Comparing my college experiences with those of some of my closest friends, and pondering the nature of my depressive episodes versus theirs, I think there were a couple key things that made college easier/better for me and that also helped me fight through my depression to my current stage of remission.
First, I was highly skeptical of the college environment, and really of any larger environment outside of my family. I knew it would be run by people who believed things I believed to be false, and I didn’t want to be taken in by it. My goal was to get as much possible out of the system without becoming part of it; in a sense, I saw myself as an undercover agent infiltrating enemy territory. In retrospect this was a rather ridiculous and exaggerated mindset, born of reading too many fundamentalist Christian books bordering on conspiracy theory no doubt 🙂 But it had the silver lining of not setting me up with unrealistically high expectations for how awesome college would be! Because every positive experience came as a surprise, and every challenging experience as an expected part of my “mission”, I ended up loving my time as a student.
Building off of that, I was able to keep a small picture of myself (in contrast to a large picture of the world around me). Everything could then appear to me more wonderful, more majestic, more beautiful. Sometimes this meant that everything looked more overwhelming, especially in the midst of my depression, but it has also helped me to realize that I don’t need to control or understand everything – everything is big, and glorious, and chaotic, and I can find contentment in being a small part (but of course my own unique and specially personal part) of that everything. My husband helped me work through this in a practical way during my depression, and G. K. Chesterton helped me a lot in coming to an understanding of it on a conceptual level:
“[Man] was always outstripping his mercies with his own newly invented needs. His very power of enjoyment destroyed half his joys. By asking for pleasure he lost the chief pleasure; for the chief pleasure is surprise. Hence it became evident that if a man would make his world large, he must be always making himself small.” – Orthodoxy
Finally, I never lost the community that supported me through my childhood and adolescence, and I never lost my gratitude to them for their love and encouragement. I cannot imagine how much harder the transition to college would have been without my family, my church, and my high school friends. Their presence enabled me to adjust socially to college at a slower pace without enduring the loneliness and isolation that many of friends felt in their first year or two. As time went by, then, I could develop friendships in the natural organic way such things tend to happen – by doing things outside of class together, outside of the whole college environment together, and so on. But the relationships I made before college and continued through college were essential. One of the triggers for my post-college depression was, I believe, the stress of finding a new church with my husband and losing a lot of the community that I had been a part of since childhood. I felt alone in a way that most people deal with as freshmen, I think.
Looking back now, at the things that supported me through difficult transitions and the things that let me down at other moments, I can prepare myself for the future. I can remember how low expectations (or, more precisely, expectations of challenge and adventure, as opposed to fulfillment and pleasure) set me up for pleasant surprises. I can remember how looking at the world with wonder at its towering beauties, keeping in mind my own smallness in it, gave me liberty and room to breathe. I can remember how crucial community was to me – the tight bonds of long-held relationships, the support of people from all generations around me – even as an introvert, and put in the uncomfortable work of building a new community around me when the inevitable transitions of life threaten to leave me alone.
And above all, I can pray.
I can pray to the Father for His guidance, to the Son for His peace, to the Spirit for His comfort. In the arms of the Trinity, I can find meaning in even the worst of my suffering, and the hope of redemption and healing. It would be incredibly narcissistic of me to claim that I had a great college experience and came out of my depression in my own power, by some sort of strength or wisdom I possess that another person with worse experiences didn’t have. It was all grace. And the same grace that protected and healed me then gives me the ability to learn from the past now so that I can avoid those same traps in the future – and so that, maybe, I can help someone else avoid them the first time around.