Confessions of an Ivy League (Temporary) Dropout
Updated: Sep 22, 2020
As life post-graduation unravels, I reflect on my college experience. If you had told me during my first year of school that I’d graduate from college and with my class year (2019), I would not have believed you.
My senior year of high school was everything a self-proclaimed “nerdy” teenager could hope for. After weeks of making deals with God to get into my top-choice school, I opened an acceptance letter to Dartmouth College.
I remember watching my parents’ eyes full of joy and tears, thinking that I would never ask for anything more. Oh boy, if I could see what was to come the following winter. Just one year later, I had transformed into a person I could not even recognize.
As senior year continued on, I spent amazing times with my friends and celebrated the various achievements of my classmates. Since the worry about where I would go to college was gone, my year was smooth and full of fun. I laughed a lot. I let my grades slip without care. I even fell in love.
So, I graduated in my cap and gown. I posted pictures on Instagram with quotes about growing up and how everything would be different soon. I let myself be happy, sad, and cry because this chapter of my life was coming to a close. As the Dr. Seuss cliché goes, “Don’t cry because it is over. Smile because it happened.”
For many 18-year-olds in my upper-middle-class neighborhood, college is everything. It seems to be a rite of passage for the privileged in my community, who have the opportunity to continue their education.
But the truth was, I did not want to go to college. I did not want to leave my family or my friends. I remember one night sitting in my car listening to The Smiths, thinking how desperately I wanted time to slow down.
Stressing out about the future is a great gift of mine (I write sarcastically). So, when anxiety about leaving for school began, I was not surprised. Still, I was so nervous for my impending move to New Hampshire that I could not eat. I spent the summer focusing on the uncertainty of my future rather than enjoying the sweetness of the present.
As a psychology major in college, I learned about the underlying biology and mental process of anxiety. Unlike the rational fear of a barking dog that could bite or a fire that could burn you, anxiety, as I am familiar with it, is the (at times) irrational fear of events that may or may not happen.
I sat in my kitchen, one late July evening, balling my eyes out, talking to my dad about how I would fall apart as soon as I arrived on campus. I would crumble, perform poorly in all of my classes, make no friends, and be a failure.
My father was confused by the anxious and insecure demeanor of his daughter who had been riding a high of success and confidence just a few months back.
I think the tragedy of this moment was that there was nothing my dad could say that would erase my fears. In some ways, I was right. I might get to school and flounder. This could happen. There is no way to predict the future – I would just have to live and see.
What I did not know at this point in my life but would later learn in therapy and through reading about self-care and mindfulness, is that obsessing over the future is futile. I believe all that we as humans can do is take the present moment and do our best to appreciate what is happening right now. If I could go back in time to the summer before college, I would not spend my time worrying. I would focus on enjoying my present state of existence. I would also have spent a lot more time hanging out with my mom.
To the incoming class of college students out there (Class of 2024!), mentally preparing for school in a positive and hopeful way is important. If I had not reflected on the radical change that would come in college, I would have been making a different kind of mistake. But the moral of this part of my story is: Worrying too much means you suffer twice.
Fast forward to the start of my second term in college: January 2016. I am falling apart. Nobody at school knows it. I spend my time barely leaving my room, sleeping 12 hours a night, skipping multiple classes and meals every day. I have melded into a ghost of the person I used to be.
I am in an intense Biology “Foundations” course, learning about cell processes and functioning. It is ironic because I am not functioning – academically or otherwise. I do not take notes in class, I do not register any information the professors attempt to transmit to me. I cannot bring myself to open the textbook before my first exam.
I drop a class for the first time in my academic career. My whole life, always giving my best brought me great pride. But in that winter of 2016, I was not in the state of mind to question my decision to withdraw.
The second week of the term, the due date for a paper in my Shakespeare seminar fast approaches. We are studying Macbeth. My mind is so foggy, writing a two-paged, ungraded paper feels impossible, so I make an appointment with my professor to discuss the assignment. He is happy to meet with me.
We meet one snowy afternoon in his old smelling office full of tattered books – books that appear decades older than my 18-year-old self. I explain to my professor the great trouble I was having with the paper. I told him this was not typical writer’s block: it was like my mind was scrambled. Thoughts whirled around in my head but would not come together to form any coherent thought.
