A year in the life of an isolated student

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My support system has been my lifeline

CW: violence, mental health, eating disorder, substance use, suicidal ideation

The one thing about my experience over the past year that I think we can all relate to is having very conflicting emotions upon reflection. It’s instinctual to want to label an experience as all good or all bad because that makes it easier to process, but it doesn’t do the experience justice. On one hand, this past year has put me through more low points than I thought I would make it through. On the other hand, I’ve never felt so genuinely loved.

A particularly frustrating aspect of this semester is that most professors seem to think that, since students are in lockdown, we must have a bunch of extra time, so they assign much more than normal. In reality, the last full day off I had was January 8, and the soonest day that I may be able to fully take off is April 6. I have so many assignments, papers, and projects to finish that I have to get them done before I actually have the time to listen to pre-recorded lectures or teach myself what’s in the readings. I have to sacrifice actually learning the material for getting a grade – that’s not an experience I’m comfortable paying full tuition for. I’m clearly not getting my money’s worth, and I have some buyer’s remorse.  

Last semester, in October, my then-landlord decided to get a puppy. She already had two big dogs in the house we shared, one of which had aggressive tendencies, a history of attacking other dogs, and then losing control to the degree we had to restrain it or it would also attack us in that moment. This tendency was increased when the puppy was brought home, which led to experiences like being halfway through a midterm and having to stop to break up an attack happening three feet behind me. It also meant that these fights could break out while I was conducting interviews for work, trying to pay attention during a lecture, or trying to organize my thoughts while writing a paper.

Things got so bad that in December I took a bus to Saskatoon to live with a friend and her husband for a month, because there was no way I could handle the constant reality of potential violence during finals. I was at the point of mental breakdown, and I developed a trauma response so that any sudden loud noise sent me directly into fight or flight. Do you really think I was able to be the best student I could be in that environment? Do you think I was able to actually learn everything I needed to and get the most out of the courses I was charged full tuition for? If you think normal test anxiety is bad, think about this-dog-could-attack-at-any-moment-during-this-test anxiety. That is quite obviously not something I would’ve experienced on campus.

I’ve since moved to a much calmer apartment which has helped, but I currently spend 95 per cent of my time in my room, completely alone. The last time I shared a meal with someone was a week and a half ago. I legitimately cannot remember the last time I was really hugged. Whether my day is incredible or an absolute nightmare, I don’t have anyone in my household I can sit down with and talk to.

I’ve been dealing with mental health issues like anxiety, depression, anorexia, and suicidal ideation for the last 12 years of my life, and substance use intermittently for the last five. This period of isolation over the last year has removed almost every healthy coping mechanism that I had been using to manage these issues. A year ago I weighed 145 pounds; I’m now sitting at about 110. None of that weight was lost intentionally or in a healthy way, and I’m lucky it’s only resulted in one trip to the ER. A year ago, I would get high maybe twice a week; in 2021, there have been nine days total that I haven’t had to smoke marijuana as a coping mechanism just to be able to eat a full meal that day. That is my reality while trying to keep up with remote learning right now, and I’m only being this vulnerable to communicate that everyone – no matter how much they’re accomplishing right now or how brave of a face they’re putting on – is having to deal with situations they are not prepared for.

Some of the people who have quite literally saved my life this past year are my closest friends, my coworkers at the Carillon, and the board members I serve with on the Psychology Students’ Association (PSA). I figured out early on in quarantine that if I wasn’t involved in things that gave me a sense of purpose, I wouldn’t make it through this year. One of the best ways for me to manage my depression is to make plans for the future that I can be excited for, so I went all in.

Over this past year, I moved up from being a staff writer at the Carillon to being editor of this section, and though imposter syndrome still rears its ugly head, I am deeply fulfilled by being able to offer students this platform. In the PSA, I moved from being an uninvolved student outreach representative to taking the reigns on our undergraduate mentorship program. Being able to work with this many passionate and engaged people has ignited a drive in me that I didn’t think I had anymore.

I’m still learning that it’s okay to ask for support when I need it, and my close friends and the people who make up these organizations have helped me progress more than I ever thought possible simply by being there for me when I hit my low points. I have never in my life had so many people who genuinely have my back, who want to help me reach my full potential, and who’ve made me feel able to meet all the challenges I’ve faced over the past year. At times, I genuinely did not see a way out of my low points, and I wouldn’t be here to write this if not for their support.

So, here’s to making it through one year. Whatever that has looked like for you, I’m happy you also made it through your lows. Whatever you thought you couldn’t handle over this past year, somehow you did. Whatever you thought might be too much to handle could not bring you down. Hold on to that.

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