The youth-written stories in Represent give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

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My Road Through College
Doing it by—and for—myself

One day in my 9th grade biology class, almost a third of the class didn’t hand in the homework. I remember my teacher said, “A college professor won’t give a crap if you don’t do the assigned work.” She turned out to be right—and I’ve struggled with that responsibility for my first year and a half of college.

During high school, I never said I wanted to go to college, but my mother said I should. I do want financial stability and security, a good line of credit, and the comforts that come with a good salary. Without a college degree, this will be almost impossible to achieve. But it’s hard to keep focused on that future sometimes.

What has made it harder is my struggle with anxiety and depression, which started when I was 10. So for me, that need to be self-disciplined and self-starting has been especially daunting. It took me a while to figure out that I had to do something—and what that something was.

The first course I ever took in college was a music class, which was at 8:15 a.m. I was living at home, but I could go to bed whenever I wanted to, and I wanted to stay up as late as I could, like a little kid. I was 17 going on 18, but I still couldn’t get rid of that child mentality. Things were going fine until the third week of the semester, when I started falling asleep in class. When I woke up, people were getting up to leave and I was like, “Damn, what happened?” It was embarrassing.

A few weeks into my first semester, I dropped the music class because I didn’t do well on the first two tests. I got a W (for withdrawal). The W isn’t averaged into your GPA but it does count as an attempt and you only get three chances at a class at my college.

Once I dropped music, I didn’t have to wake up as early. Monday through Thursday, I had two classes with a two-hour gap between them. I spent almost half of that free time napping in the library. Other times I would work out in the school’s gym or play basketball.

I almost never used that time to study for a class, unless I had to finish reading a text for an upcoming English class that same day. I never really studied; I relied on material I heard in class and that was it. I didn’t study because no authority was telling me I had to. Occasionally, my mom would say, “Study your books and look over your notes,” but she never checked to see if I did. Sometimes I would wonder why I bought the textbook for a class in the first place.

I wasn’t doing well in pre-calculus. I wanted to drop this class too, but if I did, I would only be taking nine credits, which would mean I’d no longer be a full-time student and I would lose my financial aid.

Making It Harder

My anxiety makes it difficult to focus on almost any task that requires real brainpower. I get the most frustrated and anxious trying to do math. Solving a math problem usually requires specific steps, and memorizing the formulas and applying them correctly confuses me. Sometimes I’d read a problem and ask myself, “Should I use this formula or the formula I learned last week? What was last week’s formula again?” and I’d stress out about it. So I’d set the work aside and turn on the television or listen to music to calm my nerves. Knowing I’m not doing my work and falling behind causes anxiety, too, but I’d rather deal with that than struggle with the stress of failing to figure out the answer to a math problem.

This had happened in high school, and it happened my first semester of college too. And sure enough, I failed pre-calculus. When my GPA took the hit from the F, I was scared and felt helpless because I put myself in a situation I couldn’t get out of. Every time I was around my mother, my stomach twisted into knots of guilt about letting my grades drop.

When I was alone, I could ignore my crappy GPA, but being around my mother reminded me how she stressed herself out pushing me to get my act together. Her goal for me was to get into college and to do well, and I was failing her.

I had trouble monitoring my own behavior because I’d swing so quickly to worst-case scenarios, which weren’t motivating. I imagined myself on the streets if I flunked out of college. I’d be wandering the sidewalks, begging strangers for change, and drinking rainwater from the gutters. My aspirations of acquiring a good life with the comfortable house and financial security felt like a joke during these moments.

Feeling Worthless

My second semester of college was worse than my first. I was often absent or late to my classes. Moreover, when I got there, I was usually preoccupied with my anxiety-provoking thoughts, like, “Should I do my work or not?” (I knew I probably wouldn’t). “I can’t drop this class and I’m failing it,” and, “What’s my GPA going to look like?” were thoughts that made me want to throw up. In school and out of school, I seldom did my work. Instead, I slept a lot to escape the bad thoughts. I got a B, two Cs, and an F in pre-calculus, again. Pre-calculus again hit my GPA hard.

To keep getting tuition assistance, you must maintain at least a 2.0 GPA. Mine dipped below that after the second semester, and I lost a majority of my financial aid. I had to take out a small private loan to pay for my third semester.

