Managing university whilst looking after my health – how I am learning to find a balance

Education has always been something I have struggled to sustain. The last time I completed an academic year was when I was 12. I stopped going to school half way through first year of secondary school and haven’t managed to complete a whole year since then, even with numerous attempts at college and university. The most frustrating thing about this is that I don’t struggle with the work academically. Even with missing almost all of my secondary school education and having no qualifications, I am still able to achieve top marks in essays at university and I’m a bit weird in that I love writing essays! So this makes it even more frustrating that usually as the weeks go on, I start to struggle with my health which impacts on my attendance. It is usually a downward spiral. But this year has been different. I am near the end of the first semester, which is when I would usually have become unwell, but I am still doing well. My attendance has actually improved throughout the semester. This has never happened before! I have only been doing one module this semester so it has been less work, but even so I would usually still be struggling by now. I’ve worked really hard over the past year to give myself the best chance of succeeding this time and I want to share some of the ways in which I’ve managed to do this.

Self Care

I know the term self care seems to be everywhere right now, but it really has helped me and has meant more to me than just having baths or treating myself to nice things (although that has been part of it). Until this year I don’t think I had ever really put any effort into looking after my health and just focusing on myself. I’d spent years beating myself up instead. So I have spent months learning how to actually care about myself. Trying my best to sort out my eating (although this is an ongoing challenge). Making sure I have time to myself to wind down. Reading lots of fiction purely because I enjoy it. Writing. Long showers with lots of Lush sleepy shower gel and body lotion. Listening to audiobooks. Hot water bottles and hot chocolate, which for some reason I didn’t allow myself to have in the house before but now I do…with marshmallows and cream on top too! Being patient with myself. Letting myself be tired and to rest when I need to. Doing things because I want to, and not because I am telling myself I should. Making doctors appointments and finally dealing with all the physical health issues that I have been ignoring for years. Being kind to myself. Learning about self compassion.

Medication 

There is still a lot of pill shaming around these days, but medication can help some people including me. Since I was a teenager I have tried so many different medications. I have been on anti depressants, diazepam, mood stabilisers, anti psychotics and more. Some didn’t work, some made me feel worse, some had unbearable side effects. But the combination I am on right now seem to help. They are not a magic fix and I still struggle with a lot of things. I don’t want to be on all of them forever either but even if I am, there is no shame in that if they are helping. Medication has helped me to find a balance in my life that I need right now and I do believe they have been a contributing factor to managing university this semester.

Therapy

When I was in hospital in February I was put on a waiting list for trauma therapy. It is now December and I am still on that waiting list. Fortunately I have been lucky enough to be able to do some therapy privately. Committing to therapy was one of the most difficult things I have ever made the decision to do. I have tried therapy in the past but I really struggle with trust and the commitment, so I have tended to run away from it when it became too difficult. I wasn’t ready to even admit that I had been through any trauma (i still struggle with this sometimes), never mind go and talk about it or process it in any way. But I was in the right place to try and face up to it, and we spent a lot of time in therapy learning how to keep myself grounded and in a safe place. All of these coping strategies I learned in therapy have helped me massively. We started a bit of EMDR but this is something I have not been ready to fully commit to at the moment. Accepting that I need long term therapy to fully process the trauma I have been through has been difficult but a necessary step in moving forward with my life. Waiting lists for therapy need to change!!

Stickability 

One of my lecturers told me about this word and it has been in my head ever since. I have a lot of moments when I want to give up on things. When I get scared of failing I want to run. This semester has taught me that in those moments I need to remember why I am doing all of this. I need something to hold on to that makes me want to keep going through those difficult patches. For me that reason is because I want to use my own experiences to change something. That has been the reason which has kept me going back to try again at things, and it will be the thing which keeps me going when I want to give up.

Reaching out to people 

Sometimes I forget my reason to keep going, and I convince myself that I’ve lost it. But I never lose it, I just need a reminder sometimes. There are people around me who I know will be able to remind me of this. People who are so passionate about things themselves that it helps me remember my own passions. Or people who know me so well that they are able to remind me who I am again. People who can lift me up or connect with me, when I feel completely disconnected. These people could be friends, family, lecturers, mentors, professionals of some sort, therapists. There are people around who want to help, it is just finding them that can sometimes be the problem. But reaching out to those people when I am struggling or even just having those moments when I forget why I am doing this, has been a lifeline for me in managing not only university but also my life in general. Being able to be that person for other people too sometimes can help, as long as I don’t take too much on then being supportive to the people around me can bring me out of myself and help me to connect again.

