Dealing With Depression And Anxiety in College
Editor’s note from Glenn Holsten:
A few months ago, Lauren Dicair submitted an essay about her life to OC87 Recovery Diaries. I was stunned by her story — it contained tremendously sad details of a traumatic childhood that was followed by years of wrestling with mental health issues. I was also impressed by her resilience — the writer who had weathered so many emotional and physical storms was able to tell her story with quiet determination and thoughtful reflection.
When Lauren and I first spoke by phone, she informed me that the essay was a condensed version of stories from her memoir, which she is currently writing. She spoke beautifully her reasons for — and challenges of — writing a memoir. I was struck by her resolve to discover meaning in her life, to heal herself, and to help others. By sharing her story, she wants to prevent another person from experiencing the isolation and pain that marked her childhood. The video interview excerpts that accompany this post include much of what was discussed in that phone conversation, in hopes of providing a window into Lauren’s writing process, and an effort to share the issues and questions that someone writing a memoir must address when undertaking such an effort.
We’ve decided to publish the story in three parts — which gives Lauren the space to include important details about each chapter of her life. Part one is about her childhood, part two takes us from her college years through young adulthood, and part three brings us to the present day, to a better place and time in Lauren’s life. Happy endings? No such thing. But there are moments of understanding and growth — and besides, she’s only 31 years old and has much more living to do.
Please consider the following an advanced peek at the memoir of Lauren Dicair, a licensed clinical social worker who has the courage to face life’s most difficult moments head on, in hopes of finding light and reason in the darkness. We are extremely proud to present this version of her journey.
The posts are chronological. In Chapter 1, Lauren takes us from infancy and a very painful childhood through her high school years. In Chapter 2, presented here, Lauren recounts what may be described as her “roaring 20s” — a tumultuous time through college and grad school years where she completed school despite many mental health challenges, diagnoses, misdiagnoses, medication misadventures and compulsive behaviors — all the while being the child of drug addicted parents.
In August of 2002, I packed up my clothes and headed to my new home at college. As I loaded up my Pop-Pop’s van with my dorm-room goodies, my mother came out and slumped into a wicker chair on our porch. I hadn’t said a word to her all morning. She began nodding off, her head hanging forward off her neck, with a lit, unflicked cigarette dangling between her fingers. She looked up at me with her bloodshot half-closed eyes, her mouth slightly agape. I climbed in the passenger seat and looked over at her. When she realized that I was not going to say goodbye, she covered her face and shed crocodile tears, making forced weeping sounds.
I told my Pop-Pop to step on the gas and go.
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For the first time since I was born, I was free to walk away. What I didn’t realize was that I had packed more than just my clothes.
I was driven to go to college solely based off of my parents’ dreams for me and my desire to get away from them, so I hadn’t even considered what I wanted to be when I grew up. My GPA was high but my SAT scores were low so I only applied to three state schools and beat myself up for not expecting more for myself when I got accepted to all of them. Slippery Rock, on the opposite side of the state, offered me a free ride — but my Pop-Pop bribed me to stay in the area with a new car. I decided to major in Spanish because it had been my best subject in high school.
My freshman year at West Chester got off to a good start. I was paired with a compatible dorm-mate, I excelled in my classes, and I had started to build a circle of new friends.
But in December of that first semester, I started to feel extremely exhausted and apathetic. I had a hard time getting out of bed. It was the first time I had ever felt this way and I had the notion that I might be depressed.
After a couple of weeks of sitting in my gloom, I dragged myself out of bed and cut across the quad to the campus counseling center. The first therapist I saw was too quiet, the second one too aloof. Then there was Julie. She was sharp, engaging, and had a kind of maternal air that I never knew I had always longed for. I felt so warm and fuzzy and grounded when she would offer a disapproving sniff after I would go off on one of my sophomoric rants about my mother or that month’s love interest.
Even with the solid work I was doing with Julie, my depression continued to progress. A year into our work together, Julie suggested that I see the psychiatrist working in the center. At the time, I was only experiencing depression with no other apparent mood symptoms, so he diagnosed me as having major depressive disorder and prescribed me Lexapro, your run-of-the-mill SSRI anti-depressant.
