The Depression No One Warns You About When You Graduate

Here’s what no one tells you about graduating: it sucks. It really, really sucks. It feels like the rug has been pulled out from under you, like you’ve been pushed off a cliff and you are falling and you just keep falling. There is no hitting the ground. There is no parachute. There is just the air and you.

Let me be honest about this: in the Spring I expected to be one of the good ones. I had a great internship lined up in my chosen field and a summer sublet paid for in full just twenty minutes on foot from my office. Sure, I didn’t know anyone in Berkeley, but how hard could it be to make friends? So what that I had never lived more than an hour’s drive from my family? I thought to myself: I am twenty-two years old, I just wrote a thesis, people at my college know who I am. I will be just fine. Everyone cried at graduation, but I was the stoic one as I moved out. I just wanted everything to be over, all of the sobbing and the goodbyes and the desperate hugs. I wanted to sleep, and then I wanted to start the next chapter of my life. I will admit to feeling a little superior, a dangerous mixture of arrogance, denial and ignorance. Everyone said it would be hard, but I was no Hannah Horvath from HBO Girls. I survived college, didn’t I? How bad could this adulthood thing possibly be?

I am looking at apartment listings on Craigslist. There are very few fall sublets available, and the ones that have been posted are either too far from public transit or well out of my price range. I am crying, which is not unusual these days. Over the phone, my boyfriend offers well-intentioned advice about managing my expectations, but that’s opposite of what I need to hear right now. I’m not even sure if I want to stay in the Bay Area after the summer. The constant street harassment is getting to me, and having to live with a stranger, and knowing next to no one. I had to stop dressing in anything attention-getting, putting away my thigh highs and my favorite skirt because I’m sick of men at bus stops asking my cleavage if I want to fuck. That falling feeling isn’t going away and it is too hard for me to put into words, too hard to explain. When I get short and even more upset on the phone, he admits he does not know what to say, does not know how to make me feel better.

“I don’t need advice,” I say. “Just tell me you love me and that it’ll be okay.”

“I love you,” he says. “It’ll be okay.”

A friend from college has moved home and is having trouble adjusting to living with his family again, an adult and yet still a child. Another friend’s anxiety is acting up, separated from her support networks at Wesleyan. Another friend can’t find a job and spends each day writing cover letters, turning down internships because she cannot afford to work without pay. I have moved across the country to a new coast, a six hour flight and three hours behind my parents, and the loneliness festers. I work five days a week as an unpaid intern and I come home every night covered in paper cuts. The internship is challenging and exiting, helping me build my social media skills and meet people in the publishing industry. I correspond with authors I have long admired as I plan blog tours and send out advanced reader copies of new releases. I am one of the lucky ones: I am on a career path, even if I am living off of savings. I have savings to live off. I do not have the shadow of student debt limiting my options. But if I am one of the lucky ones, why am I so miserable?

“Of course it’s going to be hard,” my mother tells me. I have called her at 6am my time, sobbing and convinced I have bed bugs (I do not). “Your father and I knew it would be hard for you. You’re starting over. This part always sucks.”

“It doesn’t have to be hard,” my boyfriend tells me. He is worried about me, doesn’t want me to be self-defeating. He has watched me work through trauma, watched me finish a thesis, watched me shatter silences about STI stigma on our college campus. The fact that I have called him crying because my new roommate accused me of stealing some of her shampoo is very strange to him. “Stop telling yourself this is going to be hard. You’re just lonely and you have a shitty roommate.”

My four former roommates from my senior year of college are dealing with the following: the passing of loved ones, difficult family dynamics, cockroaches, breakups, various health struggles. I petulantly text my best friend about how much I miss Wesleyan. She answers, “We’re all in that boat and it’s a fucking shitty boat but everyone told us to savor it while we could and I don’t think we quite understood how difficult the transition would be.”

Things I miss about college: being on a meal plan and buying Cheetos from Weshop with my monopoly money, writing in Olin Library with the afternoon sun streaming over the tables, walking around my campus and never feeling unsafe, coming home to my best friends whose bedroom doors were always open, having the option to be alone when I needed to be alone and the option to be surrounded with friends when I needed to be surrounded with friends. Always, always having someone’s shoulder to bury my face in. Having a class schedule and assignments and another semester, another vacation, another course load to plan. Knowing where I would be without fail on September 1st. Knowing it with certainty.

It is really hard to admit I am having a hard time. It feels like a failure. I am terrified of being some spoiled girl from Connecticut who can’t hack it in the real world. The idea that I might be a fraud — that all those people who told me how excited they were to see where I would go might be disappointed — keeps me up at night. And the fact that my twenty-something angst is so predictable makes it even harder to articulate. Of course, everyone keeps saying. It’ll be okay, everyone else says. This is the hard part, the part that makes me who I am, that makes me who I will be. But how do I differentiate between a hard transition and just not liking this city? Would it be sensible or cowardly to move back to the East Coast and live with my parents while I freelance? Is my state of mind holding me back, or do I know myself well enough to know that this isn’t working?