I confessed to my professor that I related to the Macbeth characters’ obsession with sleep. Each night my whole body craved sleep. All I wanted was to be unconscious. I would get to sleep around 8:30 PM each night and could barely force myself to get to my 11:30 am class the next morning. At this point, the only thing that made me feel okay was sleep. Shakespeare writes in Macbeth that sleep is the “Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course, chief nourisher in life's feast.” I had two thoughts while reading Macbeth in my dorm-room bed. The first was that Shakespeare was a genius. The second was that he was the only person who understood me, and he was dead.
After absorbing all of this unabashed, honest information, my professor gave me a stern look and said, point-blank, “Madeline, you are depressed.”
Depressed? Me? Never. I am Maddy. I am bubbly and hardworking and dorky. I am friendly and studious and bad at running sprints. But depressed? No. He had the wrong girl. How could someone who was once so joyous and excited about life feel so pathetic and hopeless? Hopeless. That was how I felt. I felt so hopeless that I could not even get out of bed to eat dinner. After his remark, the conversation about my paper seemed inconsequential.
My professor went on to explain that he too had struggled with depression in his life. He said I could turn in the paper whenever I felt up to it. He even gave me the card of a therapist in town. I would have been more embarrassed in this moment (although reflecting back, I had nothing to be embarrassed about) if I did not feel so full of sadness. I did not have the capacity to feel anything but blue.
A few days later, I made the decision to take a leave term from my dream school. I was self-combusting at an accelerated pace and knew with all my heart that if I stayed it was going to end badly. My worries from the summer were coming true. I was a failure. I was nothing. My parents were extremely disappointed in me – so disappointed they withdrew all savings from my bank account, took away my smartphone, and promised that I would not have the privilege of driving their cars while I was home. They swore again and again that I was making a “huge mistake” that I would surely regret.
The decision to leave Dartmouth College to focus on my own mental health is one of the greatest decisions of my young life. Unlike many of my “Ivy League” perfectionist peers who struggle with mental health and push it to the back burner, I faced my struggles head-on. During my unexpected off term, I worked at a coffee shop and saw a therapist for the first time in my life.
This was difficult for me. I thought therapy was for people who could not handle life on their own. This belief was both uninformed and inaccurate. Presently, I believe that everyone, no matter how strong of a handle they feel they have on their life, can benefit from therapy (if circumstances permit). I even plan to pursue a PhD in Clinical Psychology so I can practice as a therapist myself!
The day I packed up my dorm room and headed to the train station to go home was one of the most challenging days of my life. I did not appreciate it at the time, but in this moment, I was taking steps to save myself and my chance at thriving in college.
In therapy, I talked about the pressure to be perfect. I had lost my identity at Dartmouth, which was once rooted in academic success. In high school, I could understand myself as being a good student. Maybe I was not extremely athletic or artistically gifted, but I could always look to my grades for validation. At Dartmouth, I was just a regular person. A regular person who was struggling with her transition into college.
As the months went on, things got a little better, but they were not great – the deep sadness lingered. I was getting frustrated – would I always feel like this? Would it always be this bad? Every day felt like an emotional marathon, but I kept fighting to feel better in therapy, in working, in meditative walks, and in spending time with my family. By the end of my “term away,” I felt stronger and more like my old self. Refreshed and armed with coping strategies I did not have before, I went back to Dartmouth for Spring Term of my first year. Stepping on the train at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia to head back to school was the most difficult action I’ve ever taken. But I grinned and bared it.
The first month felt impossible. But somehow, someway, as the flowers of spring bloomed, I started to see the light again – the light at the end of the tunnel of my seemingly endless sadness. Things started to be fun again. When I smiled with friends, I no longer felt like an imposter who was only pretending to be happy.
The thing is – I thought I was the only one from my peer group who was having a tough time during my first year of college. I thought that everyone else was thriving. But as time went on, I realized people did not have it all together as it had previously seemed.
