Oberlin Blogs

On Getting Help and Talking About It

January 19, 2015

Emily Wilkerson ’15

As I've alluded to in a couple of recent posts, this past semester was a difficult one. My classes were challenging, sure, but that's not extraordinary for a semester at Oberlin. What was extraordinary was that I constantly felt overwhelmed by my schoolwork and anxious that I wouldn't be able to get it done. I consistently woke up later than in previous semesters and still spent most days feeling tired. I cried all the time - not just in my apartment or in Mudd but while walking across campus, in bathrooms before class, and at a cappella rehearsals. I had (what I hesitate to call anxiety attacks because I haven't been diagnosed with a panic or anxiety disorder but what certainly seemed like) anxiety attacks on a weekly basis. To put it simply, anxiety has been a part of my life for a long time, but this semester, anxiety took control of my life.

All of this came to a head after a particularly stressful weekend in November. I was talking to my German lit professor, Robin, after class and trying to tell her why I hadn't yet finished the paper that was due the previous night. Then suddenly I was telling her about how anxious I was and how I felt like a failure for not being able to finish my work on time. My heartbeat quickened, tears rose to my eyes, my face reddened, and each breath came harder than the last. I could tell I was beginning to panic, on the second floor of the language building of all places, but I couldn't do anything to stop it. Luckily Robin said exactly the right thing, "Emily, we can talk about the paper later. Let's talk about your mental health." She took me to her office and we had a long conversation. By the end of it we had made a deal: I could have an extension for my paper if and only if I made an appointment at the counseling center. I called and made the appointment that afternoon. I had been considering seeing a counselor since the middle of October, but hadn't been able to bring myself to do it until Robin gave me the push I needed.

In other words, it took someone more or less forcing me to make an appointment at the counseling center for me to actually do it. I'm not proud of this.

I wish I could say that I came out of my first session with a counselor feeling better, or that it was easy for me to talk to a counselor. In reality I left my first session thinking that it was really hard to talk to someone about the source of my anxiety after spending a lot of time and energy trying not to talk or even think about just that. Even so, I appreciated having someone to talk to, who I could trust to ask the right questions. I only had a few appointments with my assigned counselor, but I definitely noticed the difference they made. Sure, finals week was frankly, pretty hellish, but in the week or two before that, I felt more like my normal self. I started to feel better.

So why am I writing this post? Well, the first reason is a selfish one: I want to get better at talking about my own mental health and writing is a slightly less scary version of talking. The second reason is the more important one, and it comes down to the following quotation from a pamphlet I picked up in the counseling center,

Did you know that roughly one in four Oberlin students seeks Counseling Center services every year?

Personally, no. I had no idea that so many Oberlin students sought help from the counseling center. If someone had asked me to guess a percentage, I would've guessed much lower than 25% because I can only think of one or two people I know ever talking about going to the counseling center. I get why this is. As the illustrious Ida recently wrote in an e-mail to me, "it's hard to talk about hard things!" Mental health is something a lot of people want to keep private, and talking about it is uncomfortable for a variety of reasons, ranging from the internal struggles I mentioned above to the societal misunderstanding and fear of mental illnesses. Particularly because of that stigma, I think it is so important to talk about it, especially in a challenging environment like Oberlin. So here I am, starting to talk about it. I'm not the first blogger to write about mental health, but the more voices in this conversation, the better, right? I hope this is a conversation we can continue having in person, on the blogs, and (I dare to hope) in the comments.

Responses to this Entry

Emilyyyyy. Emily. You know how I feel about this. You are so brave for writing, and for fighting. Also, when I went to counseling center junior year when I was spending most weekends in bed doing some combination of sleeping and crying and not eating, the receptionist who booked my appointment was like "Wait, you've never been here? You're a junior? Wow." and I was like "huh, okay, I feel weirdly validated right now."

Oberlin is hard, college is hard, life is hard, growing is hard, talking is hard, it's all hard, and this whole independence/strength fetish we collectively have as a culture is way toxic. Perfectionism is crap. Failing is gold. Serious for real communication is beyond gold. (Get more help! Make more talk!)

And oh my god I cannot even imagine having to navigate all of this if I wasn't as neurotypical as I am, that would be a whole nother level of hard, so thank heck for my privilege there.

Posted by: Ida on January 20, 2015 2:23 AM

I'm a graduate of Whitman College, and I've seen the same thing happen to lots of people. I agree wholeheartedly with you that us high-performing types could use many reminders that it's okay to take care of ourselves, that it's okay to stumble, that our mental health is real and important and not just something to be thrown by the wayside.

My senior year, I did what I think many Whitties do for many of their four years. I took things that I now recognize as forms of self-care--relaxation, hanging out with friends, etc.--bundled them up, and tossed them into my engine. I incinerated my self-care for the boost it would give me. After all, I was resilient, maybe even expendable. I could make it through.

I was walking a razor line. With all of my resources dedicated to achievement, I had nothing prepared in case things went wrong. I'd burned my lifeboats. So when something did, inevitably, go wrong, it was all the more catastrophic.

Anyway, I'm 100% on board with better communication, better self-care, and fighting the drive for perfection endemic to small liberal arts schools. Maybe this is weird to say as a stranger, but I'm proud of you for sharing your experience and getting some support.

Posted by: Spencer on January 21, 2015 3:10 PM

I also want to applaud you for writing this. My high school saw a particularly high level of mental-health-related issues, and so getting help and talking about it became less taboo and more the norm. Unfortunately, this is not really the case at Oberlin, despite the fact that at first glance, the campus seems open and willing to talk about literally everything. But somehow, we are always able to put first talking about other peoples' issues before our own. I have always found that remarkably backwards.

Posted by: Andrea on January 23, 2015 12:23 AM

Idaaaaa: When I made my first appointment, the person on the phone said something similar and I agree, it was sort of validating.

Spencer: It's actually astounding to me how widespread these sorts of issues are among college students, especially students at elite colleges. I wish people couldn't relate to this post as much as they seem to. I wish that it weren't the case that so many people have, as you said, burnt all their life boats with catastrophic results, but that's unfortunately the way it is. I hope that talking about it can help that to happen less, but I guess we'll see. And that's not weird to say at all. Thank you.

Andrea: My high school was wonderful in so many ways, but people simply did not talk about mental health there at all. I'm glad that was the culture at your school though. That lack of taboo gives me hope. I think you have hit the nail on the head though in terms of Oberlin students, that is so insightful. One of the things I love most about so many people here, namely the tendency to put communities before individuals, can be so destructive in terms of mental health and well being.

Posted by: Emily W on January 25, 2015 10:32 PM

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