2015 was a year of public self-exposition for me. It started in June with a cheerful series of Leaving Cert diaries for the Independent, which segued into the nervous diary of a fresher over my first week here. Now it’s ending on a glorious nosedive with this article, which I’ve affectionately termed the diary of a drop out.
In early November, around the time when I decided to jump ship, I read a comment article by Miriam Guiney about her experience dropping out a year ago. What struck me the most about her reflection was its scarcity of emotion. She confessed fear, boredom and loneliness over the year but what turned her off the course itself was just apathy. She felt uninspired and uninvolved in the material, so she peeled away cleanly.
Maybe my emotions will mellow as they age, but “apathy” is the exact opposite of what I’ve been feeling over the past few months. I’m crying right now, because I’m listening to Smalltown Boy by Bronski Beat. It’s an 80s hit about a young gay man having to leave his oppressive hometown. I’m crying because I can’t leave mine. I hate being judged by the same beady eyes every day. I hate hearing Buckfast-swigging youths hollering “ARE YOU A GIRL OR A BOY? YOU’RE AS UGLY” at me every time I leave the house.
But I feel happy, too, because the crying is definitely an improvement. In Trinity, I was spending my nights lying sleeplessly and my days hiding in bathroom stalls, just wishing I could cry. Crying always lets me feel some modicum of release from my crushing loneliness, my uncertainty – from the hopeless, familiar feeling of depression. Crying is a public acknowledgement that something is wrong, and that you need help. Not being able to do that feels like sitting stranded in the wilderness without a single flare.
You’ve probably realised by now that I’m not a paragon of emotional stability. I’ve struggled with anxiety and major depressive disorders for most of my teenage life. It feels refreshing to admit that. Whenever I tried to slip in a reference to my disorders in my work with the Irish Independent, my editor would call me up like a shot and tell me to take it out. “We’re just trying to protect your privacy – you wouldn’t know who’d be reading it,” she’d say kindly, but uncomfortably, and bustle on.
Perhaps it’s because I’m blissfully naïve and socially oblivious, but I never understood that. My depression isn’t my kryptonite. It’s a flaw that I work around in the same way someone copes with losing a limb or having poor eyesight. I’m not going to burst into tears if someone approaches me on the street and says, “Oh, you’re the crazy one from the paper” – I’ll just be flattered that they recognised me. Mental disorders need to be talked about publicly. Our experiences and coping mechanisms shouldn’t be confined to the stuffy offices of psychiatrists and counsellors.
Of course I feel anxious about revealing so much of myself. I don’t want to risk writing self-pitiful longueurs that people will scoff derisively at. I don’t want to make anyone sad. Stronger than that, though, is the desire to be honest. Humans learn through experiences: their own, and those of the people around them. Maybe if I trace the course of my realisation that something had to change, someone else out there will come to the same conclusion about themselves.
Coming to Trinity didn’t cause any of my problems. It just made me realise that they weren’t going away by themselves. When you’re trapped in the pressure-cooker that is the Leaving Cert, getting to college is talked about in the same terms as getting to heaven. You’ll fit in, you’ll find your people, you’ll never have to study subjects you don’t enjoy, you’ll be able to reinvent yourself. All sins will be absolved. All hurts will be washed away. You will belong.
So I put my head down and I powered through. But when I stepped through the front arch, my depression didn’t dissolve. Studying interesting subjects didn’t lessen my overwhelming anxiety around my academic performance. Living in a flat with five lovely girls didn’t stop me feeling lonely. Painfully slowly, I realised that my problems had nothing to do with my environment. They were internal and wedged so deeply into my way of thinking that I couldn’t deal with them and this new way of life at the same time.
I should have taken a gap year. I needed to take a gap year. That thought could only occur in retrospect, however.
I started this term studying English literature and philosophy. This choice wasn’t one I had taken lightly, it certainly wasn’t a ‘night before change of mind closes’ job. For three years I obsessively attended open days and summer schools. I drowned myself in prospectuses and shelled out hundreds on qualified guidance counsellors. I was petrified of making a choice that would “decide the rest of my life” – a fearmongering phrase that I can no longer stand. That’s not how the future works.
Right now, I’m approaching my future in the same way that I approach my favourite pastime: painting. I sketch out a rough outline, roughly pick the colour palette I want to use, and start with bold strokes. Usually some aspect of my idea doesn’t work as well on canvas as it did in my head, so I use intuition to turn it into something that looks better. You can always paint over dried paint. The mistakes are a necessary part of the process; they allow development. You can’t be too rigid when you’re painting.
I’m happy that I made the mistake of pursuing my love for English and the arts, because I couldn’t have realised otherwise that I don’t find it rewarding to study. I imagined myself curling up with dusty books in quiet corners, tapping happily on my keyboard in poky coffee shops. I somehow failed to remember that writing essays was the bane of my existence in school. I only pursued English because it was “The Thing That I Was Good At,” the subject that I had a competitive edge in. It was the thing I felt “destined” to do. This mentally outweighed the fact that studying it didn’t make me happy.
This realisation led to a lot of rolling about and crying and wondering if anything made me happy, and what happiness was, and whether a fleeting emotion really mattered. I frustrated my long-suffering boyfriend with existential questions that he had no answers to, because they just were.
Then I went home, hugged my mother, and ate the intensely comforting dinners she always manages to make. I read books for fun. I learned new things. I spent more time at the local animal shelter, and cared for dogs and cats who loved me completely for no reason other than that I was warm and carried treats. I grumbled at myself for ever thinking that happiness didn’t matter, because it most certainly does.
Happiness isn’t about grand gestures. It comes from the day-to-day victories. It comes from someone recognising that you’re useful. It comes from taking care of yourself. It comes from learning things that click together so that your world makes more sense to you. It comes from playing with animals – it mostly comes from that, I’m not going to lie.
I am dropping out of college, and my future’s rather hazy. But that doesn’t frighten me like it used to, because I’ve made this decision for myself. I trust myself to handle any problems that surface on the way, as difficult as they may be. I don’t feel like a failure, as I had convinced myself I would. I feel like a regular young adult, struggling to figure things out for themselves.
I’m capable, and enthusiastic, and giddy like a child setting off on an adventure. Sure, I’m trapped in a poky house in the middle of Ireland, but my life seems a lot broader than it did a few months ago. I can’t wait to see how it turns out.
Illustration by Dearbháil Clarke.