My 5-year plan after finishing high school was simple: graduate from college in 4 years then begin graduate school directly following graduation. It was easy for me to imagine a 5-year plan at 18-years-old. My toughest challenge in high school had been taming my frizzy hair.
My first 2 years of college were very successful. I made close friends, was hired by my college as a writing tutor, and connected with teachers and administrators in the school district I wanted to eventually work in. I was right on track with my 5-year plan.
During my third year of college, the mass shooting occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School. It was shocking and tragic for our country, and although I lived 100 miles away, I felt a very deep connection to the event. In the following months, I noticed that I would be on high-alert when I'd be out in public. I was truly worried for my safety. That April, I learned about the Boston Marathon bombing when I was in my college’s library. I immediately looked at the entrance to the library and wondered where I would hide if a shooter came through the door. A habit of making “escape plans” in my head became uncontrollable. I started to create them for any public places I would go. I began to avoid walking in open spaces or going out at night. Each night, I dreamed that I was trying to escape from a mass shooting; even in my sleep, I couldn't shake this overwhelming fear.
Clearly, these were warning signs that I needed help. I didn't tell anyone about the thoughts and feelings I was having because I didn't want anyone to think I was unstable. Admitting to myself or to others that something was wrong could jeopardize my 5-year plan. I told myself that all college students were feeling this kind of stress, and I’d feel better when the semester ended.
My Junior year ended, but instead of things getting better, I experienced a complete mental breakdown. I had severe panic attacks, paranoia, and anxiety that made it impossible for me to drive, work, or stay home alone. After I sought treatment with a therapist and psychiatrist, they recommended I check myself into a psychiatric hospital, so doctors could balance my medication and I could learn skills to help me manage my anxiety. Within the next months, I was hospitalized 5 times, spending nearly 3 months total in the hospital. I questioned: How could a person as happy and outgoing as me develop a mental illness? Why didn’t I seek help sooner?
My worst day in the hospital was when I had to withdraw from my senior year of classes. I felt like my years of hard work were slipping away. After my last hospitalization in December, I immediately re-enrolled in classes. I didn't give myself the chance to heal because I wanted so badly to get back on track with my 5-year plan. I struggled through 2 classes, but since I wasn’t committed to working on my mental health, I had ups and downs that made it difficult to do my work, and I wasn’t enjoying school like I did before. Seeing pictures of my friends graduating was hard for me. I wanted to be walking across the stage with them.
By the end of 2014, I finally accepted that if I kept putting my education before my mental health, I could risk having another mental breakdown. I decided to take a medical leave from school; I needed to focus on my mental health and regain my strength and confidence.
For the next 2 years, I attended therapy, worked with my psychiatrist, received a psychiatric service dog, discovered skills to help me cope with anxiety, and practiced self-care. I found my love of writing and felt power in sharing my journey with mental illness. I created a mental health blog and started having my writing published, hoping my story would show people that mental illness can happen to anyone, and there is no shame in seeking help. In January of 2017, I began college again. This time, I felt ready.
The deadline of my 5-year plan has passed, and none of the goals I’d set as an 18-year-old were reached; however, I’m happy, healthy, and have a mission to end the stigma surrounding mental illness. I’m battling a psychiatric disorder, and maintaining my mental health is an ongoing part of my life, but the struggles I faced put me on the path I’m meant to be on.
If you’re experiencing symptoms or warning signs of a mental illness, it’s crucial to seek help as soon as possible. Your mental health is far more important than your 5-year plan. I’ve learned that college can wait, treating mental illness cannot.