University wasn’t the place for me, but I’m determined to go back

books on bookshelf

University wasn’t the place for me. I’m not saying it was bad. I’m just saying it wasn’t good. I didn’t care about the Mexican Revolution, religious symbolism in the work of J. L. Borges, or the exploration of the self and form in twentieth-century France. Likewise, I did not care about the difference between the pronunciation of “vu” and “vous”, “pero”, and “perro”.  I did not care about getting an F in a relatively unimportant presentation. I did not care that my tutor declared my essay on feminism to be “decidedly mediocre”.

Instead, I cared about evenings in pubs, walks in the park and sessions at the gym. I cared about staying up all night watching films and reading books not on the syllabus. I cared about cycling from a bar to my friend’s house at 1am on a Monday morning. I cared about going to gigs, visiting photography exhibitions, and rummaging through Spitalfields market on a Sunday.

When it came to studying, I tried, but only sort of. Half an hour before class was due to start I would open my workbook and frantically scribble something down. In the evenings, I would read novels of my own choosing before embarking on (and then later abandoning) the set texts. As for the presentations, I would usually just miss those classes and carry the fail. Invariably, I would turn up to every class utterly unprepared, having no idea about what was about to be discussed, and caring very little.

At the end of my three-year degree (which took me five years to complete), I received a transcript of my results, telling me that I had received one fail, two thirds, 2:2s, 2:1s, and firsts – all of which averaged out into the most meaningless 2:1 the uni must have ever given.

What the transcript didn’t say was that, during my studies, I had experienced debilitating depression, unrelenting OCD, one terrible coming out, one terrible relationship, one terrible break up, and the onset of Tourette’s syndrome.

OK, maybe university was bad.

This year, though, I have a place on UEA’s Creative Writing MA, and I’m determined to go back to my studies.

But if my undergraduate was so tumultuous, why am I doing this?

The answer is simple: university is, for me, unfinished business. I need to go back: get consistently OK grades, stay on an even keel for the duration of the course, keep my depression and OCD at bay. There’s not much I can do about the Tourette’s, given that it’s both chronic and incurable.

It’s going to be hard. I have the stereotypical swearing kind of Tourette’s. I will be yelling out “fuck” in lectures. I will find it hard to concentrate. I will inevitably be a distraction to myself and others.

But, unlike my BA in French and Spanish, this course has been a dream for a long time. I will spend a whole twelve months doing what I love: reading and writing. Reading helped me through depressive episodes before, and getting my writing published since leaving university has given me a much-needed self-esteem boost.

And if mental illness has taught me anything, it’s to do what you love, and do it a lot.

So that’s what I’m going to do. I’m determined to go back, and I’m going to smash it.

This blog post was originally published on the Student Minds Blog.

What Does Disability Look Like?

According to a recent study, 9 out of 10 people would challenge someone using a disabled toilet if they showed no visible signs of disability.

This is a sorry statistic, suggesting that most people think “disabled” means “in a wheelchair”. This, of course, is compounded by the sign on most disabled toilet doors:

blue and white disable logo

In reality, disabled people look just like me or you. Sure, some use chairs or sticks, but innumerable people have invisible disabilities.

I happen to have a disability that’s sometimes invisible, sometimes visible and sometimes definitely audible. However, I do not use a wheelchair or sticks, even when my legs do get a bit wobbly. That said, if my legs were ticcing a lot, I would like to think I could use the accessible toilet without someone telling me off for it.

Illustrating disabilities is difficult. So often, when you read an article about depression, the stock photo used is of someone, face ashen, wistfully gazing out the window. Like this:

woman touching her forehead

I don’t know about you, but I don’t tend to do this when I’m depressed. When I’m depressed, I can actually smile, laugh and look like I’m having the time of my life. Like this:

6c6933bd-1c13-4ed1-9915-08dee5cf186f

It’s probably about time we stopped thinking of equating “disability” with “wheelchair”. It is, and has always been, a bit bigger than that.

 

Books, Books, Books

book signage hanging beside white wall

I spend hours in bookshops, browsing the shelves, reading the blurbs, sometimes sitting down and reading whole chapters before placing the book back where it belongs.

I buy books frequently. But not as frequently as I frequent bookshops. That would bankrupt me.

For me, books are a form of therapy.

Some of the most cathartic books I’ve read have tackled the subject of mental illness head on, and I’ve usually read them when I’m coming out of a depression – just when my concentration has decided to saunter back.

When I was nineteen, trapped in the inertia of that stupid illness, Kurt Vonnegut’s “Mother Night” wrote how I felt, word for word:

“It was not the thought that I was so unloved that froze me. I had taught myself to do without love.

It was not the thought that God was cruel that froze me. I had taught myself never to expect anything from Him.

