I had a neurological disorder—have a neurological disorder? I’m still a little fuzzy on how to characterize my experience with Misophonia, but I do know that going on medical leave for a year was the best decision I could make for myself.
Two points I should make here:
Because of this disorder, certain triggers (chewing gum, pencil tapping, picking at nails, sniffling, and hundreds more, including sound and visual triggers) caused my fight or flight response to go into hyper-mode. This made eating dinner with my family, sitting in class (especially during cold/allergy season), and basically any interactions with people nearly impossible to endure. Mix in chronic depression and general anxiety disorder, and that’s the nice little cocktail of mental illnesses that my brain decided to serve, no cherry or whipped cream on top.
Medical leave does exist! There are steps you can take to remove yourself from the hectic, stressful, go-go-go life of a college student that can make it hard to fit in a meal on a normal day, not to mention deal head on with recovery and healing. While you may associate medical leave (if you’ve even heard about it) with mono or surgery, it also applies to mental illness.
The only reason I knew medical leave was an option was because two people had told me of their own experiences. Without their candor and willingness to share, I would have felt boxed in and cornered simultaneously. Their stories made this one possible, which is why I wanted to tell it in case anyone needs to hear that they don’t have to keep pretending to be okay.
I was not planning on going on medical leave. I don’t think anyone works all of their academic life to end up at a school like W&L with the idea that they’ll put it all on hold. I certainly didn’t. I just thought that if I had made it through high school this way, I could make it through college. Fast forward to the beginning of my junior year, with two years of figuring out my life at university with these challenges, and something changed. It could’ve been a mix of the more demanding classes, the impending implosion of my relationship that I could feel even if I didn’t have the words for it at the time, and the fear of starting to plan for a future where I had to make compromises for Misophonia. No matter the cause, all I knew was that I was not okay, which manifested itself in me skipping classes because I was scared of my brain and not being able to do homework and basically living like a hermit even in a townhouse with five other friends. Needless to say, I was not in a good place. But, like I had always done, I kept pushing and promised myself and even my parents that I had gone through this before and I could do it again.
There’s something about heartbreak that suddenly clarifies everything. I broke up with my boyfriend the Wednesday before Reading Days, a decision that I didn’t know I was going to make, but had been coming for a long time. My decision to go on medical leave happened the same way. Suddenly, I was free of any obligation or loyalty towards a significant other, which gave me the chance to slow down (I spent the next two days in bed, anyway) and figure out what was really going on with me and what was in my best interest. At around two in the morning on Thursday, the thought rose up like it had been sitting there for a while, a little shy, but finally ready to be heard: “I’m going on medical leave.” With that, I decided to sort everything out in the morning and went to sleep.
When I woke up, I called my mom, told her everything that had happened and how I really wasn’t in a good place, and she helped me make a to-do list: email the deans to figure out the proper steps, email my professors to let them know what’s going on, and get myself some food because damn it if feeling broken and sad and like your brain conspires against you at every turn makes you hungry. I remember writing down a draft of the email in the back of my Spanish notebook because the heaviness of not sleeping well and the uncertainty of what I was doing made my brain feel foggy. But I sent out the emails, including one to Dean Campbell, who is the real hero of this story. After I found myself some food, I saw her response that said, “Do you need help?” and said that she was in her office if I wanted to come by and talk through the process.
So I went. I put on clothes and I think I pinned back my hair and even put on some concealer. Anything to make me feel a little normal, a little more okay. When you are at the point where this feels like the only option, other than dropping out and saying good riddance, you feel disconnected from yourself. Somehow, I made it to her office and she ushered me inside and let me pet Winslow to calm down before getting to business. I had taken a Spanish literature class with Dean Campbell the previous year, so she knew the type of student I was and how bad things must truly be for me to be taking this option. I remember crying and her letting me cry and then making me tea and asking how soon I thought I’d be able to come back, because I wanted to come back. The whole reason I was going on medical leave was so I could heal and be better and actually function and come back. From the moment I made that decision, the plan was to come back. That was why going through the proper steps was so important to me, which Dean Campbell helped me navigate. She called the right people, using her title as dean to get them to call her back if they didn’t answer and to talk me through the financial obligations if I did leave and making sure I knew where to go to get signatures and that the person I needed the signature from was actually there and all of these little details that she handled in a flurry of care and no nonsense — because she took my pain seriously.
That’s the one thing that sticks out about that day. She listened to my pain and wanted to help make it go away. She hugged me after we had completed all of the phone calls and paperwork and a meeting with a doctor at the medical center, punctuating the moment with assurances that she would see me back on campus when I was ready.
This all happened Friday morning and afternoon. My parents arrived that evening, and my dad left Saturday morning with most of my things. I spent the rest of the weekend sleeping, packing up what was left of my room, and saying goodbye. Even if my friends didn’t know the whole story about Misophonia, they understood that I was making the best decision I could given the circumstances. Everyone was encouraging and liberal with hugs and well wishes, which made the ride back home to Ohio, my mom driving the whole way, a little better, knowing I had people I wanted to return to.
That being said, I am so happy to say that I’ve been trigger-free for just under fourteen months now. I take an antidepressant to keep my depression and anxiety under control, which I never would have tried if I didn’t have the time to work with a therapist and time to let it work. When I realized that the treatment I received for Misophonia, in conjuncture with therapy and Lexapro, was working, I knew that I would have never gotten the chance to live this way without the time I had given myself to simply heal and rest. Medical leave was not easy. I don’t want you to read this article and think that I spent the entire time sleeping and watching Netflix. I had to push myself to enter into situations that for most of my life had been excruciating and let myself feel the fear before realizing I was okay. And I had to do this over and over until the fear became excitement that I could. I had to work on who I wanted to be, because mental illness has a way of shaping your entire being. I also finished a class from the semester I left so that the six weeks I had invested in weren’t for nothing. Then, when I felt ready, I got a job to demonstrate to the school that I was fit to come back. When you go on medical leave, you have to apply for reinstatement and send in a bunch of paperwork. And I was actually really scared that they would say no, even though I knew I was better. I think I was scared because, from the moment I left campus, I had been working to come back. And I was finally ready.
I recognize that I am very privileged to have been in a situation where I could rely on my parents and my home situation during medical leave, as well as begin making monthly payments on my student loans after the six-month grace period. I am extremely grateful that my parents dropped everything and rearranged a year of their lives so that I could live at home, receive treatment for Misophonia (which was miraculously pro-bono), and go to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for six months. As a low-income student, but honestly just as a daughter, I was hyper aware of the burden I was placing on my family. However, they never wavered in providing for me, especially when it came to mental health. These were the circumstances that helped me while on medical leave, but the point of the article is to show that it is possible. Medical leave is an option if you need it, even if the process doesn’t look the same as mine. There is help out there if you’re willing to look for it and brave enough to ask.