Pacing myself 

I have never had much patience. Learning how to not try and do everything all at once has been a big challenge. But a necessary one as I seem to have a habit of trying to do everything and then burning myself out completely. To succeed at university and in anything else I want to do in my life I’ve realised I need to treat it as ‘a marathon, not a sprint’. Finding the balance of this has been difficult, but it is getting easier the more I practice. Being aware of the pace I am going is the most important thing. I need to be constantly aware of what decisions I am making, the emotions I am feeling, how I feel physically. Sometimes I realise I am going too fast and need to slow myself down again. Other times I realise I have done too much and need to give myself some time to rest. I have probably had to even be a bit too careful this semester but the most important things to me have been to complete the semester whilst feeling as healthy physically and mentally as I could be. I had to do this as slow as possible! I am hoping I can gradually be less careful, once I’ve got the hang of going at the right pace and trusting myself in the process that I am making the right decisions. There are so many things I want to do but one step at a time without getting impatient with the process is how I am trying to handle things.

 

Managing university whilst looking after my health is a huge challenge. I still struggle at times but I am gradually building up a range of coping strategies to help me through the difficult times. I learn so much from others sharing their experiences so would love to hear from anyone who wants to share what helps them manage their education and their health. Please feel free to leave a comment or share with my on twitter 🙂

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Letting go of control

So much of my life has been about control. At times I have lived in complete chaos. And at others I have tried to control every aspect of my life to the point of not leaving my house for months or interacting with anyone because I could not be in control of my environment if I stepped out my front door. Even as I am writing this, I am constantly deleting, retyping and fighting the urge to give up on the whole thing because I don’t have control over writing it in exactly the right way, or because when I post it I will no longer have any control over who reads it and what they think about it.

I don’t think I was always like this. I think it is an effect of the abuse I experienced. I had my control taken away from me, and to take it back I controlled the things I could. Even if that meant controlling when to be out of control. Or when I want to stop caring. When I want to live in chaos. When I want to give up. When I want to drink. When I want to be angry. When I want to hide in my flat and not talk to anyone. When I want to eat until i feel sick. When I want to control what I’m allowed to eat. It doesn’t seem to make sense sometimes, that trying to be in control can seem like a complete loss of control from the outside. And yet, no matter how much I try to control anything, there is always still a sense of chaos. Maybe they are not always different things.

I am thinking about this today because I’m reflecting on my way of dealing with university. To begin with I tried to be in control of everything. I tried to manage everything and be perfect at everything. I tried to never make any mistakes. I tried to plan the whole four years out in front of me and never step outside of my plans. But when I realised I couldn’t keep it up, or things will continually happen that weren’t in my plans I felt like I was drowning. Because I had no control over any of this. To me that is terrifying. I have no idea what will happen tomorrow, or in a years time, or by the end of my degree and that is scary. No matter how hard I try, I won’t be able to control that. A part of me wants to hide inside my house forever so that I will never have to find out what will happen. But luckily these days the part of me that wants to find out what will happen is stronger.

How do you let go of control? How do you find the balance? How do you become someone who is neither completely in control or living in complete chaos? I don’t know any of the answers, but I am learning how to let some things go. Small steps, patience, acceptance and pacing myself seems to be the answers to most of my challenges. And in one of these small steps I’m going to post this without trying to control every single thing about it to the point I end up deleting it. Letting go.

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Talking about mental health whilst being on a ‘professional’ qualification – why I have decided not to let the stigma silence me

Over the past year I have been sharing my story of living with mental health difficulties on twitter and on this blog. I have shared my journey of facing up to my past trauma, my daily struggles and the ways in which I am learning to overcome this. I did this because I think it is important to talk about these things. To challenge the stigma and to connect with other people facing similar challenges. Recently, however, I have been having doubts as to how much I should be sharing about my life.

