My First Year of College With Depression

(A picture of a smiling Dhruv in his first year of college)

As I landed in the US, I experienced a multitude of thoughts whizzing at a 100 miles per hour. As any change of life is accompanied with feelings of uncertainty, excitement, anticipation, and hope, so was my decision to attend college in the States. As I mentioned earlier, I did not get into my top choices of schools, and I had drawn up plans to transfer out to a “better” school the minute I had received my rejections. A part of me largely lived in denial: I did not want to accept the fact that I had to go to the University of Illinois instead of a Stanford or a Princeton. Such vehement reluctance to accept your failure is not uncommon when you’ve invested a sizeable amount of time and effort into your dream. I know hundreds, if not thousands, of people who have shared my pain and regret due to a missed opportunity or failed venture. Suffice it to say, I never intended to give my college or the people there a fair shot.

My thinking at the time was unhealthily singular. This was a temporary hurdle; a mere obstacle in my path to achieving my childhood dream. I had wasted time the last couple of years, and I had “let my depression get in the way.” I was not going to be that weak this time. To ensure nothing went wrong, I decided to enroll with one of the country’s premier college counsellors – experts who specialized in designing thousands of high school children’s college applications. If I were going to right my wrong, I needed to have the best of the best at my disposal. I planned out my entire year ahead – extracurricular activities I’d enroll in, side projects that I’d attempt as to “spruce up” my application, and classes I would undertake primarily to show that my abysmal academic performance in high school was merely an anomaly.  

            With such high hopes and ambitions in mind, I set off on my college journey. I remember the first week of college distinctly because of the enormity of changes I experienced. A new country, a new educational experience, people that looked different, spoke different, and thought different than I. Cultural shock had hit me with full force, and it took me a while to steady myself. Despite all this, I felt a foreign sense of excitement and optimism at my prospects for a transfer. My first couple of weeks in classes had gone well, and I felt as if I was finally able to apply myself. Far from the darkness of my high school years, I felt lighter and dare I say happier. Alas, that did not last very long.

            I had entered college in a long-distance relationship with my then-girlfriend who I had been seeing for nearly the last two years. We had a good understanding of each other’s priorities, goals, and dreams, and I was grateful for her support until then. During the turbulence of high school, she had been one of the few people I could rely on and vice versa. Unfortunately, all that started to change with the onset of our college careers. Somewhere, very quickly, our vision for our separate and joint lives started to disagree.

I was struggling to fit in with my peers, but she was integrating considerably better. She would tell me stories of new friends she made and exciting anecdotes, but I had nothing of my own to share. I felt the pangs of homesickness grow stronger each day, and I wondered if I had made a mistake coming to the US. I vividly remember one night during my first month in college where I sat on the bench outside my dorm sobbing as scores of people walked past excitedly and ready to immerse themselves in the exhilaration of college life. I felt desolate and dreary, and slowly, my mental health began to deteriorate.

Things ended very hastily between the two of us, and I felt as if one of the few shreds of stability and joy that I had in my life had vanished. I learnt some invaluable lessons about love, mental health, and life from that relationship, and that would not be the end of my association with my ex, but that’s a story for another day.

Screenshot of an email detailing how I had difficulties adjusting to college life.
Some emails I had written to my counsellor whenever I felt too overwhelmed. (If you’re reading this, you’re an angel!)
Screenshot of an email detailing how I had difficulties adjusting to college life.

            The end of my relationship was a source of immense pain and suffering, and I did not take it too well. As it happened within the first two months of college, the good start that I had gotten off to appeared to be nothing more than a false dawn. Much like everything else in my life, this, too, had been a failure. And once again, people whom I considered close to me had seemingly walked out on me during my lowest. When you feel as if you’re alone in your suffering and no one can relate to you, every challenge life throws at you seems insurmountable. At the time, I began drowning deeper and deeper into the quicksand of my loneliness, and the harder I attempted to claw myself out of it, the stronger its hold on me became. After a while, I decided to accept my fate and simply sink.

            I used to go to the dining halls every night to eat after a tiring day, but I had no one to sit with. Some days, I’d go to a table in the middle of the dining hall, in the hopes that someone would sit close to me, and I could try and talk to them. No luck with that. To make matters worse, I got into a misunderstanding with the few friends I did have, and once again, I felt ostracized due to some childish drama. As an outgoing person, I derive my energy from social situations, and I absolutely love meeting and speaking with new people. But since the advent of my depression, I felt as if my very essence – the thing that made me Dhruv Tyagi – had changed. It was natural to think that I was my depression.

Screenshot of an email detailing how I had difficulties adjusting to college life.
It was during those terrible first few weeks of college that I decided to focus fully on the transfer.

            In such circumstances, it was rather easy to feel pity for myself. It seemed as if in every experience or chapter of life, I had been dealt a terrible hand.

“College is the best four years of your life!”

Bullshit.

“The friends you make here will be your lifelong friends!”