During the summer, I became extremely depressed. I’d been taking Paxil (an antidepressant also used to treat anxiety), but now it wasn’t working as well. I felt worthless and ashamed about the work I hadn’t done. I wanted to put school off to work in maybe retail or a fast food restaurant, but my mom wanted me to continue my education with no breaks. My mom pushed me hard to continue school.

image by YC-Art Dept

I needed the push. I’m capable of doing college work; it’s my habit of avoidance that I need to conquer. The only way I ever beat this habit is to put myself into anxiety-provoking situations quickly before I have a chance to think about it. I usually think before I act so doing this isn’t as easy as it sounds.

By the end of my third semester, my GPA was still below 2.0. I took English and chemistry and did OK in chemistry. But I failed English because I didn’t go to class; it was on a Saturday and I hated that. My teacher saw how miserable I was in class, so he told me that he’d give me a C if I showed up once or twice more. But even then, I never showed up, and he failed me. The only class I did well in was Intro to Psychology—I got a B+. A code for an online program was included with the book I bought for this class. It was like a trivia study guide that I thought was fun to use.

Mad at My Amygdala

I took the psychology class so I could understand what the hell was going on with me. I learned in the class that my therapist diagnosed me accurately with generalized anxiety disorder. With the help of the online study guide and the lectures, I learned new terms and the names of the different parts of the brain. That led to fantasies about cutting out my amygdala—the part of the brain where fear and anxiety come from.

I actually enjoyed this class. If I had registered for classes earlier, I could’ve signed up for other classes that I was interested in. Anthropology and biology appealed to me, but they were all booked when I began my late registration.

This semester, I decided to pull myself out of the gutter and I am retaking the classes I flunked. My parents are paying out of pocket to replace the lost financial aid, and I hate that. I promised them I would do better. I decided to take Clonazepam, an anti-anxiety medication that lasts longer than Paxil, so that I could focus on the road ahead of me instead of worrying about every little thing. My psychologist had recommended I try it, but I resisted this medication for a few months. I thought of it as a drug for crazy people. But I knew I needed to do something before I failed out of school.

The new medication helps me get out of the bed in the morning and get ready for school. I’m making it to class and finishing most of my homework. I’ve aced the quizzes I’ve taken so far (two in math and one in English). I believe I can keep this up with the medication and my parents’ support.

Besides the help from the drug, I think I’m more mature than I was two years ago. I make school a priority because I have to. I have to care about what’s coming rather than waiting for my mom to push me because as an adult, I’m in charge of me. The person in charge has to take control.

The anxiety makes me doubt everything: my ability to succeed, the love my family has for me, and the point of anything. The Clonazepam relieves some of my feelings of doubt and calms me down. It takes less than an hour to work. I’m less afraid to fail after I take the pill. This little boost of confidence allows me to function at a higher lever: Now I raise my hand in class to answer questions. My anxiety prevented this before.

Clonazepam also pushes me to get my work done even in those moments where I can’t see the point of anything. That’s what gives rise to my motivation to do well. That’s my theory anyway. I still feel like a crazy person because I’m on this controlled substance, but I made the adult decision to live with it because it helps me function.

From Kid to Adult

Undoing the damage to my GPA won’t be easy, but it’s possible. My GPA will never be a 4.0, but it could get up above 3.0. Knowing I can do this gives me hope, and this time around I’m taking advantage of all the free time I have to get my work done.

College is helping me transition from a kid to an adult. Starting college was hard and I slid backwards at the beginning. But now, I’m back on track to finishing college in four years. I still feel the stigma of taking this drug, but it pales in comparison to how much I need it to fight for the future I want.

From my experiences of avoidance, I’ve learned that I can’t run away from everything forever. I must force myself to face some of the things that rattle my nerves. Like with math and chemistry, I made myself do the work no matter how bored or how stressed I became. I also stopped using alcohol and pot because those were distractions that kept me from getting my work done. I made these grown-up choices because my future is up to me.

You Have a Say About Your Medication

Dr. John DiLallo is the chief psychiatrist at a residential treatment facility in New York. He explains how youth going through emotional problems need to work WITH their doctors to find the right medication.

When you have problems with emotions or behavior, you need to consider what they may cost you. People can lose out on close relationships, jobs, or school achievements because they didn’t asking for help, or didn’t believe that things could get better. If you want to make a change in your life then you should seek help.

In addition to talk therapy, medication and may help. Remember that no one can force you to take medication, and sometimes you can stop taking it after you feel better. Your doctor is responsible for explaining the risks and benefits clearly, and you need to report back on how the medication is working and if it’s causing side effects. If a medication doesn’t seem to be helping, ask your doctor to adjust the dosage or try switching to another drug. And make sure to also seek out a therapist you can talk to about addressing the behaviors you want to change.

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