I am sitting in the common room at University, eating my way through a whole packet of biscuits. I have just received a terrible grade, and this is the first food I have managed to eat all day. Later I would punish myself mentally for this slip up – I would take away from my evening meal and go to bed hungry, stressing about what I should and shouldn’t consume. Eating at University is turning out to be one of the hardest things – with no one who knows me to notice when I slip back into my old habits, with family far away that are too easy to lie to and a boyfriend I still try to hide things from, it’s all too easy to pretend it’s not really happening. It’s not back to where it was.
I am standing by the railings in the dark, watching the waves catch the light from the golf club, and I cannot stop crying. I cannot go home, to my room mate and my studies and the bright lights of a public university home, but there is nowhere else to go, no friends I trust well enough yet to call. I am paralysed by my own fear of how afraid I am, how lonely I am, as if I were to say it out loud, it would ruin me completely. So I stand, in the dark, the freezing breeze off the north sea searing my tears into my cheeks. I can’t stop thinking about walking into the sea and closing my eyes.
I am waiting in the doctors office, clasping my mental health questionnaire in my hand. Two weeks ago I broke down on a plastic chair in my doctor’s office, and he sent me home with this questionnaire – a selection of cartoon happy and sad faces, a poorly executed scoring system rating my emotions from 1-10 – and gave me two weeks to see if I was simply sad. Even now, holding the piece of paper that tells me my melancholy has taken me deeper than homesickness or the blues, I torture myself with wondering if maybe, actually, there is nothing wrong.
Maybe the shaking in the middle of the night, the inability to sleep, the terror of being alone, the panic that comes when faced with food and the absolutely crippling lethargy is simply evidence that I am just bad at University. Bad at life. Maybe it’s me. Maybe it’s all me.
‘It’s just Uni,’ some people said. ‘It’s just what it’s like.’
It’s not just Uni. If it was just Uni, it would get better when Uni stopped. If it was just Uni, then it wouldn’t follow me around when I was back at my parents house, it wouldn’t loiter in my Christmas and Easter breaks like a bad tune in the back of my mind. But even if it is ‘just Uni,’ does that mean I have to live like this? Fearful, sleepless, stressed, anxious, exhausted? Even if it is ‘just Uni’ don’t I deserve to feel better? Don’t you?
Yes, you do. There is no such thing as ‘Just Uni.’
Triggers for anxiety and depression come in all shapes and forms. A burglary. A mugging. An incredibly stressful job. A significant death in the family. A terrible medical diagnosis. And yet we rush to qualify our feelings. It’s ‘just’ stress, it’s ‘just’ exhaustion, as if our mental health were a mouth ulcer that would clear up in a day or two. It’s remarkable. If you were really struggling after being told you sick with an incurable disease, would anybody say, ‘Oh don’t worry, it’s just the cancer?’
We pretend we don’t have a rating system inside our head that tells us when its appropriate to be sad, or to be sick, but we do. And as a society, we generally don’t believe that mental health is sickness. And if it is, you can only get it if things have been really, really bad. And we have a very clear idea of what Really, Really bad means.
It doesn’t mean University, moving house, losing a pet, or struggling to be employed, even though these things are perfectly capable of sending a person into a spiral of depression or self-doubt that can damage their mental health significantly. Instead we view these things, these triggers, as mundane facts of life. Things we should be able to ‘get over.’ It’s ingrained in us.
‘Deal with it.’
‘Get over it.’
But what happens when we can’t ‘get over’ it?
Suicide remains the leading cause of death for men between the ages of 20 and 34. A lot of those men might well have been at University. During my time at University there were several suicides – all of them men, all of them with reputations for being happy, kind, interesting individuals. But it’s just sadness, it’s just being low, it’s just getting stressed. It’s ‘just’ Uni.
It’s not ‘just’ Uni. It’s not ‘just’ anything. It’s many things, could be several things, it might be a combination of a chain of events in your environment, or it might be a imbalance in your brain chemistry that you have been fighting all of your life. One thing’s for sure – it’s definitely something. If the symptoms are real, then the problem is real.
I have graduated University now. I made it through in a way I never thought I would, but there was so much darkness. So much hard work to be done, not just in the classroom but inside myself as I fought to keep myself alive.
This week I am writing about mental health with an openness that has frightened me in the past, but I am doing it because, like me, there are people who need to be heard and need to speak out. Who need to say the words to someone for the first time – ‘I feel depressed.’
or, ‘I think I might have anxiety.’
or, ‘I am really struggling with my eating.’
Maybe you are at University, maybe you aren’t. The article that prompted this post was about university anxiety, and can be found here (http://www.buzzfeed.com/maggyvaneijk/no-one-likes-me-anyway?bffbuk&utm_term=4ldqphz#4ldqphz) Maybe you still struggle with something and you need to be heard, for the first time or maybe for the hundredth. I am sure there are people who wish to hear you and be there with you, but even if there aren’t, I am.
This week I am being as open about what I go through and as available to people who might be going through it too as I possibly can be. To hopefully give someone that extra ear, that figure in the darkness listening to me, that I struggled so much to find at the beginning. But even though it seemed to be at the time, I can swear to you that it is not impossible.