I went back to college this past fall after taking two years off. I’ve always been good at school, often to the detriment of my mental health, but I’d assumed that I would be able to pick up where I’d left off and keep up with the workload demanded of me.
It wasn’t true. Suddenly, the workload was too much for me. During my first three weeks back in school, I must have had a dozen breakdowns over the amount of work I had to get done. I couldn’t see a way to do it all. My auditory processing issues were flaring up, making it difficult to understand lectures, and my anxiety and depression were going through the roof.
Fortunately, I know how school affects me, because I’d been fighting my way through it for seven years. My two-year gap was thanks to me knowing that I needed some time off to collect myself and figure out how to get through school without crashing and burning. So, when I went back this past fall, the first thing I did was contact my school’s counseling and psychiatric service and ask what my options were for finding a therapist. I told them I needed someone who was knowledgeable about transgender identities, and I was given a short list of people to contact. I met with my current therapist, felt comfortable with her, and started seeing her twice a month.
So, when I started crashing and burning about three weeks in, I was able to talk about it to her. I told her how I wasn’t able to pay attention to what I was actually learning because I was so busy trying to keep up with my readings. I talked about how I was going full speed from the moment I woke up till the moment I went to sleep, and how I didn’t have any time for myself.
She listened to my stressed out venting and then asked, “Do you think you might want to drop one of your classes and be part-time?” My first reaction was shock that she had suggested that as a possibility; I didn’t think I deserved to be part-time. My problems weren’t big enough for my therapist to suggest that, I thought. My next immediate, visceral reaction was NO. I couldn’t be part-time! I had to keep up with the work load! I was smart. I was good at school. I didn’t need to reduce my courseload. That would almost be cheating! I’d made it through seven grueling years of school already, so why would I suddenly need to cut back on my workload? I had never even considered that as a possibility.
My image of myself as a model student, as “good at school,” wouldn’t allow me to consider that it would be okay for me to cut back on my workload and take care of myself instead. But once I got over my initial reaction, I started wondering why I felt so strongly. One of my classes wasn’t actually for my major or a general education requirement. What would be the big deal about dropping it?
It was really difficult for me at the time, but by my next therapy appointment, I was ready to drop one of my classes. And I did. Suddenly, I could actually absorb what I was reading, and I had time to take care of myself and take a break. I kept going to therapy, and I even talked to my doctor about starting medication to help with my depression and anxiety. For the first time in my life, I was actually seeking support for the things that had been pushing down on me for years. And I found really good professionals who actually cared about me and wanted to help. I wasn’t immediately 100% better – I still had low days, and low weeks, where getting out of bed was too much to ask of me. But I had people to help me figure my way out of the depression- and anxiety-fueled pit I sometimes found myself in.
When I first became part-time, my therapist also suggested I go to the Disability Resource Center (DRC) on campus and see what they could do for me. This I wouldn’t do. My deep fear was that they would grill me about my disabilities and decide I wasn’t disabled enough for their services. I didn’t really believe I deserved any more support. I was part-time, and that was already a big deal. I could cope with the rest.
At the beginning of the next quarter, I again thought about going to the DRC and again decided I didn’t need it. Eight weeks later, I was sobbing with anxiety in a school bathroom over an upcoming final. A concerned faculty member gave me an empty room to cry in and went and found a counselor who had an office in the building. She talked to me until I calmed down and suggested that I go to the DRC next quarter. I confessed to her that I didn’t think I deserved accommodations, and she assured me that plenty of people with anxiety use the DRC, and that it was fine if I went there, too.
I finally went to the DRC this March, after two quarters back at school. I talked with my therapist about my fears before I went. I told her I didn’t even know what accommodations I wanted. If I needed accommodations, wouldn’t I walk in knowing what it was I wanted? She told me that their job is to help me figure out what would be helpful for me, and that it was okay to go in not knowing what I wanted. That helped, but I was still nervous for the actual meeting.
Heart in my throat, I walked into the quiet, comfy-looking office the next morning. I met with a very nice service coordinator and confessed that I wasn’t sure I deserved to be there because I had gotten through school so far. She replied, “Well, we want to make sure you are doing well, not just ‘getting through’!” That made me feel much better, but then I had to tell her I had no idea what would be helpful for me.
Unconcerned, she pulled out a piece of paper and divided it into four squares. “I like to do this visually to help people figure out what sort of accommodations they need,” she said. She labeled each square “class,” “homework,” “exams,” and “life.” Then, she asked me questions about how I studied best, what helped me pay attention in class, what exams were like for me, and whether there were any other issues in my life that made school difficult. She said that I clearly had strategies that helped me since I had made it this far, and that their job was to help build on the strategies that already worked for me. At the end, we had a list of possible accommodations I hadn’t even known existed!
Included in these accommodations were:
•Being able to use my laptop to take notes
•Being able to record lectures (with a pointer to several different possible apps)
•Getting my physical readings and textbooks converted to digital, highlightable formats
•Getting extra time on tests and quizzes
•Taking exams alone or in a smaller group
•Using a DRC laptop to type my exams
She even offered to give me permission to come to class late and leave early since I live off campus and getting to school on time can be difficult. I was amazed. I never plan to use the permission to show up late, but just knowing that I can do so cuts so much anxiety out of my daily commute. She also told me I could lease a digital pen from the DRC that would transmit my written notes to typed ones.
I left feeling buoyant and excited. I had not expected such a warm reception and so much help! I felt silly for waiting so long to go.
These experiences over the past year have helped me learn how important and okay it is to do school in a way that works best for me. I had been trained into a mindset that if I couldn’t cut it at the “normal” level of work and stress, I was bad and worthless. It was really difficult for me to break out of that viewpoint, but I am so glad that I did. Now I keep wanting to spread the word to all my friends who are struggling with school and mental illness or disability. It can be really difficult to feel that you deserve help or accommodation, but we all deserve to be healthy and happy in our school, work, and life.
[Headine image: The photograph shows the silhouettes of two people on a large rock. Both are reaching out their hands to each other as though the person at the top of the rock will help the other person climb it. Behind them is a blue sky with clouds.]