I think what stands out most for me, in my experience with mental health issues, is how quickly they appeared, seemingly from nowhere: I’d settled in at university, was enjoying my course, had a lovely group of friends, a boyfriend, a good supply of tea – all of the ingredients to be content with life. But halfway through my first term I learnt the definition of panic attacks, not even just that but a constant sense of panic, until I no longer slept, ate or basically left my room. Becoming a hermit at university is not ideal nor was it an ambition I mentioned on my UCAS application and at this point I really began to wonder ‘what the hell is wrong with me?!’ – the question everyone who’s experienced mental health problems will ask themselves, but never should, because in fact nothing is ‘wrong’ with them at all. I think what’s very important here and I’ve learnt in the past year is that mental health isn’t a case of being ‘happy’ or ‘sad’ or ‘in control’, everyone’s mood and feelings fluctuates in an enormous variety of ways for an enormous variety of reasons. It really is okay to not be okay.
I went on to experience a terrifying and horrible blur of instructions and doctors and counselling and questions, a whole load of questions that I had absolutely no idea how to answer. If I’m totally honest none of it helped in the slightest (although I do know many people who have found one or more of these to be very effective), The first thing that happened without any real communication was that a large box of valium was presented to me. I accepted it with slight confusion and did as I was told, which in fairness was effective in the very, very short term when I waltzed off to the train station in a hazy cloud of contentment wearing just pyjamas and possibly underwear although I can’t even be sure of that. Five hours later I turned up on my Mum’s doorstep at the other end of the country, at which point people really started to realise I wasn’t just ‘nervous’ or ‘homesick’. As things got worse very quickly I was forced to come to terms with dropping out of university as try as I might, I was definitely not coping at all and my panic attacks began to merge into a cocktail of extreme depression and fear for what seemed like no reason.
Of course at this point the intense feelings of worthlessness and failure emerged, I lost friends who were either scared of me or just plain bored, expecting my usual hyper-active happy go lucky nature. However, in complete contrast I did find that teaching staff and my personal tutor were incredibly helpful and supportive, showing me every option and persuading me that it was alright to take a break and I didn’t need to feel ashamed. Something that it has taken me until now to really believe but I’ve managed to completely change my mindset on mental illness because despite the few friends, boyfriend and so on that I lost through that experience, I stand by the fact that it has brought me closer to other people who are now so important to me and actually inspired new and fantastically supportive relationships. The people that stuck by me through everything I went through were massively instrumental in learning to live with fluctuating mental health, especially considering I never saw myself returning to university in a million years but knowing I could feel safe here gave me that courage. Of course there are also the few people that see me as weak, and attempt to use the issues I experience to their own advantage, but the changes I’ve been through and having come out the other side of what I hope was the worst year of my life, I’ve found a strong determination to prove wrong anyone that suggests I can’t do something.