Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013
45

Ask Polly: Should I Drop Out Of College?

Appearing here Wednesdays, Turning The Screw provides existential crisis counseling for the faint of heart. "Because misery becomes you."

Dear Polly,

I’m a college junior abroad at a British university for the year. During the months I’ve been here, I’ve been getting increasingly anxious and depressed about my schoolwork and general life situation, to the point where I’ll just stay in bed for days on end watching "It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia" and compulsively eating bits of compressed bread. I’ve stopped doing work, which had before been something I would always complete, no matter what. Before, other life things—things like self-image, friendships, romantic relationships, creative outlets, family life—had not been going so well for a while, if ever, but those weren’t things that got graded, so they weren’t red flags for life reevaluation or therapy. Clearly, not all the things in a person’s life (especially a mercurial twenty-year-old lady’s life) will be great or good all the time. But they didn’t even seem to be great a little bit of the time. And everyone kept telling me how well I was doing, and I would find myself telling them how well I was doing in return—or maybe it was the other way round—because that is what most people expect and like to hear, myself included.

I think what I want now is for someone to tell me I’m not well. But it’s hard for me to even articulate to others the ways in which I’m not well—apart from not doing my schoolwork, that is. I think burnout’s a part of it—the university I’m at demands a high rate of academic production. I’m tired. I don't know if I like what I do, or if it's at all important. But I think my incompletion of work is a manifestation of a bigger fear: that I will end up living a life in which everyone thinks I’m fine and good and healthy and happy, while inside my body I am bloodily gnawing at my insides due to loneliness, complacency, and fear. At this point, though, the thought of living a future, post-school life at all seems fantastical. I have no idea what I want to do for a career. My few friendships seem to bleed dry with distance. (I’ve moved around a lot in my life.) I have no romantic prospects and limited sexual experience. My family is well meaning but super religious (which was the main drama of my pre-college life) and, consequently, very emotionally distant. It’s all part of a hazy cloud of depressive despair. Which, granted, I was able to articulate now to you, kind of. But when people ask how I am, I definitely don’t ever respond like this. Because who does? Everyone's going through shit like this, except it seems they're better able to compartmentalize it.

I saw a university-appointed counselor once the work started slowing, who suggested several times, on several different occasions, that I go on antidepressants. I pushed it off for a while, because I believed that I needed to will or reason myself into functioning. But that wasn't happening. So I've been on them for two weeks, which is apparently not really enough time to feel any effects, but I felt different right away. I no longer feel bodily convulsions of despair, or that I’ve always been a hopeless fuck-up, or that things would be better if I didn’t exist. I know I’m just a scared and lonely girl. But the pills also leave me not feeling much of anything, and I’m still not doing work, because I don't want to, and I no longer have attendant feelings of guilt or fear. I’ve talked to some people about this (“this” being the situation at present), but often it comes out weird or wrong, and people get very uncomfortable. My counselor won’t even be able to see me for another couple of weeks.

I think I could live in my room forever—I mean, I have biscuits and a steady Wifi connection, and nobody’s exactly banging on the door to force me out into the weak British sun. I might get kicked out of my abroad program eventually, but it could take a couple of weeks before anybody really notices what’s going on. I would like for someone to tell me what to do with myself, but no one seems to care enough—myself included. So I’m asking you: what do I do? Drop out and start dairy farming in Argentina? Apply for medical leave and get a job, or take up painting again? Push through the inertia and just do my fucking work? At the moment, all I feel capable of doing is finishing the next season of "Breaking Bad." I think I am desperate enough to push back against what’s expected of me, or what I expect of myself, to do what I need to do to feel better. I just don’t know what that might be.

Cloudy, Confused

Dear CC,

There are two roads in front of you. One of them looks like a shortcut—a scenic, romantic shortcut! But you can't see the cliff just out of view, where the road gets bumpy and steep and then disappears altogether, and you're left to wander in the dark, cold woods without a warm coat, let alone compressed bread bits and "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" DVDs. The second path looks boring and difficult. Many others are marching joylessly down it, so it makes you feel like you're surrendering some important part of yourself just to consider it. But the road is there, it doesn't crumble and turn to dirt and leave you wandering aimlessly in the wilderness. You'll arrive at your destination, and you'll feel a sense of accomplishment when you get there, knowing that you didn't quit. You won't know this when you get there, but you also dodged a bullet. You could be weeping and starving in the cold woods, but you took the road more traveled and avoided that fate.

