For as long as I can remember I was considered a “bright” child, shoved into gifted and talented groups and pushed to complete extra qualifications for a “fast-track” to the top Universities. I’d stormed through GCSEs, getting more A*s than anything else without even really trying. To my whole family – and therefore to me through influence – university was my only option, and the only option anyone would ever be proud of.
By the time I was 14 I had my university and my course picked out – English language at the University of Leeds. It was my dream right then and I wanted it more than anything, picking out my GCSE and A-level options accordingly. But as far as I can think back into my teenage years there was always something dark at the back of my head, a constant clouding feeling that something would always be wrong and that I would never be good enough.
I knew the symptoms of depression and I knew the symptoms of anxiety but unfortunately what I also knew was that teenagers all over the internet were pretending to have said mental illnesses. So, for a good four years at least I suffered in silence, putting the numb feeling I had and the panic attacks down to me convincing myself I had a mental illness. Doubting what I knew was always a problem for me.
Once I started my second year of A-levels I started to have serious second thoughts about going to university, or at least about going straight after college. I could feel my health deteriorating as the work and the pressure was piled on. But my family were so proud and they were sure the only way I could reach my full potential was to get myself to university as quick as possible – after all I already had five offers and no one goes to university once they’re older than 18. My teachers and advisor said that university was the best thing for me, that I would do so well, that maybe I should even go to Cambridge, but I was weary. I didn’t feel stable and I didn’t feel like I was the shiny, smart person they talked about.
To say the exam period that year was extremely hard would be an understatement. In classes I’d have constant panic attacks. It would feel like everything was closing in on me. Any slight laugh or snigger would sound ten times louder and something in my head would convince me the laughs were about me. I couldn’t concentrate on anything else and I definitely couldn’t breathe. Whenever I sat down to get some work or revision done something would lurk over me and I’d end up sobbing uncontrollably, I’d punch walls and throw anything I could get my hands on. I think this was the first time in my life I realised it wasn’t normal to think – or act – that way, but I was so petrified to tell anyone in case they thought I was lying or, like my younger brother would say, insane.
Despite it being hard, I got through my A-levels and ended up at the University of Leeds studying English Language and Linguistics – just what I always wanted. I had my concerns about Fresher’s week however. That was the time when you were supposed to meet brand new people and make great friends and go to busy, noisy clubs – three things I didn’t handle particularly well. I remember that first night I walked into my kitchen, saw 15 people in there and walked straight back out, straight back into my room and had one of the biggest anxiety attacks of my life. Safe to say I didn’t exactly bond with people as well as I should have that week.
The first year of university for me was miserable. I constantly felt pointless and hopeless and that feeling of not being good enough was bigger than ever. I struggled to do any assignments. As soon as I began to type strong anxieties surfaced about not doing well and I couldn’t write or even think at all. This was also the first time in my life I thought about killing myself. It shocked me, at the beginning. It was an awful, terrible thing to think about but I couldn’t push the thoughts away, as hard as I tried. I confided in a friend shortly after, crying that I didn’t want to be here, that I didn’t want to be alive, that I didn’t see the point, resulting in a useless hospital trip because I wasn’t “a risk to anyone else but myself”. They blamed it on a bad childhood at that point, but I knew that wasn’t true. I had a supportive wonderful family that just wanted the best for me, it didn’t make sense.
It was only when I fully broke down due to horrible circumstances in the summer that I was forced to finally visit an actual doctor. I was genuinely in shock when he told me I had severe depression and anxiety. I’d convinced myself I was making it up that for that long that I actually believed it. I started a course of anti-depressants, and later a course of beta blockers for the anxiety, as well as being referred to a group therapy that only made me have more panic attacks.
For a while I felt much better, the pills, although I didn’t like to admit it, definitely helped and I had a job which I enjoyed and made me feel valued. However whenever I thought about going back to university I felt the sick, panicky and overwhelmingly frightened.
When September rolled around and lectures started I felt distant. I couldn’t concentrate on anything and I found I couldn’t bring myself to care. There were many days I couldn’t leave my bed and I’d spend the day there crying. I had my dosage of pills doubled but it didn’t help. As soon as I thought about university work, or how disgusted I was in myself, I wanted to make myself throw up. The only time I didn’t panic about university was when I was at work, actually doing something useful. When my first essay deadline came around I knew it; I wasn’t ready for university again this year. I told my parents I wanted to defer for the year and they didn’t exactly take it too well… but eventually they realised that it was the best option for me and as an adult I needed to make my own decisions.
I’m no doctor (obviously, I can’t even make it through university) but I put the majority of my health problems down to us having an education system only focused on their students achieving well academically so that they can look good on paper rather than a system that nurtures children and provides a more well-rounded education that brings them up to be healthy individuals. The focus put on my grades rather than me as a person made me feel as though I was only worth something if I did well academically and I have carried this pressure throughout the rest of my life.
University really isn’t for everyone, how you value your achievements is up to you and not to anyone else. It’s important to take the time that you need to think through your options and what is best for you. It’s been a week since I made my decision and already I’m feeling better. I get to do a job I enjoy full time and give myself time to heal, which is the most important thing. If I can fight through my mental illnesses it’d be a bigger achievement for me than a university degree could ever be.