Welcome to our new section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus.) We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.
College is a cramped up little space that makes room for your bed, clothes, and gadgets for studying, listening to music, and going on virtual vacations. College is a lot of unfamiliar faces in very familiar spaces. College is meal breaks, sleep rounds, binging everything, and last-minute crunch time. College is best friends, girlfriends, sisters, and all day, everyday ones.
There are days when college suffocates. You realize that you need more room space when you get out of bed and feel like dancing in circles. You feel tired of the student routine, be it the very low-key room-bound life or the majorly high-key everywhere-but-campus life. You get drained from sleeping. You get angry, stressed, and frustrated while studying. There are days when you try to look up and all you see is bleakness in place of where your dreams used to be. There are days when you try not to remember why you settled for your major. Which came first — the retreat or the surrender?
I am four months away from my college graduation, and I am having more blank days than not. I sleep way too much. I get anxiety like acne in high school. More often than not, I catch myself wandering about the liminal spaces in my head, in extreme consciousness of the passage of time, the tick-tock of the forthcoming reality summoning the unresolved demons from the very day I got signed into this school-paved roadmap to success. College seems to be slipping out of my grip because I have intentionally slimed my palms over with lots of deja-vu and an unhealthy dose of “preparatory” detachment.
I have had my fair share of college anxieties. Interestingly, I assumed that being this close to leaving college, I would be less affected by the very many anxiety triggers around me. I assumed that intentionally detaching myself from the things that make college “college,” most of which trigger my anxieties, would make college less suffocating. Community assemblies and dinners are hotspots for my social anxiety. Student activities, clubs, and societies set out my fire alarms for toxicity and personality incompatibility. Over the past three years, I have internally struggled with and occasionally managed to escape college anxieties. I have masked them, slept on them, rolled them into a ball and thrown them away… but they keep bouncing back. So I learned to let them be. To breathe, I developed some coping mechanisms. I don’t know how healthy these coping mechanisms are, but I’ll share nevertheless.
I sought opportunities outside college, most of which were part-time internships. These gave me reasons to leave the campus and be immersed in a different reality, an actual reality. The first internship I got at a firm close to one of our student residences remains the biggest highlight of my growth journey at college. It was my translunar injection. I learned to juggle school work and work — work, albeit on an unbalanced scale skewed to a side my parents wouldn’t want to hear of. I had an amazing manager who was as structured as he was flexible, a teacher and mentor who ensured I never missed the not-so-glaring learning outcomes from the mostly administrative/research work I did. In the course of that internship, I felt some balance in my life. There was more to me than the gist and mist of college. I had an outlet which actually taught me a lot, gave me some pocket money and sent some fresh air my mental way. With college lurking nevertheless, I have grown accustomed to continuous strife against what I term an empty semester, a semester without an external part-time internship, a semester where I sleep in academic heaviness, dream in psychological overheating, and wake up in complete distress.
I have also grown to cope by sticking to the people who make me very comfortable. I am reserved and loud, shy and bold, tongue-tied and garrulous. Different people and situations bring out either of this opposing string of qualifiers. My friends inspire the latter options. The structural existence of college working in harmony with my social anxiety triggers the former options. I am happier when I am spewing trivial information, cracking jokes and laughing out loud in the company of friends who know me so well I don’t have to add a fake-smile to my passing hellos. These days, I completely cherish 7:30 p.m dinner time when I join a couple of friends at one of the tables at the rear end of the school cafeteria. We eat in between our chats which are mostly induced by my rants. A fortnight ago, I badgered them into consciously stopping their laughter. I had innocently probed, “Is laughter always reflexively stopped, and do our cheeks constrict on their own all the time? Aren’t there times when we consciously catch our laughter hanging, not knowing how to end itself, such that we have to slowly, deliberately put our mouth back in its place? Are all these things just in my head?” My friends — I call them my safe spaces — indulge all my imaginations, fears and jokes, which I never seem to run out of. They take me out of the mental and physical prison I often find myself in at college.
The closer I get to graduation, the more aware I am of my strength, resilience, and survival in the past three years. These make me more confident in my ability to navigate unsettling life situations. I am ever so grateful for the friends and family who directly or indirectly give me the will to push till graduation. I pile up memories every day; I am aware they will come handy when adulthood gets messy and vile. I am consciously keeping memories of my friends’ laughter — their stretched faces, the pitch at the peak of their amusement, their resignation when I head to class in faded t-shirts, rumpled pants, and flip-flops sans bathing; I am keeping the best moments from class — the moments when my competitive spirit comes alive at duels, debates, and contests which tend to serve as ice-breakers or “sleep stoppers.” I am definitely not letting go of the “aha” moments — those self-reflective climaxes of deep conversations when you see all of yourself in the person(s) at the other end of the conversation. I am keeping the good memories, and I know the bad ones are etched somewhere in my subconscious, waiting to troll in future. I would really need help with navigating that.
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