It has only been two weeks. People say to give it a month, give it six months, give it a year. And of course. I will be here until my sublet runs out in mid-August, and I will look for fall sublets, and I will apply for jobs when I come closer to the end of my internship. I will ask coworkers out for drinks and strike up conversations at open mic nights and keep trying, keep fighting to make a life here. I am strong enough and I will figure it out, I know that. And there have been moments of belonging already: walking to a reading with my new boss and listening to her explain how people’s views of pornography have changed in the past five years. Telling her I just want to be a part of this world and having her turn to me and say you already are! Driving over the Golden Gate Bridge for the first time and gaping at its brawny structure, not as a tourist but as someone discovering a new home. Being recognized and greeted by the cashier at the grocery store by my apartment building and realizing I am finally a regular somewhere.

But I won’t invalidate my feelings, and my dominant feeling lately is lost. The drop of losing Wesleyan is brutal. I am trying to find the right words to say it because that is what I do. It isn’t self-indulgent to say what everyone else seems to be feeling. I am a writer, I put into words what everyone else is flummoxed by. I have not found the perfect digestible metaphor yet for this transition, this new chapter, but here is what I have so far: the unknown is scary, but things become less scary once you name them. Graduating college sucks. Pretending it doesn’t suck just makes it suck more. Post-grad drop, I refuse to let you be my dirty little secret.

(Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash)

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Ella Dawson is a sex and culture critic and a digital strategist. She drinks too much Diet Coke.

13 thoughts on “The Depression No One Warns You About When You Graduate

  1. Boy, did this ever take me back. Not kidding. Well, not the “dressing” part — but the time of having left home and being on my own for the first time. Here is what I suggest, being old enough to be your mom. Get that MA and then your Ph.D if you can. I mean, at least think about it. I worked part time for newspaper during and after college. I could afford an apartment of my own at 24. Before that? The roommate. Oh brother. Really. We are so far from the world of the 80’s right now. Rest a bit, and then do the MA. Berkeley? I didn’t have a car til I was 22. That is the next hurdle, and it will solve many things! One thing — your education is never going to fail you. Never! I mean you just made the biggest move ever — across the country. It’s huge. I would never have had your bravery at 22. Brava!

    1. Thanks! Yeah, unfortunately I can’t think seriously about grad school for a long time because I just don’t have the funds for it. I don’t know what I would study but even if I did I don’t want to strap on another couple hundred k. Things are a lot different now in terms of debt, housing costs, everything. I’m not going to be in the position to buy a car for ages. So I’m banking on the 230k undergrad education I just received to get me through! I’m doing a lot better than I was when I wrote this post though, I’m much more focused and less panicked.

      1. Good. You know, I worked for that paper for years — and then I went back for the MA much later in life. It’s all possible. I think I wanted to tell you how brave you were, and I have a pic of myself at your exact age — going to put it up in my blog w/next post. I had a chance to go to school in Paris at 18. My mom said “just stay there.” Right. Oh dear. I just want to congratulate you, first for that fab school and your BA, and second for coming all the way West as you have! I could never have done that at 22. I see it as HUGE, Ella. Huge.

        1. Thank you 🙂 The move has been scary but I’m seeing it as a big summer adventure, not sure if I want to settle here. I’m still amazed I did it, to be honest. I was so preoccupied with graduating that I didn’t worry too much about moving here, and the magnitude of it only hit me once it was over.

          You should definitely post that photo! I know I would love to see it. I have a photo of my mother at her college graduation looking very early 80s and I have it framed on my desk.

        2. I will! I’ll be back. I even have one from UCSB. 1984. It was the biggest day of my life, that I had done that. Then the MA was the second biggest, it really was. I don’t know if you know my friend Remittance Girl, but she is getting her Ph.D right now and it’s very interesting what her dissertation is one. When we met as writers over in ERWA it had to be like oh — 2004 maybe? She was teaching English in Vietnam. She went on for her MA and then this doctorate all out of writing short stories in this genre. One never knows! ❤ She is one to know. Really fantastic writer, intellectual.

  2. I am right there with you. And Bay Area street harassment is a real and shocking thing. People say “get used to it,” but I absolutely refused to. There are some things in life we just shouldn’t “have to get used to.” This shit is HARD. And while I feel bad that everyone is feeling this way, it’s also comforting to know I’m not alone in it. Wes definitely spoiled us in more than one way. But for real, thanks, Ella, for giving voice to what we all seem to be feeling. What I found helped me the most during a rather jarring summer in SF was being a regular at select places – having people know who I was and call me by my name…being recognized. I’ll be there for the first time in 2 years in August – let’s grab a drink! Sending support!!
    – Shira,

    1. It’s so funny—I’ve spent so much of my time in NYC that I figured I could handle city sexual harassment. It is SO much worse here. I don’t mind learning which streets to avoid, but having to change how I dress has been infuriating. I want to wear my god damn sheer tank tops and red lipstick. It’s a huge deterrent to staying here.

      And I really appreciate you saying that, I was super freaked out just posting this. I didn’t put a link to this on Facebook. It’s such a weird, scary transition but very few people want to talk about it because they don’t want to complain. Plus no one wants to fail.

      I’ve found a few bars, cafes, and one local grocery where I’m starting to be a regular. You’re right, it totally helps. I’ll be here at least through August 21st when my lease runs out, that drink would be wonderful!

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