What friends?

“College prepares you for the real world!”

So, the real world is shitty and unrelenting?

            Pessimism pervaded my processing of the world around me. Consequently, I stopped attending my classes, opting to lay in bed till the afternoon, and I decided to seclude myself from most people. Even when some of my friends did ask me to join them for lunch or a night out, I’d immediately say no. I used my need to work for my transfer as a ready excuse, but I knew internally, I was doing no work. Unsurprisingly, my academics and psyche began to plummet, and I felt as if the transfer was a herculean task that was nigh impossible.

Weeks passed, and I spoke to my therapist and counsellors to seek some reprieve from my current pain. There was temporary relief, but it was often short-lived and outlived by my now recurring negativity. I kept replaying the painful memories of the recent past. My high school life, my breakup, my troubles with college. Like a broken recorder, I kept reminding myself of these failings until the point of breaking down. Moreover, I began projecting my past onto my future. “Just like everything else, my transfer will fail too,” I thought. It took me a long time to realize, but all we really have in this life is now. The present moment. Ask yourself honestly how often you live in the past, or how much time you spend worrying about the future. These things have their own significance in our lives, but when you forego the present for either of the two, you forego the right way to live your life. The only way to live your life.

            It is in our nadir that we realize our mettle and our worth. And this was one of the times I rediscovered the determination and indomitable spirit I possessed. I decided that I would give the transfer one last shot. I did not want to give up. We all possess the ability deep within to push on amidst our trials and tribulations. Sometimes, we just have to search a little harder.

Therefore, I decided that in spite of having fallen behind and needing to catch up, I would not let that dissuade me from my goals. So, I started going back to my classes, and establishing a routine. Instead of sleeping in, I began to work out and take care of my body and mind. I even began hanging out with some of my friends again, and I realized that I wasn’t as alone as I had first imagined. Don’t get me wrong, things were still fucking hard. I still hadn’t realized the importance of balance in life as I had become obsessively focused on the transfer. I wasn’t particularly happy either. But things started to look more manageable, and I started to get better at dealing with the hurdles as I encountered them.

A selfie of my friends and I
A picture of me from my second semester, trying to be more social (and cool) I guess.

            It was a scramble to the finish line rather than a full-blown dash, but gradually, I managed to get my applications in. I had even managed to salvage my GPA and academics, and come out of the first year of college with somewhat positive albeit difficult experiences. Midway through my second semester, the pandemic had begun, so I was back at home and eagerly awaiting the decision to my transfer applications. I had applied to seven (fairly selective) schools in the hope that at least one of them would be crazy enough to accept me. I knew that the transfer was a long shot, and I was cognizant of the need to manage my expectations, but somewhere, I wanted to imagine a life away from the University of Illinois – hell on earth (in my mind at least).

Final exam season elapsed, and the big day had rolled around.

Now, if you’re imagining a story of redemption where I defied all odds to secure a transfer and finally achieved my dream…well, I’ve got bad news for you.

7 rejections.

That’s what I received.

All 7 of the colleges I had applied to could not offer me a spot in their student body. I experienced a mixture of disbelief and déjà vu. This had happened before, except this time I had gotten no acceptances! I was so desperate to ensure this was a screw up that I wrote an appeal letter to all the colleges I applied to telling them about my “poor mental health” for the last few years and its impact on my academic performance. The ultimate roll of the dice. Unsurprisingly, the colleges were unable to consider my appeal, and that was the death knell for my transfer ambitions.

Of course, I felt like shit. For the next week or so, I decided to give myself whatever I needed to cope with this event. I ate all my favorite junk food, binged shows on every streaming platform imaginable, took a ton of naps, and spent quality time with my loved ones. Even though I had failed to secure the transfer, much to mine (and frankly, everyone else’s surprise), I took it on the chin. I accepted it for what it was. Sometimes, no matter what we do, certain variables are out of our control. The college admissions process typifies this perfectly. Life can be unfair and random, and oftentimes, little is within our control. But it is what we do with that little that matters. To reiterate, all we have is the moment we are living in, and nothing else.

Furthermore, I was grateful for this setback because it taught me the most I have ever learnt about myself. I learnt the value of taking care of myself and how crucial the balance between physical and mental health is. I learnt the value of consistency and hard work and that I can achieve the things I want to. Sure, the transfer didn’t work out, but I still did well academically and gained new perspectives and maturity. I learnt that I am spectacularly good at failing. But I am even better at dusting myself off and getting right back up.

Finally, I learnt that all pain in life is temporary. The strife that we unavoidably encounter in our lives will come and go just as the seasons cycle through with unshakeable certainty. Though during the lows, time seems to crawl and drag on, you will look at yourself and your life one day and realize – the worst has passed. And then, even though happiness and thriving seemed implausible, nay, unimaginable, you’ll begin to see the seeds of optimism and progress bloom into the fruits of reality.

All it takes is a dash of courage and pinch of faith.

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