Dear Freshman Brittany,
Welcome to Cornell! You’re going to change so much over the next three years, and I’m legitimately so excited for you. A lot of your personal growth will pivot around your mental well-being. It will not be an easy or linear trajectory, but it will bring necessary and worthwhile progress. Part of me wishes I could tell you exactly what to do, what not to do, and what I wish I had done. But then I wouldn’t have the insight and experience to give you these pieces of advice.
First, get over yourself.
The low-grade depression that you’ve been dismissing as teenage angst for six years will get worse, and your first year will be lonely and boring because of it. It will be guilt more than pride that will keep you from acknowledging the problem. You’ll know that you are immensely privileged in countless ways, and this awareness will make you feel like you have no right to be depressed. As a consequence every time you feel sad, you’ll just berate yourself, making things worse both in the moment and in the future when those latent thoughts compound into something scary.
To be blunt: get over yourself. You aren’t helping anyone, especially yourself, by trying to convince yourself that you should just deal with it. If you want to be a good friend, sister, daughter, member of society, or simply a functional person, then stop dismissing your feelings and recognize that you and everyone would benefit from you being proactive rather than reactive about your mental health.
Then, be nice to yourself.
After finally deciding to call CAPS since it’s an available and potentially beneficial resource, you’ll go to individual and group therapy, which will emphasize mindfulness and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). Although you won’t buy all of the ACT tenets, therapy will help you to practice self-compassion, and to stop judging yourself when you have a mental breakdown over some seemingly trivial reason. It’s definitely not a tactic that works for everyone, and sometimes you’ll even reject it because you’d rather wallow or be self-destructive. But on the whole, it’s the most important lesson you’ll come to internalize. Cut yourself some slack sometimes and treat yourself like you would treat a friend who’s going through a rough time.
Labels are sometimes useful.
In the fall of your sophomore year, a psychiatrist will diagnose you with cyclothymia, a milder form of bipolar disorder that’s characterized by less severe and more frequent mood swings. At first, the acknowledgement from a professional will be extremely validating. Later, however, your therapist will suggest that it doesn’t seem like you have a mood disorder, which will hurt and make you feel like you should just deal with your emotional issues like a “normal person.” You’ll consequently drop therapy and medication for three weeks, and ironically be the most dysfunctional that you’ve ever been.
Psychiatric diagnoses can be important for helping a person understand what’s going on, and essential for prescribing appropriate treatments (for example, misdiagnosing a bipolar person with unipolar depression and prescribing them antidepressants could trigger a manic episode). However, the weight you attach to an official label will not be healthy, and considering that most people don’t even have access to mental healthcare, you’ll accept that you don’t need a professional label to acknowledge something as an issue that needs to be addressed.
Saying, “It’s not that bad,” is unhelpful.
By definition, cyclothymia is not “as bad” as Bipolar Disorder Type I – the mood swings are less severe, the person never experiences a full-blown manic episode, and the depressions aren’t as low. The same psychiatrist who finally validated you will also talk carelessly about how it can be tricky to diagnose things along the soft bipolar spectrum. Once you move away from mood extremes, he’ll say, what falls within the “normal” range of mood swings and emotions becomes less clear. You’re going to take his words and twist them by telling yourself, “It’s not that bad, therefore it’s not actually bad. So stop turning non-problems into problems and deal with it.” But just because a problem is comparatively not that bad, doesn’t mean it’s an issue that should go unaddressed. Keep things in perspective, but be constructive with your realism.
Sleep is important.
You will be very bad about regulating your sleep schedule, which is not healthy since sleep deprivation can trigger hypomania. You’ll realize this in sophomore year and do it on purpose, which your psychiatrist, therapist, and I would advise against. On the other hand, when you’re depressed, you’ll sleep whenever possible, making it hard to maintain your daily routine. Don’t deliberately deprive your body of sleep. When you’re down, try to do your work, but if you really need to stay in bed sometimes, that’s okay. Sleep will be one of your most important mood stabilizers, as it is for many people with mood disorders, so actually try your best.
Prioritize yourself when you need to.
As much as you’ll want to be there for the people you love and to pay attention to politics, there’s a limit to your emotional labor and attention. You won’t turn in some assignments because you’ll be stuck in a dangerous thought spiral and academics will be the least of your concerns in that moment. You’ll have to end a relationship because you haven’t yet learned how to not compromise your needs and wants for the sake of someone else’s. You won’t have the mental capacity to go to some solidarity marches or even to be bothered something that you usually care about so deeply. The hypomanic episodes full of boundless inspiration, hope, and love, will contrast starkly with the times when you don’t want to participate in your life and make the depressions infinitely worse.
The reality is that you won’t be able to do all of the things you want to. You’ll just have to accept that. So, check out when you need to. Do what you have to do when you’re in the depth of things and just trust that it’ll pass. You can’t be there for others if you can’t be there for yourself
You’ll learn these things and they’ll make it easier. But it’s not as if you’ll master these ideas. Even today, I still have to actively remember to be nice to myself or to stop mulling over whether my diagnosis is legitimate and if that matters. The same problems and stressors will never fail to resurface, but you will get infinitely better at dealing with them. The next three years will be challenging but you’re going to grow as a person so much because of it.
Brittany Tabora is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences studying International Agriculture and Rural Development. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Header image courtesy of Rebecca Dai.
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