From a young age, academic success had determined my worth and happiness. I didn’t need to let my friends know how I was really feeling, or even just what I thought about anything, because they respected my intelligence. I certainly had passion for my subject, but I think my true passion lay in impressing others with my ability to navigate exams. In a school where students weren’t really expected to do anything incredible with their lives, I stood out. That sounds incredibly vain, but that was certainly how I felt at the time. Yes, it bothered me as I got older that I couldn’t connect with people on things which I knew were important; relationships, family, sexuality, but I had chosen this path of success and I certainly wasn’t going to let everyone down.
So, when I go to University you could say I was a particularly young 18-year-old. In truth, the first term knocked me for six. I couldn’t cope with the concept that I could do what I wanted. But, rather than enjoy (or at least experience) the opportunities this allowed for, I stalled. When I started University, I had no idea I had been having panic attacks for several years and had become work-obsessed. I had nothing else on my mind except success, and so the unlikelihood of that happening in such a competitive environment was incredibly difficult.
I had never been away from home for more than a few nights and I didn't know how to relax. By the time of the first major panic attack I was struggling to contribute to tutorials and couldn’t think clearly when I was put on the spot. My tutor was excited that I was applying for postgraduate places working with him, but I seriously doubted my ability to hand in work which met his expectations. I was confused because my two classmates were always doing better than me, even though I appeared to be working so much harder. I couldn’t wake up in the morning for lectures. I was painfully lonely.
And then when the panic attacks hit, I was petrified. Not being able to breathe, the shooting pains in my arms and hands—it all terrified me. Perhaps worst of all, however, was not being able to talk. I experienced this with my ex-boyfriend and it was totally baffling. Me, the person who had always found a way of expressing themselves as eloquently and directly as possible, now couldn’t make even a sound in stressful situations. If you’re struggling with anxiety or depression these situations might be all-too-familiar.
At this point in my tale, many people may be thinking, “Why didn’t you try and ask for help?” I often think about this, and about what I would give as advice to someone in the same situation. I definitely did let my favourite tutor know what was going on. I didn’t have the proper vocabulary to say “panic attack” or “depressed” at that point, but I let him know I might need some more time to complete work because I was struggling. He understood. We spoke a few times, mostly about my breakup because I think we both saw that as the trigger for my recent episode, but it didn’t help. Still, I think it was a good decision to let my teachers know. I would have hated for them to think that I had suddenly stopped caring about my work. Definitely try to do this, either in person or by email or something, if you’re in a similar situation. They won’t make a big deal and will appreciate being in the loop.
It’s easy to complain about the way many educational institutions deal with the mental health struggles of their students. This article is not the place for an angry rant about that. There were places I could have gone within my University to talk about the problems I was having. But when you feel like your entire world is falling apart, it can be difficult to organise anything. The first place I went to was my local GP. I had to wait forever in the waiting room but I was listened to in a non-patronising way and was prescribed some beta-blockers and was pretty much ordered to go to the University’s counselling. The former definitely helped with the painful shooting feeling in my arms when I had an attack. I forgot to do the latter, but I had fewer bad spells for a little while.
When my panicking returned, I was approaching my final exams and it was almost unbearable. I researched the process to pause (rusticate is the term where I’m from) my degree and went straight to my organising tutor who had helped my now-boyfriend when he had had similar issues. I would like to highlight at this point that I realise getting in contact with a tutor can be scary for a lot of people. I was very worried about what he would think, even that he might turn me away. He sent for me straight away and called the counsellor for me. He emailed all my other tutors and asked for some leeway with work. I found it a lot easier to contact people and arrange to talk about my difficulties if I did it quickly and almost on auto-pilot (i.e. without allowing myself to overthink about it too much).
It didn’t fix everything though. I “forgot” to go to the appointment and I had too much work to do. Most evenings were spent crying myself to sleep and most tutorials were wrought with awkward silences, my racing heart and confusion from my peers. Not to mention the pressure on my relatively-new relationship.
I always tried my best, but it never felt good enough. I was never going to get the academic approval I wanted and that which I had been so used to getting at school from my tutor or friends. By the time the week of my exams came around I had mentally removed myself so far from the pain of everything which had passed that I can barely remember anything about it.
I did it though. Whether through hard work and perseverance or just stubbornness, the stress ended. I find this statement unbelievably comforting.
I wish this article didn’t have to report my time at University as so negative. There were some good bits and some great bits and the degree I now have puts me in great stead for whatever career I choose to have in the future. But, although University is often a place of fun, comradery and friendship, for many people it can be a place of severe stress and loneliness. You are never, ever alone in this feeling. People just don’t say it. If you find yourself only working, eating and sleeping you might want to consider reading something non-academic, or walking for twenty minutes a day or colouring in. You are so much more than the work you do. Being driven is such a coveted quality in today’s society, and it’s a great quality to have. But not being on top of things 24/7 doesn’t make you a horrible person or, most importantly, a failure.