Diary of a frazzled frosh

What I learned about my mental health in first year

Kaylee O’Meara singing in The Caledonias.
Kaylee O’Meara singing in The Caledonias.
Credit: 
Supplied by Kaylee O'Meara

I remember arriving at Queen’s with painful clarity.

Approaching the Sir John A. Macdonald exit on the 401, my stomach had grown so knotted it seemed I’d turned to stone in the passenger’s seat. The campus was packed with cars, parents and students alike as we neared Leggett Hall, my new home.

When we reached the curb I sprang into action and – with the help of enthusiastic volunteers - moved my belongings upstairs via trolleys. Once the last volunteer had left and my mother was parking the car, I was alone in my new room. I gulped and – feeling I would start crying if I stood still – numbly unpacked some bags and disconcertedly placed their contents illogically around the space, specifically, my kettle under the bed and my pillow on the top shelf.

My mum finally returned after what felt like days later and began moving me in more productively. A few hours later, after we had lunch and walked around campus, I felt a bit better. But after she left, realizing that I would be staying in this new, foreign place alone, I suddenly longed for loved ones back home.

‘Numb’ would be the best word to describe my mindset during Orientation Week. Sure, I made friends and had some fun with my Frosh group but it all felt like a surreal week of summer camp. My Gaels/camp counsellors would usher their Frosh/campers around to activities and we wore the same dirty Frosh/camp shirt all week. I was excited for the real school experience to begin.

The first few weeks of classes were good. I enjoyed the courses, but I was bewildered by my new life - it felt like I was moving in slow motion.

It was not until I came home for a weekend in late October that I asked myself, “Am I happy?” At this moment, the anxiety that I’d had my whole life but that had seemed to disappear during high school hit me like a truck.

What made me feel so isolated from my peers was that I felt like I wasn’t gaining the seemingly typical Queen’s experience. I had heard stories of first years wanting to take campus by storm and start living the ‘best years’ of their lives. The Queen’s that I’d seen in brochures and on campus tours showed a school that everyone wanted to attend and never leave.

I felt guilty about not fitting into this archetype. What right had I to be this anxious? What reasons did I have to be feeling sorry for myself? I knew how lucky I was to be at university and I had even received a single-plus room on main campus in the residence lottery, arguably the best room you can get. It felt awful to seem ungrateful so I didn’t speak about my anxiety with many people.

I started wondering how many of my first year peers were struggling too. From what I observed, I seemed to be the only one -- a fact I know now to be completely inaccurate. Sure, students would complain about school work in tutorials and talk about how generally stressed they were, but that’s not what I was feeling. Academics were actually going well for me – it was social anxiety and not feeling comfortable in my new environment that was getting me every day. I began to find social interactions exhausting and started spending more time alone.

Despite having a spacious single-plus room, my residence experience was far from perfect. Single-plus rooms are somewhat synonymous with hotel rooms. After all, Leggett Hall’s Snapchat geofilter is ‘Hotel Leggett’. This sounds great until you realize how difficult it is to make a hotel room feel like home. All year, my room felt so temporary and impersonal.

Leggett Hall’s paper-thin walls would broadcast and amplify even normal conversations down the hall. Even when the floor was quiet I sat in my room dreading the next time the voices would reach me. I was also on high alert for noise from my can-mate who saw no issue with 3:00 am FaceTime calls in our bathroom, among other things. The anticipatory anxiety of the noise made it impossible to ever feel fully relaxed in residence.

First year is when students are away – possibly for the first time – from the people who know them best. This poses a significant risk to students’ well-being as it is loved ones who might better recognize warning signs of mental illness such as social withdrawal, increased anxiety, and depression.

After realizing that it was doing me no good to pretend to be enjoying myself, I started reaching out to people about my mental health. My mum suggested that the therapist I’d seen infrequently during high school might be willing to do a FaceTime appointment. When my therapist told me that mental illness is ‘rampant’ on university campuses, it instantly put my situation in a clearer perspective.

