Thursday 25 May 2017

Why It Is Okay To Put Your Mental Health First, Over University

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University! The thing that is at the centre of my nightmares most evenings! Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating slightly, but seriously university scares the hell out of me! Even without my OCD, I don't think uni is for me. Like seriously, uni and I just won't mix! Alcohol, sharing things with other people, loud music, late nights, vomit- the list could go on! Let's be Frank here; it's not going to be for me!

I know that university isn't right for me now, and I still have a year before I go. Unfortunately, some people won't realise that university might not be for them until they are actually in the middle of it. Whether that be because of stress, homesickness or the onset of a mental illness. Mental illness can hit anyone at any point in your life. Including while you are at university. Mental illnesses are very likely to occur while you are university due to the large amounts of things happening all at once and it just being a huge period of transition for you. 

Someone who knows, all too well what is like to struggle with a mental illness at University is Sophie. I am so proud of Sophie for sharing her story, as I am sure SO many of you will be able to relate to her experience. University isn't for everyone. Sometimes it is but your mental health gets in the way, and your studies need to be put on hold. That's totally okay! You should not feel guilty for putting your mental health or physical health first above a degree! I hope you enjoy reading Sophie's experience as part of mental health awareness month. 

If University has taught me one thing about mental health, it is that no place or person is more powerful than your own mind. If you are not healthy inside yourself, no amount of external influence can make you better.

Looking back, I had a very romanticised view of University. My final two years of school were shaped by an eating disorder; nonetheless, once I received my offer from Exeter, it literally was this light bulb moment. Suddenly, resolved to recover, I engaged with the support from local services and gained back to a healthy weight. By the time I sat my A2 exams, I was filled with the belief that University would be a fresh start. Anorexia hadn’t received an offer, and I had worked too hard, both academically and personally, to give up “the best years of my life”.

University life is a paradox. On the surface, it is a world of unprecedented freedom. You can meet your lifelong friends, enjoy what you study and create your own timetable. However, underneath it, all many people can feel trapped by social and academic pressures, not to mention the responsibilities of independent living.

At first, I did experience those benefits of freedom. I did make new friends; I did partake in the 2 am dominoes pizza, and I did feel more alive than ever before. Yet it was these very things, which masked the subtle return of anorexia. It would start with a missed snack, due to a seminar overrunning. I would then tell myself that I was eating far more in catered halls, so any snacks were quite unnecessary. I would privately defend my recovery, by thinking of the post-arena pizza, or the alcohol I had never touched pre-university.

Nevertheless, I think, deep down, it dawned on me how un-recovered I still was. Even though I was a healthy weight, my mind was still caught up in numbers and anxieties. University upended my calm and contained the world. I have always been a very controlled person, which largely stems from my childhood diagnosis of Type One Diabetes. Since the age of seven, I have lived with blood sugar numbers, carb counts and ‘off limit’ foods. During my teens, this list of numbers ranged from exam paper percentages, insulin doses, and the weight on a scale, right down to the fat grams in a slice of cake I was too scared to eat.

Why It Is Okay To Put Your Mental Health First, Over University wellbeing depression OCD panic attack anxiety eating disorders uni education college tips help

Nothing could have prepared me for the chaos and spontaneity of University life. In short, I simply couldn’t cope; on the inside, that is. For when you have lived so much of your life with a chronic illness, you quickly develop a ‘keep going no matter what’ outlook. Unfortunately, if you also develop a mental illness, this trait can become highly destructive. At University, like at school, I gave everything on a performance level. I threw myself into societies and barely stopped to process my own thoughts; looking back, I think that was the idea. I had never learnt to sit with my own head and simply be.

Going into my final year of University, in September 2015, I had been in a recovery-relapse cycle for nearly three years. At this point, I re-engaged with the mental health services at home, due to lack of resources in Exeter. Yet as the pressures of final year descended, anorexia weighed down on me stronger than ever. Last December, I was within touching distance of completing a degree and nearly convinced myself to simply 'get through' and put it behind me - but at what cost? I wouldn't have put anorexia behind me. 

Instead of writing a dissertation, I suspended my studies and began 2016 in a specialist eating disorders unit. Accepting further treatment was terrifying beyond belief; as is symptomatic of any mental illness, I continually told myself "I'm not sick enough/I don't deserve help." However, no role or article matters more than health. I could never give up something as big as my health. I could never let anyone down more than myself if I continue to listen to the voices that would not stop until I am dead.

The sobering realities of mental illness, specifically eating disorders, make me all the more distressed to know how limited these resources are; how many people continue to struggle without support. I am so thankful for the support of those at University, namely friends and tutors, yet the support offered within Exeter needs to change. The quality of mental health provision should not be a determining factor when deciding your university.

For those who are about to begin University, the best advice I can give is, to be honest with yourself. Even people with no mental health struggles, prior to University, can become overwhelmed by the transition to independent living. Surround yourself with resources to help you, whether they be an understanding friend, a mindfulness app or a regular appointment with a GP; my own University, Exeter, had a brilliant health centre that was aware of the mental health crisis on Campus. Moreover, if you feel at all vulnerable, please seek help early; given the level of demand, you simply can’t start soon enough with mental health services.

Finally, remember that there is no time limit on education. I have accepted that other elements of the student experience are now beyond reach; I may never have the Boston Tea Party brunch or end-of-degree holiday. It was hard to see my friends graduate in June 2016, knowing that I could have been with them. Then again, could I? It would have been a shadow of me, lost to anorexia. 

In my final term in Exeter, it truly hit me how far removed I was from living. Those around me were so full of life; it offered a perspective that was both inspiring and terrifying. I so desperately wanted to have their freedom and energy, but I was standing outside an impenetrable bubble. I needed to wake up.

Recovery is still an ongoing process. Even since being discharged from hospital the road has been far from plain-sailing. Nevertheless, I have no regrets about the choice I made. I have always been a doer, but at University this became everything. I attended my seminars; I wrote my essays, I edited the newspaper. I did and, in doing so, I lost sight of how to be. I tried to be perfect, forgetting that nothing ever is. So here I am. Not yet a graduate, nor recovered and certainly far from perfect! But I am learning how to be - and that is more important than any calorie, blood sugar or degree.

Bumble and Be :)

I love what Sophie said about there being no time limit on education. She's so right! Just because your path in life is different, it doesn't mean you are lost! 

Thank you for reading, as always X

You can check Sophie out here: Twitter Blog

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