Anatomy of a nervous breakdown

It’s natural to reach a breaking point in college, but don’t let yourself be broken.

by Allison Fingerett

My pity party is in full swing. WeâÄôve got the worldâÄôs smallest violin jamminâÄô out in the corner, and IâÄôm solemnly ballroom dancing with the long road ahead. IâÄôm in my sixth consecutive year of working towards my bachelorâÄôs degree, with two years left to go. On my graduation day, pigs will be flying and sarcastic rhetorical questions will suddenly have poignant answers. Last week, though, I almost threw in the towel. I have embarked down an academic path with a psychology degree as my backup, should my creative endeavors cease to buoy me financially. But with each passing week, I feel less equipped for a life of academia. The trouble is, if I give up now, not only will I have to live with the weight of such failure, IâÄôll have nothing to show for the hard work IâÄôve put in thus far. Ah, the emotional breakdown âÄî a staple of the college experience. But rather than succumb to its vacuous orbit, letâÄôs dissect its origins and find a way to cope. A recent study conducted by Public Agenda and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education found a disturbing trend: âÄúA college education is seen as increasingly essential amid falling confidence that qualified and motivated students do not have the opportunity to go.âÄù John Immerwahr, a senior research fellow at Public Agenda said of the findings, âÄúItâÄôs a new kind of misery index. This is really important, and itâÄôs really inaccessible.âÄù WeâÄôre as lucky to be here as a stubborn sperm is to permeate a fickle egg. WeâÄôve beaten all the odds, and with opportunity comes a massive amount of pressure. In addition, this so-called âÄúmisery indexâÄù has a definite impact on how ready and willing we are to deal with seemingly insurmountable obstacles like accumulating debt or navigating the long tunnel of graduation requirements. What weâÄôre left with is a constant, sometimes soul-crushing tug of war between goals and limitations. My favorite term in all of psychology is âÄúcognitive dissonance.âÄù It refers to the internal tension that abounds while holding two conflicting thoughts, attitudes or beliefs at the same time. The best example is that of the self-loathing smoker, ruminating on his shortened lifespan with every puff. And it applies to every student who canâÄôt fathom giving up on her education, but boils with bitterness as she literally runs to class, malnourished and sleep-deprived, after opening her latest bank statement. I am here by the grace of Pell Grants, and IâÄôm not ashamed to say so. But I live every day in fear of the two-year cap on the University of MinnesotaâÄôs Promise Scholarship for transfer students. And it turns me into a superhuman machine, determined to make the most of every miraculous dollar IâÄôve been awarded. The result is a daily schedule in which every moment is accounted for, often double-booked. And while I am already starting to reap the benefits of my hard work, it comes at the drastic price of sanity. What happens when the future takes hold of the present and leaves it with nothing to show for itself? Everywhere I look there is a line for coffee or students passed out in the common areas of their choice. For those who are dead-set on a future path that involves a succession of prestigious degrees, stealing that nap in the basement of Coffman Union comes with the territory. But if your diploma is a mere pawn in an economic game of chess, itâÄôs easy to lose yourself in the sense of sacrifice. The only viable solution to cognitive dissonance is modification of either attitude or behavior. The smoker needs to quit smoking or quit hating himself for it. The student needs to take a lighter load or, when she realizes thatâÄôs not possible, find a way to linger on the fleeting moments of joy throughout her day. My father always says, âÄúLife is handed to you in black and white, and itâÄôs your job to color it.âÄù It can be a challenge, and IâÄôm still working to color my world in bright hues and positive sentiments. ItâÄôs well within my power, as your perspective is for you. I asked students about the quality of their daily lives and was surprised to learn that, for most of them, things are just fine. It could be that they were unwilling to share their emotional turmoil with a complete stranger, but itâÄôs more likely theyâÄôve found their niche. âÄúEverything in moderation,âÄù said a student, âÄúincluding the work.âÄù Sometimes you have to back off, take a deep breath, and give the present moment its own sense of identity. ItâÄôs by far the hardest lesson IâÄôve had to learn in my time at the University. My frazzled work-horse mentality is debilitating, but it sure looks good on a résumé. Yet a balancing act must be found before all the cards come tumbling down. Yes, things are dismal. But they are slowly looking up. Under President Barack ObamaâÄôs proposed federal student loan bill, monthly payments will be capped at 10 percent of a borrowerâÄôs income, and individuals with a yearly income below $33,075 would not be expected to pay. So, if all goes well in the Senate, even if you flounder in the economy that awaits you, you wonâÄôt be saddled with debt just yet either. And those with artistic tendencies or hearts of gold can spend time working for nonprofits and focus on their passions. IâÄôm not going anywhere, and youâÄôd better not either. WeâÄôve worked too hard for this. We have to carve out niches of happiness in our daily lives and put the kibosh on the pity party. WeâÄôll graduate someday. And until then, letâÄôs color. Allison Fingerett welcomes comments at [email protected]