When I wasn’t working or studying it was, in a way, easy for me to talk about my mental health. It didn’t matter to me if this made people uncomfortable, because how else are we going to change anything? However, since I have started back at university to study Community Learning and Development, doubts have been seeping into my mind about how much I should be sharing. Will talking about my mental health be perceived as ‘unprofessional’? Does it matter if it is? Will I be seen as weak or unable to carry out my placements on my course? Will sharing my daily struggles effect my chances of gaining employment? These are the thoughts that led me to making my blog private last week and deleting all of my tweets. Stigma around talking about mental health is still very much alive.

I shouldn’t have to worry about these things. Talking about my mental health, sharing my struggles, connecting with other people and using my voice to fight for change, should not be seen as a negative. But unfortunately I think my worries will be accurate in some settings. How do we change this though? The only way I can find for me to challenge this is to carry on talking, no matter how uncomfortable it is making others feel. Because I shouldn’t have to hide, and neither should anyone else.

As a ‘professional’ I think it is important to be real. The people who have helped me most throughout my life are not the ones who had any answers, but those who were able to relate to me and say that they have had struggles too. In my experience of working with young people I have also found that my experiences became a strength in being able to connect and build relationships. When I tried to be something I wasn’t it created a barrier. When I let down those walls we became equals. This allowed real empathy, compassion and connection. Aren’t those things more important?

Today I received a huge compliment from someone who said they appreciate how much I have shared my story over the past year. That I have been an activist in talking about mental health. I realised that this is what is important to me. That I use my voice to challenge things. That I don’t hide or stay silent about things that matter. I can work with young people and people in the community, whilst also facing my own difficulties. That is what makes me human. It is what makes me real, just like everyone else. We need to be able to talk about that, and to see that our challenges and struggles that we are overcoming makes us who we are. For me, my past trauma has given me many strengths as well as struggles. I will not hide that.

Finding myself after trauma

I set up this blog at the start of the year to share my voice and story but over the last few months i’ve found myself not being sure of what to say. When I have spent so long with my life defined by trauma, and the negative impact that this has had on me, how can I be sure of who I am ‘after’?

I have spent most of this year, after being discharged from hospital, focusing on myself and my recovery. I would say I am in recovery. I know many people don’t agree with that word. They say it is about managing and coping rather than ‘recovering’. But the word gives me hope. I have spent so many years now either in trauma or living with the impact of the trauma. I want to believe that there is a life after. I want to believe that there is a point where I will be free to live my life in the way I want to, rather than being controlled by my past. I have been attending trauma therapy every week and in doing stabilising work and beginning to process my trauma, I would say my past does not grip me as tightly as it once did. I am on the road to recovery, although I still have a long way to go. But in beginning to let go of the ways I have learned to protect myself, and in slowly starting to believe that I can be safe in this world, I have found a part of myself I thought I had lost a long time ago.

I’m not sure what this part of me is. Is it the part of myself that I was able to develop for the first five years of my life where I was lucky enough to feel safe and loved? Is it the person I could have become without all the trauma? Is it a part of my self that has developed itself through all of that? The person I can be when I am free? It hasn’t been long so I am still figuring out who this person is. And I still lose her every now and then when the past takes hold of me again. I don’t feel a tight hold of who I am yet. I feel fragile and lost sometimes. It feels scary and new. But I don’t feel as raw as I did. I am growing and finding strength. I am taking steps forwards into my future and for the first time in my life I am starting to like who I am becoming. I am finding my voice again.

trauma

My life still matters even if it is not deemed as social media worthy, and so does yours.

Social media can be so fake sometimes. Many people I know struggle with their mental health and face difficulties every day, but we rarely see any of those difficulties on social media. We only see the good bits. The smiley photos and happy memories. The parties, weddings, holidays and perfect relationships that we want the world to think our lives revolve around. But in a world where we can only share the good bits, what happens to the people who aren’t ‘living their best lives’?

I have lived with mental illness and the impact of trauma since I was 12 years old. But a few years ago I’d managed to build myself up enough to the point where I could work as a youth worker. Then I managed to go to university, start a new job and have a relationship too. I thought I’d finally got to the point where I could actually live my life. But you can’t run away from trauma. You can’t just decide to get rid of it or move on. It doesn’t work like that unfortunately. You can’t stop the flashbacks, nightmares, exhaustion, physical pain, depression, anxiety and the emptiness of trying to live your life but never feeling connected to anything or anyone. So when it catches up with you, you have to stop.

