“College will be the time of your life.” A sentiment that every teenager has heard multiple times in their life. For high schoolers, it serves as a justification for a less than satisfactory high school experience. For new college students, it provides hope that the next four years will be unforgettable. And for the students reaching the end of their college years, it can be two things: a truth, or a “what could have been.”
After completing my first semester of college, I stopped to consider this expectation. In so many ways, college has exceeded my expectations. I didn’t have a big, close-knit friend group in high school, nor did I spend my weekend nights at parties or on unforgettable adventures. Instead, my closest friends and I navigated high school in a different way; we played sports, focused on school, hung out at each other’s homes and on weekends spent time outdoors, whether we were hiking, surfing, skateboarding or something else (this remains one of the main perks of the Bay Area). My first relationship was a long, peaceful, healthy one with one of my best friends. Looking back, this lifestyle contained all the aspects of true happiness, yet at the time, I felt unfulfilled. Where was the chaos of the American teenage life I had been so conditioned to want?
College took a sharp 180. Within one month, everything about my life had completely changed. Every second I wasn’t studying or sleeping, I was being social. Romantically, I had guy and girl drama in every corner, and for the first time I felt like someone that people could truly be attracted to. My instagram slowly filled up with pictures of me and my new friends at football games, parties and other events. I could finally do what I wanted without my parents checking my location, being home by curfew or constantly having to prioritize my safety. It truly was the American teenage dream, so I should have been the happiest I’ve ever been, right?
What wasn’t shown on my social media stories or texts home to my friends, however, was the other side. The endless hours spent crying at random places around campus, the anxiety of wondering if my friends liked me, the never ending pressure of college classes, the relationship drama that consumed my thoughts, the feeling of being too far away from my family and my home, the hate for the way I looked and the complete overwhelmingness of being in a new state, in a new school, with new friends and absolutely no sense of familiarity.
When we search for happiness in college, we are truly looking for distraction. Stress is released when we become too intoxicated to remember our problems and continue the facade we put on for the week. We wear clothes we hope will make others like us, because we yearn for validation from them instead of giving it to ourselves. When homework becomes too much, we go on a “5 minute” TikTok break that suddenly morphs into hours, then we are consumed by the guilt that follows. When the world feels like it’s ending, we search for our friends to help us push that feeling off for a bit, until it returns later. So much of the idealized large state school experience is derived from students finding ways to distract themselves from the anxiety that comes with entering such an overwhelming new environment.
The issue then, is the feeling of being alone. When everyone around us curates this image of having so much fun, and our parents or aunts and uncles keep reminding us how revolutionary their college experience was, we feel like failures when it’s not perfect. Yet, we are often portraying the same image in an effort to fit into the puzzle, all it takes is one conversation with any student to realize that this portrayal is not true to life. So why don’t we have these conversations?
As a society, we are working towards a goal of destigmatizing mental health, however, one important topic often gets left out of the mental health conversation: struggling without a diagnosis. One of the things that has consistently held me back from truly reaching out to my friends and asking for help when I need it is the fact that I suffer from no mental disorders. A feeling of guilt arises when I feel hopeless, because I feel that whatever I’m feeling must not be as bad as those who have diagnosed mental illnesses. So I do what many of my peers do: push away what I’m feeling for as long as possible. When that feeling returns, however, it feels bigger and more dangerous. And so the need for a distraction becomes more imminent.
So let’s learn to talk about it. Let’s learn to ask our friends how they are and reach out in moments of crisis. And let’s erase this idea of college being the most perfect time of your life. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work to find happiness, because there is so much happiness to be found in college. I’ve met friends so far in my first semester that I hope will be the friends my kids call “auntie” and “uncle” in 30 years. I’ve made memories I can imagine reminiscing over at the dinner table years in the future. In just one semester, I’ve learned so much about my academic interests, and I’m excited to learn more. But these things don’t come from intoxication, or letting everyone on my social media know I’m having a great time. They come from the moments when I’m not thinking about what others think, or if I’m doing enough academically and extracurricularly. The first step to truly being happy is living life, instead of distracting ourselves from it.
Claudia Flynn is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached email@example.com