Yes, I think it’s only fair to give some background into my tortured past (and present!) as a college dropout.
If you’re going to be following this chronicle of my mental health (which fluctuates like Dublin Bus prices, by the way), you probably deserve a little bit of insight into when this whole thing started… and by ‘this whole thing’, I mean my realisation that mental illness was a part of who I am and a part of my story.
That story, ‘this whole thing’, starts in my sixth year of secondary school – as so many tales of poor mental health do.
Kicked out of the nest
I was never one of those kids who hated school. September was actually my favourite month as a kid. The return to school, the fresh beginnings, the approach of my Virgo birthday… a new school year, to me, was full of so much promise.
The promise of academic success, new crushes and shared secrets between friends. Not to mention, I even found joy in my classes – not because I was interested in conjugated verbs or how to convert percentages to fractions. No, I was interested because it was all material for the stories I told myself in my head, prepping them for the page. Maybe I, Saoirse, wasn’t interested in the life-cycle of a frog, but maybe Daphne, my next great character, wants to be a scientist when she grows up. Or Carl, her crush, might have a pet frog and maybe she studies frogs to impress him. Viewing school through the lens of my fictional friends was a great way to keep the day interesting.
So school became my second home. It was a place where I could tell myself stories and prove my worth through good grades.
And then, one day, suddenly, it wasn’t home anymore. It was time to graduate.
The real world hit me like a hurricane and when the dust finally settled I found myself in a lecture hall of 500 strangers in NUI Maynooth. I had opted to pursue an Arts degree, with the intention of (naturally) becoming a teacher and going back to the same school that had so heartlessly slammed the door behind me on my way out.
I was no longer Saoirse The Good Student. I wasn’t even Saoirse. I was a number, a string of eight digits that made up my new academic identity.
In no time at all, I became very well-acquainted (well, reacquainted) with my own depression. It was crystal freaking clear that I wouldn’t last in NUI Maynooth. I was putting far too much energy into thinking about my own death and not enough energy into attending classes or trying to picture a future for myself.
After seeking help from a whole range of services -counsellors, career guidance counsellors, access officers- I finally admitted defeat and dropped out. I wasn’t that string of numbers anymore, but now I had become Saoirse The Failed Student, which was even worse.
Fool me twice
It took about six months to emotionally get back on my feet. During that time I wrote a novel about murder (unpublished), spent hours drawing tattoo designs I found on the internet and tried desperately to find some sort of identity for myself that didn’t revolve around school.
However, September rolled around again, as so often it does, and I re-enrolled in the same Arts course, eager to correct the previous year’s failings and reclaim my title of Good Student.
Officially, my third-level departure was a deferral on medical grounds (but not based on mental illness; instead, epilepsy was the scapegoat), so I was able to return to Maynooth and ignore my college-failing-dropout past. Although it was the same course, I opted for different classes in the hopes that it might make a difference.
Although I managed to last the entirety of first year this time ’round, I dropped out again once the summer bell rang. I didn’t even write a word on my exam papers; I had no desire to try.
Fetac, a gap year and a BA later
After two failed attempts at an Arts degree I realised that, although I longed to be a teacher, I had no interest in studying to be a teacher. So I had no choice but to give up on that dream and reconstruct my entire vision of the future.
I knew that I had made a mistake before; I had chosen a course to get me to the job I wanted. For my next stab at academia, I chose to study a subject I was passionate about and that subject was creative writing.
I spent the next year writing up a storm in a FETAC course at Inchicore College of Further Education, enjoying the best year of my academic life. I was surrounded by like-minded creatives, doing assignments that came naturally to me and flexing all of my literary muscles.
But then that was over too and when the next September came, I had no where to go. Sure, I had just about scrubbed myself clean of that failed attempt at a degree in Maynooth, but in order to feel fully cleansed of my dropout woes (to fulfil a societal expectation that had been instilled in me from OH such a young age), I had to get a degree.
Degrees in creative writing are far and few between in Ireland, as you may know, so I spent a year rather aimlessly considering what my next move would be. That move, it turned out, was a BA in Creative Digital Media from IT Tallaght, which would then become known as TU Dublin Tallaght Campus, although to me it has other names: The One That Stuck and Third Time’s The Charm.
I won’t lie; I was a serious dropout risk at multiple points throughout my time at ITT, but I had been armed with something new and wonderful that helped me get through it unscathed: counselling.
I’m a big fan of counselling and the counsellor I met at ITT was the one with whom I had a few serious breakthroughs. Her expertise and the support I got from my beloved Radio Society was enough to keep me going until I finally found myself free from academia (something I never thought I would hope for).
A college dropout once more
With the help of a supportive lecturer, I got my first job days after finishing college. Fast-forward two years later when I finally found myself on a career path that made sense to me (more on that later), but in order to make it official, I had to go back to school to get myself a Masters degree. I picked a handy one, a Journalism MA which covered a lot of modules I had already completed elsewhere and combined it with my love of writing.
But, less than a month before I was due to re-enter the school-force, I had some sort of neurological anomaly and got a head injury. I’m afraid two years later it’s still an anomaly, but what was very clear was that the head injury was making me very sick. Too sick to give college the attention it required. I was overwhelmingly nauseous and getting terrible headaches almost everyday. Waking up and dragging myself into consciousness felt like digging myself out of a grave after having been hit by a truck.
I got meds and that helped for a bit but at a certain point I realised I was too sick to be in college. A deferral turned into my third (and hopefully final) dropout. Spoiler alert: doctors now think that the head injury is nothing to do with my mysterious illness, and instead it’s just depression taking hold in a fun new debilitating way.
And here we are...
And so, I’ve dropped out of college equal times to the number of jobs that I’ve had (the steady employment ones, at least). Despite the fact that I now have a degree and have even held two of my dream jobs, I will always always always be a college dropout.
It’s a label that I have worn for over a decade now; a label that I have worn (for fleeting moments) with pride, and a label that I have worn (for much longer moments) as a badge of shame.
Dropping out of college was (and still is) inextricably linked with my mental health. My experiences with third level education may have been unique (I hear it’s pretty unusual to do four first years in college before ever moving on to second year), but the feelings I experienced during that time certainly are not.
That’s why I’m writing this. I promised myself that if my mental health ever plummeted to these depths again, I would publicly journal the experience so that someone else feeling the same things might stumble upon it and feel understood. I would have given anything to feel understood when I first broke up with college.