What froze me was the fact that I had absolutely no reason to move in any direction. What had made me move through so many dead and pointless years was curiosity.

Now even that had flickered out.

How long I stood frozen there, I cannot say. If I was ever going to move again, someone else was going to have to furnish the reason for moving.

Somebody did.

A policeman watched me for a while, and then he came over to me, and he said, “You alright?”

“Yes,” I said.

“You’ve been standing here a long time,” he said.

“I know,” I said.

“You waiting for somebody?” he said.

“No,” I said.

“Better move on, don’t you think?” he said.

“Yes, sir,” I said.

And I moved on.” 

I read this passage over and over again, amazed that a dead American man knew exactly how I was feeling. In my blackest days, I would find myself anywhere: in a supermarket, in a shop, at work in the pub, and find myself frozen, unable to move, energy sapped out of me entirely. It was exactly like the protagonist in Mother Night. I was experiencing what medics would dryly call “a lack of motivation”, or what I would call a total absence of anything.

In secondary school, we are told to stop saying that we like a book because we can relate to it, or dislike a book because we can’t relate to it. That, apparently, is beside the point. It isn’t academic. It isn’t literary.

I ardently disagree. Seeing your experiences, the best and worst, written down on a page by a person who never knew you, is a wonderful feeling. It’s like someone is reaching out their hand, grasping yours, telling you that you are not alone. It gives you hope.

Have You Taken Your Meds?

two white tablets

One day, I decided to stop taking my anti-depressant medication. I was prescribed it for OCD and, unsurprisingly, depression, and had advised my consultant that this was what I was going to do, much to his indifference.

Coming off the venlafaxine was an ordeal. I experienced sleep paralysis, insomnia, brain zaps, dizziness, nausea and a low mood. The brain zaps were awful. It felt like someone was shaking my brain around my skull or giving me electric shocks. But the sleep paralysis, insomnia, dizziness and low mood were awful too.

It was all just awful.

Thankfully, after the longest two weeks of my life, the withdrawals stopped.

When I told my GP what I had done, she congratulated me. “Well done,” she said.

I was perplexed, and, if I’m being honest, a little annoyed. I wondered whether she had ever congratulated anyone for completing their course of antibiotics. I doubted that she had.

In the year that followed, my brain entirely free from any psychiatric medication, I had the worst time.

My head was spinning with intrusive thoughts: rapid, vicious and upsetting. They were there when I woke up and when I tried to go to sleep. They were there when at three-in-the morning when I got up thirsty. They were in the background as I tried to watch the TV. They couldn’t be drowned out by music or alcohol. They were relentless, incessant, maddening.

Eleven months later, I dipped back down into a sleep-deprived depression, and went to my GP, bleary-eyed and nauseated from the lack of sleep, begging her for zopiclone.

Instead of giving me this highly addictive sleeping pill, though, she put me on an anti-depressant which, taken at night, causes drowsiness.

That night, for the first time in months, I slept the sleep of the dead.

Nowadays, I can’t see myself experimenting with a med-free life. My brain, in its natural state, is not my friend. I need medication to temper my depression, calm my OCD, and soften my Tourette’s.

This isn’t a bad thing. I feel very lucky to be alive in a time where such medications are available. I just wish people weren’t so fearful of psychiatric medication. In my opinion, they’re there to be your friend when your brain is not. They’re not magic. They don’t cure everything. But they help, and for me, that is enough.

Drinking and Mental Health

assorted-color bottle lot on shelf

There is one drug is the world that is, I would argue, more harmful than any of the others. Completely legal in the vast majority of countries, it makes you feel sociable when you’re shy, warm when you’re cold, and happy when you’re flat. Not only socially acceptable, but socially encouraged, it is nevertheless addictive and a cause of many a premature death.

What I’m talking about is, of course, alcohol.

It has been one month and four days since I have last had any.

I realise the counting of the days makes me sound like an alcoholic, but I just like counting. I was not, and am not, an alcoholic by any means. My body was not dependent on the substance at all. I did not get the shakes. I did not get the sweats. I did not get the cravings.

But, like a lot of people in the UK, my life entailed a lot of post-work drinks and pre-drink drinks, and it took me far too long to realise that this was no good. It wasn’t just that I was drinking more than the recommended limit of 14 units a week, that alcohol can cause liver disease, cancer, pancreatitis, brain damage, osteoporosis, and heart disease.

It was that alcohol is a furious depressant, can not only interact with anti-depressant medication but cause depression: the condition I’ve been putting up with for years.

So, I made the decision to stop: to cut it out entirely for a least a few months, and see where it takes me.