On the first day that I picked up the script, I took it in the late afternoon and headed up to my then boyfriend’s house who lived two hours away in Central New Jersey. About 45 minutes to an hour into my drive, something told me to immediately cross over two lanes of highway traffic and pull over to the side of the road. As soon as I got to the side of the road I began to feel a wave of heat rush over my entire body. My heart pounded, and I had the sickening feeling that I was going to die. I called my parents and my mother answered, and she assured me that I was having a panic attack. The feelings were so terrifying that I didn’t feel reassured and I hung up with her to call 911. I got back on the highway as I called and described my symptoms to the operator. They told me to stop driving and pull over. Within seconds, however, all of the sensations and racing thoughts about dying had disappeared. I told them that I was OK now and hung up. As soon as I arrived at my boyfriend’s, I phoned the emergency line for my psychiatrist and told him what had happened. He suggested that even though the 10mg he had prescribed me was the starting dose, I was probably very sensitive and should cut it back to 5mg. So that’s what I did. Afterward, I continued to feel depressed, but didn’t tell him this at our monthly visits because I was afraid that he would raise my dose back up to 10mg. I didn’t want to risk experiencing those horrible sensations again. But then, I started to develop general anxiety. Daily, near-crippling anxiety.
Just a year after I had been diagnosed with depression, my father attempted suicide via overdose. I received an unsettling phone call from my mother stating that my father had taken a bunch of pills. I hurried home to find him on the couch. My mother had positioned him face down with a bucket under his face to catch the streams of vomit and spit that were pouring out of his nose. She threw me against the wall when I told her I was going to call 911. For her, letting my father die outweighed letting any outsiders puncture our bubble. She eventually left me alone with him and I was able to call for help.
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I sat with him all night in the ICU as he laid in a coma. He later revealed to me that he had taken over 50 Somas and I learned that my mother had left him to lay there, drowning in his fluid-filled airways for over several hours. I was informed by a physician that if I hadn’t called for an ambulance when I did, he surely would have died. Once he pulled through, he got inpatient psych care, only to return to his miserable reality and attempt suicide two more times.
In my senior year of college, I was living in an apartment with a couple of roommates. My psychiatrist was maintaining me at the same level of Lexapro and had added Klonopin wafers to my regimen to treat my new anxiety. During a brief stint with another psychiatrist, I had been given Zoloft which induced an even worse agitation than I had experienced with the Lexapro so I switched back over to my original regimen. Unlike the tablet version, the Klonopin wafers rapidly dissolve on the tongue and provide almost immediate relief. The only problem was that the relief was short-lived, and within an hour I experienced a boomerang effect of an even higher level of anxiety than I had prior to taking the wafers. So then I would have to take more. This became a vicious cycle. I started to hyper-focus on the physical effects of the anxiety — the palpitations, the sweaty palms, the sickening, gut wrenching feeling that something horrible was going to happen at any moment. I compulsively held my fingers to my neck and checked my pulse several times a day. I developed a phobia of venturing out of my campus apartment on my own for fear that I would experience the anxiety outside the safety of the confines of my own four walls. I became hyper-vigilant and paranoid of my surroundings, checking to see if anyone near me was staring at me, if they were able to detect my internal torment. I began to medicate my anxiety and emptiness with a love and sex addiction. I took on multiple partners to distract myself from myself and never have to spend a day or night alone. We shared needles filled with intense, quick-burning passion that gradually lost its effects over weeks.
I carried the weight of the debilitating fear and emptiness for four years, from my freshman year through the end of my senior year in college. Giving up just wasn’t an option — I had to make my father proud and being a college drop-out meant being like them. So I pushed through by the skin of my ass, using the intellectual escape of my coursework and the distraction of my love affairs to get myself through to the next day.
And then, in the spring of 2006, there I was, graduating cum laude with my Bachelor’s degree and an acceptance letter to graduate school under my belt.
I moved into my own apartment near the new campus. For the first time, I was living alone. My class schedule, a part-time job, and food shopping gave my days structure, and were the only activities that caused me to leave my apartment. Otherwise, I became a recluse. I rarely even ventured outside of my bedroom to appreciate the rest of the rooms that I had so thoughtfully decorated. I left the TV on 24/7 to fill up the empty silence while I sat glued to my computer desk, carrying on as many Internet conversations that I could to sate my lonely, fearful spirit. I had ceased taking the Lexapro and Klonopin all together, correlating them with my continued deterioration. I began to use food as way to self-medicate and ate the same Hungry Man frozen meal every night with an entire bag of Milano cookies for dessert. I gained 30 lbs within just a few short months.
