Debt is now engrained in our culture. Today’s youth will face unique stress from ruthless competition, lack of employment opportunities, tuition fees that have reached an all-time high and the often life-long experience of repaying debt. This anxiety hit me in my last year of my undergrad. At the time, I thought my anxiety would subside, but it quickly developed into manic-like depression. This anxiety was heightened by the contraception I was taking at the time.
The stress of final year
The school year always starts off with some stress from anticipating the first few grades from my classes, but in my graduating year my nervousness didn’t subside like it did in the past. In my last year of study, I was anxious about graduating and transitioning away from my safe ‘bubble’ of peers—the support system of friends, professors and community I had developed over four years. I was a B.A. Honours student and anticipating applying for grad studies, although I didn’t feel I was ready to continue my education immediately following my undergrad. I thought about searching for jobs, yet I didn’t have much luck finding many that only required a bachelor of arts.
I was lucky enough to have my mom’s support. Even though she is a single parent, she saved enough money to pay off my undergrad tuition. I didn’t have to worry about repaying a debt post-undergrad, unlike many students. Still, the thought of the self-sacrifice my mom endured to pay for my education, along with the lack of scholarship opportunities for grad school, made me feel guilty and worthless. I was a good student, but I wasn’t good enough. All the while, the pressure I put on myself to attain competitive grades ultimately ended up sacrificing the quality of work I usually did.
Birth control contributes to anxiety
About halfway through the fall semester, I started experiencing health problems stemming from my method of contraception. I started using the NuvaRing, recommended by a university physician. NuvaRing is a combined hormonal contraceptive vaginal ring, a method I chose because it seemed easy to use and didn’t appear to have major side effects (at least, the physician didn’t warn me of any). I was wrong. I immediately began to feel even more anxious and started experiencing physical changes, such as hair loss and loss of appetite. It affected my appetite so much that I lost at least 20 pounds and I weighed just about 100 pounds—definitely not a healthy weight for my 5’4” stature. I could see the weight loss in my face, breasts, hips and legs. I was ashamed to see anyone. I remember trying to eat a sandwich in front of my boyfriend at the time and not wanting to swallow even the smallest bits of it. I had no idea that this was attributed to the NuvaRing until weeks later.
My anxiety reached a turning point when I went to a local hospital. I had broken up with my boyfriend, and I hadn’t slept properly for weeks. I was experiencing extremely uneasy moments of disillusionment from school, close friends, professors and myself. I explained my situation to another physician, who simply recommended that I exercise for 10 minutes every day to relieve my anxiety.
I called my mom, who thought my physical symptoms were due to my contraception. She was right. As soon as I stopped the NuvaRing I immediately regained my appetite. But I began to feel manically depressed, so my mom thought that I should postpone my exams and return home.
Returning home wasn’t easy. I felt like I failed school, even though I didn’t fail any courses. Still, returning to my family was like ‘coming clean’ about all the anxiety that had built up. They made me realize my fears about my future and the fact that the contraception I had used contributed to my anxiety. I am naturally an anxious person due to my family background (both my father and brother left home while I was growing up, and I now have terrible relationships with some family members), but this particular period was a breaking point. My mom and stepfather welcomed me with open arms, but also gave me ‘tough love’. They said that if I started running away from my problems at that point, I’d be running away for the rest of my life.
I had to work through my school papers to get better—I had to feel some sense of accomplishment. They were the shittiest papers I’ve ever written, but I had to do them. It was like pulling teeth; often I didn’t feel the physical strength to even get out of bed. That’s what it is to be depressed—your body feels like a ton of bricks. Being home alone, finishing my assignments, made me feel desperately lonely. I’d wallow constantly. Sometimes I didn’t write at all. But as I tried more and more, it became easier.
The point of this article isn’t to gain your sympathy. Don’t look down on me. The point of this article is to enable others to learn from my experience and deepen the conversation about debt, the educational system, contraception and mental crises that often arise from these things.
Understanding the bigger picture
I realize now that these anxieties also stem from contemporary structural and institutional problems that were out of my ‘control’—particularly surrounding debt. Silvia Federici and George Caffentzis discussed this in great detail during their Oct. 3 talk, “Student debt, the bigger picture: activism and the struggle for free education.” They claimed that, building up to today, there has been a breakdown of community due to neoliberal economic restructuring. There’s no doubt in my mind that the breakdown of my family, and in particular, my ‘nuclear family’, has been affected by economic restructuring. They had debt and it caused them a great deal of stress. Though my mom was able to get by and pay for my undergrad tuition, it was hard for her. I feel guilty, but I don’t think families should have to go through this stress.
Putting people through debt is a shameful experience. The commercialization of university also plays a role. You can argue that competition for scholarships and grades can be healthy, but as I mentioned, even being a B.A. Honours student wasn’t good enough for graduate scholarships (and I looked into scholarships heavily). Overall, the economic and education systems do not account for mental crises. As my grades went down that fall semester, I became even more anxious because I thought I wouldn’t get into grad school—what would they say about this drop in my grades, especially in my last year? I didn’t have any opportunity to explain this drop.
I think these multiple conflicts that I was struggling with largely stem from a structural problem in neoliberalism. Debt enforces the struggle of basic family life. Not only do I feel guilty about my mom’s past, but I also worry about the financial security of my future, and potentially that of my future children.
So what can we do? I’d say that women in particular should speak out to other women. When I returned to school the following winter semester to finish my degree, I didn’t immediately open up to everyone. I found that, in time, the more I spoke about my depression, the more I was exposed to others who went through similar experiences. I met other females who’ve had side effects from contraception. This started to lessen the stigma of my emotional crisis. It is only through day-to-day organizing that people come together and realize each other’s struggles. It also expands your consciousness.
It is so important that we all proclaim debt as the forefront of student and family struggles. Members of the Dalhousie Student Union have worked extensively to present a student platform outlining three key issues (affordability, accountability and livability) to provincial electoral candidates, and to solicit pledges from students regarding these issues. A Day of Action march will be conducted in an effort to combat the growing problem of politician apathy towards student issues in our province. Before we are forced into more debt, we will be marching on Oct. 29 (check dsu.ca for updates) to demonstrate our indignation toward this increasingly desperate situation. Though the march may not achieve structural change, I think it’s a step in the right direction.
There’s no quick fix, and indeed, coping with my anxiety will be a lifelong process. Even though I made it to grad school, I still often think about financing my education more than the ideas in my thesis. I’m still afraid to face a world of unemployment, debt and increasingly competitive workplaces for youth.