Although you describe yourself in this sort of jaundiced hermetic state, what you're doing is actually quite aggressive. You're like a conscientious objector, except you've got biscuits and "Breaking Bad" where the strong will and the focused political message should go. You are tired of hiding behind this mask of "I'm fine" and "Look at my pristine academic record," so now you're going to (very passively, very quietly) reveal yourself to be a big fuck-up. No one can pretend that you're fine anymore! Someone, somewhere will have to take action! But it won't be you! Ha ha! Sure, maybe you'll get sent to some kind of an institution (thereby forcing other people to demonstrate their intense concern for you), but after that romantic white-coat interlude, you'll start dairy farming in Argentina, or you'll get a job and take up painting again, and you'll forever prove that you're not someone who blindly follows the herd.

Look, it's great that you're tired of lying, and tired of meeting other people's expectations at all costs. But what you're doing right now is dangerous, and not in a FUCK THEM kind of a way, but in a way that will only end up fucking you. This path you're on doesn't lead to dairy farming in Argentina. It leads to you at home with your parents, more depressed than ever. If you think things feel bleak now, try dropping out of school without a concrete plan for what you'd like to do instead. You feel drifty now, but you can't imagine what it's like to really, truly drift. Total drifting, without school, without a job, without friends, without supportive family—that's something that will transform the most optimistic person alive into a sullen ghost. You shouldn't experiment with that.

You should take the ugly, paved road. Do your work. That's my short answer. Put those DVDs on a high shelf, stop hiding from everyone, and do your stupid work—at the library, where the weak British sun streams in the windows, where you can see those sun-deprived British faces around you. I know it sucks, but it will make you feel a lot better once you start.

The longer answer has to do with living honestly. Because you've been lying to everyone around you about how well you're doing, you don't care about yourself anymore. The only way to care about yourself more (and make real connections with other people) is by telling the truth, without apology, without concern for other people's comfort levels. You may freak people out at first. That's okay. This is about survival. Tell people you've been really depressed. Tell them about your religious parents. Tell them you're struggling with the academic demands of your new setting.

This is about you, not them. Don't monitor their reactions and adjust your delivery as you see them twitch and flinch. Stay on target. Practice telling the truth without fear—and yes, it does take practice. Slow down and don't explain, don't giggle, don't trail off. The more you try to cover your own tracks, the more uncomfortable people will get. What makes people uncomfortable is YOUR discomfort with what you're saying. You can be a little off, a little too honest, a little depressed. If you own it completely, people will find it compelling instead of repellent.

Set up a regular appointment with the counselor, and if you don't like that person (or if you always have to wait too long between appointments), find another one, even if you have to pay for it yourself. If you have to ask your parents for money to pay for that, ask them. You aren't well. There, I said it.

But soon, at least you won't be lying anymore. That is a huge accomplishment. Feel proud! There's no reason in the world to lie to everyone. It makes you miserable. It leeches the good moments right out of your life. Your chances for happiness are nil as long as you're lying. There are no real friendships, no real connections. It's understandable that you got this far by lying your ass off, considering your family. But now you're done with that. Every friendship you have, moving forward, will be a real one.

You need to force yourself to see the world around you. You are receding into this cocoon, and it stinks in there. It's bland and awful and it smells like defeat and fear and self-hatred. You must force yourself to walk for at least a half hour every day, to go out and eat healthy meals in places crowded with other human beings, to experiment with being alone in public, so you can take in the sights and sounds of this place and really appreciate them, instead of receding into yourself. There's strength in moving through the world, totally alone, if you accept it and wear it on your sleeve and show the people around you that you can thrive that way.

You have to force yourself into new, more rewarding habits. I know you can't feel much right now, but bits and pieces will break through and touch you eventually. You just have to get out of your room to make that possible. So first: Go to the library and do some work, maybe three hours? Then reward yourself with a walk in that weak sun. Walk to the bookstore and buy a lined leather notebook, and a nice pen. Then go get a coffee and sit down and write down your feelings. Just write whatever comes into your head, and then, when you're done with that, observe people. Allow anything to appear on the page. Congratulate yourself for allowing it. This is how you're going to live, okay? Your feelings and thoughts matter. You are about to care what you fucking think and feel, a lot. No one else has to, but you do. You are the guardian of your own experience.

