I remember the first time I thought about quitting school. I was in my third year, trying to write a paper last-minute for my Poetry class. I was struggling personally (my best friend and boyfriend at the time had just left on his two-year mission for our church a week or two before), and it felt like everything in my life was in chaos. I still get the tightness in my chest thinking about the stress that had overcome me in that moment. I cried, with my head in my mom’s lap that night as she stroked my hair and told me that everything would be okay. I handed in one of the worst papers I’ve ever written the next day, and continued on, even though my heart just wasn’t in it.
As the semesters went on, every class seemed to stress me out more than the last. I skipped more classes, handed in mediocre paper after mediocre paper, and just wanted to get through it so I could have that degree. My poor attitude and grades finally caught up with me and I was put on academic probation for a year. That was a really low point for me. I felt like I had failed, but I still lacked motivation to really improve. I had a meeting with the Dean, and he told me that whatever I was doing wasn’t working, and maybe I should rethink the classes I was taking, or even being in school. I felt like he was calling me stupid and inadequate, and I was too stubborn to admit that I was really struggling. After improving my grades just a bit (not as much as I was supposed to, actually), I was allowed to continue for another semester, rather than having to withdraw for a year. I thought that it was a sign, a tender mercy that meant I needed to continue with my studies and keep going until I reached that elusive goal of obtaining my Bachelor of Arts and figuring out my next step after that was dealt with.
The year we got married, Christopher was in his second year of his program, and graduating that year. I’m pretty sure I spent more time with him at his school than I did at the university in my own classes. There were a few classes that I really loved and would actually make the effort to attend and do all my work for, but it wasn’t enough to graduate that year. I had the courses I needed, but I just couldn’t motivate myself to do anything. Some days I didn’t even get out of bed until late in the afternoon, and I kept making excuses about why I was going to class. I had a migraine. I was doing other homework. I wasn’t going to miss anything important. But really, the truth was, I didn’t do my readings, which made me anxious about being in class and being called on, and trying to catch up, which then made me depressed.
Thinking back on that time, I feel like I’m remembering a dream. I know it was about me, but it doesn’t feel like me now. I can remember feeling the way I do, like you’d remember sensations from a dream, but it doesn’t feel like reality. If I wasn’t running 3-4 times a week that winter and spring, I don’t know what I would have done. I know that running saved me from some of my stress, but it wasn’t enough. At the end of March, or the beginning of April of 2013, I was telling my mom how stressed I was, unsure of whether I could pass the courses I was taking, and how I just wanted to quit or take a break. And she said, “well, why don’t you?”. The relief that washed over me at that moment was huge. I realized then that my mental health was far more important than a piece of paper. Before that, I felt like I wasn’t doing anything important with my life, but if I had my degree then I would have something to show for the work I had done. I know that that is terrible logic, but when I was surrounded with people who were finishing their second degrees, starting promising careers, travelling the world or having babies, I was feeling like I was somehow behind. I know now that this wasn’t true, but when I start to think about something and internalize it, it’s hard to convince myself of how irrational I’m being.
Once I decided to take time off, I noticed that my stress levels decreased a lot. I was happier. I got out of bed in the morning, and didn’t completely dread the day ahead. Of course I still worried about how I would finish my degree, or if I would, but not in the same way I had before. A year and a half later, I really felt like I had healed and was ready to go back. Of course, it terrified me to think that history would repeat itself, and I was really scared to go through that depressive episode again. Thankfully I didn’t, and I was able to deal with my stress and anxiety towards school in a healthier way. When I finished last semester with my highest average ever, I realized how important it was that I took that time off. Sometimes we need to push through difficult times in order to reach an end goal. But then there are times when we need to take a step back and reevaluate if it’s us that is making times tough, rather than it just being life. Obviously there are things in life that we can’t control, but I feel like we can control more than we give ourselves credit for. Do what you need to do to accomplish your own personal goals. If that means it takes you eight years to get a degree, or ten or twenty, or none because that’s not what you want, then that’s okay. Success is not measured by where you are compared to someone else. Success is measured by how you improve by your own standards, against your own weaknesses.