Along with my continued compulsion of checking my pulse, I had developed a similar preoccupation with my blood pressure. I purchased a digital blood pressure monitor and cuffed my arm several times a day. I became fixated on the numbers and what damage the consistent, anxiety-induced high readings were causing to my body. I became fearful of going to the doctor’s office where I knew they would examine me with their machines and stethoscopes and potentially give me a diagnosis of high blood pressure or reveal that something was wrong with my heart. There were a few times that the high readings alarmed my primary doctor to the point of him giving me EKGs. He sent me to a cardiologist three times, actions that only fed my irrational fears. The cardiologist ran a 48-hour urine catecholamine test to see if I might have a pheochromocytoma, a tumor that can cause palpitations, elevated blood pressure, and nervousness. But the test was negative and the investigations ended there. At each follow up appointment, the cardiologist kept assuring me that there was nothing wrong with my heart and that the cause of it all was “systemic.” Nothing further was pursued and no one ever made mention of the psychological origins of my symptoms.
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I was working in a medical clinic around this time with full access to the exam rooms and their blood pressure machines. On the days that we weren’t seeing patients, I would close myself off in one of those rooms and indulge in my compulsion. I tried to keep my sickness a secret as best as I could, but my racing, obsessive thoughts about dying were just too strong and I slowly began seeking reassurance from my fellow co-workers. My emotional state never got in the way of me fulfilling my duties, but I was eventually fired anyway because the boss considered it “unacceptable to have panic attacks at work.” I didn’t bother to fight her. I was too overcome with shame and misery to consider my rights. I found another job in a market research call center whose super flexible schedules allowed me to spend time hiding out in the bathroom, staring at myself in the mirror and crying. Other times I would just leave early to return to my cave so that I could escape in my textbooks.
While in graduate school, my Pop-Pop died causing much devastation on many levels. He may not have been the best babysitter to my parents, what with enabling their behaviors, but he had been their only link to the outside world since I had left home, and the only family that had ever shown me sober love. With much guilt, I made the decision to not fill his shoes and I allowed my parents to continue to rot away alone in the isolated confines of their tiny, subsidized apartment.
My endless state of panic about dying prevented me from ever entertaining the thought of suicide. My phobia of medication due to its potential side effects allowed the emotional and physical torment to continue to run my life. The only people I called up for support during my darkest moments were my parents, mostly my father. I never once thought to reach out to anyone else because of the deep shame I felt about revealing my personal sickness and family dysfunction to the outsiders. The suffering was utterly immense, persistent and consuming. However, the drive to run from my past and ensure that I would never become my parents was even more powerful.
My mid-twenties crawled by as I continued to haunt my bedroom and classrooms. The days revolved around research papers and junk food. My only goal was to obtain the diplomas that I was so sure would bring me inner peace. When I was 26, I earned two Master’s degrees in Clinical Social Work and Human Sexuality. They got me employed but they didn’t have the cure-all effect that I had convinced myself they would. Holing myself up in a world of intellectualizations was one of the keys to me surviving my early home life and taking a far less self-destructive path. I had used the defense for all it was worth and now it was time to deal with the fact that it was no longer helpful.
As I sat in the first class of my PhD program, something finally clicked. While half-listening to another lecture as I counted my heartbeats, I realized that if I was ever going to get better, I had to stop hiding behind abstractions and start facing my emotional reality. At this point, I had been dating my boyfriend (who I will call “Paul”), for over a year. We had just moved into our first apartment together. Living full-time with Paul had allowed me to feel safe enough to take the leap into the unknown that was reality. From the very start of our relationship, he had been standing there by my side, holding my hand through every irrational moment while also subtly nudging me to get myself help from a professional. I dropped out of school and put all of my energy into the work I did in the office of my new therapist. With my own training in psychotherapy, I had become a savvier shopper and found a therapist with an analytic flair. Unlike the previous therapists I had seen, she wasn’t afraid to peel back the onion and go beyond my superficial ailments.
Little by little, I began to bond with her, feel safe with her, and start the long overdue healing process. Within six months, I had developed the ability to turn my external, bodily self-awareness into the internal, emotional kind. I finally even took the train to work by myself (albeit with a continued sense of imminent doom).