Once you've done this a few times, and you're mostly caught up with your academic work, go buy some paints. You have my permission to charge that shit on a credit card if you have to. Then go back to your room and paint, paint, paint. Paint badly. Just do it. If it feels like going through the motions, so be it. This is a reward for your hard work—you're not allowed to spend more than an hour or two on this. The rest of your time, you need to be out in the world.

Before you go to bed every night, pull out your journal and write down one or two things in your life that you're grateful for. They can be small or big things. Yes, it's stupid. Just do it.

Smart people sometimes have trouble doing the sorts of things that most people—and most animals, for that matter—recognize as essential. Forcing yourself to feel gratitude, to believe in yourself, to say a small secular prayer at the end of the day: These things help to transform suffering into meaning. Also, moving around, getting fresh air, seeing other people's faces, getting work done, and representing yourself accurately to the world? Those are the building blocks of good health, the things that intellectuals forget about, that dogs and cats and birds can't live without.

That said, you're right that everyone struggles with feeling sick inside, especially when they're falling behind. Anyone with a huge pile of work to do battles self-hatred and avoidance. There's only one immediate cure: Get the work done. Do it, and have faith that it will make you feel better down the road. If you drop out, you'll end up doing 15 times the hard work just to get back to where you are right now. Don't punish yourself like that.

You're ready to move forward. You're about to start to attracting real friends, who are a lot like you, for the first time in your life. You are about to live your life out in the open for the first time ever. You are about to feel things you never felt before. You are about to be devastated, and scared, and very, very happy. Write back soon and let me know how it's going.

Polly



Dear Polly,

My problem is somewhat ridiculous. I actually cannot get out of bed in the morning…it's getting to the point where I will fail college based on attendance because I never make it in for the morning lectures. I hear not getting out of bed is a sign of depression, but I don't think that's the case with me. Bed is just so nice and pleasant and warm, and I always sleep through my alarm or turn it off in my sleep, or convince myself that no, I CAN get ready for the day in ten minutes. I just don't seem to have any sense of urgency until I've had my coffee and realize I'm running twenty minutes late. Any advice on how to break off my love affair with bed?

I Love My Bed (Too Much)

Dear ILMBTM,

Boy, do I feel you. I've always been vulnerable to extended love affairs with my bed. And wait until you get an incredibly expensive mattress. (Mark my words: Every penny you waste on an overpriced mattress is a penny well wasted.) You won't just love your bed. You'll want to marry your bed and have a million of its babies.

But a strong Love of Bed shouldn't be an excuse to ruin your whole life. At least turn to hard drugs and bad men and giant custard-filled doughnuts for that.

I mostly blame your snooze button for this state of affairs. I used to love snooze buttons. Now I hate them. Disagree all you want, but if you ever get married, you'll have to kick your snooze-button habit or risk being murdered in your sleep by a spouse who couldn't face hearing your fucking alarm go off one more time.

How To Get Out of Bed In The Morning

1. No snooze buttons, ever. Snooze buttons prolong your torture. They train you to hate waking up. They force you to pull yourself out of the swampy delicious realm of sleep over, and over, and over again, like the masochist you are. Get an alarm without a snooze button, and put it out of reach if necessary.

2. Put a very warm robe right next to your bed, so that the dread of freezing your ass off isn't added to the dread of facing your day.

3. Get plenty of sleep. Somehow I never put this together when I was younger, but getting out of bed is much, much easier when you're sleeping enough. (No, ample napping will not do the trick.)

4. Don't go to bed very late every single night. Sleeping from 10-6 a.m. feels a million times better than sleeping from 2-10 a.m. Those are not quality sleeping hours. The earlier you go to bed (not every night, but most of the time), the more rested you'll feel in general, and the less you'll struggle in the morning.

5. Get a coffee maker with a timer on it.

6. Set your alarm so that you wake up earlier, not later. If you give yourself the minimum possible time to get ready, you'll associate getting ready with panic and failure, and you'll never want to get out of bed. Instead, leave extra time, sip your coffee, take a hot shower, and relax your way into the day.

