July 22, 2019
How Depression and Anxiety Messed Up My Academic Life

Being smart was the only thing she was good at: until bouts of depression and anxiety attacks made her fail school.

by Nazalea Kusuma
Lifestyle // Health and Beauty
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I realise this isn't going to paint people who struggle with depression and anxiety in a good light but this was real to me, this happened, and I got through it.

I got accepted to School of Architecture, Planning and Policy Development at the Bandung Institute of Technology in 2012, right out of high school through the national written test. I was sixteen, then.  University life was definitely harder than high school, but at first, I was excited and was doing okay in most subjects. I also signed up for several extracurricular units.

During the second semester, I had to be hospitalised for dengue fever and had to miss a few classes. As a result, I understood less and less about what was going on in classes. As I became more worried about it, I started to withdraw from everything.

It was during this time that I received my first “E” for the first time in my entire life and it knocked me down hard because before then I had breezed through school.  I broke down and stopped going to classes, including the two courses I had to retake. And I failed at almost every social gathering.  I felt like a headless chicken: lost, scared as hell, panicking, and dying.

Often I would get ready for a class, all dressed and ready to go when I suddenly I felt the urge to throw up and couldn’t make myself leave.  Sometimes it would be Thursday and I wanted to go to class but something told me it was too late. You messed up this week already, start next week instead, my mind would be telling me. Of course, the next week I never went.  My room was a mess. Insomnia kept me awake all night – my day and night were reversed. I lied to everyone. My parents had no idea.

My parents eventually found out about my condition after my academic advisor told them. They were hurt because they had to find out from someone else and that I'd been lying to them about it. And I regretted that more than anything else.

Halfway through the third semester, I started seeing a psychologist. She told me I had several personality disorders and I got better and started going to classes again. But since I'd missed half of the classes, I was left behind. I also had no friend and lied to everyone about why I couldn't meet them. I hid my shoes inside my room and turned the lights off so no one would think I was in it.

 The next semester I relapsed and got even worse. I started seeing a psychologist again and this time, the sessions got longer and more frequent. At the end, she brought her psychiatrist friend and I was diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder.

For all the three years I was in ITB, the only activity that I was really committed to was Unit Budaya Lampung (Lampung Cultural Unit) and I'm grateful for them. They taught me things about being in a team, in an organisation, in a found family of some sort. In the end, though, it wasn't enough to make me stay. I was too ashamed, too embarrassed, too afraid to continue and face my peers in classes. My parents and I made the hard decision: I quit ITB and move to another school.

The decision landed me at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia in 2015. Here I tried to rebuild my life, made new friends in a new environment. Things were great and I thought I had finally put a damper on my anxiety. Then out of nowhere I started losing motivation. I lost my energy, my appetite and the very will to live. I began to skip classes again. I wouldn’t take a shower for days because I couldn't make myself do it. I either lost sleep or slept too much. I would not eat for days then would binge-ate like crazy. I’d wake up wishing I hadn’t. Some days I wouldn’t even get out of bed. I was a mess. My room was a mess. My academic – and social – life was a mess.

This time I told my parents about it. Then I went to the university counselling department and got back to classes for a bit. But the cycle would continue again: I would relapse and miss classes, skip meetings, lie to people about where I was and what I was doing, and on and on. 

Until one day I'd had enough and decided to put a stop to it all and get some real help. So I took a semester off and went home. Eventually it led me to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist was kind and didn’t seem judgmental at all. I came in with my parents and we had a session. I did a test with hundreds of questions. Another session came and she diagnosed me with Generalised Anxiety Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder. After that, I would be treated with psychotherapy and medications.

I've learned since then that school was a major stressor for me. I have always loved learning and I used to love academia. Being smart was the only thing I was good at. When I was stripped of all that, I felt lost. Now I am piecing myself back together. I'm also fortunate to have very supportive and understanding parents. They are such gifts and I cannot thank them enough.

I have gotten better. I no longer wake up tired not wanting to live. The first time I realised I was feeling rested and thankful to be alive, I was so excited. It felt magical. I still get Bad Days and Low Hours, but it's nothing I cannot handle or push through. I am productive in my own ways and I am not ashamed of that.

I'm still on psychotherapy and medications and I don't know when it will stop, but I'm getting better and I won't give up.

Nazalea Kusuma is a lifetime learner who bakes, writes, loves stories, and wears many hats but only figuratively. Follow her on Instagram @thenazaleakusuma and @nazaleakusuma.