Last Friday I suffered from a panic attack.
One moment I was the Virginia who had been doing just fine in college; I was the Virginia who had traveled miles from home without a care; I was the Virginia who had tried to say hello to every person she passed and find a time to grab coffee with each and every one of them. Everything I’d known had changed in an instant, and I was honestly surprising myself with how far I’d gotten without a single moment of worry.
Yet suddenly I no longer felt like this strong, capable version of myself. Suddenly I was the Virginia who had run to find refuge in the high school practice rooms when she abruptly couldn’t breathe in the middle of class. Suddenly I was the girl who hadn’t gotten out of bed for days because she felt physically incapable as if the heaviness she felt in her heart were pinning her to the mattress. Suddenly I was on my bathroom floor, heaving in a way that shook my entire body, and when my roommates found me and held me, I cried harder for the fear of sinking back into that place than for the way I felt in that very moment.
Declining mental health among students is an incredibly prevalent issue at my high school, as well as many others, as our society slowly becomes more cutthroat and college-focused. The expectations placed on high school students are greater than ever, and then, when they finally feel it’s all over, they’re thrown into college; an odd, semi-real world experience where they are left to figure out everything on their own. Even for the most independent, focused, or socially aware student, college presents a unique balance of new friendships, new surroundings, and ultimately, a stressful environment whether the workload is taxing or not.
I think so often the media portrays college as the most exciting years of your life—the years where your core memories are made, your truest friends found, and your life finally starts to have a meaning. College is seen as the beginning of the rest of your life, and after the depression and anxiety I struggled with in high school, I was so ready to move to Asheville and start over completely—to forget that I was ever that person. In fact, I think I hoped so strongly to put the person I was behind me that I never wanted anyone to know she had existed. To the people here in Asheville, I was someone new entirely—someone who could handle new situations and environments with ease and kept any problems of her own to herself.
Perhaps that’s why I was so scared by Friday night, so overwhelmed with the feeling that all the progress I had made to become independent, to become strong and capable and brave, was for nothing. As I sat on the bathroom floor I felt like every step I’d made simply screeched to a halt, and that even though I was finally in a place that loved me as I was and valued my happiness, it still wasn’t my place. I felt lost beyond belief.
Here’s the thing though; none of the progress I’d made to become happier, to pull myself out of the rut I’d felt stuck in for so many years of my life, was gone. The truth is, I was stronger and more capable and braver than ever, simply because I had made it this far. I think in a moment of panic it can be hard to remember the person you are, the person you’ve worked hard to become, but the truth is, having a bad moment (or many) does not in any way define you. What does define you is how to chose to learn from that moment, to move on from it, and I think in the constant hustle and bustle that is college, that can be easy to forget.
I think on that Friday night I felt as if I’d taken 100 steps back, but with a little perspective now some days later, my bad night really gives me a better understanding of why I’m here. I came to Asheville because I knew it was a place that loved me, that cared for me, and since that night I’ve found that love over and over again. The people I’ve met here love me for every part of myself—good times and bad times—and I’m beyond grateful for that.
So to all those out there who are in a similar place, to all those who feel a little lost despite being in a place so exciting, to all those who feel unsure about their futures, and to all those who feel a little misplaced in the world, it’s ok to feel exactly that. College is thrilling and exciting but equally as hectic and unsettling, and being in control all the time isn’t something anyone expects of you. I think the bravest thing you can do is accept everything you feel as it comes, and find the people who will love you in all forms. I think that’s what college is really for, for understanding that who you are is made up of everything you’ve experienced, but also from how you chose to move on from those things.
I guess I wrote this article kind of as a form of self-healing, but also because I truly believe in learning to accept every part of yourself. Understanding that you don’t always have to feel completely happy—and surrounding yourself with people who will love you and support you at all costs—is the first step to truly building a life worth living. I am not just my panicked moments, and neither are you. We are brave and we are strong and we have made it this far—and that’s bigger than anything.