September 7, 2023

ROJAS | You’re Never Behind: Redefining “Health Leaves”

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Content warning: This piece contains discussion of suicidal ideation, depression and other mental health conditions.

Writing this column from my Cornell dorm, I feel a sense of giddy. I’m realizing how far I’ve come. I’m back on campus and it feels like home; I want to share my takeaways from my health leave before I take a break from auto-biographical columns for the time being (I’ve been documenting my journey via my columns regarding my severe depression and suicidal ideation since last school year). I’m fully aware that I sound like a child excitedly presenting their favorite toy to their first grade class, but it comes from a genuine place. 

There’s so many things I wish I could have told myself a year ago. Notably, a health leave doesn’t have to fit the Cornell SDS definition of a “health leave” nor does it have to be an actual “health leave.” How you define it is up to you, what matters is you. You can’t make the most of your time (academically and personally) here if you aren’t well. Students should not be afraid of taking time off for their mental health, as mental health is, and should always be perceived as, just as important as physical health. Taking any kind of break for mental health does not mean you are behind nor does it mean you are any less worthy of being at Cornell. It just means you might have to revise your personal timeline. 

Redefining the term “health leave” may seem a little unnecessary, but it can help in a multitude of cases. For instance, not all people at Cornell are in a position where taking a health leave is feasible, such as cases of an unsupportive family, inadequate access to resources and more. Being able to take a health leave itself is a huge privilege. The term “health leave” can also be defined as any period where time is taken to work on oneself, regardless of whether an official “health leave” is taken. Going to therapy, practicing coping mechanisms and seeing a psychiatrist can be seen as a “mini health break” — sometimes labeling things in a context that helps you realize you’re trying is very helpful.

From my experience, redefining a “health leave” as a comparison to things I know well helped me. For instance, when I was in residential, I had to reframe my stay there as “going to college for my mental health.” Otherwise, my motivation was low. I wanted to get better, I just didn’t see the point when I started. I didn’t even think I could do it. Once I accepted the help and used what I was learning, I started to see the reasons to try. Keeping this perspective in mind helped me immensely. 

Going to group sessions became going to lecture. Going to therapy became attending a seminar or a discussion. The journaling and processing I did was my homework. Daily living activities such as hygiene, laundry, sleep and eating were the readings you had to do so you wouldn’t fall behind, even though no one really tells you “great job” for doing them. Socializing with my peers and keeping up with my hobbies were study sessions that explained every part of the assignment in depth. 

Keeping this regimen consistent earned you extra credit, so when it came to the overall course grade (putting all these habits into action outside of a medical setting), even if you missed a day or two, you’re passing the class because you did all the work; you deserve to cut yourself some slack because functioning in life is really hard. Not having enough extra credit to help you pass the class means you should review the content slowly and start over. It doesn’t matter how fast you finish; what matters is if you finish, what you learned and how you will grow from it. 

Translating the process in the context of a class makes sense to me. Some people might not see it from a class context, and that’s okay. I’ve heard of people using similar thought processes but with video games in mind. You earn enough XP to level up, gain power ups, change your character’s outfit and more. Sometimes looking from my pets’ perspectives helps, especially because the most mundane things become games to them. Tucking myself into bed at night, my toes wiggling under the cover become my cat’s fixation for the next 20 minutes. My roommate crocheting a tote, the yarn becomes my cat’s kryptonite. Walking into my room, at home or at my dorm, my dog becomes so excited that his entire butt wiggles and he jumps for joy. My cat will walk up to me, purr and rub herself against my legs. All I did was exist and walk into the room. 

In terms of the larger process, I completed residential treatment, then went on to a partial hospitalization program. Graduating to standard outpatient treatment, I started to slowly integrate myself back into  society again. My meds were changed and my habits changed. Many tears were shed, both good and bad. I decided to get a full-time job to get me back on my feet financially, learn new skills and adapt to being on a school-like schedule (being a Walgreens pharmacy technician, even if you’re just in training, is not for the faint of heart). I took two community college classes over the summer that can contribute to my graduation requirements at Cornell. I saw Taylor Swift at the Eras Tour. I spent time with people who understand me. My familial, friend and romantic relationships have turned around completely.

I realized my GI issues (that have been ongoing for years) were more than just vomiting when I was anxious; turns out I needed a colonoscopy because I had blood in my stool, alongside many other debilitating symptoms. It wasn’t very reassuring when the test that detected blood in my stool said it was for colorectal cancer. There was a polyp removed from my colon; luckily it was small and benign. I’m glad it was caught early. Gastritis, esophagitis and hemorrhoids also joined the party. I’m finally getting treatment for these issues.

The point is, you don’t have to call a “health leave” a “health leave.”  For some people, this might not matter. In my case, it did. I was absolutely set on the misconception that I failed myself by taking a leave. That’s all I could think when I was leaving my dorm at the end of the previous fall semester. I was so set on this timeline I made for myself to the point where I refused to change it. I fought with the people in my life about this, too. They all told me to take a leave and I declined it many times, until I was told, “I don’t want to go to your funeral. You need help.” They were right. I did. I’m glad I did. 

Daniela Rojas is a third-year student in the College of Arts & Sciences. Her fortnightly column Anything but MunDANinities explores mental health, intersectionality, political and societal matters, campus history and things that keep her up at night. She can be reached at [email protected]

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