TRIGGER WARNING: This post deals with an account of sexual assault and may be triggering to some people.
“Life’s challenges are not supposed to paralyze you, they’re supposed to help you discover who you are.” ~Bernice Johnson Reagan
During my first year away at college, I struggled with depression and anxiety. I felt broken, hopeless, and lost, and I didn’t know how to cope.
At times, I thought about jumping out of my fourth floor dorm room window.
Thankfully, I didn’t.
It all began on the day I moved into my dorm in August of 2008. My parents took me out to dinner, and right before they dropped me off, they got into an argument.
For most of my life, they were always arguing about something. Many times I chose to simply brush it off and ignore my own hurt feelings. But something about leaving home for the first time made me realize that their turbulent relationship really did bother me.
My roommate hadn’t arrived yet, so I spent my first night at college alone in my dorm room, crying and worrying about how my parents would get along while I was away.
During the first week of classes, I was raped, only I didn’t realize it until weeks later.
I went out with some new friends, and we met two guys who invited us back to their place, where we had a few drinks. My friends left, but I decided to stay.
I told the guy that I wasn’t going to have sex with him, but he didn’t honor my request. At the time, I didn’t see what had happened to me as “rape.” I reasoned that I had let a guy take advantage of me while I was intoxicated.
My denial gradually shifted to self-blame. If only I hadn’t stayed. If only I hadn’t been wearing such a short skirt. If only I hadn’t asked him to cuddle and led the way to his room.
I felt angry and disgusted with myself. I thought it would be easier if I pretended that the rape had never happened.
Throughout my first semester, I also struggled with adapting to a new life away from home.
The shock of being in a new and unfamiliar environment with thousands of people I didn’t know made me feel anxious, overwhelmed, afraid, and alone. I had so much free time, but I felt paralyzed by anxiety and didn’t know what to do when.
I made a few friends, but I didn’t have a solid friend group. I felt lost in a sea of too many faces, and I doubted that anyone even noticed me or cared.
I didn’t feel connected to my university, and I definitely didn’t feel like I belonged. At one point, I thought: I don’t even know who I am.
I had transferred from a community college to a large university to study magazine journalism in a top journalism program, but I was having major doubts.
A few weeks into my classes, I discovered that I hated deadlines and could care less about the news. I also felt intimidated by other journalism students and unsure of my own skills and abilities.
I felt depressed about so many different things at once—the rape, my parent’s toxic marriage, my lack of identity and sense of belonging, and my uncertainty about my major.
I isolated myself inside my dorm room as a way of coping with my struggles. I spent many weekends crying, feeling sorry for myself, and trying to sleep away my pain.
This was not the enjoyable college experience I had envisioned.
I tried to act like everything was okay, but on the inside I was falling apart. I did not want to talk to anyone about any of my struggles. I couldn’t because I felt too ashamed and did not want to be judged.
I avoided my friends and family from back home. I felt vulnerable, and I didn’t want any of them to know what I was going through. I had too much pride to show any weakness.
The only thing that I could do was write. I started a new journal, and I wrote down everything that was bothering me. Writing helped me to identify, explore, and confront my struggles. Most importantly, it gave me a voice.
Eventually, I made a few friends and grew to trust them, and also met a wonderful, supportive guy who is now my boyfriend. I managed to confide in them about a few of my struggles. Speaking out loud about them strengthened my voice and gave me power.
I graduated from college six months ago, and I can’t say that I have completely overcome all of my struggles, but I did manage to confront every one of them.
I wrote until there was nothing left to write. I let my parents know how I feel. I changed my major. I talked to two counselors. I became more involved in college life. I let others in.
It took me years of seeking, exploring, and learning how to help myself in order to get to where I am now. I had to sincerely want to help myself.
Learning how to navigate and help yourself is one of the most important things you can do in life. Only you can truly help yourself—no one else can fix your problems for you. It takes a huge amount of courage and determination to confront your struggles.
Sometimes it will seem easier to ignore them and pretend they don’t exist.
When they begin to surface, the pain might seem like too much to bear. You may just want to give up on yourself and your life.
But in your moments of greatest hardship, you have the ability to pick yourself up and carry on. Knowing and believing that you are worthy of a long, happy existence, you have the power to help yourself.
These are some steps you can take to confront your struggles and help yourself:
1. Admit to yourself that you’re struggling.
So often we lie to ourselves and pretend that we are fine. By admitting to yourself that you are struggling, you acknowledge that what you are experiencing is real. Adding a positive affirmation can also help.
Stand in front of a mirror and say out loud: I am struggling right now, but I know that I can make it through.
2. Write down everything that’s bothering you (even if it seems trivial).
Identify your struggle(s). What is it specifically that you are dealing with?
Identify your feelings. How is this struggle making you feel? Depressed, anxious, terrified?
Identify your needs. What do you need to feel better and overcome this struggle? How can you take good care of yourself? You may need time alone, or you may need to be around others who are supportive.
3. Allow yourself to feel.
When we experience negative emotions, we often try to resist or ignore them. We think to ourselves, “I shouldn’t be feeling angry” or “I don’t want to feel hurt.”
This harmful resistance comes naturally to us, and we do it to protect ourselves, but it only masks the truth and creates more suffering. Remind yourself that it’s okay to feel however you are feeling for as long as you need to.
4. Know thyself.
Be aware of specific events or emotions that tend to trigger stress, anxiety, or depression in you. How do you react to stress, pain, loss, etc? When you feel overwhelmed and unable to handle a situation, pay attention to how you deal with it and determine if your coping mechanisms are helping you or hurting you.
Do you smoke to relieve stress? Do you drink or use drugs to escape your problems? Do you withdraw from people and activities? Replace negative coping strategies with positive strategies, such as meditating, exercising, spending time with loved ones, or listening to music.
5. Talk to someone you trust.
Talk to a close friend, spouse or girlfriend/boyfriend, counselor, or family member. Sharing your struggles with someone can help you release negative emotions, process what you’re going through, and ease your heavy burden. No one will think less of you for struggling or asking for help.
6. Create a self-help plan.
Make a list of actions you can take the next time you are feeling overwhelmed, anxious, or depressed. Choose what works best for you for each emotion.
For example, write down: When I feel overwhelmed, I am going to take five deep breaths, paint, and play basketball. Or: When I feel depressed, I am going to listen to uplifting music, write, and talk to a friend.
7. Write a letter of encouragement to yourself.
Use a gentle tone and kind words, as if you are writing to a dear friend. You might be surprised at how comforting it can be to read your own words of hope and encouragement. Tuck the letter away in a special place, and read it the next time you are struggling.
Remember that you are never, ever alone, even though you may feel that way. And know that it’s okay to open up to others; you don’t have to handle this on your own. Opening up requires courage and vulnerability, but it truly is a testament to your inner strength.
One of my favorite quotes from a Tiny Buddha contributor is: “Pain is temporary, but growth is permanent.”
Remember that your struggles only make you stronger—they help you grow and become better prepared for more of life’s challenges.
Photo by Hartwig HKD