Deciding where to go for college is an especially hard choice for people with anxiety and mood disorders. Maybe a less exciting choice would be a better way to say it. While many students look to a university’s program offerings or reputation when making their decisions, those with chronic emotional instability don’t have the same freedom to choose based on those factors without consequences. A lot of times, the best question they can ask themselves when choosing a college is how far it is from their family or their doctors.
When I was a senior in high school, I refused to let myself decide my future school by anything besides its course offerings and later came to regret it. This is a time in my life that still makes me cringe when I think about it, so naturally I tend to avoid talking about it, too. As school starts up again this year, though, I finally feel like I’ve rebounded from rock bottom enough to look back on it and share my story with clarity for you. I’ve learned over the past few years that I am far from the only one who experienced homesickness after going to college, so I’m going to share what led me to leaving college in just three weeks and what happened after I came back.
Why I Chose an Out-of-State School
I’ve had debilitating homesickness my entire life. You can read more about my many bad experiences at sleepovers, summer camp, and vacations in my post about travel anxiety. With that said, why did I choose an out-of-state school? The honest answer is because I wasn’t being completely honest with myself in where I wanted to go. While I had always dreamed of going to a Wisconsin state school, I felt like that wasn’t unique or cool enough, since a lot of people in my class were also applying to those schools. Those who weren’t were usually high-achievers that had gotten accepted to prestigious colleges all over the place. I wanted to have a post-high school life path as unique and impressive as theirs.
Doing something unique can be great, of course, but it became an obsession of mine during high school. In school, “fitting in” often meant “standing out,” even if we didn’t realize it. The girls we grew up idolizing were the best dancer on the dance team, the first chair violinist, the national pageant titleholder, you name it. They fit in because they stood out. Once I realized that, I tried exceptionally hard to stand out. Some of that turned out great, like joining a water ski show team and German folk dancing group that I’m still involved with today. Others, like deciding to attend Arizona State University, did not work out so great.
As an aside, I also had a bit more financial support from my parents available to me than most students and a strong enough academic performance to get scholarships, so while I voiced to my parents that I would be happy to save some money and go to a Wisconsin state school, they encouraged me to dream bigger. Clearly, it seemed, staying in Wisconsin couldn’t be anyone’s biggest dream, so there had to be somewhere else deep down that I wanted to go. I had always been obsessed with the ‘Wild West’ as a kid, so I decided that Arizona would be a good place to experience that firsthand. That drastic change in geography, coupled with joining the the honors college at ASU, helped me find a life path that sounded both unique and impressive.
My Three Weeks at ASU
I definitely didn’t leave ASU after three weeks because there was nothing to do. There were events happening constantly from move-in until the first day of school; some were for honors students, some were for students in my sustainability program, and some were for all freshmen. I remember going to a huge new student assembly at Gammage with my roommate and shooting my hand up when they asked for volunteers to come onstage! I was just so excited to get involved. I went exploring around Tempe with my new friends and stood in the student section for a Sun Devils football game. I volunteered at a food pantry and went to a Unitarian Universalist church service. Even once my classes started, I loved them and loved ASU. I have so many positive memories from those three weeks that it sometimes makes me question how bad the bad ones really were.
My concerns about homesickness didn’t just arise because I missed my family. I did, and I’ve had this weird guilt since childhood that whenever I’m not with my parents, I’m missing valuable time I could be spending with them. This time, though, I mainly lost control of my anxiety because I no longer had access to the coping mechanisms that help me control it. The first problem was not having my own space. When I become overwhelmed, I usually retreat to a place where I can be alone so I can “recharge” until I feel safe and ready to get back to what I was doing. Though I loved my roommate, sharing a dorm room meant that I had no space to call my own or escape to. When I feel uncomfortable somewhere, I also find relief from hopping in my car to go home or somewhere in nature to get away from it. Without a car, I felt extremely limited to the confines of busy, student-infested Tempe and unable to find my way to nature and peace.
What really set me off was a camping trip with the sustainability program students. While this weekend getaway to a summer camp in Prescott initially offered some relief for me, since it was a great escape from the city and scorching hot temperatures, it also brought back the traumatic anxiety episodes I hadn’t experienced since my childhood summer camp attempts. In place of the panic I had felt during the last few weeks about sharing my room with a roommate, I now had multiple roommates in my cabin and a full schedule of activities that kept me from enjoying even a few minutes of seclusion during the day. In the evenings, I avoided the group bonfires despite really wanting to go because I was too drained from the day’s social activities. When we came back, I waited until the last day before my tuition and room/board fees became nonrefundable and made the heartbreaking decision to transfer all my courses online and come home to Wisconsin.
My Failed First Semester
That first semester was one of the lowest, darkest times in my life. While many of my friends were starting their adult lives somewhere new, I was sitting in my childhood room, taking 13 credits of easy online courses with no one to hang out with but my parents and little brother. I felt so defeated, incapable, and sad. A couple weeks after coming home, I got a letter in the mail that had originally been sent to my college address and then forwarded back to my Mequon address. It was a heartfelt note from my dad about how proud he was of me for starting school and becoming independent. I broke down after reading that and am crying again now as I write and relive this.
After some time spent grieving internally and privately, I shifted my focus to becoming resilient. I reasoned that if I couldn’t be unique in the school that I chose, my story would be unique because of how I overcame this adversity. The only other time I had experienced this low of a “low” was in eighth grade when I suffered from anorexia and depression. Despite battling them at varying lengths for years, I managed to define my years instead by academic and extra curricular achievements and was truly proud to have achieved them. I knew I could find similar things to achieve this time, too. Though that semester was far from glamorous, I aced my online classes, got my first job as a hostess at a local restaurant, started volunteering with Goodwill’s vintage fashion show program, and enrolled at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee.
I still had lots of free time that fall and I filled it with the things I missed the most while I was at ASU. I spent lots of time alone, getting up close and personal with my thoughts while hiking, where I used my old iPhone 6 to take pictures of trees and flowers. I went on a trip up north with my dad. Slowly, I started to feel more myself again. I also realized that I needed to really understand my anxiety triggers if I ever wanted to learn how to travel or live by myself despite them. When school started up at UWM for the spring semester, I had a blast. I lucked out again with a great roommate, but still took trips home when I wanted to (usually about once every two weeks). I also kept my car on campus, so I could easily drive home and to dance or ski practice. To me, the most empowering realization came when I realized that I had already spent all of high school creating an adult life for myself here in Wisconsin, so I didn’t need to start over somewhere else to find that fulfillment like my friends did.
Learning From My Experience
In the years since then, my biggest takeaway has been to listen to and be honest with myself. Whether it was about where to go to college, accept a job, start a relationship, or join a club, I always found fulfillment when I trusted my gut and found anxiety when I didn’t. When you find yourself in a low moment in life, the best thing you can do is keep moving forward. Keep trying your best at the tasks you have in front of you each day, and when you can’t do that, just try in any capacity. Be proud even if it took you all day to find the motivation just to get out of bed to take a shower, because you still did it. If being a delivery driver is the only job you can get right now, be the best dang one at the company. And if you find yourself home from college after three weeks, look for a new school closer to home where you can thrive. It is always worth it to live your best life. Yours.