Only just… shy of a year later than I originally planned to post this BUT ta-da, here it is! The second post in my Mental Health and University series! Grab a cuppa, get comfy, it’s gonna be a long one…
This post is dedicated to depicting my own personal journey throughout my undergraduate studies.
As I’ve said before in my Mental Health and University series: part one, I absolutely did not find my time at university easy… like at all. It wasn’t because the work was too hard or the workload was too intense, it was just like this whole other series of problems that just came along with being a university student. I was not prepared for it.
I always enjoyed learning, when my mental illnesses allowed me to. Flashback to school, I didn’t do as well as I was supposed to during my GCSE’s… but my dad died and some… other things happened, so I kinda give myself a break about that… But I did well enough to get into the sixth form I wanted to go to, so I was happy. Ps. How terrible was this ginger hair… That piece of card attached to the front of me is a medal my teacher gave me for actually turning up to school – which just about sums it up to be honest.
When I went to the sixth form, I was pretty certain I wanted to be a mental health nurse. I was spending so much time with them, I thought I would be good at it and have something to offer back from all the crap that happened to me. But I was still angry at the world until I realised I had a passion for Sociology.
My favourite module was ‘Crime and Deviance’ so my teacher really pushed me to look into Criminology. I don’t know how to put the feelings into words but, like, have you ever looked at something and it’s just literally everything you’ve ever been interested in, ever, in one place. I felt this spark and that’s when I knew I wanted to do this at university.
I remember applying through UCAS and finding the perfect course for me, and it was at my local university too, which worked in my favour as I wanted to stay close to my small family and Brad. ‘BSc Criminology and Psychology’. I was really excited. However, I decided to stay on at sixth form for an extra year, to improve my maths grade and do some more relevant courses. I’m so glad I decided to put my grades and my plans before following the crowd and just going to any old uni because everyone else was doing it that year.
So, going to university a year after all of my friends, I gained a lot of expectations before I even actually got there. They all told me how great it was, how many friends they had made, how much they loved the nights out, how glad they were to not be at home anymore…
Whilst I just said I was glad to be putting myself first, that didn’t stop me from getting annoyed at myself for sitting in classes with 16/17-year-olds when I was about to turn 19. But I kept my focus and left with AAB (I gained other qualifications but these are the ones relevant to my uni application), which were above what I needed for my course, and my Maths was good too. I was doing my own thing and I was happy.
I live relatively close to the University of Southampton, so I probably could have just commuted, but my mum wanted me to have the ‘full university experience’… whatever that is. So in September 2015, I moved into my flat #194 Selbourne Court in Glen Eyre – where it would be my home for the next year. This cheesy little photo was my Grandad’s first-ever selfie on the day they helped me move in.
I loved my little room. I had an en-suite and a huge desk overlooking a woodland area. I was, in my opinion, really lucky to be placed into one of the smaller flats (I shared with three other girls, which later became just two). I consider myself lucky about the size because I was teetotal when I started university, and I was worried that it would stop me being able to make friends. I only went to one fresher’s event – in fact, I think I spent most of that week with Brad coming to visit me in my swanky new pad (FYI, total sarcasm) but that helped make it feel like home.
This little flat meant that I became so close to the girls I shared it with. I don’t think my first year would have been nearly as enjoyable without them.
However, my first year wasn’t always enjoyable. Throughout my time at university, I experienced some of the biggest changes within and regarding my mental health. I brought many of these issues with me TO university, but there were plenty which was influenced by BEING at university too.
My diagnoses before university were: generalised anxiety disorder, borderline personality disorder (but I wasn’t aware of this dx at the time), and [prepare yourself it’s a tongue twister] ‘an emotional dysregulation with maladaptive coping strategies’… My psychiatrist at home told me that I couldn’t be bipolar because I self-harmed… however, I thought that was total bullshit, I knew I had an issue with my moods, so I went to see the doctors at university about it. Things were plodding along nicely until I had my first manic episode there.
To be totally honest, I struggle to recall anything from this time in my life, but I can remember this much:
- I hadn’t slept in 9 days when I saw a psychiatrist.
- I would lay in bed, waiting for sleep and before I knew it my alarm would go off and it was back to lectures again.
- I would do a ‘quick clean’ before bed and the next thing I know the girls would come into the kitchen for their breakfast, asking if I had been to bed yet.
- I’d spent a lot of my student loan, on myself and gifts for people around me trying to make them feel as good as I felt.
- I’d realise I couldn’t sleep and just wait for Brad to wake up to go to work so he could reply to the last text I sent.
- I could spend hours and hours and hours straight on work without needing a break.
- I’d be walking around outside having a cigarette at 4am when the fire alarm would wake up the rest of the sleepy students and I’d feel absolutely fine.
- I thought that I could fly.
- I had more energy than usual.
- I could talk really really fast, like as fast as my brain usually races.
I mistook this for a while as being happy, feeling productive, and having loads of energy. I would get frustrated that others wouldn’t be on the same wavelength as me, but I just thought that was their problem and not mine.
After this, I was taken to a hospital and I was diagnosed with having bipolar type 1 and they said that I was in an active manic episode. But as I was at university, they sent me home with a bunch of pills to try and level it out. I underwent a lot of different treatments and medications to address my manic episodes throughout my first year.
This year, I also experienced some of my worst side effects, I question now why I put up with them for so long, I guess I was just desperate to try and fix it and didn’t want to show I was weak. All of this was alongside trying to complete all my work to a good standard, attend meetings and lectures, maintain friendships and relationships, have a good social life, get enough sleep, get out the flat and work part-time at the pub back home. I felt like something had to give.