7. Think really hard about what it would mean to flunk out of college. Imagine that alarm means you're late to your job flipping burgers, instead of just late for class. You really want to land there, just because you didn't get enough sleep at night? That would fucking suck. Get serious about your schedule and your life and don't let that happen.

You can do it, sunshine!

Polly



Previously: Ask Polly: Why Do People Always Think I'm Gay?


Is some very small problem making your great, big problems seem much worse? Write to Polly and sort that shit out once and for all!


Heather Havrilesky (aka Polly Esther) is The Awl's existential advice columnist. She's also a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead 2011). She blogs here about scratchy pants, personality disorders, and aged cheeses. Photo by the Shopping Sherpa.

45 Comments / Post A Comment

I really wish Polly were my therapist.

saythatscool (#101)

@Reginal T. Squirge I really wish you were on meds.

The Future is Here (#10,633)

Your reply to the first letter was on point and inspiring: I'm already a few years out of college, but… thank you for all of that.

nonvolleyball (#9,329)

yeah, this column is just consistently amazing.

I have little to add, except that I was a former night-owl/always late person who's managed to adjust to a 7:30–4:30 work schedule because it makes my life easier. & getting into a routine of waking up early has TOTALLY made that possible. (I even wake up early on weekends now! where "early"="before 9:30," whereas previously I would define it as "before 2pm!")

however–you'll pry my snooze button from my cold, dead hands (likely dead due to the spousal frustration Polly mentions). our compromise is that I get, like, ONE ten-minute snooze & then that's it. I usually set supplementary alarms that go off if I don't get up on time, & those are so frequent & close together that my husband's anger will help goad me out of bed on its most seductively comfy days.

Olivia2.0 (#1,716)

@nonvolleyball As a current not-want-to-wake-up-person/night owl I can also attest to the importance of getting up on the weekends at about the same time I get up on the weekdays. After years of torturous waking up, once I started getting up at 7:20 EVERY DAY my life is so. much. better.

sharilyn (#4,599)

Wow. I'm realizing that "do the work" is the answer to 90% of the problems I've faced in life.

LHOOQ (#18,226)

@sharilyn Liked your comment to mean that I am also facing the same realization, not to mean,Yes, you should do the bleeding work already, jeez.

fried mars bar (#3,055)

I dropped out of college for three semesters because I was hopelessly behind on my work/didn't know what to study/hated myself and everyone else. When I went back to school all those things were still true, plus I was a year and a half older! My situation was different from LW1's in a lot of ways but I think Polly's advice is really really good.

Greenbeans (#241,078)

The response to the first letter isn't bad, but I think it fails to address something important. This business:

"So I've been on them for two weeks, which is apparently not really enough time to feel any effects, but I felt different right away. I no longer feel bodily convulsions of despair, or that I’ve always been a hopeless fuck-up, or that things would be better if I didn’t exist. I know I’m just a scared and lonely girl. But the pills also leave me not feeling much of anything, and I’m still not doing work, because I don't want to, and I no longer have attendant feelings of guilt or fear."

is a side effect that many people experience on antidepressants and there are a couple of things you should know about it. (I'm speaking as a patient here, not a doctor.) This "blunting" of your emotions is a negative side effect and you shouldn't let your relief at having found a drug that actually works lead you to settle for a drug that isn't perfect for you. If you have the energy to tackle just one thing, then find a psychiatrist who will see you regularly (not just a therapist) and don't settle for a so-so medication. Because there's a lot out there these days, and chances are you could try a handful of medications that are mostly but not entirely similar to the one you're taking now, and you'd get different results. I was in a rut for a long time until I got a new psychiatrist who said to me, hey, doesn't it bother you that the medication that you are taking only kinda works for you? What if there's something out there that would have all of the good attributes of what you're taking now without the blunting of your emotions? (Because that is exactly what I was experiencing).

Several years later, I still haven't found that a drug that does what I wish it would without any side effects. Maybe I'll never find it, but at least when it comes to side effects, now I know I have a choice, and I know what some of those choices look like. There are other side effects that I find preferable to that listlessness, which presented its own dangers. Experimenting with different medications over the years has actually been one of the avenues through which I have come to understand my depression, because it makes me pay attention to my specific symptoms.

