Academia was my identity — then I dropped out of college

Alys Tomlinson/Getty Images

In sixth grade, my teacher made us do an exercise in which we wrote anonymous compliments for our classmates. The compliments I received were nearly always the same: You’re smart, You’re good at English, Your grades are always good. These comments made me beam with pride; my grades were a huge source of pride for me. I believed that my academic strength defined my value.

For as long as I can remember, I loved learning. I was one of those annoying people who loved high school, especially the academic side of it. The end of each semester meant I brought home a stellar report card that would be praised by my friends and family.

Academics were my identity. Admittedly, I believed that there was not much else to me. I didn’t feel pretty or funny, nor was I popular.

When I was younger, I thought this meant that the only other way to be valuable was to be book smart.

I couldn’t wait to go to university, and I saw myself getting a Ph.D. and becoming a professor. I would be the first person in my working class family to get a degree, and I wanted to make them proud.

I never imagined that I would have to drop out of college.

women at college graduation
Ryan McVay/Getty Images

I have PTSD because I was assaulted at a young age. I managed to push the event to the back of my mind throughout high school, busying myself with academics, extracurriculars, and socializing.

In college, this avoidance technique stopped working and my mental health crumbled.

I felt stifled in my home town, so I transferred to a university on the other side of the country. I loved my new home, and I needed the change – but my mental health continued getting worse. I started falling apart.

My academics suffered, too.

Before, I could read incredibly fast — taking in every word, analyzing every sentence, problematizing the author’s choice of language, all simultaneously. I used to be able to recall exact quotes and use them in exams. Writing essays was an opportunity for me to explore new ideas and flex my writing skills.

As my mental health fell apart, so did my ability to work. I could read one sentence five times without understanding the meaning. I became distracted and frightened by every noise. I would read something, start writing an essay, and then forget everything I had read an hour earlier. The prospect of thinking about anything made me cry, and all I could do was sleep.

My inability to function frustrated me.

The cold, bureaucratic system of my university made me even more depressed. I became aware of the fact that university was eating me alive.

College student at library
Hero Images/Getty Images

After anti-rape protests rocked my university, I had a mental breakdown. While I was recovering in the hospital, I was advised to drop out by our dean of students. When I signed a form to confirm that I was leaving college, I was overcome with relief. I would spend no more lectures fighting back tears, drowning under waves of information I could never understand. I would stop being frustrated with my flighty mind. It would be one less burden.

But at the same time, I became aware of the fact that I was taking a break from academia. I knew it would take a good few years before I was healed enough to return to university.

It would be the first time in 17 years that I wasn’t in school, which meant that I couldn’t excel at academics anymore. Who was I without that?

Understandably, being assaulted took away my sense of safety. But I didn’t think it would eventually take away my sense of self. I didn’t think that having PTSD would make it impossible for me to do the one thing I was always good at.

To me, that was the most painful part of it all. The nightmares were horrible, and the flashbacks were unbearable. The most hurtful, though, was the fact that I couldn’t do what I loved.

What happens when trauma takes away your life goals? When it makes you feel like you can’t do the one thing you’ve always been good at? When it forces you to question your very identity?

Woman thinking, rearview
Tuan Tran/Getty Images

You reimagine yourself.

You remind yourself that, despite what society says, education isn’t an indication of your intelligence. There are many different types of intelligence, including the kind that isn’t valued in academia.

More importantly, a formal education isn’t an indication of your value.

You tell yourself that healing is more important than a career, that finding peace is more important than a university.

It was hard not to think of my time studying as a waste of time and money, so I tried to remind myself that the degree itself isn’t the only thing you’re meant to gain from a college experience. After all, I still learned a great deal from from my lectures. I made a great deal of friends. I grew as a person and became more introspective and independent. And if I want to go back and finish my degree – which I’m planning on doing – I can always do that.

I used my research and writing skills to become a full-time freelance writer. I had always loved writing, but it never felt like a viable career choice. Now, it’s not only a career that pays the bills – it’s one that brings me a lot of joy. I’m happier now than I ever was in university.

In the song, “Father and Son” by Cat Stevens, there’s a line that goes “You will still be here tomorrow, but your dreams may not.”

I’m not sure what Cat Stevens meant by that, but I’d like to think he was saying our plans aren’t as important as ourselves. No dream is worth sacrificing your mental health for.

I think about my life now — how full it is, how happy it is. I write for a living, but I know that I am so much more than what I do. Dropping out of university was difficult, but it ultimately changed my life for the better. I intend on finishing my degree soon. But more importantly, I intend on living, and living well.

More like this

hellogigglesuniversitycollegeschoolptsdmental healthoriginaloriginals
newsletter illustration

Giggles in Your Inbox

!