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Merlot and Xanax: Don’t Self Medicate

With as much energy as I could muster, I held my cell phone up to my face and told Public Safety that I was locked in a stairwell in the Barnard Library. Weak and exhausted, I had been locked inside for over two hours. After two hours of being curled up in the corner, I finally was conscious and alert enough to pick up the phone and string my thoughts together so I could tell the guard where I was.  

After quaffing half a bottle of Merlot with a meal of anti-anxiety tranquilizers, pain pills, and heart rate lowering medication—all to help quell the intense maelstrom of anxiety I was feeling in an anticipation of a routine meeting with my adviser—I had wandered into a Do Not Enter stairwell, with doors that only open from the outside. For two hours, I was so drugged out that I couldn’t type my password into my phone to unlock it to call for help. This was at 2pm on a Monday.

Public safety came and freed me.

That was one of the many incidents I had during my first year on campus. My first semester, I self-medicated my anxiety constantly. From being too drugged up to remember what professors said during office hours, to missing classes because of severe hangovers, the semester stretched out in a blur of assignments, readings, wine from International, and a cocktail of whatever anxiety medications I could crib from friends and acquaintances.  

Consequently, I had trips to St. Luke’s my first year here, and even managed to give myself a concussion that forced me to defer some of my exams. I could have accidentally killed myself multiple times. In my drunken and high revelry, I did everything from accidentally steal books from Butler to drug myself up so much for an oral presentation that I have no recollection of giving it.

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As early as I can remember, I’ve been a neurotic mess—prone to exploding in a paroxysm of anxiety and panic at any moment.  Although I hesitate to use formal labels, I’ve had varying degrees of panic attacks, social anxiety, general anxiety, and since I could remember (kindergarten). I’ve also had extreme, paralyzing fear of public speaking, oral presentations,  interviews, and authority figures. From chest pain and heart palpitations, to vomiting from the feeling of impending doom, anxiety has permeated every day of my life for the last 12 or so years.

In my fear, I’ve turned down  public speaking opportunities, ignored interviews for scholarships I had applied to, declined to be interviewed by my favorite publication when I had the opportunity, ignored job interview requests, and schedule my classes based off of whether oral presentations count for the grade.

And I’ve done an equal amount of things to cope: diet, exercise, meditation, yoga,  deep breathing, medication from friends—usually downers, wine, hard liquor, weed, ‘natural herbs,’ avoidance, compulsive book reading (salvation from my fear of not being intelligent enough to succeed in life), attempting to hijack my fight-or-flight response by  forcing myself to be even more anxious, and self harm.

What’s helped? Everything, to a certain extent. But most of what I’ve done is wildly unhealthy, dangerous, and unsustainable.

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After an unsuccessful series of meetings with the counselors at Furman during my first semester,  I temporarily gave up on seeking traditional therapeutic help. It wasn’t until I had a day where I had multiple panic attacks and drunkenly self-harmed in the stacks with a pencil sharpener, spent 4 hours walking around Morningside trying to figure out whether I should go to the hospital, and then slept in Butler because I was too afraid to sleep in my room alone that I finally acquiesced to the demands of my friend to try to seek help again. I should have tried to seek help sooner.  

When I’ve told friends about my first year, all but one had ever thought there was a problem. No one knew, and thus, my ability to be evasive and operate with such stealth actually helped me avoid the need to get help. If no-one knew, there was no safety net that could be activated.

Although I won’t attempt to posit that therapy or psychiatry is a panacea, that’s where I started. I was too recalcitrant with Furman staff and demanded an outside referral. Eventually, towards the end of my first year at Barnard, I was able to figure out how to manage my mental illnesses without putting my life at risk and flouting social convention.  But that was only because I intentionally positioned myself in a way that would allow me to seek help.   

Seeking help for mental illness is difficult. There a numerous reasons people don’t seek help: social stigma, stigma from family, fear that the school would force you to take a medical leave, insurance problems, the cost of treatment being prohibitive, scheduling conflicts, etc. But if you wait too long to get treatment (the type that involves seeking help from professionals, and not buying weed with Venmo), you could end up in a dangerous spiral of self-medication and self-injury,  too drugged and dysfunctional to be able to ask for help at all.

Every now and then, another name of a college students appears in the news for having committed suicide. While I cannot claim to know what will help everyone, whether you’re having panic attacks, depression, hallucinations, delusions, suicidal thoughts, or other problems—asking for help is the first step in getting better. And pursuing that help, well that’s the best way to stay alive in the long term. Not to say that traditional therapy or psychopharmacology is always the answer, but it’s a start.

Disclaimer: Author is a junior majoring in a social science field, happily medicated and mentally stable now.

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