I went into my 20th year, and more specifically my final year of uni, feeling overconfidently optimistic. My birthday was in May, around the time the restrictions of the first lockdown were slowly beginning to ease, and things generally seemed good. None of us had any real idea of how hideous the next nine months or so would be, I had great friends who sent me Prosecco in the post and embarrassed me with photos on Instagram as is the ritual for birthdays, and I was single and happy with it.
Almost a year after my last breakup, the first lockdown forced me to spend more time alone with myself and work on being truly content in myself, by myself. By the time I returned to university in late September I thought I had nailed it. I’d managed a reasonable pandemic summer, meeting up with a few friends and developing a newfound appreciation for living so close to the beach, finally fulfilling my teenage dreams of getting pissed in a park (it was usually in a field in the middle of the countryside when I was younger) and even squeezing in a quick trip to see my best friend for the first time in nine months in Edinburgh, one of my favourite cities.
Third year started well and in traditional uni fashion, getting lightly pissed during freshers’ week and beyond. The weather was good, we were allowed the rule of six, and the giddiness of being sat in a park having a picnic and getting gently drunk surrounded by people my own age was a wonderful novelty after so many months feeling so isolated. I went on a whistle-stop tour of some of Birmingham’s culinary delights – Turtle Bay for 241 cocktails, Dirty Martini to discover I do, in fact, love martinis, Lost & Found to tick another fancy cocktail place off my list, Mowgli because we walked past and the number of fairy lights was just an irresistible pull, not to mention an ill-fated but incredibly fun afternoon pub crawl after a ‘relaxed girls lunch’ at Pizza Express.
Although I look back at those few weeks with fondness and feeling wistful for my naivety of what was to come, I distinctly remember feeling pulled in a million different directions as I tried to adjust to my social schedule going from zero to a hundred in the space of a few days, while also trying to give my work the attention it deserved, being in my final year of university, and also applying for what felt like a million and one grad schemes, each of which involved repetitive rounds of situational judgement tests, online assessments and personalised cover letters. After so many months cooped up indoors, I didn’t want to turn down any invitations, especially as none of us knew how long we’d be able to carry on like that for. At the same time, there were more than a few occasions where I sat at my desk, head in hands, trying not to cry and convincing myself that I would absolutely fail my degree as I read another lecture slide filled with theoretical terms and jargon I just couldn’t seem to make sense of. I think my personal highlight of moments I lose it had to be getting vaguely hysterical sat at my desk listening to a lecturer tell me that “we exist as a consequence of stones” and “carrying stones is politics” (no, I still don’t know what that means – I dropped the module after the second lecture).
The rapidly approaching second wave of the pandemic didn’t affect me too much at first – I was almost grateful for an excuse to slow down my social engagements a little bit, and get fully stuck into the relentless grind of final year. That is, until a week or so before the November lockdown hit, when something flipped. Looking back, I have no idea what it really was that triggered it, except maybe the culmination of grad job stress (rejections were coming in thick and fast at this point), what felt like a constant and unbearable workload, and the shock of having to fend for myself without the support of my family after settling back into a comfortable home routine living at home for the longest period since I first went to university. I think I can pinpoint the day it felt like it all exploded, and what set it off was as simple as feeling like I hadn’t contributed enough in a Zoom seminar. I can’t even remember much of it, except I was panicky and sad and teary all the time, to the point where my parents threatened to drive up and collect me. I rang the doctor and, after convincing him for the previous two years that holistic methods were enough to help me deal with my anxiety, I was prescribed with antidepressants and officially diagnosed with mixed anxiety-depressive disorder.
Those few weeks are fairly fuzzy. I mostly remember struggling to get out of bed, crying all the time, barely being able to eat and fighting off a sense of shame for succumbing to my thoughts and taking medication. I’d struggled with anxiety and mental health for maybe half of my life to varying degrees, but the word depression had only been floated once, and I didn’t remember it feeling this bad. I couldn’t understand why suddenly the simplest things were so difficult, even crawling to the bathroom suddenly felt like a major accomplishment. It felt like my brain was gearing up to explode, it was so full of different parts of me shouting at each other. There was one part telling me I was worthless and stupid and that the ‘outside’ (anywhere outside of my bed) was terrifying and dangerous, while other parts told me to get a grip and stop being a drama queen and save the medication for people who really needed it, who did I think I was to have depression?
It was so exhausting trying to navigate this constant argument to complete basic daily tasks, and I was so desperate for my head to just be quiet that it was unbearable. To top it off, I was constantly fighting a sense of shame for taking medication. Logically, I have no idea why – I have friends that take antidepressants, and I fully support them in their choices, and knew it was the right thing for me at the time – no different to the tablets I take to help my low iron. My brain, however, wouldn’t accept this, and was desperate to make me feel guilty. Remembering comments I’d heard about how antidepressants were given out too freely, or shouldn’t be used, or were embarrassing to take, didn’t help how I was feeling.
I’m not quite sure how, but somehow I got through those few weeks. My parents were able to come and visit and take me on a bike ride, and I slowly started to feel more stable. I still had dips and difficult days, but I didn’t sink into that state of utter desperation again. I began to feel almost cocky – look at me, I have depression AND anxiety but guess what, I’m coping! I’ve always been open about my mental health with friends and so my diagnosis and medication was no secret, but I slowly realised that although I prided myself on my honesty and ability to reach out for help, the only person I really told how I was actually feeling was my doctor. My default coping mechanism is humour, taking the piss out of how I feel and sending friends memes about depression to laugh about, almost as a way of saying I was struggling without explicitly having to ask for help. My friends knew I was struggling, but they didn’t know what that meant. They offered to help in any way they could, but I said thanks and smiled and brushed it off not knowing how to actually let them in and accept their help.
