Studies, Stress and Student mess: Mental Health at University

‘I got ABC Mum, I’m going to Uni! aaaaaaaaaaaaah’, I screeched down the phone.

I stared hard at the letters and they eventually blurred my eyes. I couldn’t believe it; I’d achieved the grades to study at a top UK University!! All my teachers were as shocked as I was… how on earth had I managed it?

The thought of University never really excited me, nor did it worry me; I was indifferent. I sort of just flung myself into it. When I strolled into my shared house of five girls I was completely engulfed by the new environment and I couldn’t wait. First year was just like they warned me: getting absolutely paralytic on a 79p bottle of frosty jacks, regretful one night stands, supernoodles day and night and ‘Lost’ marathons that would last ‘til dawn. Not to mention my attendance score of 40%, leading to endless concerned e-mails and letters of warning from tutors. It seemed my new found friends were all doing the same thing; we revelled in our rebellious ways, enjoying every moment of being unruly students with no cares or commitments.

I only had one minor hiccup in first year and it didn’t happen until final term. I’d just got in from another mediocre night at The Venue and was feeling a bit lonely.  I don’t know what came over me but I just begun hysterically crying. It was the kind of cry where you’re hoping the knot in your throat is just alcohol sickness. It wasn’t. I tried to alleviate the sharpness in my throat but with it came more tears. I hadn’t cried that much in front of someone since my hamster died, (I was 7) something must have been wrong! But what was it?  I felt pathetic and low and no one could help. Who knew that minor hiccup was the beginning of a full-blown illness.  I saw a counsellor but convinced myself that my pathetic worrying and overthinking was silly I would dread each session.  People had real problems. Her deadpan stare confirmed that I was wasting her time and I never went back.  I decided to tackle my worries by myself and after all, first year didn’t count, which gave me the incentive to mess around a little more.

But instead of addressing the problem I let it gnaw at my mind.  By the time second year came around it seemed everyone had knuckled down, except me. My housemates were getting jobs and I was still being carried out of venue as bouncers would find me, abandoned and vomiting in the toilets. (Okay this only happened once and my friends were outside the club waiting, I wasn’t a complete loser!) Was I using alcohol as a form of escapism? I wanted to forget but there was nothing to forget. I’d experienced no trauma I just couldn’t function without worrying about ridiculous things: what I looked like, whether this person fancied me, what books did I have to read (or rather scan summaries on Wikipedia.) My biggest worry was attending seminars. I’d sit as quiet as a mouse, convincing myself that any points I had were invalid. I certainly wasn’t as articulate as the others. The intelligent ones would love the sound of their own voice. I was as confident as anyone when I wasn’t under pressure and any of my friends knew that, but in seminars I would shake, mumble, even say two words and fail to finish the sentence. I told myself I was useless, so useless is what I became…

I thought joining the gym would help motivate me but my addictive over thoughtful mind interfered and made me obsess about my weight. Instead of reducing the stress from my studies I was stressing about being skinny. I had no control over my emotions but I felt so in control of my body. My willpower was crazy, turning down cakes, sweet treats, the lot (which now I find IMPOSSIBLE) and substituting fresh veg and fruit salads! I’d never felt so happy with my body but just because I turned down the street treats, it didn’t mean I wanted to… I forced myself to. I was punishing myself, but why? I worked hard at the gym, why couldn’t I treat myself? It didn’t help that someone I was involved with at the time told me I could be in ‘a lot better shape’… To say those words played on my mind is an understatement…(wanker)

After a while I was exhausted with self-discipline. I felt mentally drained, thinking hateful thoughts, calling myself disgusting names just so I would stop myself eating. Eventually I had nothing left and one fine spring afternoon when the sweet smell of baking filled my student home I was impulsive. I’d lost the power to stop. In fact, I stuffed myself so much I was way beyond satisfied. I wanted the feeling of pleasure I got from the first mouthful, but I was bursting through my already tight Joni jeans and the closer I got to clearing the plate, more vile thoughts jabbed away at me. Feelings of disgust accompanied the bloating and I had to get it out of me. I had to stop it before it became fat on my body. What ON EARTH came over me? I wanted to be skinny. I ran upstairs, turned the shower on and played the only one direction song on my iPhone- who knew a gift from the 12 day of Christmas app would come in so handy? I gave a little hum so my housemates wouldn’t suspect anything. And then I did something so out of character. I stuck my fingers down my throat. I’m not going to tell you about the white chocolate chips I could identify, I’m sure you get the gist… It was a crazy irrational moment, and thankfully it didn’t go on for long but while it did, every time I would deem a food ‘naughty’ the temptation persisted until I gave in. I was stuck, stuck in a cycle of food deprivation and excessive binging with feelings of paranoia self-hatred, all triggered by my insecurities.

Now I ask myself- would this have happened if I was at home? If my mum was fussing over me, looking after me? How did I let myself get into such a mess…?

In third year, I continued to pressure myself. 9 bloody grand I thought, I can’t pay 9 grand and get any lower than a 2:1! I’d finally got over my eating problem (which only lasted a few months thank god!), found myself a nice boyfriend and begrudgingly dropped down to partying once a week.  By the time the final term approached it was touch and go whether I’d get the grades and the worries returned.  My chest became tight every time I thought of the number 60 (2:1) and the panic attacks came too. I wasn’t going to do it, my mum would be so disappointed, I would never get a job. I told myself I was a failure before anything was certain.  I was put on a low dosage of Sertraline, an anti- depressant; I had no other option. I needed an immediate fix. I just wanted it to go away.

The medication helped me for a while. It blocked out the worries on the most crucial assignment week but it made me feel foggy. I forgot about worries and even then, I worried about not worrying. I worried that I would be on them forever and I worried that every time I felt happy it wasn’t real. I felt false and the anxiety always lingered, like a grey cloud over my mind, dampening any positive thought.

Coming off the anti- depressants was one of the hardest times at Uni and probably my life.  Your brain craves the missing serotonin and you don’t want to miss a dose because you feel so low and alone you can’t face anyone. Putting on a brave face is exhausting, you want to cry to anyone, be reassured by complete strangers, but that would make you a nutter. No one understands what’s going on in your head.  For every few good days, the dark come too. And today is one of them.   All I know is that you cannot trust the voice in your head telling you you’re alone.  For months afterwards I experienced withdrawal symptoms.  Many days were long and hopeless but I’m waiting for the day my mind will be clear. Lately I’ve been practising mindfulness. You have to focus your awareness on the present moment and block the negative thoughts before they fester..

This recollection comes nowhere close to the fear I faced as a student. Don’t get me wrong, despite the stress, I had the best three years of my life, making memories and friends I will never forget but it was still tough.  To anyone suffering mental illnesses please don’t be worried or ashamed to seek help. I know it may seem impossible now but everyone finds their way eventually.

I posted this a year ago on ‘The Canterbury Post’ and I can’t tell you how odd it feels reading this back. I just wish I could shake my younger self but… we live and we learn.  If it weren’t for my friends I would probably still be caught in a rut so I have them to thank for putting up with me! I’m not going to lie and say that I am completely rid of the anxiety because I am not. Sometimes there are moments where I feel hopeless, feel myself slipping back into my old powerless, lost dependant state of mind. You have to slap yourself and remember how far you have come, remember that these feelings are only temporary and not to dwell on them. I will be writing more on my journey on life post Uni, Post Antidepressants so keep POSTed.

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