It’s hard to return from a leave of absence. It’s even harder to come back knowing that you feel worse than before.
Let me explain: I took a leave after fall semester last year because of unbearable circumstances and experiences that rattled my emotional core. I could write an entire book on the events leading to my leave, but this is sufficient for now.
By May, I had been gradually healing and rebuilding myself when I got a finger infection at work. These things happen. I went to urgent care, and received a prescription for an anti-biotic and a doctor’s note saying I could not work for the next few days. I trusted the doctor with my health, as anyone would, and went home without a worry. However, a week in on the antibiotics, I started feeling the sensation of something crawling under my skin. Soon after, I began feeling constantly nauseous and weak. These symptoms continued for weeks, and I began anxiously searching for answers. For the following four months, I was more or less bedridden. I had no idea why I was sick, as I was not getting answers from doctors. My summer consisted of going to work, going to medical appointments, and lying in bed, wondering when this nightmare would end.
As this was happening, it was expected that I would return to Penn in the fall. This expectation was held by friends and family, but more importantly, I had this expectation. Despite all the emotional turmoil that being sick caused, I wanted to come back, in part due to anxiety about being behind, but also because I didn’t want my sickness to define me. Given that Penn is a nationwide leader in medical care, I felt it wouldn’t hurt to try to come back, even if I was sick.
Even though I was confident in my decision to come back, it was hard to hear about exciting summer internships and glamourous vacations, but it was harder to admit my ambivalence about being back; I had to hold back tears every time someone would ask, “How was your time off? Are you excited to be back?” I felt like a failure for not being able to say yes, and even worse for being brutally honest about my feelings.
The worst part of returning from a leave, however, was when things I had worked so hard to put behind me came back to haunt me. It’s been a continuing theme of my experience of Penn; knowing that certain things – places, pictures, songs – I once treasured, are now things I completely avoid in order to protect myself from being triggered. If I am triggered, I spiral into the “what if” rabbit hole. Maybe I should forgive the person who said it was obvious I was mentally ill and laughed when I was inappropriately touched at a party; maybe I should have asked to talk in person to clarify my comments that were wildly misinterpreted; maybe I’m just clearly ugly and pathetic, and I was just never good enough for him to reciprocate my romantic feelings.
I am fortunately no longer spending my days in tears, and I am in a much better place both physically and mentally. I am truly lucky that my decision to come back was successful. However, it is extremely important for us at Penn to not expect leaves of absences to be magical transformations: that when someone returns from a leave, they are now the best versions of themselves imaginable. We promote this myth because taking time to heal is seen as the last resort, and since it is the last resort, it must work. But this simply isn’t true, and to suggest otherwise is incredibly harmful to one’s mental wellness journey.
Mental health is so stigmatized that it’s understandably hard to know what to say when someone first comes back. Before taking a leave, I would have asked returning students the same questions. Given this, I don’t judge anyone who asked me the standard questions, as I know they mean well. However, we need to do better.
From my experience, I was very grateful for the warm welcomes where friends and acquaintances were just happy to see me back. I didn’t mind questions, especially when they were open-ended and didn’t have any embedded assumptions about my feelings. I appreciated acknowledgement of my leave and the difficulty of coming back, but not having those things dominate the conversation.
Everyone should prioritize their wellness and happiness. We might not reach our aspirational points of wellness and happiness, and that’s okay. In short, it is okay to not always be okay.