Thursday, October 13, 2011

My Year Off From Cal

My Year Off From Cal

In retrospect, taking a year off was the right decision for me, and it allowed me to focus on getting treatment for my depression, take a break from school, experience the "real world", and recover.

Many don't know this, but it is actually really easy to withdraw from- and be readmitted to Cal once you've been accepted. If it's a medical withdrawal there is an extra step, but it's still pretty easy as long as you show you are able to handle school. I think more students would benefit from taking a year off--and more would if only they knew about this option and how beneficial it is. Even thought taking a "year off" is the exception in the U.S., it's becoming more common. Many Ivy leagues, including Harvard, encourage their students to take a year off.

Wrapping my mind around the idea of taking even a semester off was very difficult for me since I was in denial that my depression was causing me to do poorly at school, and I felt that I would somehow "fail" myself if I took a year off. I could not accept that I couldn't anymore do the things I used to do so well, like study and go to class. By the end of the semester, because I was doing poorly in my classes, my therapist suggested that I do a medical withdrawal from the semester and consider taking the next semester off as well. I actually saw a college counselor at the L&S who told me about the possibility of withdrawing for a semester or two. I was so opposed to the idea that I refused to even consider it. I refused to believe that I was unable to handle school as I previously used to be able to do. So I withdrew, went home for winter break, and returned to school the next semester.

I was diagnosed with depression in the middle of the Fall 2008 semester of my Sophomore year. I was seeing a therapist at the Tang center back then. I also took a weekly social skills workshop at Tang, which wasn't that helpful. During the Spring 2009 semester, despite eating healthy, exercising almost daily, going to talk therapy, getting adequate sleep, trying St. John's Wort and 5-HTP--which took the edge off of stress--I was feeling only worse. Because I was so resistant to take antidepressants, my therapist suggested I read the book "The Chemistry of Joy", which I did and took away some good suggestions from it, such as meditating, exercising, taking a good daily multivitamin, Omega-3, St. John's Wort, and 5-HTP. I was also involved with Theatre Rice--a theater group at Cal--which occupied most of my time and gave me social and creative outlets. Despite doing all this I felt progressively worse--feeling suicidal, lack of energy, hopelessness, meaninglessness, crying often, and unable to concentrate--so I "gave in" to antidepressants, thinking I'd give them a try as a last resort (now I hold a favorable view of antidepressants because even though they have side effects, they helped me get out of my depression). The fist one I was prescribed was Paxil, an SSRI; I then withdrew and was subsequently prescribed Effexor, an SNRI, from which I also withdrew and was put on Welbutrin, an NDRI, which helped me get out of my depression.

During the Summer of 2008 (before I was diagnosed, but with foreshadowing symptoms) I went to stay with my parents in San Diego. There I took summer school at a local community college (to satisfy some of my Berkeley requirements; the classes there are much easier than at Berkeley), and took on tutoring a couple of private students in Math. When Fall came and I told my parents that I decided to stay for a semester, my parents were mostly supportive of my decision. They were already suspecting that I wasn't feeling well and that my staying home for the semester was a possibility, since I was seeing a psychotherapist, sleeping a lot, and having a noticeable depressed mood (note: not the same as clinical depression).

Initially I was only planning to take one semester off because I was afraid that I would stay home for a long time and not return to school. But as the next semester came I realized that I wasn't ready to return, and so I thought I would return during summer for summer school. When summer came I just started feeling better and not depression for the first time, but I decided to wait until the Fall, and I returned to Cal in the Fall 2010.

In September 08 I had such horrible withdrawal symptoms from Paxil, that I couldn't go on with daily life. I called my therapist and told him that I wanted to be hospitalized--to lie in bed and have somebody take care of me--as William Styron did in his memoir "Darkness Visible". He told me that San Diego has one of the best cognitive outpatient treatment programs in the U.S., and suggested that I enroll in the Cognitive Therapy Intensive Outpatient Program (Cog-IOP) at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital. I went there five times a week for three hours of lecture and group therapy per day, and I did this for five weeks, until the start of October 08. At the time I was in denial of being rejected by a girl I liked right before the Summer, and I had not started the grieving process and was putting it off for the fear of the pain and because I could not deal emotionally with such a big issue. Even though I did not notice a significant improvement in my depression after the program, the Cog-IOP program jump-started the grieving process for me. which took the form of daily grief journals and reading some of it aloud to my therapist. Slowly but surely, starting the grieving process started my healing and recovery from depression. By the New Year I was mostly over the loss, and because of my 3rd antidepressant--Wellbutrin--I gradually started feeling better. And one day in April I felt like the depression has lifted, although I still had residual symptoms for several months after.

During this whole time I was taking classes at my local community college, and I even took one class at UCSD through the extension program, to satisfy a major requirement. Taking classes made me feel like I wasn't wasting my time and that I was moving toward some goal, and the community college gave me financial aid, which helped me have some spending money. I was also seeing my therapist weekly, who helped me a lot. He encouraged me to "act as if" I wasn't depressed and even though it's hard try to go through my day as I would normally do. This way I would trick my mind and brain into thinking everything was normal and eventually my depression would go away. I trusted him and took his advice, which was greatly helpful. Having a caring therapist was crucial to me because it made me feel supported and believe that someone was helping me to get better. I needed to know this for my mind and body to be able to heal themselves. I guess, like Jonathan Haidt writes in "The Happiness Hypothesis", people are like a plants that will heal on their own given the right conditions. He also writes that there are three main techniques to train the elephant (our habits and the subconscious): meditation, cognitive therapy, and Prozac (antidepressants). I did all three, including meditation.

Even in your darkest moments, remember to always have hope and to believe that you will get better.

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