As the exam season approached, yet another medication change occurred. Mania goes hand in hand with the inability to sleep, so my psychiatrist prescribed me more tablets, all higher doses than before which would help to initiate and maintain sleep. I ended up sleeping through an exam due to the sedative side effects. I was sleeping over 10 hours a day, as well as the night-time. I was mortified and I was zombified. I really thought I had fucked it all up already. However, I got myself conscious enough to go straight to the doctors, explain what happened and filed for extenuating circumstances. At the end of the year, I was given the opportunity to retake and passed. Onto the second year of university I go.
The ironic thing about my first year at university is that all of my doctors told me it was best to sort out my medication before the semester began YET all of my medication changes took place during those very semesters. So following the year of anticipation of not knowing whether I’ll pass, the exam season from hell – I spent what was left of the summer trying to address meds yet again.
In my second year of university, I moved out of halls into a brand new flat with three biologists. Again, I loved where I lived and I loved the people I shared it with. We lived in a block of student flats called Columbia Lodge, and we made friends with a lot of our neighbours. It was almost a little community, which was nice, all sharing the same stress. However, I had made my room such a safe space for me, that I was beginning to struggle with leaving the flat.
I started having panic attacks. My psychiatrist explained that agoraphobia develops as a ‘complication’ from a panic disorder. So I started to organise my life around avoiding situations which made me feel anxious, which at this point… was pretty much everything. It controlled where I went, who I saw and what I thought. Leaving the house is something we are all expected to do, yet some people seem to be unable to comprehend that you can even have a problem with it.
This period of my life I just felt like pure shit and I was having nearly daily breakdowns about leaving my flat. But did I open up about how I was feeling? Nope. What did I do? Avoided leaving the flat at all costs if I could. I avoided lectures, seminars, workshops, exams, meeting friends, food shopping, doctors appointments, blood tests, meals out, birthdays, weddings, walks through the Common, day trips to places… you name it, I avoided it.
To this day, I still genuinely cannot put into words what I found about leaving the flat so stressful. I just had this overwhelming sense that something really bad was going to happen. When I did leave, I would start to panic, thinking that something was about to happen to my flat (my safe space), so I would leave early, if not straight away.
I managed to play it cool for a while, casually saying things like “I work better at home”, “I can’t be arsed to go to uni today”, “I’ll catch you next time!”, “it’s just easier to get food delivered”, “the weathers a bit shit, I think I’ll stay home”, “I’m getting takeaway tonight instead”. But once I did that, my comfort zones at uni became even smaller, the smallest task seemed impossible.
It only became apparent to me when I started to compare myself to my flatmates, everyone I saw on social media… I realised I had a problem. They left the flat with such ease. They were enjoying their time at university. Nothing bad was happening to them. That’s how it was supposed to be. That’s not to say I never left, I did. I found it easier when I was going somewhere with others. [My bedroom was the window above the smoking box, the three windows to the right were our little kitchen].
But I started to realise I was waiting around… A LOT. I would wait all day for someone to come home, to tell me about all the things they had done on the ‘outside’. I hated feeling so dependent on other people. I had been living my life through other people. I’ve worked on this a lot since then, and I feel like I’m in a better place now. But that wasn’t the only hiccup that happened in my second year…
I had my first real low mood. I’ve had lows before, but this one was different. I had lost friends before through having low moods, but I had to live with the girls who couldn’t handle my moods. I had to watch the people I cared about, lose complete interest in me. It hurt.
Yet again my mental health got in the way of my exams, I had failed two modules due to missing exams and being in hospital. Thankfully the staff at Southampton were really supportive, I was able to retake both exams during the summer and I passed them with good marks. Another summer spent doing work rather than being like my peers and enjoying their free time. Onto year three…
I had no issues leaving the flat this year, I think I was motivated by my dissertation so I spent a lot of time in the library. I had been on the same meds I am now for a while, plus a couple of extras but I was doing okay. My moods had been stable for a while and things were looking good.
But my thoughts were always racing. I kept thinking about all the consequences of fucking this year up after being given so many chances to make it to this point. I cleaned excessively to prevent getting ill. I would get up in the middle of the night and clean. I would organise and organise and reorganise and still, nothing felt right. My flatmate used to say that I went at like a hundred miles per hour at this point. I remember no matter how much I did, it never felt enough and it was exhausting. I can’t remember at what point exactly I was diagnosed with having obsessive-compulsive disorder, but it kind of clicked.
I started a course of medication and I was awaiting a therapy specifically for dealing with obsessive thoughts, but unfortunately I had left Southampton before that happened. In my third year, I struggled to be in my once loved flat. I decided to move back home to focus on my grades and it was the best decision I could have made.
I got some of the best marks during this time. Whilst I was on a different timetable to my other course mates, it worked best for me. I utilised all of the support services I could during this year, accepting my illness and using the support available rather than hiding it and hoping it goes away. I had every single piece of coursework extended, including my dissertation, which meant I had finished way later than everyone else but that was okay.
[My real dissertation hand in – lol it actually went a lot better than I thought it would].
My third year was when I made the decision to apply for a masters in Forensic Psychology. I remember doing coursework and being fascinated by it. This became my motivation to get shit done. It definitely helped me so much to have a goal. I felt like I had a purpose and drive.
After three long years, a whirlwind of a ride, I found out in June 2018, that I had graduated with a 2:1 in my Criminology and Psychology degree. Words cannot describe how happy I was. I had done it. I think I’m even still in shock now that I did it.
It was so rewarding to graduate at the same time as my course mates, despite practically being on a different timetable to them all three years. I am so thankful to have gone to a university who understood mental health and took it seriously.
Perseverance really is key. You might just surprise yourself. I know I did.