I'm writing this because I, too, did the whole come-to-a-grinding-halt-and-almost-drop-out-of-college thing, and at my lowest point I didn't value myself enough to advocate for myself in any part of my life. The three things that saved me were my involvement in a student organization (the single rewarding thing in my life, and a reason to stay on campus), my therapist (who I'd tried to get the school to provide for me years earlier, before I was literally failing everything, but they refused until I had concrete proof of my ineptitude), and a professor and mentor who pulled this amazing Jedi mind trick wherein, by giving me his permission to drop out of college, he convinced me to stay. Still don't know how he did that. But if there are any professors or academic mentors who you trust enough to talk to about this, they might surprise you with their sympathy.

HeatherH (#241,099)

@Greenbeans Thanks for this. I meant to address the drug situation but, like an asshole, forgot and fixated on purchasing leather notebooks instead.

astrayk (#241,121)

@Greenbeans I think this is such an important point, and it's true of medications and therapists both. I can't even tell you how many people I know who could really benefit from one or both and have said "I tried therapy when I was 11 once and I hated it so I never went back" or "I tried Zoloft for a week and it made me a zombie so I hate antidepressants." I tell them it's like dating – You would never go on one bad date and give up totally on dating forever. Everyone hates dating, it's stupid, but if you keep going, you can meet someone good for you. I "dated" a lot of medications and therapists (spurred on, admittedly, by friends and family), and of course you do not at all want to be trying new things if you are truly depressed because it's all about being paralyzed, but trust me when I say that YOU WILL FEEL SO SO SO MUCH BETTER when (not if, when!) you find the right treatment. You are never going to be the only person on earth that no one can help, and you can't just make yourself snap out of it if you have hardcore depression – it's not a failure of will. It's a condition. LW#1, I would say you should follow Polly's great advice if you can, but if you need help getting yourself to that point keep looking for treatment.

doraleigh (#239,253)

@astrayk Thank you for this. I don't suffer from depression (well, not in a clinical way) but recently lost an old friend. He died, ostensibly, not from depression — i.e, he didn't kill himself — but in my opinion (which obviously is only an opinion), it was his depression that lead to major weight gain, continued compulsive smoking, inactivity, inability to maintain friendships/relationships, and then an ultimate fatal heart attack in his 40s. He was on medication — and occasional therapy — but clearly it wasn't doing enough. He was a lovely guy in so many ways but so very ill. Your statement: "You are never going to be the only person on earth that no one can help" just resonated for me. Of course he could've been helped (more) and I wish he had been. LW#1, not saying any of this to scare you — and I hope you are not scared — @astrayk's response made me feel so hopeful — I hope it makes you feel that way, too. And Polly/Heather — I am a huge, geeky fan and love this column completely.

goodiesfirst (#3,448)

Wait, I'm still stuck on how 10pm-6am is more optimal than 2am-10am. All eight-hour stretches aren't equal?

@goodiesfirst Circadian rhythm, baby.

Look, whilst everyone LOVES the advice for the first question, if it really was as simple as shutting up and doing the work, she would just shut up and do the work. Without asking. Maybe someone saying; maybe you'll drop out and it'll be annoying but ok, might also help. Maybe.

sharilyn (#4,599)

@Rachel Cohen@facebook: maybe. But actually, IMHO, no.

Ha, I totally relate to not doing work, watchiing whole box sets back to back and sleeping in late. It's too late to change now, though.

werewolfbarmitzvah (#16,402)

"This path you're on doesn't lead to dairy farming in Argentina. It leads to you at home with your parents, more depressed than ever."

When you're right, you're RIGHT. Of the people I've known who've had that same existential crisis as everybody else during college, and responded to it not by trucking through but by dropping out of college to pursue a glittering new unconventional path, absolutely none of them ended up dairy farming in Argentina (or the equivalent). They all ended up either living at home with their parents, or something equally bleak. And if they did have some interesting equivalent of dairy farming in Argentina going on, it lasted mayyyyyybe a couple of months until they ran out of money, and then the bleakness started.

Seriously, just get that degree. Whatever path you take afterwards is up to you, but by then at the very least, you'll have a college degree in case things don't go the way you'd hoped!

