This will be one of my last blog posts for the UT Computer Science blog, so I decided to use it to talk about something that I don't see acknowledged much in the computer science department: mental health. Especially as we approach finals week, we as students tend to ignore mental health. Grades, we tell ourselves, are more important than whatever emotional or mental strife we might be experiencing. Just stay up as late as you have to, work as hard as you have to, push through the deep-seated anxiety and discomfort you might be feeling, until the semester finally ends and you can finally let yourself feel. But what happens when the end of the semester doesn't bring you the relief that you're expecting?
As you could probably tell from the majority of my blog posts, this school year has been very hard for me, and I'm finally ready to talk about it in hopes that I can stop even one more person from making the mistakes that I made. Here's the story of this school year, starting with last semester.
When the school year started, I knew that Operating Systems was going to be hard. I took the least number of hours I possibly could, although in retrospect, I should have balanced my coursework a little better across the disciplines. At the time, I saw no problem with it. I thought that no matter how hard the semester was going to be, I could handle it. I was very quickly proven wrong, as career fair, interviews, and building a heap for Operating Systems overwhelmed me in the span of a week. I got 3 hours of sleep before career fair, and then I talked to recruiters from 8am to 5pm. I almost broke down crying in front of the GE recruiter for no apparent reason. But it was fine, I thought. Once I got some sleep, my mind would rebalance, and I'd keep powering ahead.
Only I didn't get sleep, not immediately. I stayed up late two more nights trying to finish my OS project before the deadline. Spoiler: I didn't finish it. It was the first time I'd failed so spectacularly. Knowing I probably wasn't going to get even half credit for my submission, I finally gave up and went to sleep. That weekend, I was hit by what I thought to be a sickness, complete with fever and allergy-like symptoms. I wrote this blog post thinking that I had learned my lesson and that everything would be better once I got some rest and recovered from my sickness. I started trying to change my mindset so that I wouldn't be as stressed about my mounting failures. I started to feel nauseous and tired every evening, like clockwork. I thought it was because I wasn't getting enough sleep, or because I was still sick, or... well, I don't know what I thought was going on, but I chose to ignore it. I chose to believe that things were getting better even though I was still exhausted every day no matter how much sleep I got. I no longer had the energy to be happy.
Then, Hack TX happened at the end of October. I didn't make the connection that maybe losing sleep when I was already struggling was not a great idea. I went to Hack TX, but I was uneasy the whole day. I had started the day off pretty tired, and I never did recover from that. Some combination of the food and the environment made me nauseous, and I was unable to focus very well. I had a meltdown around twelve hours in, the kind where you find a private corner of the Omni hotel that nobody else is in and just cry and cry until one of your friends finds you and calms you down. I don't remember much else from that night aside from trying to get some sleep in hopes that it would rebalance my emotions. I was still convinced that my mental state was temporary.
If you ask me about what happened in the month of November, I wouldn't be able to tell you much because, frankly, I don't remember. I don't remember how I felt. I don't remember what happened. I think that maybe I started going to counseling after the Hack TX incident because my roommate forced me to. I also think the nausea started to pick up, along with random nights of sneezing and allergy-like symptoms. I vaguely remember the constant feeling of wanting to die, wanting to go to sleep and never wake up. I remember that things were bad, but I don't remember how bad. Maybe my mind is trying to protect itself by repressing those memories, I don't know. I still have poems from that time, but even as I read them, I can't quite recall that overwhelming feeling of dread and defeat. I remember wanting to hurt myself on occasion but never doing it because I knew that someone would find out. I got through November purely because Thanksgiving Break was on the horizon, and I was convinced that it would magically make me feel better and solve all my problems.
As you can imagine, that didn't happen. The Monday before school resumed, I had a doctor's appointment. It was just your average yearly checkup, but my doctor made me take a few questionnaires to check on my mental health. I was diagnosed with depression, but it was a relatively minor case. I was convinced that I wasn't that depressed and I didn't need medication because the semester was almost over. I could make it through, and then a month long break from school would help me recuperate. I declined to go on medication, and I forgot to tell anyone that I'd been diagnosed.
One good thing about the diagnosis was that I no longer felt guilty for feeling the way I felt. I knew I was suicidal because of a chemical imbalance in my brain, and that helped rationalize it to some extent. It also helped me connect the dots a bit. The constant nausea was a result of anxiety. The allergy-like symptoms were a result of stress. I realized that I only ever felt nauseous if I was working on OS homework. I decided that I was not going to sink my time into a class that was making me physically ill, and I started spending less and less time on OS. I spent more and more time sleeping, and the physiological effects of my depression got worse. It was harder to get out of bed, and it was harder to motivate myself to do things. Nothing was enjoyable anymore.
If you thought my memories of November were shaky, my memories of December are even worse. I can't remember a single thing about how I felt in December. It's like one giant hole in my memory. I had a play the first weekend of December, and I distinctly remember that on the day after my third performance, I was trying to go to sleep when I suddenly couldn't breathe or talk or even reach for my phone to ask for help. The feeling passed after a few seconds, but I went to sleep crying that night and I woke up crying the next morning. I cried for that whole day, even after my parents picked me up and ate breakfast with me, even after I talked to my roommate, even as I talked to my other friends. My mother forced me to call my doctor and get medications for depression. In case you didn't know, depression medications take 2-4 weeks to actually go into effect, so I didn't feel any better. In fact, I probably felt worse. Any time I tried to hang out with my friends and relax, I panicked. Any time I tried to work on OS by myself, I felt so nauseous that I wanted to throw up-- or I panicked. I talked to my OS teacher on the last day of classes about how I didn't think I would be able to take the exam without having a panic attack, and he was surprisingly understanding and willing to make accomodations for me. He told me that I should take full advantage of what the school had to offer to help with mental health.
Things didn't immediately get better once the semester was over. I had one relapse during a family vacation the next week, and I randomly started crying during a family reunion the following week. It wasn't until I got back to school, actually, that I was beginning to feel a little better. I'd finally gotten on the right dose of medication, and over the course of the next semester, I would take the necessary steps to make sure that I didn't fall back into the depths of depression. I'm not 100% okay now. I'm definitely doing better-- I actually remember what happiness feels like, for one thing-- and this semester has gone better as a whole. I recognize now that if I'm feeling nauseous about something, it's connected to my anxiety. I've been routinely seeing a counselor so that I can work through the unhealthy mindsets I've cultivated over the years and get myself to a better place. My friends and family have been supportive of me, and I'm very thankful for that.
But I know there are people out there who don't have the same supportive network of family and friends, or who aren't going to be forced into counseling like I was, or who aren't going to coincidentally end up at the doctor's office in their time of need. If you find yourself in a situation where you're hating life every day, or where you're feeling nauseous or anxious or depressed over your classes, or where you've come to the conclusion that this world would be better without you in it: Get. Help. The Counseling and Mental Health Center has a bunch of resources, from individual and group counseling to a 24/7 crisis line (512-471-2255). Counseling sessions are now free at CMHC, so you have no excuse. You may not want help; I know I didn't. But it's worth it. It's worth it to feel happiness again. Make the lifestyle changes you need. If that means getting lower grades, do it. If that means letting people down or flaking on commitments, do it. One short term slip-up isn't going to ruin your life, and it's worth doing whatever you need to get you back on your feet. Computer science is hard. The pressure is high. But you matter more than all of that.
If you take away even one thing from all the blog posts I've written, let it be this: you can be a computer science student while still doing what is best for you. There is no shame in that.