My current mood has shifted in the last few months from overwhelming sadness, to long periods of numbness followed by a sporadic burst of emotion. Initially, I saw this as an improvement – however I quickly realised that this wasn’t the case. You see, feeling overwhelmingly sad is never pleasant. But in most cases it means you lack the energy and desire for other things, whether that’s eating or an activity requiring some level of motivation. Therefore my only possible response is to sleep as much as I can while the days move past me. In my current numbness however, I am by most estimates fairly functional. I’m still depressed and I still struggle with anxiety, but I’m able to move some of my more intrusive thoughts aside and continue with my day which leads me to wonder if I’m really sad at all. The answer of course is yes, you fool, because the numbness only seems to serve as a countdown to an inevitable outburst of distress – in some cases resulting in self-harming behaviour when I can’t cope with the sudden onset. As an example: the other day after another numb period I was out and about, and upon realising I couldn’t find an address I was looking for I immediately broke down in tears in the middle of the road, cursing myself for being such a useless human being.
It is this very same mood I was in many mornings ago during a meeting with one of my support workers. Somewhere amongst the more general questions of how I was feeling, I had an emotional outburst and broke down talking about how I felt like I wasn’t making any progress with my depression (a frequent fear of mine). In this I also revealed how I was not being entirely truthful about my thoughts and behaviours when asked if I had been having suicidal inclinations. The reason for the lies were fairly simple in my mind: I didn’t want to feel like I was failing others by not improving as quickly as I thought I should be, and I was holding on to the fear that they’ll give up on me if I told them the truth. This of course just results in keeping thoughts to yourself that you would probably feel better with sharing instead. But it’s a scary step in itself to recognise that you yourself are disappointed when you wake up every morning, not to mention sharing that thought with someone else. Something I noticed though was that this ‘hiding’ is something I’ve done countless times in the past, and here I was doing it again with my mental health. When you can see that someone cares about your wellbeing, you no longer want to share with them the whole picture of how you view yourself or the trauma you’ve been through, because you don’t want to either a) hurt them, or b) have them become frustrated with you or even put off, which in many cases hurts more. But in admitting all of this out loud I did start to see some of the faulty mechanisms involved that would ultimately prevent me from feeling better.
So instead, we spoke about my real mood and the coping mechanisms I’ve perhaps erroneously developed for myself. And in discussing the things I’d been through both as a child and more recently, as well as the importance of being easy on myself, she mentioned something that stuck out to me – leaving university is both a very big life event and a very big change for many people. This was comforting to hear, as in the months since I’ve graduated from university I’ve been feeling very negative about myself, which has undoubtedly contributed to the state I’m in now. I had finished my second year with a first (the highest possible grade in UK universities) in nearly all of my modules while simultaneously balancing a part-time job and a place on the executive team of a student social enterprise. I even worked full time for the entire duration of the following summer. But for some reason, as soon as my third year began I couldn’t cope any more. Everything was different – I felt different – and I was burned out. I saw this as me just falling back into my depression from previous years, but even when I dropped my other activities and commitments in the hopes it would help me cope better, something in the back of my mind had me on edge. And as I reflect on it more I feel I’m beginning to understand part of what that was – I was anxious about soon was losing part of who I was. For a very long time, I’ve always defined myself as Ruth the Student. Seventeen years of my life have been spent in school or higher education institutions. It was all I knew, it was all I felt good at. Even when I worked during summer holidays or completed internships I always knew that I was a student, and that I would be going back. Additionally although I didn’t realise it at the time, university had become a safe place I could go to when other things around me such as my home life became too chaotic or disorientating. It was a place to run away and feel safe again, and upon graduating and returning to London I realised I no longer had a safe place to go. But still I tried to adjust to my post-university world because I didn’t want everyone to think I had given up, even though I knew mentally I was slowly deteriorating. I sometimes struggle to get my words out, and I definitely didn’t have the words to describe it all as I do now. But I do think I tried my best to explain to others what I thought was happening. Nonetheless, it’s heartbreaking when the people most important to you who you thought loved and cared about you, don’t seem to even want to understand and instead think you’ve just stopped trying for yourself.
Many people find it difficult to cope with university. I’ve met many people, especially more recently, whose attempts at university have driven them to either contemplate or attempt suicide on several occasions. There can be a lot of pressure depending on many things, such as where you attend and the course you study, as well as how much individual pressure you place on yourself. I for one know I certainly came close a few times to not making it to my graduation alive. But I feel that in addition to how stressful university can be, something that people often overlook is how stressful the transition out of that system can be for some people. And it saddens me that if I had just been struggling with the former, some people may have been more understanding. There are, of course, other educational steps a person can take after their initial degree if they choose to do so. But these paths aren’t hard-wired into us from a young age like GCSEs, A-Levels and undergraduate degrees are. Besides that, no one can be a student forever. And even if you’re working towards a Master’s or a PhD, if you are someone who has defined themselves as someone who is good at being a student, sooner or later you’ll have to come to terms with this new world you don’t recognise yourself in any more.