Surviving the college 'crack up'

What was I most afraid of when I came to college? I would have to say the “”Freshman 15.”” It is what legends are made of and what made me buy three different-sized pairs of jeans, worrying that my waist would quickly expand to unthinkable proportions.

Unfortunately, that was the least of my problems. While I have no reliable diet advice, I can offer some advice on another freshman epidemic: the college crack-up.

I’m not talking about the feeling that you are losing your mind during finals. That’s normal. What I mean is a long tradition of severe college-induced nervous breakdowns. From Sylvia Plath to Elizabeth Wurtzel, many great women have had them.

If you look at the history of famous females, a lot of them were, shall I say, a little nutty. A bout of psychosis is not a sign of weakness: It means you’re “”special.””

With today’s pharmacology, almost everyone can be effectively treated for what ails them. But considering that most antidepressants take four to six weeks to start working, there are some great books to read in the meantime.

Plath, Wurtzel and Virginia Woolf kept me company in the darkest hours of my freshman year. I hope someone, somewhere will find solace in “”The Bell Jar”” or “”Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women.””

Perhaps the quintessential piece of fem-depression literature is Plath’s “”The Bell Jar,”” which is based upon her own breakdown at Smith College. “”‘The Bell Jar’ chronicles the crack-up of Esther Greenwood,”” notes its publisher, Harper Collins. “”Brilliant, beautiful, enormously talented and successful, but slowly going under.””

Aren’t we melodramatic? If it is any consolation, if you ever feel that you are “”slowly going under,”” just remember that you are also “”brilliant, beautiful, enormously talented and successful.””

While Plath has her place in history, a better recommendation for the modern nutcase is “”Prozac Nation,”” by Elizabeth Wurtzel. Of all the sad teenage girl memoirs — and there are quite a few — this is by far the best.

In fact, all of Wurtzel’s books, “”Prozac Nation,”” “”Bitch”” and “”Radical Sanity”” are essential for anyone losing her mind and trying to find it.

In “”Prozac Nation,”” Wurtzel writes about her colorful life as a child of divorce who spent the school year cutting her legs in the girls’ bathroom and her summers overdosing on anti-histamines at summer camp.

That story has a somewhat-happy ending. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but perhaps you can infer it from the title.

A movie based on the book will star Christina Ricci, Michelle Williams and Anne Heche, and will be released soon. You always feel smarter when you go to a movie and say “”Oh yeah, I already read the book,”” don’t you?

Wurtzel also picked up a “”Rolling Stone”” college journalism award while attending Harvard and survived an attempted suicide — “”brilliant, beautiful, enormously talented and successful, but slowly going under.””

In “”Bitch,”” Wurtzel, who always writes with a distinctly feminist slant, traces the history of women who refuse to follow the rules, who refuse to stop crying, who refuse to behave, who refuse to go quietly.

While it is discouraging to look back on Plath, Woolf and Anne Sexton and realize they all killed themselves, there is some hope that the world is becoming a better place for “”difficult women.””

Wurtzel, Susanna Kaysen (who wrote “”Girl, Interrupted””) and Beverly Donofrio (author of “”Riding In Cars With Boys””) are still here. So remember: If you feel like you are “”slowly going under”” the bell jar this year, you’re not nuts. You are special and in good company.

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