In the social media age, college students are experts at seeming happy on the outside while floundering on the inside. This false perception of perfection amongst our peers is detrimental. It can lead to isolation because you believe that everyone is doing well, and you are not. Pretending to be “perfect” gets tiring after a while, so the only way to be perceived as socially acceptable while you are struggling can be to be alone. It is no surprise to me that according to the American College Health Association (ACHA), over 60% of college students report having felt very lonely.
I am not the only college student who has struggled, currently struggles, or will struggle with their mental wellness. In the same national survey by the ACHA, more than 50% of college students reported feeling so depressed that it was difficult for them to function during the past academic year.³ Suicide is the second leading cause of death in 15 to 24 year-olds, trumped only by vehicular accidents. As a recent college graduate and aspiring therapist, I am a passionate advocate for mental health support and awareness in colleges. That is why I feel incredibly fortunate to have worked with The Reflect Organization (Reflect) since summer 2018.
Reflect aims to help break down the culture of perfectionism and create a culture where people are proud to be their true selves – struggles and all. By empowering students to take ownership of their mental wellness and true selves, I feel confident that one day, Reflect will help make a major difference on college campuses across the nation.
Through the humbling experience of taking a leave term from college for mental health reasons, I developed a strong sense of empathy for those who struggle to make it through each day. Upon my return, my new goal in college was to be a source of support for peers who faced difficulties that made the demands of college seem impossible.
They say you are only as sick as your secrets. I kept my “off term” secret for a long time – even from some of my closest friends. I was embarrassed and felt like a failure who could not make it on her own. But with time, I realized that sharing my story could help people, and maybe my choice to take time away would even be considered brave. When I started to be vulnerable, I began to see that pain does not have to be without purpose.
Going through such a challenging period caused my academic path to shift away from the hard sciences and towards fields that explored human pain, connection, and resilience. Eventually, I decided to study psychology so I could go on to work in the field of mental wellness. This is the story of how I dropped out of my dream school, came back, and through the experience uncovered my passion for mental health support. To quote Frank Sinatra, “I did it my way,” by taking time away from American societal expectations to re-center myself and learn how to cope with mental health difficulties.
Throughout college, students have to deal with challenges such as financial difficulties, academic stress, friendship/relationship conflict, or worries about family members/loved ones. One challenge often overlooked in discussions of mental wellness is how lack of access to resources, racial bias and racist behavior at all levels of the university system can adversely impact the mental health of college students of Color.
As a white woman from a family who was able to financially support me throughout college, I operate from a position of privilege. I was able to seek help from Dartmouth’s student support services (the Dean’s Office and Counseling Center) and work with professionals who looked like me. Many Black, Indigenous, Hispanic, Asian and other college students of Color in the United States have shared that they do not feel comfortable seeking mental wellness support for fear of racial discrimination or lack of understanding of their lived experience from mental health professionals. As a mental wellness nonprofit, Reflect aims to create inclusive spaces where BIPOC students can be empowered by peers who are supportive and uplifting. Though I will never be perfect in my daily practice of allyship, I pledge to continue anti-racist education as both an individual and a member of the Reflect Organization.
This story is the abridged version of a very difficult time in my life when I thought I would never feel okay again. Still, I am fortunate because few mental wellness journeys have such a nicely wrapped ending, as millions struggle in silence for years hoping for relief. To these people, my heart is with you, and I pray you know that you are not alone. By sharing my story, I hope I can inspire others to work towards authenticity and honesty about mental wellness challenges and move one step closer to healing.
In my post-college life, I strive to champion Reflect’s motto: “Be open. Be real. Speak your mind.” And always be kind, because we never know what the person next to us might be going through.
Maddy Omrod is a recent graduate of Dartmouth College where she studied psychology and French. Her involvement with the Reflect Organization began in the summer of 2018 when she had the honor of being a Reflect intern. During her internship, Maddy learned about nonprofit development and how to go from having an idea to starting a movement. Reflect’s message to embrace vulnerability and authenticity by “taking off the mask” inspires Maddy in her everyday quest to be more genuine and supportive of others. Throughout college, Maddy spent time working with campus groups for prevention, support, and advocacy efforts for survivors of gender-based violence. Maddy’s dream is to be a practicing counselor for adolescents, with a focus on mental health, relationship and life struggles. Maddy plans to continue her education in the field of mental health at the Bryn Mawr College Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research in the fall.