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How to navigate depression and medical leave from college?

After two hospitalizations for severe depression, I took a medical leave of absence from college. I will not be graduating this spring with my friends. The gap year has been painful and complex, but I have learned some lessons that helped me to keep going.

Here are some recommendations for those struggling with depression or a new schedule.

Keep “Forever Moments in Mind”

When my depression peaked, I began to notice small moments I wanted to be in for the rest of my life. These brief moments of happiness reminded me of shooting stars or sparks in the fire pit. They gave me a glimpse of unknown universes.

The moments that were captured are:

  • On the way to my brother’s new apartment, I was in the car with my parents and grandparents.
  • My kitten was entranced when she saw the fly buzzing on the ceiling in the study.
  • I remember the rush of heat in my body when I took a large bite of food from my childhood favorite restaurant.
  • As I glided along a scenic traverse, the sound of the wind was rushing past my ears.
  • My dad’s the proper method of placing the final piece in a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle that we finished at 3 am.

These are my forever moments. They’re not worth living for, my depressed brain says. They’re just like fireworks. One spark is not enough, but when a group of them are combined, they can produce something as spectacular as fireworks on the Hudson River during the Fourth of July. Together, they create a spectacular show.

Sparks fly everywhere when I am mindful. When I’m conscious, I can increase their frequency and time them so that they make smiley faces or rockets. The combined power of these moments forever keeps me alive when temporary pain is too much to bear.

Practice Distress Tolerance

The intense exercise was one of my TIPP skills (temperatures, intense training, paced breath, paired muscular relaxation) that I learned in my Dialectical Behavioral Therapy group. It is the reason I am still alive.

Running makes me feel in control when my heart is beating out of my ribcage. I run in the park for twenty minutes when I feel out of control. I respond by making my heart beat faster to normalize the notion that more quickly does not necessarily mean worse.

Keep in Mind That Your Experiences are Valid

Why else would mental illness be called mental disease? Heart disease should be located in the heart, and lung disease in the lungs. The underlying assumption is that this illness is less “real” because it’s in the brain. I’ve played cheerful music in the morning and gone to parties to try to act normal. I’ve left funny Post-it notes on my walls. But “cheering yourself up” isn’t as straightforward. Hospitalization and medical leave are not desirable outcomes.

The low I felt was even worse when I forced myself to be happy. I came back to my room exhausted and completely drained. On a bad day, I twisted my ankle a few times while walking with friends. After that, my physical symptoms got worse. In two weeks, I lost 8 pounds without even trying. I felt nauseous when I thought about my favorite foods. My laptop was almost damaged when I dropped things and knocked cups of tea on my desk. My stomach hurt, and my hands were often shaky. I could not sleep more than 2 hours per night. I took melatonin but woke up in the night with difficulty breathing.

I felt trapped in a cycle of insomnia and increased appetite. I didn’t know what to do. Finally, my doctor sent me for blood tests, checked my abdomen, and sent me to the lab to check for stomach ulcers.

The illness has taken over my entire body. This is not because I lack willpower. If you’re struggling too, it’s also not you. It is a long and challenging road — not a quick or simple one. Your frustration and pain are real.

Strengthen Your Mind and Body

As a child, I was a huge fan of Winnie the Pooh. Of course, the animals of the Hundred Acre Woods did silly things most of the time. But I had one favorite quote.

Christopher Robin leaves Pooh a message I wish someone had said to me.

You are more robust, more intelligent, and braver than you think.

You are a true hero for being alive despite everything. You are more brave and more vital than you realize.

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