(Also, for LW2: have you ever considered……..not signing up for morning classes? Just take afternoon/evening classes! Easy! Problem solved!)

cherrispryte (#444)

Ah, so my brain is acting like a college student's.
Good job, brain.

Seriously though, these were amazing and I needed to hear both bits of advice (OH GOD DO I LOVE STAYING IN BED) really badly. So thanks.

SuperMargie (#1,263)

Word on the alarm clock with no snooze button! Get an old wind up and put it across the room. I have to get up for work by 430 am and it is the only thing that has prevented me from routinely over-sleeping and getting my butt canned.

for cloudy, confused: i am also a transplant to the uk, and depending on where you are coming from originally, the winters here can really knock you for six. it's dark all the time, and when it's not dark, it's cloudy. the sun is a creature barely glimpsed from time to time as it shuffles low along the horizon. if feeling this badly is something that is new since you've been in the uk, then maybe the dual demons of seasonal affective disorder and culture shock are acting as catalysts for your depression. don't underestimate the power of either of these phenomena. i have found that a phillips wake up light is invaluable in this climate.

enic (#241,103)

As a night owl by nature, early bird by force, my latest technique (of one week, so no huge promises here) is hiding my phone in the kitchen. I've had a no-snooze alarm clock for awhile, but got in the habit of setting timers on my iPhone for 7-15 minutes after turning off my alarm… Even if I had to get out of bed to do it. Yeah, that whole "put it on the other side of the room" thing is for lightweights.

Now the phone is farther away than the bathroom, so by the time I've gone to the bathroom, washed my face, and brushed my teeth, the temptation to go back to bed is gone. And, if you shower at night like me, even if you don't care about washing your face for beauty reasons, lukewarm water on the face definitely helps me wake up.

David (#192)

Stay in school. Do the work!– is great advice. Candice Bushnell (quoted in Edith Zimmerman's NY Times Magazine profile) is onto this point too: “There’s so many things that mattered so much in my 20s and 30s that don’t matter now,” Bushnell said. “You don’t have to do everything by the time you’re 30. Or 40. All you need is a work ethic.” Then she paused. “It’s what allows you to push through moments of disappointment and self-doubt and fear.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/20/magazine/candace-bushnells-fantasy-world.html?ref=magazine&_r=0

robotosaur (#238,251)

Two additional things that helped me get out of bed regularly (and not immediately fall back asleep on the couch):
1) Instead of hitting snooze, I set two alarms, 20 minutes apart. That way I still get the crucial enjoying-warm-bed time before I haul myself out.
2) First thing every morning, I spend ten minutes in front of a lightbox. After that, I'm totally awake even before my coffee. Position it by your bed if necessary.

I strongly identified with #1, but that was all 4 years ago for me and I managed to struggle through without dropping out. Even on the other side of it, "do your work" is STILL an unsatisfying, bullshit answer to me, and a lot of days I wish someone had told me to cut my losses and leave grad school in the dust. Then again, I should probably be seeing a counselor about my inability to let go of my post-school bitterness, so I'll shut up and sit down now.

eriiiiin (#241,114)

As much as I want to love the response to #1, I don't think I agree with it wholeheartedly. I've been in that position before, where you yourself–your depression and inertia– are keeping you from getting things done, and in my freshman year of college, it got so bad that I felt my only recourse was to drop out. But! There are other options! Like Polly suggests, you can do your work. But if that feels impossible, which it very well sounds like it might, you can take a medical leave of absence. Take the rest of the semester off, get into regular treatment, find a different medication that doesn't make you feel blunt, think about why you are in school in the first place. College isn't for everyone. Maybe the college you're at isn't the right school for you. Maybe what you're studying isn't what you want to be studying. Just allow yourself to take the time to really re-assess what your education is for– what that work that you've been putting off really signifies. Getting through school truly doesn't have to be a struggle, and if it is, that's a sign that something's wrong. Why pay for something that's making you miserable?

fb100003648584015 (#241,131)

I would like to thank you for the efforts youve got produced in writing this article.

