struggling. I feel sad a lot and overwhelmed with the insane demands of classes. Also, I’ve been skipping classes, drinking more than I probably should, and, to be honest, I’ve even had some times when I’ve thought about dying. I told two of my really close friends all of this and they basically made me go see a counselor that’s provided by the school. I went, and she mentioned that I may be struggling with depression. I just hate the label and I hate the idea of taking medicine for the rest of my life just to be “normal.” Is it possible to get back to normal?
My dear friend. I’m really sorry you’re having such a difficult time. In the space between your words, I can feel the desperation for things to be just a little easier. Because what you’re experiencing now is not what college is supposed to be about. It’s supposed to be freedom and friends and learning and wonderful irresponsibly. Oh how I long and pray for this to be what it’s like for you—soon.
For now though, we should talk about the way things are and what can be done. Yes, there are things you can do (or keep doing) that will ease the pain and slowly walk you out of the woods. Have hope—you can (and will) get through this!
Allow me to give you, and anyone else who has Googled upon this article, some helpful next steps:
1. Acknowledge Reality
Things are hard for you right now. And I’m not talking about the clouds that are casting shadows of sadness on your life. I’m talking about your actual, normal life—the life of a freshman in college who is all at once managing a massive portfolio of academic, social and personal stress. Even for someone who has zero hint of depression, college is a serious learning curve.
Now why do I share this with you? Because I want you to know that everything you’re walking through isn’t because you’ve got some “condition.” It’s hard because it’s hard. And I’ve found in my time counseling people that sometimes giving someone permission to acknowledge that yes, the depression sucks—but also, it’s not everything!
College is genuinely stressful, especially for a freshman. And while you may feel like you’re just a big head case swirling in the throes of sadness, you’re really not. You’re more normal than you may feel. Yes, the depression is real, and I don’t want to undervalue it. But also, I hope you’ll take some comfort in the realization that it isn’t everything, and the current season really is challenging.
2. Face Outward
When I read your question for the first time, I got very nervous (a few times, actually). The first time was during your opening sentences when you, very bravely, shared the symptoms of your depression (self-medication/drinking, shirking responsibilities, thoughts of self-harm). And while I was reading this, I just kept thinking to myself, “Oh no, please don’t let this be the first time Freshman has said these things out loud.”
And lo and behold, you talked to your friends—which is huge! I mean, this little list I’m putting together isn’t ordered in terms of importance, but I have a hard time thinking of anything more important that telling people you trust everything that’s happening. I’ve written previously on suicide and depression, and specifically the critical importance of a strong support system. But the long and short of it is that the more you feel, the more you should tell.
If it’s a particularly dark night for you and the sadness is stronger than you can (or want) to manage, call someone, anyone. They may not have all the answers, but they can jump in the hole and be with you as the storm passes.
Facing the world and asking for help is hard, but it’s critical. Please reject the urge to go inward and force yourself share this burden with those who love you.
3. Counseling, Counseling, Counseling
Jamie Tworkowski, who is the founder of To Write Love on Her Arms (an incredible movement that has saved countless lives) was asked recently on Twitter how to handle the intensity of anxiety and depression. And, like he often does, he gave this advice:
Simple, right? I mean, counselling itself can be a hard process. But so often, we forget that we don’t have to fix our own junk—we can access trained, helpful professionals to guide us out of the pain and into health. These people aren’t magicians. But they’re smart, consistent and they’ve seen dozens (if not hundreds) of people just like you and me whose lives are no longer defined by depression.
So keep going to counseling and talking through all of this. Then, when you feel like you’re done, make another 10 appointments. Then, when you’re sure you’re all done and the depression has lifted, schedule out a monthly appointment for a year (or more). Basically, never stop going. Because if you have depression on any level, from mild and infrequent to acute and diagnosable, the tools you’ll receive from a counselor to manage the pain will be invaluable.
4. Reject The Label
One last thing: You are not depressed. You are “Freshman,” and you have depression. You also have: love, humor, compassion, creativity, friendship, loyalty, bravery, insight, intelligence, wisdom, winsomeness and determination—just to name a few.
Friend, no matter what this road looks like for you, and no matter how bad it gets, you must remember that depression does not make you abnormal. Anymore than taking medication to turn the noise down will make you any more normal. There is no “normal,” there is only you. And you are exactly who God designed you to be.
I’m not sure if you believe in God, so I don’t want to shoehorn my agenda into your answer, but I will say that there was no way that you, me and the other 19 million Americans who suffer some form of depression were mistakes. We are simply people who are complex and whose personalities are affected by both the beautiful and the difficult.
You are not a depressed person. You are a wonderful person, and the depression will take its proper place in the back burner of your life, as long as you keep doing the right things and bravely putting one foot in front of the other.
Have a question? Good! Send an email to [email protected]. All identifying information will be kept anonymous.
Eddie Kaufholz is a writer, speaker and podcaster and serves as a director of church mobilization for International Justice Mission. He also hosts and produces "The New Activist" podcast. You can find on Twitter @EdwardorEddie.