I decided to stay home for my freshman year of college. My best friend’s mom died the last semester of our senior year of high school and I couldn’t imagine leaving home. In hindsight I can see my friend’s mom’s death triggered for me a lot of depression and anxiety I had always had. My dad had been unstable all of my childhood and it made me really close to my mom and brother. My friend’s mom’s death also renewed in me a lot of anxiety about losing my own mom. My mom was the only present and able parent my brother and I had, and she was a good one. Growing up I would regularly think about losing her, worry about what I would do in a life without her, wonder where I would live. I often had nightmares about finding out she had died or was dying. My friend’s mom’s sudden death hit close to home. I loved my friend. I loved her mom. I loved my own mom. And I was reminded that death is a robber and can come in and snatch up your loved ones in a second.
So, I called the university where I had enrolled and let them know I wasn’t coming and would be doing a year at a community college. I was depressed. I had already been depressed, but as the school year began a new awareness of the fun and new lives my friends were creating at their universities left me even more confused about my own life and future. After my freshman year I felt I had already missed the opportunity to go away to school but also community college wasn’t a great fit for me either, so I headed to a university nearby. I lived there and my depression continued. I kept looking for something that just wasn’t there. I suppose what I was looking for was that family unit I had always longed for. To feel wanted and stable. I was looking for a dad who didn’t leave suicidal phone messages periodically. For a mom who didn’t have to work so hard all of the time and could maybe even stay home with us. I was sad and flailing. I had moments of goodness and fun for sure. But I drank too much and put myself in potentially dangerous situations. And I had a very unhealthy relationship with food and exercise. I was not in a good place.
My dad moved back to the area my junior year and created a lot more turmoil than he was capable of when he had lived out of state, and that is saying something. He was diagnosed bipolar early in college; it seemed to fit and did provide some understanding into his mind and life. But the reality is, for me anyway, a diagnosis is helpful, but it doesn’t take away the difficulty in the relationship. It is still so hard not to react to the people you love that are wrestling that disease. So, when he moved back it was difficult. He was not an easy person for me to love. But he was my dad. And while I rarely felt feelings of “like” for him I did love him. And then, the summer before my last semester of college, I got a phone call that he had died by suicide. It turned my own depression upside down and just shook me. I wanted to just go away and hide, and I needed to finish college. So, I put my head down and finished.
I would sit in class, telling no one, wondering what things other people might not be telling. College was an extremely painful and lonely time for me. I felt as though I was dealing with all that life could throw my way, all while trying to figure out what I wanted to be doing with my life. It felt overwhelming, because it was. I graduated certain only of knowing that I didn’t want other people to have to walk around in life holding heavy burdens without anyone there to bear witness to them in their pain. I wanted so badly to be seen and known in all my pain and loss. And I set out to at least see others in their lives. College students are often lonely, depressed, anxious, scared, and overwhelmed trying to make sense of their life. And what is often expected of them is to be happy, enjoy the party, make a definite plan for their life, start their future. The disconnect is real. And I hope no one ever has to feel as alone in their pain, as I did. Because you are not alone.
Erin AB Mitchell, MACP
Web-based relationship coach at mitchellcounselingpractice.com