“A Voluntary Lockdown”
For Adriana and Jose, that structure took time to create. After their six-hour plane ride to the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, an hour-long journey through baggage claim, and a drive through the city, they arrived at his townhouse. Her parents divorced two years prior, and they sold Adriana’s childhood home the following summer. She technically hadn’t had a home since then — at least not one that stored her childhood memorabilia. She and her father hadn’t discussed what her leave of absence would look like. But before Jose left Seattle to pick Adriana up, he called his group therapist for divorced fathers to ask for advice and see if she could help. “It was a hard moment,” Jose says, “there’s no playbook.”
After an initial consultation, Jose’s group therapist said she could help Adriana. They scheduled weekly sessions for the foreseeable future and created room to add more sessions each week if Adriana needed it. From that point on, Adriana describes her leave of absence as a “voluntary lockdown.” Jose worked from home for nearly two months so she wasn’t alone during the day. She wasn’t allowed to drive the car by herself. Adriana saw her friends, family and boyfriend, but she didn’t stay out past dark or leave her house for long periods of time.
At Syracuse University, students must provide the school with a letter from a licensed medical provider supporting the leave and signed forms authorizing the communication of the students’ medical information among the school’s staff and administration. Photo by Maranie Staab.
“It was his decision, but I didn’t fight it,” she says, “having someone take care of me and watch over me and make sure I wasn’t doing anything to myself was really refreshing.” Adriana says it was nice “to be a kid again” and have someone look after her after “fending for herself for awhile.”
But adjusting to this new lifestyle challenged both Jose and Adriana. She had been working side jobs and going to school since she was 16, but her therapist advised that this time should be dedicated solely to getting better. “My initial thought was ‘you have to be active, you have to be busy, you have to keep learning,’” Jose says. “I didn’t know that she needed some time to settle down first.” Adriana’s therapist wanted her to focus on how she was feeling to the exclusion of anything else. If she was taking this time from school to learn more about herself, her diagnosis, and her symptoms, it should be dedicated to that. Slowing down and reconnecting with what made her happy was an important part of Adriana’s structured routine during her leave. She was strict with her schedule and diligent about preoccupying herself. Adriana did “check-ins” with Jose to make sure she was eating regularly. On her good days, Adriana says she would read, write, draw, attend therapy, go on long walks and hikes, and spend time with friends and family. On her bad days, Adriana says she struggled to maintain motivation, and would stay in bed for most of the day.
“Having someone take care of me and watch over me and make sure I wasn’t doing anything to myself was really refreshingy.”
But the game changer, she says, was having a friend who was going through a similar experience. Cassie Carman, a friend from high school, was also taking a leave of absence at the time but for different reasons. The two spent their off time together driving around, running errands, and exploring the area. In February, a few weeks into Adriana’s treatment, Cassie drove her to her therapy session. During that session, Adriana was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder, which she struggled to accept.
“When she told me I went into shock and my therapist noticed,” Adriana says.
Adriana said that in her mind it was “acceptable” to experience depression or anxiety. To her, veterans or abuse survivors struggled with PTSD. The diagnosis meant that her experiences with an adverse family dynamic during childhood had affected her in ways she hadn’t considered before. It also meant that Adriana would have to resolve issues with Jose and her mother, who she hadn’t spoken to in nearly a year.
“I wasn’t very happy to embrace it, but the moment I did it helped healing go by a lot quicker,” Adriana says. She says her therapist told her that her symptoms “screamed PTSD.” After “unpacking” her childhood with her therapist, Adriana says she realized her symptoms began to appear as early as 9 years old. Things worsened in high school when she began experiencing intense nightmares that caused severe sleeping troubles. Adriana remembers at 19 that she still crawled into Jose’s bed at night because she couldn’t sleep by herself. Adriana experienced anxiety and depression as a result of her PTSD and would have episodes of what she called her “fog.”
“I call it a fog because I can’t really do anything,” she says. “I shut down. I don’t eat. I don’t get out of bed. I just get very very antisocial. I just tend to push people away.”
Mental-Health Conditions Treated Among College Students
The Center for College Mental Health at Penn State University’s 2018-2019 report showed the range of mental-health conditions treated among college students. Some students were treated for more than one condition.
As Adriana’s therapy sessions continued, she began to participate in sessions with her mom and Jose separately. While the sessions with her mother didn’t give Adriana closure, she says it helped her process her past. Jose says the sessions helped him better understand what Adriana was going through and what she needed to do to get better.
For Adriana, the work of therapy drained her. “I remember being really tired coming out of each session,” she says. “It was work I needed to do. It was kind of like doing a puzzle for figuring out why I had crumbled so badly.” And the answers she found in her therapist’s office often evaporated as soon as she left that space and began trying to manage her life. “I would make so much progress inside that room but the moment I stepped out,” she says. “I had this whole other world of people who had no idea and I didn’t know how to communicate to them.”