I had no other choice than to give up everything and focus on nothing else except my health. If I didn’t make that choice, I wouldn’t still be here. And I still have to make that choice every single day. I wake up and have to decide I want to be here, that I want to get better, that I want to look after myself. I have to choose to care about myself and put my health first. That is what my life consists of right now. Learning to eat properly, sleep properly, exercise, interact with people, try to lift my mood up when I’m feeling low, comfort myself, calming myself when I’m feeling anxious, giving myself time to feel how I’m feeling instead of avoiding things, go to therapy every week to learn how to do all of this and to begin to process the trauma. Doing all of this is the most difficult things I have ever learned to do. It is a lot easier to try and avoid everything, to self destruct, to stick to familiar ways of coping, to not care about myself or anything else and to never fully make the commitment to be here.

And yet, none of this is social media worthy is it? I am making the most life changing decisions I have ever made to fully be able to live my life and connect with myself, other people and the world. But it is not something I should post all over Facebook is it? It is not even something we talk about. We ask about holidays, work, uni, relationships. But do we ever ask how someone is feeling, how they are managing their lives day to day, if their therapy is going okay and if they have people around them who care. If someone’s biggest achievements were not travelling, climbing a mountain, passing an exam, getting a new job or anything else exciting enough to be deemed social media worthy, do we still care enough to ask about it?

I am writing this post to show that we don’t all have society’s idea of social media worthy lives. We aren’t all ‘living our best lives’. Some of us are just trying to live. But that in itself is a huge thing. A difficult thing. Something that should be celebrated and appreciated. Something we should care about enough to ask about. I didn’t pass any exams this year, go on any holidays, go travelling, climb any mountains, go to any parties or weddings. But i did get up every day, go to therapy every week, start running, learn to care about myself and decide I want to be here. I survived and if you did too I am proud of you!

if all you did today

Emotional Flashbacks

It starts off with my heart pounding and i’m struggling to breath. I feel fear. Terror. Something is wrong and something terrible is going to happen to me.

And then the tears come. And the pain. I can feel it in my stomach, and chest, and heart. All over my body. I’m doubled over in pain. It feels like grief. Loss. Complete and utter agony.

And I can’t stop it. It just keeps pouring out of me. I even scream into my pillow to try and get it out. To try and make it stop. And I’m completely back there. I’m completely alone and something is happening to me that I do not understand. But I know it is wrong. I know that I want it to stop. I know that I am paralysed by fear.

And I feel tiny and small. Helpless and defenceless. No-one can hear me or help me. And I can’t even put into words how excruciatingly painful it is. Physically and emotionally. And it goes on for hours. I cannot come back to now. I cannot remember that I am an adult and that this is not happening right now. I cannot feel safe.

And after hours of agony my head is thumping, and I can’t see properly from how swollen my eyes are. And I’m exhausted. And eventually I fall asleep. But I toss and turn all night long having nightmares.

I wake up panicking, with my heart racing. Something is wrong. I feel it in every single part of my body. And maybe it begins all over again. Or hopefully I am back in the present a bit more. Hopefully I’m able to phone someone and bring myself back. Hopefully I don’t get stuck there all over again.

But all I can do is wait until I am back again. Wait until I am here again, as an adult, in the present. But even then, I am exhausted. I need to sleep and rest for days. I don’t have strength or energy to do anything other than recover.

And all I can do is build up my strength again. Until it happens again. Until I relive everything again. and again. and again.

Do labels matter?

Throughout my experiences of the mental health system since I was around 14 until now at the age of 26, I have been given many different labels. Psychiatrists and psychologists can’t seem to figure out which box I should fit in. I have been told many times ‘not to get too hung up on the diagnosis’, and at times I have told myself it doesn’t really matter. But my opinion on that is changing, because as a women who has been through trauma and has been abused, exploited, silenced and shut down for what feels like almost my entire life, the words that are being used to explain my story really do matter.