Next came talking to friends who were many miles away, most of which - to my surprise - said that they too were dealing with a mirage of problems in their new campus environments.  Connecting with my friends meant so much. It seemed the more I let tumble out – that I was having sleeping problems, trouble focusing – the more they were able to empathize and make my feelings of disenchantment valid.

I still felt scared to tell my new friends, mainly because I had not heard mental health discussed at Queen’s yet. I tentatively told a friend on my floor how I felt. To my great surprise she earnestly replied that she felt the same and she was so glad I had said something. For the first time since arriving in res, I didn’t feel alone.

After a particularly hard day I ventured to the Queen’s Peer Support Centre (PSC) for the first time. I was so surprised by how easy it was to pour my heart out to a complete stranger. I felt so relieved to air my feelings to an upper year student who has been through the turbulent time that is first year. Ever since that day, knowing that there is a room and a compassionate peer on campus whose only job is to listen to me has been an immense comfort.

As I’m a person who’s happier busier than idle, I began to throw myself into extra-curricular activities. I joined The Caledonias – a female a cappella choir – who instantly became a source of constant joy for me – and a family away from home. In a further attempt to get out of res more, I went on frequent self-guided walking tours around Kingston and tried to immerse myself in campus as much as possible. I found quiet corners in the library where I could turn my phone off and study.

My mother proposed that I write a list of everything I was thankful for, in order to gain some perspective. It seemed like such a simple thing, yet to my surprise I ended up writing down over 40 things and felt better immediately. I have been happily adding to it ever since.

The hardest part of coming to Queen’s was losing my close-knit support system from high school and building a new one from scratch. I made use of every support I could find: my family and old friends (via the wonders of technology), walking, swimming at the athletic centre and Queen's peer services like the PSC. Another arm of support came from my mother’s good friends in Kingston, as she is a Queen’s alumna; they reached out to me, offering me home-cooked meals and unforeseen care and support.

Although I had expected to adjust to Queen’s within the first few weeks at school, it was actually not until about March - six months later - that I actually started to feel comfortable. It was a huge adjustment, but I do have great memories of first year, including singing with the Callies, taking interesting classes, being a delegate in Queen’s Model Parliament, discovering the understated awesomeness that is the City of Kingston and meeting many incredible people.

With first year now under my belt, I’ve spent a lot of time focusing on self-care – an extremely important part of a university student’s hierarchy of needs. My self-care list (yes, I have another list!) includes the following: drink lots of water, get outside, take walks, 10-minute yoga sessions with mindful breathing, map out school work each week, meal prep something yummy for the week, wash your bed sheets (you’ll sleep so well that night), use a colouring book, call someone who builds you back up, send snail mail to friends far away, go to The Isabel, have a cathartic cry, go to the PSC, make a thankful list and – possibly the most important – eat CoGro cake!

The reason I’m writing this article is because I struggled much more in first year than I ever expected. My anxiety reared its ugly head in a way that I wasn’t, and really couldn’t have been prepared for. Even on good days, I walked around campus with anxiety bubbling just under the surface. First year often felt like Grade Nine 2.0 in the sense that you’re at the bottom of the food chain and feel like you’re treading water all the time to remain afloat. But then I remember how much better Grade 12 was and I think, it’s only up from here!

As summer dwindles and school is fast approaching, I’m cautiously yet incredibly optimistic for second year. I am excited about my courses and I have volunteered to be a Peer Learning Assistant with Queen’s SASS and also at the PSC where I hope to pay forward some of the incredible support that I received.

The biggest thing that first year taught me - something no professor could instill - is the importance of self-care and surrounding yourself with people who love and support you. I would like to send out a huge thank-you to everyone who helped me in my first year. I am incredibly thankful to be attending a great university and am excited for new experiences this year.

Corrections

The photo that accompanied this article has been changed. The original photo misidentified the subject as Kaylee O'Meara.

The Journal regrets the error.

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