Do depressives benefit from someone replicating what is screaming in their heads? "Do the work, do the work, do the work!" Sometimes you can't. Thinking you can bootstrap your way through mental illness is a great way to torture yourself. If you're a depressed person, a clinically depressed person, the first few major episodes are the worst, generally speaking. You don't know that they can end yet. One thing I can generally manage to do is walk. Nothing else. Just walk for as long as possible, preferably while listening to something entertaining. You need to somehow get out of the groove you're in. Tell your therapist in no uncertain terms that you are wrecking your life, that everything is at balance here and that stakes are really high. Schools have a lot invested in exchange programs – there are a lot of resources. To be super blunt, the thought that an exchange student might kill themselves terrifies the shit out of schools. They can do better in terms of therapy and support. You need help right now. This is not a satisfactory state of affairs. You are worth extraordinary effort. I don't think it's school – it's your response to stress and/or life in general. I would say, practically speaking, the amount of help you can get on the mental health front while you're in school – unless you're rich- is light years beyond what you can get on the outside. Go have a breakdown in the reception room. If you have ANY contacts at your new school, confess all and ask for help. Be excruciatingly honest. Allow people to demonstrate how kind and supportive they can be to a fellow human being in distress. Ugh, I have more to say about this but it would probably be repetitive. Please reach out.

@Hiroine Protagonist Sorry, just re-read more carefully and I see that you've tried, so GOOD FOR YOU! That is really hard! I'll be the one to tell you – you're ill. It takes a lot of energy to keep up a front that youre not, and it sounds like you're out. Your room solution is actually okay, it's safe and you have permission to retreat there to recover a little bit. You've made it to step 1, you've done what was presumably really hard and actually gotten to a therapist. I just wanted to give you some serious support for that. That's hard. From someone who has done the same thing, I would say now might be the time to let your professors/tutors know that you're having a really hard time, that you are in touch with the mental health centre and that you are trying to deal. An email giving a heads up is way way way more effective than one near the end of the semester that says you're been struggling all year but maintained in public. Give them time and establish this now. Deadlines can be changed, assignments can be put off – all that can happen, but you have to let them know. I hope your next therapy appointment goes well. Bug bug hugs.

@Hiroine Protagonist

Not bug hugs. Jesus.

Jackie M.@twitter (#241,141)

To the letter writer of the first letter: If the response you received above is the response that actually works for you, if that helps you "snap out of it", then good. I'm glad.

And I would also like to say that I've been on anti-depressants, and I remember vividly what the first two weeks are like. I have never in life before or since been suicidal, but the first two weeks into my Lexapro regimen was when I started considering cutting my wrists. It was perfectly, scarily sensible, too: everyone around me assumed I was turning into a hopeless loser and I was lost cause, but a nice convincing suicide attempt would make them see that I was in fact pathologically ill. I was not a loser at base; I was merely sick. It was a cry for help, and I knew it, but simply saying "help" didn't seem to be gaining me any traction, any much-needed slack in my academic performance.

So your letter reads a bit like a cry for help to me? The "two-weeks into anti-depressant therapy" phase is so critical, I think, because the anti-depressants have begun to activate you, to let you come out of your cone of narrowing possibilities and take action to change the world around you. But at the two week mark, they often have not yet started to relieve the actual misery of depression itself. It is perfectly logical, when you are still miserable, to consider dramatic options that would end the misery—Such as dropping out of school to start working on a dairy farm.

Your feelings are real; your desire makes sense, given that reality.

But please know: things will start improve in another few weeks. It's worth sticking it out at least and really trying school for another month to see if the drugs can help get you back on track; it's worth switching antidepressants and trying another one if the side effects turns out to be unacceptable. (Which is reiterating another commenter's remarks on side effects and the "blunting". Apparently only 30% of the population can really tolerate any given SSRI; but the next SSRI you try will also have 30% chance of working with managable side effects. It's a PAIN IN THE NECK, and very discouraging to have to work through when you're already depressed. But it's worth continuing, because the right drug really will help you get over this hump in much better shape.)

Give it another month. Try to do like Polly says. The weather in England is at its worst right now, and people underestimate the changing of the season will have.