The first diagnosis I remember receiving was a mood disorder of the cyclothymic type at the age of 14. When I was 16 I was sectioned in a psychiatric unit because the psychiatrist who admitted me thought I had Bipolar and wanted to try me on mood stabilisers. Once admitted I was under the care of a different psychiatrist who after a few days decided I had Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and I was told I was no longer being detained but could stay on a voluntary basis. Of course at the age of 16 on an adult psychiatric ward, I was definitely not hanging around voluntarily so I was discharged. BPD is a highly stigmatised diagnosis, and I was suddenly treated as if my experiences and illness were my own fault and that I was not actually unwell, but just someone who needs to change their behaviours. I did not understand what I do now about the BPD diagnosis, that it seems to me that it is used to silence women who have been abused. You may not agree with that statement, but from my own personal experience I believe this diagnosis was used in order to make me responsible for what others have done to me. Rather than asking ‘what has happened to you and what can we do about it’, the question became ‘what is wrong with you and why are you not dealing with what has happened to you in a socially acceptable manner?’. The way I was treated after this diagnosis prolonged my pain and symptoms of trauma, and after having spent years being silenced and feeling without a voice this was reinforced to me by the system in place which was supposed to be helping me.

10 years later and I have still had different opinions about what my diagnosis is. I know that I don’t agree with the BPD diagnosis, and am unsure about Bipolar. What I do know is that the two psychologists who have had more of an insight into my life than any other mental health professionals, have both diagnosed me with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is the only diagnosis that has ever made any sense to me, and is the only one which recognises the impact trauma has had upon me. I thought I was getting somewhere when the psychiatrist on the crisis team also gave me a working diagnosis of PTSD, but since being admitted into hospital and being under the care of my new psychiatrist I have again been told I either have Bipolar or BPD. And I have once again been told ‘not to get too hung up on the diagnosis’.

Since I have been given medication to stabilise my mood and referred for trauma therapy, you might think it wouldn’t matter so much what labels they have given me as long as I get the right treatment. But the next time I have a relapse and I am at my weakest moment and asking for help, the nurses, psychiatrists, psychologists and whoever else is involved will look at my notes to find out what my diagnosis is. This will change how they treat me. I might be treated as someone with an illness which requires medication and hospitalisation. I might be treated as someone who has been severely traumatised and requires therapy. Or I might be treated as I have been in the past as someone who is just being difficult and needs to change my behaviour. All because of the labels they keep telling me not to worry about.

These labels change how my story is seen by others. Mental health professionals have the power to do that, and in effect they have the power to silence me through a diagnosis. As someone who has been silenced far too much in my lifetime, I’m saying yes it does matter. I’m saying yes I will get hung up on the labels if I want to, and I will disagree if I want to. And I will use my voice to say if a diagnosis does not fit with my story. Because it is my story. I am the expert on my life, on myself, and on the ways in which trauma has impacted on my life every day. I am a woman who has been silenced, exploited, sexually abused and shut down for years and I live with the impact of that every day. The labels that are used to explain my story do matter, and mental health professionals need to begin to understand this. The words, labels, and diagnosis’ they use have the power to either silence me further or help me. It matters.

My Story

My story of trauma and mental illness is a long one, so I won’t go in to every detail. But I thought I’d begin my blogging journey with an insight into my life, and to share what has brought me to this point.

I was 12 when things in my life started to go in an unexpected direction. I experienced trauma for the first time and it has marked my life in a way in which I will never be able to recover from. I was sexually abused and developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder which began a series of life events which would hold me stuck in a cycle of trauma and mental illness for years. This of course carried along with it depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol issues, hospital, medications, various diagnosis’, a lack of education, no qualifications, unemployment and even now Fibromyalgia; a chronic illness which causes a number of physical symptoms and pain. These are just a few of the things I have been up against since I was 12 years old.

I am now 26 and the biggest difference in my life now is that I have a voice, and I am not afraid to use it. I have spent so much of my life feeling powerless and without a voice. I have spent years hiding. I have felt ashamed. I have felt as though to become part of this world I needed to forget my past, to deny my experiences and to hide the part of me which taught me to survive all of those years. I no longer want to hide, and I no longer want to feel ashamed of the person I am who has survived. I want to use my voice, and so this is why I have created this blog and why I am now going to use my voice to talk about my experiences. Trauma and mental illness has shaped my life in ways which have brought me to my darkest moments, but it has also shaped me to become the person I am today. Today I am someone who is at university studying Community Learning and development. Today I am someone who stands up for what is right in this world. Today I am someone who has worked as a youth worker and empowered young people who have had similar experiences to me. Today I am someone who one day wants to change something in this world for people experiencing mental illness and trauma. Today I am proud of who I am. Today I will use my voice to talk about what is important.