By Maddie Noreika, NAMI-UW Volunteer Coordinator
Just Relax. You need to lighten up. Learn to have some fun…Over time, these sentences became some of the worst things people could say to me, and unfortunately I heard them often and no one realized how much they affected me. My freshmen year of college I attended UW-Milwaukee. At first I was so excited and I was ready to take on the world. Things changed quickly and throughout the entire semester I did not make a single valuable friendship, I struggled to get involved on campus, and I only buried myself in my school work. I just figured it was the freshmen jitters and that I would eventually fall into my place. I pulled out straight As, which was a first for me, but I still felt unsatisfied. During winter break, the thought of going back to Milwaukee made me want to hurl, so I did what I thought was best and moved back home. I transferred to the two year college in my town which only made me feel more unsatisfied and extremely embarrassed. Once again, I didn’t make a single friend, and I only buried myself in school work and work. I made the dean’s list that semester, but I felt zero satisfaction in what I was doing. The only thing during my second semester that kept me going was that I stood a chance of getting accepted into UW-Madison.
Throughout my entire freshmen year of college I was going through what I thought was just a bad spell of major anxiety and depression, but I thought it was just something I would get over and that my problems were not significant enough to reach out for help. My family constantly told me that coming back home was not a good choice for me, and that I was not the most pleasant to be around because of my mood swings, and that I had very selfish tendencies. Those tendencies came from not knowing how to process my feelings, and not having anyone to talk to that could completely understand. I was completely lost in my own world, and I struggled with showing empathy toward others. I couldn’t wrap my head around this idea that my mental health was not in a good place, and I didn’t have any coping mechanisms to handle what I was going through. I kept telling myself that everything would be better when I got to UW and that all of my problems regarding my mental health would just suddenly vanish into thin air.
I got accepted and I couldn’t wait to embark on my new journey. The journey that would solve all of my problems. I was going to come to UW, get perfect grades, make lots of friends and get into the business school to pursue a business degree. I instantly made a bunch of friends, I got involved in campus orgs, I had a job, and I was starting to establish myself. It happened so quickly and I thought that all the moves I was making were the right ones in order to live the “average college life”. Then I got my first midterm grades back and I was not happy with the outcome and realized that UW was much harder academically than where I came from. This was a trigger for me and I instantly felt too stupid to be at such a wonderful school. It would keep me up at night, and I became so wrapped up in wanting to be the best, that I wasn’t even studying properly or concentrating in a productive way. As the semester went on, I realized I hated my classes, and that my grades weren’t going to be perfect. As I struggled with this, I had long in-depth conversations with my mom about it. She had to remind me repeatedly that my GPA did not define me, and that this one semester would not define my overall success at UW. Although she was a great supporter in getting through my struggles, nothing she said made me feel better.
During the spring semester I realized that business was not for me and that I needed to make a change. I changed my major to pursue a double major in Political Science and Social Welfare. I loved my classes and I instantly saw my grades improve. I made fewer commitments with campus involvement which allowed me to study hard, and spend time with my friends without feeling guilty about it. I was content for the first time since I had started university. As things started to look up for me, I unfortunately started to feel anxious that what I was doing was not enough. I would obsess over what I needed to accomplish to get into good graduate schools, and I was only a SOPHOMORE. I thought that if I did not have the exact plans in place I would never succeed. Again, I would sit up at night and research schools and universities and “plan my life.” It never made me feel better, just tired. It eventually got so bad that I couldn’t go a day without calling myself a failure, or thinking about how other people were so much further ahead in life than me. I found that my relationships with the new friends that I had made during the year were becoming a bit strained and that I was feeling irritable almost 24/7. Eventually I hit a point and had a panic attack. That was my lowest point and I only went back up from there.
During the summer I went through the same intense anxiety and depression that I was clearly facing during my first two years of college and I had another panic attack. I was so exhausted and my family really tried to simplify my feelings by telling me “to relax” and to “think positive.” This only made it worse because I found that I couldn’t do those things easily and I thought that I would be stuck this way forever. Something that was clearly continuing to heighten my anxiety. I then did something that completely changed my life. I spent a portion of the summer working with highschoolers that struggled with severe mental illnesses. It put so much into perspective for me. It made me realize that if these kids are brave enough to face their feelings and challenges and openly talk about their mental health, then I was capable of that too. Until that moment, I would have never guessed that having a simple conversation with my doctor about my mental health would open up a whole new approach to how I think about my mental health.
This journey has come with plenty of challenges such as crippling anxiety, severe insomnia, keeping up with my personal hygiene, and suicidal thoughts. BUT it has also come with plenty of rewards such as my huge list of coping mechanisms, a stronger relationships with my friends, a safety plan for when/if I have suicidal thoughts. I've given a lot more attention to my self care and realized that I am not always able to take on every opportunity that may come my way. I've realized I can openly talk about my experiences, I can express my needs to others in a clear precise manner, and I can also recognize when I need to step away from reality to take care of myself. I have recognized that just because I am on medication, and see a therapist, and do other things to cope with my mental health, not every day is going to be a good day and that some days are going to be harder than others. I’ve also learned to not let people invalidate my feelings, because no matter how absurd my reasoning behind it is, I am allowed to feel how I feel, at least for a short period of time. Overall, this journey has taught me that I am capable of self-love and that no matter how hard it might be to see sometimes, I can love who I am and I will only continue to love who I am. I am beautiful, I am smart, I deserve my dreams, and I deserve to feel strong and be free of self-doubt.