Despite what I thought, I don’t miss it at all. I still go out. I still make memories with my friends. I still have half-hour friendships with strangers outside bars. It’s just that I do it holding a Diet Coke in my hand (yes, I know, not the healthiest of drinks, but whatever).

I cannot deny that my mood has stabilised since I’ve quit the booze. I’ve also lost a few pounds, and am far more productive than I was: reading and writing much more.

In some ways, it’s socially unacceptable to be teetotal in the UK. Drinking is so engrained in our culture, so celebrated as a way of life, that people look at you baffled if you are drinking just a fizzy drink on a night out.

I should know: I was a bartender for two years. People here like to get sloshed. A lot. If someone said they just wanted a Diet Coke at eleven p-m on a Friday night, I would be taken aback, and probably give them that shit for free, because soda costs bars pennies and if someone is not contributing to our drinking culture, then that’s only a good thing.

I’m planning on having a drink on my twenty-sixth birthday in July. I plan to savour the taste, feel the warmth extend to my heart and have it (most probably) go straight to my head. I won’t fall off the wagon: moderation is the way forward for me. I have had too many depressive episodes for my liking. If quitting the booze will help them subside, or better yet, disappear, then that can only be a good thing.

Nevertheless, I’m sure that quitting alcohol won’t “cure” me of my depression. I also need therapy, healthy hobbies, a direction in life, exercise and the right medicine. It’s just one step in the right direction: one step that so far, I’m very glad I made.

Things People Actually Have Said to Me About My OCD, Autism, Tourette’s and Depression

assorted medication tables and capsules

  • That a vitamin could cure my depression
  • That I couldn’t be autistic because I was in a relationship
  • That I couldn’t be autistic because I used to work in a bar
  • That I couldn’t have Tourette’s because I used to work in a bar
  • That I was ‘putting on’ my Tourette’s because I had read about it somewhere and was imitating its symptoms
  • That my OCD was a ‘good thing’
  • That everyone is a little bit OCD
  • That everyone is a little bit autistic
  • That everyone gets depression
  • That if I really understood my Tourette’s I would be able to control it
  • That I should just “think the bad word in my head” instead of saying it out loud
  • That I should just ‘calm down’ when having a literal tic attack
  • That my depression was ‘all in my head’
  • That I didn’t deserve my depression 

Working with Mental Illness

nathan-dumlao-608719-unsplash

When I was nineteen, six years ago, I had to take a year out of university because I was suffering from depression. I had had bouts before and have had bouts since, but nothing has quite matched that one. This depression was an all-encompassing hopelessness, an abyss of “nothing matters”, “what is the point”, and “I don’t deserve to feel happy”. The full shebang, basically.

During my time off, I worked in a pub in the middle of nowhere. The stress of being the only bartender sometimes got to me. Every couple of weeks, I would randomly burst into tears. But this wasn’t the solitary single tear down the cheek kind of crying. This was the-world-has-ended kind of crying, the everything-is-lost kind of crying, the-my-life-has-gone-tits-up kind of crying. The type where I started crying about screwing up an order and ended up crying about crying and then crying about crying about crying. I felt pathetic.

The second time it happened, the assistant manager found me curled up in the staff room upstairs, and asked me what was going on.

“I have depression,” I said.

I can’t remember what she said in response exactly, only that she was going to tell the other managers, which she apparently did, because the next week, my boss said to me, “Why are you depressed? Do you have kids? Do you have a mortgage? Do you have bills?”

He didn’t talk to me with empathy. He didn’t talk to me with sympathy. He sure as hell didn’t talk to me about reasonable adjustments. He just told me I didn’t deserve the unhappiness I felt, kept on saying things like “it’s all in your head,” and in turn, I felt even worse.

The experience taught me to keep schtum about my mental health, or lack thereof, in the workplace.

It wasn’t until about a month ago that I had to disclose my mental health problems to my bosses again. Fortunately, I wasn’t still stuck in that pub. Unfortunately, the diagnoses had since amassed and I now had an overabundance of psychiatric and neurological acronyms.

The reason I had to disclose my mental health issues was the same: I couldn’t stop crying.

This time, though, things were different. I was booked a taxi home and told to take as much time off as I needed. I would still get paid. I would still have a job to go back to. I wouldn’t need to provide a sick note or anything. I just told them my mental health was throwing a wobbly and they didn’t pry any further.

I couldn’t have been more pleasantly surprised.

But in some ways, I shouldn’t have been surprised at all. Treating someone with a mental illness at work shouldn’t be any different from treating someone with a physical illness at work.

I was unlucky to have an unsupportive employer when I was so young, but lucky to have such a supportive employer so recently. However, my hope is that one day luck won’t play into it. One day, mental health issues will be taken as seriously as they should be, and no one will ever have to be told they don’t deserve the illness they never asked for in the first place.