by Jessie* (pseudonym used to protect anonymity)
The year I began uni was also the year my life almost came to an abrupt end. What I had anticipated to be my brilliant arrival on the academic scene ended up being a hellish journey through depression that nearly took my life. How did I stray so far from my well-intentioned goals? The short answer is being very depressed. The longer answer? I’ll try fill you in.
I have a mental illness. It’s intrusive, invasive and at times, crippling. I do my best to live alongside my diagnosis; it is an uneasy bedfellow, but a constant one whether I like it or not. Balance is key to my wellness, and it’s a dynamic process I have to consciously work at to remain afloat.
When I began my initial degree in 2014, I had not yet grasped balance as a gatekeeper to my sanity. Instead, I reasoned that the opposite of mental illness was success. I saw the opportunity to re-write my personal narrative; to erase years of dysfunction by a series of glowing achievements. The desire to reinvent came from a desperate wish to distance myself from my own mental illness.
Overachievement seemed like the perfect antidote to my feelings of worthlessness and self-doubt. In practice though, it didn’t fly. I worked hard enough to get the accolades, but I was disappointed to find I only felt emptier. To appease this, I buckled down even more, becoming a caricature of neuroticism – sobbing over a “low” HD, running tens of kilometers a week, isolating myself away from a world that distracted me from my work.
Predictably, this took a significant toll on my mental health, and instead of acknowledging my eroding sanity I simply worked even harder. Reality became increasingly abstract and while I attended all my classes dutifully, I was a well-groomed husk.
It became a distinct possibility that I would have to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act for my own safety. I panicked, but while I was looking up flights to evade “the authority” and prevent myself from being scheduled, I realised I was quite unwell, and agreed to go into hospital.
While I was languishing in a closed ward, I got an invitation to a ceremony to accept a prestigious scholarship I had received earlier in the year. I was permitted leave from the ward, and for an odd afternoon I was both the mental health patient sequestered away in a sterile cube and the bright up-and-coming scholarship recipient, shaking hands with academics and blinking in the flash of a camera.
In pictures I stand in my demure dress, arms so thin they look like they can hardly hold up the piece of paper signifying my success. In these pictures I see both the well and the unwell. I had never considered that I could be both mentally ill and successful. I thought the two were mutually exclusive.
Old habits die hard, and it was (and is) a gradual process to shift one’s focus from dogged overachievement to something more measured. I had to pry back my life from the extremes it had drifted to. I began by changing degrees to something I was passionate about, and dropped back to part time.
Addressing my physiological needs felt alien at first, but was vital in restoring my mental health. I began treating sleep as a medical necessity with positive results. I wound back my punishing runs to leisurely jogs, with less focus on achieving long distances.
Probably most importantly, I opened up to the idea of having friends. Up until now I’d seen them as little else but a distraction from study, or a threat to my confidentiality. With friends I softened, became less critical and more fun.
These factors keep me well. They don’t completely ward off relapse – I’m not sure in the face of my neurobiology, anything really does. But I am a more whole person, and certainly a much saner one. It was a hard road to learn what I know now about studying alongside mental illness, but perhaps I wouldn’t have listened any other way.
Through standing on the edge of the cliff, mentally and literally, I learnt about the perils of my own extremism.