I was worried about how I’d cope during the November lockdown, but I decided to try and stick it out at uni – and it actually became one of the highlights of my year. Of course, there were creeping deadlines and constant final year stress, but there were also weekly house bakes and meals and game nights and film nights, bringing my previously fairly isolated housemates together into a friendly group I genuinely enjoyed spending time with. I started therapy, and with the exception of a few wobbles around going home for Christmas, I felt like I was mentally in a good place again and ready to smash through the rest of my degree, graduate, and launch myself into post-uni, post-pandemic life with a bang.
This feeling lasted over most of Christmas, although there was an increasing lack of motivation and struggle to meet my deadlines. Thinking about my lack of interest almost scared me as much as the apathy itself – I’m a perennial overthinker and always push myself to do as well as I can, so to suddenly not care was a stark change for me and made me begin questioning what was wrong with me. Of course, it wasn’t a case of something wrong with me and more mental exhaustion in the face of a third wave of coronavirus cases and seemingly no end in sight – a feeling I’m sure most of us are familiar with. Nonetheless, I felt I coped well with a sudden wave of anxiety on New Years’ Eve and was confident I could deal with second semester at uni, despite a third national lockdown and fewer friends returning than last term. I didn’t think it could be that much worse than the November lockdown, and that had turned out pretty well in the end – plus, I’d already spent so many months of my university years at home, I wasn’t going to lose out on my last couple of terms as a student.
The first few weeks went well – there were deadline stresses but it was so good to see my friends again, and after seven weeks of therapy I was feeling confident that I could handle whatever my brain threw at me. I rapidly discovered this was not the case. For the last few days, I’ve been struggling. Barely managing to eat, leaving it till the last minute to start assignments, hiding from my thoughts under my duvet like a toddler hides from monsters. It felt like I was seeing everything in grayscale – nothing excited me anymore. I had no interest in my favourite foods, I didn’t care that one of my many houseplants was dying, even the vase of flowers on my windowsill, which can normally be relied on to at least make me smile, provoked no emotions in me. I was scared to admit I needed help again. Scared to acknowledge that the medication wasn’t a magic bullet to fix me, and that learning techniques and strategies in therapy is one thing but being able to use them when I’m at my lowest is far harder. But this time, partly out of desperation because my parents aren’t allowed to come and visit due to coronavirus restrictions and I’m desperate to avoid going home for the rest of term, I’ve allowed myself to properly open to up to my friends. Not many of them, but enough that they’ve kept me going and helped to guide me out of my low point and slowly back to a place where I’m still struggling, but it feels like I can tackle it and like I will be OK. Texting me to remind me to eat, dragging me out on walks, keeping me company studying, dropping emergency cookies round, posting self care boxes to me and being proud of me for managing to just get out of bed – my friends and housemates have been like my parents over the last few days, and I’m so grateful to them. Because it feels like I have nowhere else to turn – I’m already on medication, what more can the GP do? I barely drink, I haven’t had caffeine in months, I make gratitude lists, I go on walks almost daily, I use mindfulness apps and I’ve had therapy. What more can anyone do to fix me?
This time it’s even scarier because I know the only person that is going to make me better is me. Of course, I knew it needed to come from me before, but for as long as I avoided medication and didn’t have consistent therapy I could use them as crutches, believing that ‘if only I try this, everything will magically get better’. Typing that out, it’s so obvious that was never going to be the case, but I never realised that’s what I was subconsciously holding onto until now. Finally, after a few really dark days, I feel like I’m beginning to cope again. I’m eating more regularly, even preparing some of my own food rather than just relying on ready meals and ‘just-add-boiling-water’ meals. I’ve managed to leave the house several days in a row and finished my latest assignment in time for my deadline. I’ve not cried in a couple of days, and I’ve started to smile and laugh again. I’ve learnt that if all I accomplish in a day is getting through it, that’s still an achievement – because every bad day survived is one day closer to feeling better again. Frankly, I feel like I’m absolutely smashing it. But I wouldn’t be here without my friends (and of course my incredibly supportive family, but they’re kinda forced by genetics into trying to help). When I’m feeling so low, I can barely believe in myself, but over the last few days their belief in me and the love they’ve shown for me has given me faith in myself, as well as making it easier for me to believe it’s truly worth making the effort to get better.
There’s not really any purpose to writing this. My therapist wanted me to journal, but I find it so hard to write about my emotions on paper – things flow more easily from the keyboard for me. It feels self-absorbed to write so much about my feelings, but this is the first time I’ve really articulated how my depression feels to me. It feels good to write it down, and I guess it might help someone else realised how they’re feeling is normal, and they’re not alone. Because that’s almost the scariest part of it all – it feels so horrible and terrifying it’s like nobody else could possibly have felt like this before, and nobody can understand how I feel. But now more than ever, after almost a year of living through history, in the form of a pandemic and also so many other events that have happened over the last few months, so many people are feeling like this. And as someone who always encourages people to talk about their mental health, I’m finally taking my own advice. This may be writing into the void and it may be entirely selfish, but it feels good, and that means it’s worth it.
Mental Health Resources and Helplines
Mind – 0300 123 3393, http://www.mind.org.uk
PAPYRUS young suicide prevention charity – HOPElineUK 0800 068 4141, www.papyrus-uk.org
Samaritans – 116 123, www.samaritans.org.uk
Shout crisis support – text 85258 (mainland UK only)
Kooth.com / student.kooth.com – online mental health community and professional support