But if in another month you find yourself slipping even further behind, know that there are other options. If in another month the advice to "march back into the library" just makes you feel like a failure, because you couldn't just snap yourself out of it… if that's the case, then please consider taking a medical leave of absence before leaving for you dairy farm in Argentina. (Note: Polly is dead wrong about this. There most assuredly ARE dairy farms in Argentina. Understand that you will still be depressed there, but hey, at least it will be the middle of summer south of the equator. If you have the means to travel, absolutely take advantage of that and take a semester or two off. Go for it.)

Academic calendars are not timed such that they leave much slack for recovery from major depression. I've also had a number of friends drop out of school. I've dropped out of school. Some of us live at home for a while; some of us work for dot-coms; some of us have enough money that we can hike around Tibet. Some of them do all three one after the other. Many of us come back to school with a better idea of what we're getting into, and do better at it. In no case is it the end of the world. Dropping out and living at home and working at McDonalds is not the end of the world either, it's just not the high point of your life. It does get better.

But do try to give school a real go for another month. Don't torch everything just yet. I hear your cry for help. Know that you are heard, people do want you around, and it will get better.

A piece of late advice for the first letter:
Don't drop out! If you were a freshman or even sophomore I might tell you to go ahead and drop out before spending the money and time on something you don't want, but you've worked so hard all ready and you've got a short way to go. A year and a half is not very much even when you're unhappy, so don't throw your past away.

I dropped out after one semester of college. I was in the mountains, the weather was miserable and I was becoming very depressed, so I decided not to go back and live in a collective house instead. I lived with a lot of people in their mid-twenties who had gone to school and dropped out after a couple years, and were then stuck in dead-end jobs that made them unhappy. Four years later, most of them are in school again, starting over at 28. I went back to the same mountain town that year for culinary school, partly just so I wouldn't end up like them, even if it meant being miserable for a year or two.

There are no adventures waiting for you if you drop out that won't be there if you have a degree. But so many more things will be possible if you do. Take a semester off, get out of the UK, get time to get some psychiatric help, whatever you need, but do not drop out at this point. I WISH I had the strength and togetherness to get to where you've gotten. You still have it. Maybe you've never felt like you didn't have the option to just stay in bed. Trust me, when you let things fall apart they fall apart very quickly and you don't know where you'll find yourself. I fell apart one summer and ended up kicked out of school, homeless, jobless, and with less future than ever before. Remembering that time is often what forces me to Do The Work, even when I feel like sobbing on the bathroom floor all day.

The most important question is: Why do anything? Well, when you don't have the motivation within yourself to do anything, you need to know the consequences of not doing anything and realize how much worse they are than a few hours' work. Tell yourself you will be happier soon, maybe not now, but someday. Every single person has a dark time to work through. The only thing that helps is believing better times are ahead. Your better times might require medication (I'm on it, it works), a different environment, more human connection, anything. But believe that they will come, and much, much easier if you don't drop out.

starsdied (#241,316)

I'm thinking letter writer #1 should probably get on some new antidepressants that don't make them feel like a braindead zombie.

amandaf (#241,490)

I really loved this interchange. Great advice, familiar problem. Have something to contribute re: compressed bread. Seriously, you guys, if you're at all willing to admit that depression and quasi-depression is at least partly physiological and therefore treatable by meds, you have to think about diet as a contributing factor. Part of my maturation has been realizing that sometimes I'm depressed simply because I haven't been eating right.

There's a book called Potatoes Not Prozac that gives some helpful advice about what to eat (and when) to stay in a reasonably good mood. Basically, eating (or drinking) a lot of sugar or simple carbs will put you into a spike and dip pattern, whereas eating protein at regular intervals (breakfast, lunch, dinner, which is SUCH a drag for we sensitive artiste types, what am I, Ozzy and Harriet?) will keep you on a flatter mood wavelength. The counter-intuitive title comes from the recommendation, which I swear will change your life, that if you have to eat sugars and carbs, at least for heaven's sake eat complex rather than simple carbs, i.e., a baked potato, not jelly beans or beer or processed white bread. Eating mostly protein and veggies all day at regular mealtimes and then a baked potato before bed will make you feel like an angel is salivating on your forehead when you wake up in the morning.

In short, girlfriend, eat a steak, or, better, some turkey, and feel the mood elevate. If you're vegetarian, try some soy or some beans, or stretch a point and eat some fish (they have faces, but expressionless faces). All best wishes, and rock on, Polly.

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