Rebecca Auguste shares what it was like heading to university with the weight of a recently mental health disorder on the her shoulders…
There’s nothing quite like the moment when you’re diagnosed with a mental health disorder.
9 months ago I was diagnosed with social anxiety disorder: I didn’t handle the news very well. It felt strangely official, sitting in the doctor’s office, expecting someone to come along and stamp ‘crazy’ on my forehead in capital letters. No more putting it down to just having a ‘bad day’; suddenly it became something that had to be actively addressed and that I had come to terms. How? I had no idea.
What I didn’t expect was the sense of relief that followed. Things that had confused me for what felt like forever began to make sense: Ah, so that’s why I’m nervous wreck who sometimes can’t even leave the house due to the fear of an impending panic attack. Understanding what it was that made me feel like this brought with it a sense of reassurance that allowed me to understand myself a little bit more, but it was still terrifying. How could it not be? Suddenly there was a new lingering fear: anxiety is something that I will have to battle all my life. There is no quick fix.
Slowly, I began to get anxiety over my anxiety.
I started to look at my future with a sort of pessimistic outlook: everything seemed a little darker. How can I possibly achieve anything if I’m too scared to do it in the first place? Is this what the rest of my life is going to be? I tried to throw on a care-free attitude and go about my days normally, but a large part of anxiety is not being able to grasp that attitude. Social anxiety became a wall, built way too high and made of some super strong material too tough to bring down. The very nature of the illness was viciously circular.
The more I felt my anxiety was spiralling out of control, the more it inevitably held me back. I passed up opportunities to go to job interviews, meet up with friends or even just pop to Tesco. I naively thought that avoiding things that made me anxious would make me feel better but of course it ended up doing the exact opposite.
Among all of this I found myself at the beginning of my first year at university. I was away for home for the first time ever and the panic attacks became a daily occurrence pretty quickly, triggered by something as mundane as walking into a busy lecture hall. These were meant to be the best years of my life: I couldn’t even make it to my classes some days let alone enjoy the rush of first year, the new people and opportunities constantly being thrown at me. Then there was the challenge of trying to financially support myself: working in retail or waitressing, dealing with hundreds of customers per day, wasn’t really an option. I was consumed into thinking the worse would happen, convinced that everyone at university couldn’t stand me and that I would inevitably fail my degree. I wanted so desperately to drop out. Could I quit? Would that make me a failure or just someone trying to take care of their own mental health?
My frustrations grew, everyone around me really seemed to have their shit together; striving towards new opportunities, while I was actively avoiding them. All of the doors I thought would be open seemed locked to me.
But I didn’t want to be the girl that never tried anything because she was too afraid. I became adamant that my mental health was not going to be my single story. I stuck out University and have found great help in being more open with my mental health rather than dealing with everything inwardly: therapy sessions that seemed terrifying at first became a supportive and open space, allowing me to share my illogical anxious thoughts without the fear of being judged. I was not alone and I was not going to be run down.
Until recently I never spoke about my anxiety to anyone. It was my little secret and something that I tried to handle myself. But I’ve come to realise that the more you confide in others, the lighter the load to bear becomes. It’s brought me to a place now where I know that anxiety doesn’t have to define my future. It’s a struggle in my life and of course something I would rather not have, but it doesn’t have to mark the end of ever feeling successful (whatever that means, I’m still figuring it out).
I realised that towards your late adolescence and early twenties, everything you do within that time seems so ‘make it or break it‘. There’s so much pressure to have it all figured out and to also have the self- confidence to be so assured that your dreams can be a reality.
But the truth is that for most of us were all in the same boat- just trying to figure out our situations; trying to avoid those irrational worries circulating through our head. Even if you may not necessarily suffer from anxiety, our current culture perpetuates this need to place unbounded amounts of pressure on ourselves. A general pressure to be successful in our careers, education, and relationships. To be 120 percent all of the time. That pressure can feel physically and mentally paralysing, especially with the added burden of a mental illness in a society that simply does not speak openly enough about them.
Anxiety seemed like the end when I was at a time of my life usually deemed pretty near the beginning. It urged on the melodramatic voice in my head to go ahead and tell me that I’ll never make anything of myself. If we all listen to the voice that screams we are not worthy, none of us would probably leave the house, let alone actively chase that happiness we all deserve. Sure, it’s probably going to take some more time, but I’m beginning to understand that my mental health does not have to determine who I am.
Follow Rebecca on Twitter: @RebeccaAuguste
Illustration: Mitucami Mituca